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Recently I was asked to tutor some students individually on a basic course of Linear Programming, centered on all the "typical" introductory subjects like graphical methods, Simplex Algorithm and Transfer Pricing.

Now, this is not the first time I teach someone on a University level, but it is the first time that I was asked-as part of my job as a tutor-to teach a subject I don't like and which in my years as a student spend a very limited time studying. Basically I studied for a couple of weeks or so before the exams and very rarely attended class. I only picked it as a course because it seemed interesting at first, but when I became disenchanted I considered it a matter of principle to pass it-and that I did.

But as you guess my understanding of it is rather limited and although I am confident that I can quickly bring myself to a competent enough level to teach it, I am beset by doubt.

Even if one has a good grasp of the material he is supposed to teach,how does one overcome his dislike of this material?

Is it perhaps better to simply refuse to teach a subject you don't like?


I am less worried about any implications this will have for me on a professional level and more worried about doing the "right thing".

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    $\begingroup$ If you are able to get out of teaching this, it would probably be for the benefit of everyone involved. $\endgroup$ – Steven Gubkin Feb 8 '17 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ @StevenGubkin That's my gut feeling as well Steven. It won't be that easy actually but.. $\endgroup$ – MathematicianByMistake Feb 8 '17 at 20:51
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This is a contentious and highly individual thing, of course, so all answers in this should be taken with a grain of salt. But, if this is your job then:

YES.

Why? First, some practical reasons that apply to any job.

  • You are not an island. Some topics and/or classes are distasteful to everyone, or at least to everyone who is on the list to teach it. Part of having a real job is sometimes taking on distasteful tasks for good reasons.
  • In a well-functioning department, usually one is not asked again and again to do something really personally not preferred, at least not without being excused from something else bad. Roommates all have to pay rent, but maybe one person pays less but then has to take out the garbage.
  • Jobs are not just about what you are doing, they are about who you are doing them with. (At least sometimes.) If you have a motivated student to tutor, or one where even while tutoring something boring, you get to see their eyes light up with, "Oh, that's how it works!" then the intrinsic rewards may be substantial. That's a lot different from writing homework problems for LP for a textbook.
  • You could get fired, or blacklisted. Let's hope not, but that is a reality. In the wider academic universe, you could be denied tenure (at least, outside the rarified atmosphere of Research I universities).

There is another reason which is important, but which you may not yet be at a point to internalize if you are early in your math teaching/tutoring career.

Sometimes we learn, in teaching something we find boring or distasteful, that there is a rich depth we didn't anticipate. I was not particularly enamored of analysis any of the three times I took it at various levels. But teaching it now, I see how it is really about topology and the very nature of the reals - even if I can't always say that.

You may be wishing you were tutoring someone in real analysis. Fine. But linear programming and optimization in this sense also have huge depth. Go crazy - find real-life data to optimize off of, look into the burgeoning literature on operations research for disaster relief, start learning about integer programming versus "regular" linear programming and polytopes... the world is your oyster. I wish I would have understood this when I taught linear programming in a very similar situation to yours, I think.

Now, this may not convince you, and it may indeed be right that you shouldn't teach this. I shouldn't have taught a stats course in the first five or six years I was teaching, for instance, and I would still not be overly enthusiastic about it. Maybe you have a bad manager. If it is really that distasteful, maybe you need to find a different job (if possible). And of course it wouldn't hurt to be looking elsewhere if you are pretty sure that this will be the most enticing topic you will be tutoring in the near future.

But that sounds like a bit of a stretch from your description. If you are in a well-functioning situation where you otherwise would like to stay and where you will not perpetually be asked to do things you don't like, and perhaps even where there is support for professional development, then just do it. If having to teach something we find boring once in a while sounds bad, then see the 13th panel in this amusing webcomic.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 ! Thank you very much for your thorough and comprehensive answer. I believe it covers much more than I wanted and hopefully others will find it useful as well. Still, I have not made up my mind..It's not that I may be fired-I work as a freelancer as a tutor. I just hate letting people down and up to now, in my short career, I can confidently say I delivered on what my students wanted. $\endgroup$ – MathematicianByMistake Feb 9 '17 at 9:24
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    $\begingroup$ As a freelancer, an entirely different answer is probably appropriate; assuming you've got the stuff, you can do whatever you want (though turning down too many requests will lead you to have fewer requests in the long run). I thought perhaps this was a "work-study" job where you really didn't have a choice whom you tutor. $\endgroup$ – kcrisman Feb 9 '17 at 13:09
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    $\begingroup$ An idea: I just started a course on optimization by showing how to use integer programmng to construct latin squares. That could be extended to construct sudokus. There are unexpected depths in this simple examples! $\endgroup$ – kjetil b halvorsen Feb 10 '17 at 0:27
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Should I teach a subject I don't like?

It depends on other factors, but don't automatically not teach a subject just because you don't like it. I'm currently teaching a course that combines linear algebra with differential equations and I really can't stand linear algebra at the introductory level. It's so dry and often times tedious and it takes a while before any of the fun applications (I know that's subjective) can be covered. But I've actually found that teaching it is more enjoyable than when I had to learn it. You may end up feeling the same way about linear programming.

Now, I noticed you also said this:

But as you guess my understanding of it is rather limited and although I am confident that I can quickly bring myself to a competent enough level to teach it, I am beset by doubt.

If you have any doubt that you can teach the material, then you shouldn't teach it. At least wait until you can clear up this doubt. Doing otherwise is a disservice to yourself, your students, and the institution. And this is (or should be) a perfectly acceptable reason to give your employers for not agreeing to teach a course. When I interviewed for my current teaching job (part-time side gig at a local comm college) they asked in the interview if I could also teach statistics. I said if I really had to I suppose I could but I would never choose it since I just don't feel comfortable enough with it. They didn't seem to mind and that was before I was even employed by them.

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Tell the person who asked you that you are willing to do some extra preparation on your own to carry out this assignment, but frankly they'd be better off giving this assignment to someone else, because you and linear programming didn't "click" when you took the class.

If they can't find anyone else, they'll ask you again, but they'll be forewarned, and your accepting the assignment will give you a brownie point.

If you can take a few hours over the next few days, it might be helpful to do some reading on the subject to find out more about what this assignment would entail.

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