Correspondence, and a bit of reverse mathematical induction

A recent sampling from my University inbox:

Good evening Mr. Komplexify.

My son booked a plane ticket home for Christmas. But just today I have been informed by him that your Math Dept. has decided across the board, there will be no early Finals given.

Since class meets everyday, I assumed my son would have the opportunity to take his Final test at any time during the last week of the semester. With that in mind he bought his ticket to leave Thursday December 20, although the Final is not offered until Friday. How is a student to know this in advance?

This is completely unfair for my son. Living out of state, I would like to see in the future that your faculty provide this information to incoming parents, that Finals can and will be given on the last day of the semester. How else is a mother to plan ahead?

–Concerned Parent X

First draft at a response:

Dear Concerned Parent,

I am sorry for the bind your son finds himself in, and am even more sorry for the astounding lack of foresight that got him into trouble in the first place. Let me address the points brought up in your email.

(1) Assuming final times are optional.

First off, the department policy against early finals is a longstanding tradition and not, as your son indicated, a sudden decision mandated by our department chair, who is also not, despite all protestation by your son to the contrary, the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

But regardless of that fact, the times for midterm examinations and final examinations are established in advanced and not subject to negotiations or haggling. There is no Precalculus course with an optional homework-and-exam package thrown in. This is a science and engineering university, not a used car dealership.

(2) How is a student to know about Finals in advance?

The schedule of final exams for this entire academic year, and in fact for the next several years, is available online at the university’s website under the link helpfully labeled “Final Exam Schedule.” Failing that, the date and time of the Final exam is printed quite clearly on the class syllabus, which was handed out directly to students on the first day of class and is also available on the aforementioned university website. Assuming a lack of literacy, the date was itself announced on the very first day of class, along with a five-minute diatribe by yours truly indicating that holiday travel plans should not be made prior to said Final exam date to address just this type of problem.

And, of course, failing all else, he could simply ask a professor. Or a department secretary. Or anyone in the registrar. Or a peer. Pretty much anybody except a travel agent.

(3) Parents should be informed that actual class may occur on the last day for which that class is scheduled.

I am somewhat puzzled that this point would require further clarification, but in the interest of full disclosure, let me point out that (perhaps just as unbelievably) actual class may occur on any day for which that class is scheduled. This is, in fact, the entire purpose of “scheduling.”

Even more to the point, it is logically unsound to assume that the last day of scheduled class is somehow optional. For if the last day of the academic semester was in fact cleared of all mandatory obligations, then that day would not, in fact, be the last day of the semester, would it? The previous day would have been the last day. Of course, under the continuing assumption that the last day is optional, and realizing that this previous day has now been established as the last day of class, then this day would necessarily be devoid of mandatory requirements as well, implying that it was not the last day either. Continuing the argument inductively, the only logical conclusion to draw is that every day of the semester must be considered optional and devoid of mandatory requirements, a consequence to which I, as an educator, am somewhat opposed.

Consequently, I would suggest your son plan to late a later flight, or a later semester of Precalculus.

–Travis Komplexify

Second draft at a response, upon further reflection that as of yet I am not tenured:

Dear Concerned Parent,

I am sorry, but I cannot offer an early final. I can, however, offer a later final: your son may take an Incomplete grade in the class, and then take the final exam during start of Spring ’08.

For further notice, all final examination dates are posted on the university’s webpage, and should be assumed unalterable unless otherwise explicitly noted.

–Travis Komplexify

P.S. Dear God, this is college, not junior high. Cut the umbilical.

At the suggestion of the department chair, the post script was removed from the third draft. But, eh, what can expect from the Grinch Who Stole Christmas?

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