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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, November 08, 2003

As in "Pedagogue." Get Your Mind Out of the Gutter.

I update my booklog by hand (I didn't want to learn Blogger when I started, and it would be too difficult to change the archives over now), which means that I have to ping by hand when I post a new entry, to make sure that it gets reported to the appropriate aggregators and suchlike.

On those occasions (such as today, when I put up four new entries), I like to take a look at the "recently updated weblogs" list, just to see if there's anything interesting out there. Generally, this consists of scanning down the list of blog titles and looking for particularly clever names. One of the signs of how the blogging fad has blown up is that this is no longer a particularly efficient way of finding new reading material. There are a lot of weblogs out there that are simply awful.

Still, there's the occasional success. Such as today, when I stumbled across Pedablogue, a weblog by an English professor, dealing with teaching issues. He's got good posts up about writing and grading exams, the problem of grade inflation, and quiz technique. If you enjoy the pedagogy posts here, you should definitely check it out.

Posted at 9:36 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Obscure Band Update

I occasionally post track lists from mix tapes that I've made, and with a few exceptions, I generally get comments along the lines of "Oh, boy. Twenty more songs by bands I've never heard of." The funny thing about this is that I really haven't had access to any good source of obscure bands. I mean, sure, I read some music magazines, and reviews at the Onion AV Club and 75 or Less, but until I rediscovered KEXP's webcast, I haven't had anywhere to hear new music before buying it. (Yeah, Amazon offers song samples for most of their CD's. The thing is, there are a lot of really bad songs out there with a brilliant thirty-second stretch in the middle. I've been burned by that before...)

Anyway, since I've got KEXP on my computer at work these days, I'm hearing a lot more new stuff, and I've been keeping notes on random scraps of paper. This has added a number of really obscure bands to my personal purchase list and eventually onto my credit card bill, much to Kate's chagrin. For lack of a more inspired post topic, I'll list a few recent purchases here, with miscellaneous comments.

There's another stack of a half-dozen CD's sitting here, but I haven't listened to them enough to say anything sensible, so I'll stop now.

Posted at 9:18 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Tenure: Threat or Menace?

The conference I was in DC to attend this past weekend was an American Association of Physics Teachers conference on the teaching of introductory calculus-based physics. A number of very interesting ideas were presented about ways to improve the introductory course, from entirely new curricula like Thomas Moore's Six Ideas That Shaped Physics and Chabay and Sherwood's Matter and Interactions, to simpler pedagogical methods, like Eric Mazur's Peer Instruction method and the "Just in Time Teaching" technique used at a number of places.

A good bit of this material was fascinating, and there were a few things presented that I'd really like to try, if only in a limited way right now. The really surprising comments, though, had to do with tenure.

The idea of tenure, and the tenure system kept popping up throughout the conference, and always in a negative way. One of the speakers asked for a show of hands of non-tenured faculty, then praised us for having the courage to come to a conference dealing with teaching. A number of other people cited the needs of tenure-track faculty as a significant obstacle to reforming the introductory curriculum, and one guy flat-out told me not to even think about trying anything new, because it would be bound to have an adverse effect on my tenure review. "You'll still want to reform the course after you get tenure, won't you?" he said, "So wait and do it then. Don't risk it now."

Some of this simply reflects a difference between my institution (a small liberal arts college) and the institutions represented by most of the other participants (larger research universities)-- teaching is a bigger part of the tenure evaluation here than at some other places. But even here, you can find the same attitude, and not without reason. Tenure reviews do rely on teaching evaluations, and if you try something new, and it doesn't work, that could be extremely damaging on the student course survey forms, which weigh heavily. It would be far safer to just do the minimum necessary to get reasonably good evaluations, and hold off attempting to innovate until after tenure.

On the other hand, though, a solid case could be made that now is the best time for me to try new things. I haven't been teaching for very long, so I'm not really set in my ways-- changing the way I teach the intro course won't involve junking ten years' worth of class-tested lecture notes. And more than that, I have more time and energy to fiddle with things now than I will by the time I have tenure. Tenure review is still three or four years off for me, and somewhere in that same sort of time scale, I'd like to have kids, which will be a drain on my time. (Hell, just getting a dog has been a big drain on my time...)

I've been given the same advice ("don't do it before tenure") about trying to get involved with student issues. There have been a couple of recent initiatives on campus where it was suggested that junior faculty should be barred from being involved, for their own good. That strikes me as particularly dumb-- not only are junior faculty likely to have more energy for some of this stuff, they're also likely to be able to relate better to students, just because of the smaller age difference. Junior faculty are exactly the people you want involved in an effort to improve student-faculty relations.

But there's the whole tenure process, looming over everything like an 800-pound gorilla in the corner. And it's hard to avoid a stifling effect. One of the factors that crop up in any decision I make these days ends up being "How will this affect my tenure prospects?", and I know that my colleagues face the same problem. I hesitate (a little) to volunteer for some projects because of tenure concerns, I fret endlessly about student evaluations because of tenure concerns, and I struggle to keep my mouth shut about issues of local politics because of tenure concerns. (Regular readers of this blog will have some idea of just how difficult it is for me to avoid expressing an opinion; Colleagues who stumble upon this will no doubt be horrified to learn that what I do say now is relatively subdued...)

