My Experience as a Grad-Student Math Instructor in the late 1960s when student deferments for men really mattered because of the Vietnam war draft

It’s useful, in preparing some future detailed notes on my “conflict of interest” issues (as they surfaced both in the I.T. workplace in the 1990s and then when I worked as a substitute teacher in the 00’s) to cover my experience as a graduate assistant instructor at the University of Kansas in the 1960’s, and how I transitioned into an Army draftee recruit in 1968.

I cover a lot of this in Do Ask, Do Tell I, Chapter 2.  But it will be useful to outline some events in much more detail.

I flew out to Kansas City to start graduate school on February 1, 1966, right after the Blizzard of 66 had buried DC.  In fact, my TWA flight from Dulles to St. Louis got canceled by snow in St. Louis, one of the few cancellations in my life. I came back to National (Reagan didn’t exist yet), took a prop jet to Chicago, and then to Kansas City. I remember flying over the snow-covered Midwest.

I remember the bus ride to Lawrence, and even the cab ride to McCollum Hall on top of the 100-foot ridge, Mt. Oread, above the campus.  I recall vividly arriving to my dorm room, 907, at 9 PM CST.  I had the room to myself for an hour.  My assigned roommate would arrive at 10.

He had served in the Peace Corps, and was again a bit of a redneck.  But by now I was wise as to how to behave in a dorm.  I’ll come back to this later.

The next morning, it was 11 degrees, F, and I took the little campus bus over to Strong Hall for the first time.  I felt gung ho that first week, signed up for 9 hours besides working on my assistantship, and also took organ – because I had liked the young organist I had been taken lessons from for a few months back in Washington.

I’ll skip to the following Monday, February 6.  My first class was algebraic topology, in Strong Hall, and  I was not ready for it.  I immediately switched to the second half of the upper undergraduate analysis course, which it turned out, was populated by a lot of entering graduate students, taught by a handsome 35-ish Dr. Brown. And the way professors taught was to do ‘definition – theorem – proof’ on the blackboard, going from left to right.  My two other courses that first semester were number theory and partial differential equations, to latter of which seemed very disorganized in both the text (it started with the wave equation) and lecture.

I taught my first algebra class at 4 PM in a large room in Strong, the same room that had been used three hours before by the course I had dropped.  I was nervous, but my technique was to go through the material in the book in logical progression.  I started with definitions and postulates (like the commutative law) like this was a formal course.  I had another section the next morning (TThS) in a quonset, a temporary building behind Strong, down the hill toward the stadium and campanile bell tower.

The course was called “Math 2” and was given to freshmen who had placed poorly in math.  It was seem as “remedial.”  The grade counted, but it added 3 credits to graduation requirements (the “3&” course).  The regular course was number 2A.  Entering assistant instructors tended to be given the remedial course, which did not make a lot of sense. I had applied to KU (and not a lot of other places that I can remember) because I had learned from a friend from Hopkins (my physical social network had built up somewhat after I returned to school full time in 1964) that assistantships at KU were easy to get.

The syllabus called for four tests and a final.  The first test was actually set for Wednesday of the third week.  I followed the syllabus literally.  I asked 20 questions, a few of which were just to restate definitions or postulates.  The results were horrible.  I wound up adding 45 points to everyone’s grade and saying that a 90-80-70-60 scale would apply.  The class gasped.

I gave the second test in the middle of March.  By then, I had some complaints from the math department about the first one.  I just made it ten questions.  The absolute scores were better, probably with a median of about 50.  But the complaints continued.  An advisor in the math department warned that I was “losing the confidence of my students”.  Yet, among other graduate students, we all took the attitude, “they’re dumb.”  I think my attitude remained insubordinate, even if on some level there was some justification for it.  I now regret that.

As I noted in the DADTI book, I did catch someone cheating on the second test.  I confronted him after class, and told him he would get an F for the course.  He came by my dorm room and tried to bargain, as I was in my underwear

I finally reached the first round of hour examinations in my own classes.   In the analysis class, I had a test on Saturday morning, and got a 57, but that turned out to be a low B.  It was hard in graduate school in 50 minutes to solve four or five problems (usually new theorems to prove), by applying theorems we had studied.  The solutions could be “hard to motivate” (sort of like integration by partial fractions in calculus).  But after a semester of graduate school, you got used to the new expectations of thinking on your feet (or in your seat).  You focuses on the theorems you had learned to apply since the last test and could pretty much anticipate what would be asked. Start by looking at the rest of the problems in the book.  Study by making up a test.  That proved to be pretty effective.

