I’m Your College Stats Professor. How Do You Like Me Now?
COVID has changed you, my former student. You passed my class — Statistics 101 — with a respectable B-minus average. Not stellar, but nothing to prompt your parents to cut off your credit card. Maybe all you needed was a global pandemic to put my statistical wisdom to good use. Anyway, here you are, here’s Omicron, and it’s the holidays. I’m the Ghost of Statistics Professors Past.
Picture this. It’s 1996, and you sat in my classroom, where a cloud of profound boredom engulfed you from 10–11am every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. You and your friend, the one with the curly hair and big smile, entered the lecture hall laughing, happy, often a minute or two late, barely noticing that I had already begun. Then you settled into your seats with a Thermos full of coffee or tea, maybe vodka, I don’t know. You locked eyes and gave a thumbs-up to my teaching assistant, making sure he adjusted his attendance list accordingly. I’d smile and nod as you sat down, thinking with confidence that THIS was the day I’d hook you on data collection and analysis — coin flips, dice rolls and the rest. I was so naive in the beginning, wrapping the lessons in fun little anecdotes about sports, concerts, and ’90s pop culture hoping you’d be enthralled, maybe even ask a question. More examples, please! Professor, what if you change that variable? What happens to the system? Whoa, so cool! Nope. Nada.
In the first ten minutes of class, your eyes glazed over. Your body shifted from an upright position to something of a 45-degree angle, with your feet propped on the chair in front of you. You doodled to maintain consciousness. Fridays were a particular challenge. After whatever you and the curly-haired one had been up to Thursday night, even the Thermos couldn’t work its magic. You started class with flushed cheeks and a deer-in-headlights kind of forced alertness. The average, or mean, amount of time you lasted before nodding off was seventeen minutes. You’d nap for just a little bit, then jolt up, back into the 90-degree angle where you began, your head twitching a little like someone just splashed those flushed cheeks with cold water.
Do you know how I knew you were better than this? One day I walked past a small seminar room at the other end of Goldwin Smith Hall, only a couple hours after your zombie-like figure shuffled out of my class. There you were, still with Curly Hair, now engaging in a lively discussion about Jean-Francois Millet’s The Gleaners and what it revealed about class structure in post-Revolution France. What in the hell? I thought, lingering outside the door, captivated by the sound of your voice forming sentences. Your Art History professor watched in her all-black uniform and thick-rimmed glasses, acting like this was an everyday occurrence. At one point you stood up, striding towards the screen on long, confident legs to point out a detail in the painting.
Nevertheless, I persisted. I wrote encouraging comments on the problem sets you finished in the hallway at 9:59am and I ended each class reminding you of my office hours. Read the comments before you shove that into your L.L.Bean backpack! Stop by, even just to say hello! How could you not see that data is so much more important than a stupid old painting?
Oh, but now you see the truth. I’ve been watching you through all this, and I accept your apology. Do I even see a hint of gratitude in your screen-fatigued eyes? You listened to Fauci and your Governor, both the one before the scandal and the new one, but you weren’t one to take their word at face value. You craved research, articles and models, zooming out to see the entire country covered in shades of pink and burgundy, then zeroing in on your county and even your town. Over the years, you have evolved from the lazy, self-involved college student I knew to a hardworking, anxious, self-involved mother of three, and statistics and hand sanitizer were your only weapon in this war against homeschool. Quarantine went from 14 days down to 10? What happens on the bell curve in those last four days? Vaccine A is 95% effective and vaccine B is 93% effective. Fact. Oh shit, there’s Delta, with a transmission rate of through the goddam roof. So THAT’S what happens when you change a variable. Now Omicron? Or is it Ah-micron? Why are they ruining all the sorority names?
You need data like a frat party needs Coors Light. You’ve become a statistics junky, and the delayed gratification fills me with pride. Do you know what that term means, Psych major? I’ve waited decades for this. Soon you’ll feel comfortable enough with the calculated risk to double-mask and get on a plane again. Maybe you’ll take your daughter to Paris to check out that Millet painting in person. And when she asks you who your favorite teacher was, you won’t remember the name of that brilliant art snob, but you’ll know my bell curve, standard deviations, mean, median and mode like the back of your hand. My job is done here.