There's a sort of black irony here, because tenure is intended to be a means of protecting academic freedom. The job security provided by the tenure system is supposed to allow faculty to speak freely, without fear of reprisals. And yet, in the pre-tenure process, the threat of failing a tenure review is so gigantic that it actually stifles discourse by younger faculty. I haven't worked as a contract employee, so I have no real basis for comparison, but I almost think that the emphasis placed on tenure magnifies these issues to the point where the effect on my behavior is actually greater than it might be if I were worried about losing my job immediately. Which is absolutely insane.

And yet, there it is. And I really don't know what I'll end up doing with what I learned at the conference. I am leery of a possible negative effect on my teaching evaluations, and what that would do to my tenure prospects. On the other hand, though, recent events have me thinking that my job may be in danger from factors entirely beyond my control, so I may just say "What the fuck" and do what I like. It's a tough spot to be in.

Posted at 10:05 AM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

We Get Emails

While I realize, intellectually, that anything put on the web is accessible to the Whole Wide World, it always comes as a shock to me to find that people I don't know read my blog. It's especially surprising to find that well-known people read my blog, and even more unexpected when they're well-known people I've mentioned in a post here.

Case in point: I got email from Sylvester James Gates Jr., one of the many physicists appearing in PBS's version of The Elegant Universe, which I said mildly disparaging things about last week. OK, it's not exactly the same thing, celebrity-wise, as if Quentin Tarantino dropped by to give me a bunch of money for saying nice things about Kill Bill (any day now...), but then again, I've never been on tv...

Anyway, Dr. Gates writes:

I noticed that TEU exerted a soporific effect on you. In particular, you and a number of people who commented about your Blog seemed to complain that there was not enough "meat" to suit their tastes. May I offer some suggestions? Try the following websites

and surf around a bit at the last one.

Quick checking reveals that the first has links to a large-ish video file (which I'm not really set up to view). The second is "the official string theory web site," with links to lots of stuff about, well, strings. It's well-designed, but slow to load right at the moment, so I haven't explored it very thoroughly. The money link is really the third, which is a whole lot of fun. The "Easier" and "Harder" links at the bottom of each page are great, and the Are You a Quack? page (several levels "easier" than the link above) is not to be missed.

Anyway, there's plenty of material there explaining string theory at whatever level you need. Never let it be said that blogging doesn't produce results.

Posted at 9:54 PM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Half-Integer Blogorama

As noted last week, I spent the weekend in DC at a physics teaching conference. This provided a few interesting ideas, a bit of unintentional irony (really dull lectures about how to make lectures more interactive), and a wonderful excuse to visit people in DC.

Being the master of timing that I am, of course, it turns out there was an official blogorama a week and a half ago, but aspiring graphic novelist Jim Henley was good enough to arrange a get-together with a few blogging types at the bar in my hotel in Crystal City. It took a while for everybody to show up, owing to the difficulties of navigating Northern Virginia), but there was a pretty decent crowd eventually. Jim being Jim, they were mostly libertarian types (Jeremy Lott and a couple of other guys from The American Spectator, Brendan-whose-last-name-I-forgot, and Kelly Jane Torrance), but even the liberal Matthew Yglesias was invited to provide a little ideological balance. Glen Engel-Cox has pictures.

Beers (and other things) were drunk, appetizers were eaten, conversations were had. I particularly enjoyed being told by one of the Spectator types that "America is over. We had a good run, but it's over." The implications for the name of their magazine remain unclear...

Eventually, Jim tired of watching Matt and I drink beers, and nagged us out into the street, where Jim, Matt, Brendan, and I headed for the World Fantasy Convention, where Matt and I, um, drank more beers. We also met up with Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, who had been good enough to invite us to the Tor books party. (By the way, if you have a PayPal account, you should go give Teresa money). Eventually, the beer ran out, and we retired to Patrick and Teresa's room (with Mary Kay Kare) where we continued to talk about Jim's Grand Unified Theory of superhero comics, exchange musician jokes ("Three bass players walk past a bar. Hey, it could happen..."), and hear epic tales of book editing. If you don't think that last sounds entertaining, you don't know Teresa.

It was well past 3AM when I stumbled back to my hotel room, which put an interesting spin on the 7:30 AM conference breakfast. Not to mention the process of traveling back to Albany Sunday afternoon. I went to bed early (after watching the Giants fail to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory), and I was still groggy on Monday. I'm getting old-- a dozen beers and a 4AM bedtime would've been the equivalent of rehab when I was in college...

Anyway, I'm back in Schenectady. Many thanks to Jim, Patrick, and Teresa for a fun weekend. I'll blog something about the actual conference a little later, when I'm more caught up with my day job.

Posted at 10:47 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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