I went home for spring break as March turned to April.  I remember flying back directly from Baltimore to Kansas City.  Monday afternoon I had class as usual.  Tuesday morning, I was supposed to have a meeting with the department representative.  Instead, I was directed to go to the office of the department chair, Dr. Price, who started with, “We have bad news for you.”

I was relieved of the teaching job, although I was paid for the semester.  Another instructor was already set up to take over my classes.  But the one F for cheating would stay on the books.  I had given one grade.

The following academic year, I worked as a computer programmer for two professors.  I’ll return to that in future postings, although I made my first trip to the West Coast at the beginning of the Christmas holiday in 1966.

I got my assistantship back for the fall semester that would start in 1967.  I can remember a department meeting of assistants at the beginning of the semester where the department head said that grades were a sensitive issue because of the escalation of the Vietnam War draft.  Again, I had two sections.  I gave pretty much the same exams, but with a bit of moderation.  This time, I never heard any complaints all semester. One time in October, I invited a couple of graduate students to come into one of my sections in Strong Hall and pretend to be students. They said I didn’t try to “sell” the material.

I recall giving the last hourly test to one section in Summerfield on a snowy Saturday morning in early January, 1968.

Before getting into the conclusion of the semester, it’s noteworthy that military service was approaching.  Because I had been only a part-time student from 1963-1964, I had been ordered to Richmond on Sept. 15, 1964 to take the draft physical.  I had been classified 4-F because of “psychiatric history”.  Fearing harm to my reputation (as I noted in my book), I volunteered to retake the physical twice.  In late April 1966, I had taken a second physical in Kansas City, actually have to spend a night in the military barracks.  I was classified 1-Y this time, but I remember noticing that the Army had removed any questions about homosexuality.  I volunteered to take one more, in August 1967, from home in Virginia, and this time I had been classified 1-A.  Sometime in early January, my draft notice arrived, indicating that I was to be inducted on February 21, 1968.

So it was important to complete my M.A. in Mathematics.  I had a shaky oral exam, which I believe happened in the morning of a mild day of Thursday, January 18, 1968.  I remember stumbling in proving the philosophically curious Liouville’s Theorem (link)  and some of its corollaries (like the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra).   I waited in the hall for twenty anxious minutes, and then my thesis advisor said, “You passed “,  well, but…

Monday January 22,, I gave a final in one of my sections. Monday night, I graded the finals on the bus, on the way out to visit my last roommate, with whom I had a good relationship.  He had been an Ayn Rand follower.  He met me on Tuesday morning in Denver, and we spent a couple days there, staying at his uncle’s place in the foothills, before heading back to his hometown in Tribune Wednesday afternoon.  I spent the night at his home, where his mother gave me a chiropractic treatment for a headache that went away when she cracked my back.  I still remember that moment. I would take the bus back to campus Thursday night and arrive around dawn Friday, and according to my notes in “The Proles”, give my other final that morning, and grade them that night in the dorm, my last night on campus.

Another friend, whom I called “The Cave” would take me to the airport Saturday, January 27, 1968, after I turned in the grades.  I still remember that I gave 3 A’s, 6 B’s, 15 C’s, 8 D’s, and 23 F’s.  I never heard any more about it.

Back home, we had a January thaw and mild weather.  I stepped up the date for my induction, deciding to enlist for two years, bucking what recruiters told me (that with less than 3 years I had a 95% chance of infantry in Veitnam) but still believing that with an “RA” number, my chances of avoiding combat and leaving others to make the sacrifice improved.

On Tuesday, February 6, a friend came over for some chess games.  I think I won most of them.  The last piece of classical music I would play at home was, I think, the Symphony #104 by Haydn.

On Wednesday, February 7, I would board the bus for Richmond to enter the Army, as laid out in detail in the first ‘Story’, a chapter from The Proles, in my new DADT III book.  My ;education would keep me out of Vietnam, and I had probably participated in sending others there in my two stints of “teaching”.   I would make a least some sacrifice, as I would have some permanent hearing loss from the first day on the rifle range when I was coming down with the flu.  Does all of this matter now?  It would if we had a ‘Revolution’.   Seriously, it’s an overrun of the “income inequality” debate and I’ll come back to it on these posts.

I remember these years well.  Popular songs included Monday, Monday, Walking in the Sunshine, and, ironically, Lady Godiva..

(Originally published January 26, 2014).