Nobody Expects the Math Inquisition

by Roland Minton on May 7, 2014

Spanish Inquisition

Our chief weapon is surprise. Yes, surprise and fear. Our two weapons are fear and surprise. And ruthless efficiency. Our three weapons … among our weapons are … Let’s start over.

In a process that we hope is more logical than the Monty Python sketch quoted above, senior mathematics majors undergo an oral examination by the mathematics faculty that we lovingly call “the Inquisition.” Each student fields questions related to the required mathematics courses in an interview that lasts about 25 minutes. Calling this an examination is misleading, in that the results are used to assess the mathematics program in general and not the individual students. In practice, this fact has done little to calm the nerves of prospective graduates who must face all of the mathematics faculty, by themselves with only a blank chalkboard for support. We admit that a kinder name than “the Inquisition” could reduce the stress levels. However, we do believe the process serves two important purposes beyond our own assessment. The students have a powerful incentive to reflect on and review the mathematics that they have learned, and it is a rite of passage for seniors.

A nice tradition that has developed is for the soon-to-be-Inquizzed seniors to band together and create a dress code. The class of 2013 came as crayons, each person a different color. The class of 2014, noting the one-to-one correspondence between students and tenure track faculty, came dressed as faculty members. From left to right in the picture, we have alternate Drs. Spielman, Saoub, Robbins, Taylor, and Minton. The disguises didn’t make the questions any easier, but we love the imagination and camaraderie that the effort represents.

Inquisition

Inquisition crayons 2

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