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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Pedagogical Note

I finished the last of the lab report grading (for the moment, anyway-- there'll be another lab in a week or two) today, and went looking for diversion in the blogosphere. And what do I find, but PZ Myers holding forth on electronic paper submission in response to a list of rules posted by a Dr. Pretorius.

Now, all of the labs that I just finished grading were submitted electronically, so I'm all in favor of that practice. In fact, I'll go Prof. Myers one better-- I mark them up electronically as well, and email the files back to the students. There are any number of reasons for this, from the environmental (less paper wasted) to the practical (infinite space for comments-- I don't have to struggle to make my remarks fit legibly between lines or in the margins), to the typographical (I no longer have to read single-spaced papers in ugly fonts). I'm generally very happy with the system, and the student response has been fairly positive in the five classes where I've required electronic submission.

I disagree with him about Word, though. Not entirely-- like all Microsoft products, it's needlessly bloated, and whoever came up with the default settings ought to be flogged on national television. When I want to write professional-quality work, I'll use LaTeX, every time. But when it comes to student reports, I'm happy to take them in Word (indeed, I prefer it to most of the other options).

For one thing, the "Track Changes" feature in Word gives me an easy way to do the mark-up on the reports. I could mark them up in a text editor, by setting my comments off with asterisks or something, but it's easier to just type, and have my remarks show up in a different color.

Another nice feature is that it gets them into the habit of thinking of the entire report as one document. I can require them to paste the figures and tables and so on into the same file as the text, and make some start at integrating the two. It doesn't quite free me from dealing with bad handwriting, as a distressing number of students think that the easiest way to get electronic figures is to draw sketches by hand, scan them in at 600 dpi, and paste the resulting JPEG into the file, but it helps. And this is a skill that they will eventually need-- they may not end up using Word, but whatever profession they go into will expect them to be able to make presentable electronic documents. They might as well start in my class.

Finally, I disagree about the role of formatting. For one thing, I don't think that students really do spend a substantial amount of time "fuss[ing] over fonts or paragraph formats or borders or margins." Or, rather, I don't think that eliminating that time will lead to an improvement in quality. It's not like they're budgeting a fixed amount of time to do the paper, and wasting some of it on fussing with the margins-- time not spent twiddling the formatting will be spent drinking or playing video games, not re-thinking and editing the papers.

(How do I know this? I'm young enough to have written every one of my college papers in Word. The only time I spent any significant effort on fiddling around with fonts or margins or borders was when I had a strict page limit, because it was easier to do that than to edit the text. And less editing time meant more time for booze or Tecmo Bowl...)

And formatting is not trivial, at least for the labs I have to deal with. There are a fair number of equations that need to be put into even freshman physics reports, and those are a lot easier to read if you can do subscripts and superscripts and Greek letters. (Which is not to say that I don't have students who ignore those tools, but at least some of them set the equations up correctly, which reduces the pain.)

Anyway, for those of my readers who have to grade written work, I definitely recommend electronic submission and grading. It's worth it just for the ability to type vicious criticisms in ("For the love of God, pick a verb tense and stick with it!") and not have to worry about turning them into constructive criticism in the limited margin space available. A deep breath, and a few strokes of the backspace key, and the scathing remark replaced with supportive, helpful writing advice. And everybody gets to be happy.

Posted at 7:26 PM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

Links Dump

I've got three-quarters of the heavy grading done (I'm down to one class worth of lab reports to assign grades to), but I'm still not likely to have much blogging time until after Boskone this weekend. Before they go stale, here are a bunch of things that have looked interesting, but that I haven't had the time to turn into coherent posts.

The theory/ math/ academic navel gazing topic isn't dead yet, and I will return to it at some point. Meanwhile, a number of other people have put their own spin on the idea (Technorati is a wonderful tool), starting with a nice post from Derek Lowe about how mathematics changes the way you look at the world. Dan Green at The Reading Experience notes the distinction between "literature" and "literary scholarship," and doesn't think it's a positive state of affairs, and Rand Simberg takes my comments about innumeracy and runs with them. All of those posts have comments as well, and are worth a look.

On a vaguely related note, Brad DeLong looks askance at an article from a Harvard grad who feels he didn't get a good education, and summarizes it beautifully: "it's a horse, led painstakingly and expensively to water, bitterly complaining that nobody forced it to drink." He offers belated thanks to a number of professors who really challenged him to think and learn on his own, and Sean Carroll follows suit. I heartily agree with the sentiment, and offer my own thanks to Kevin Jones, Jeff Strait, Stuart Crampton, Bill Wootters, Peter Frost, Steve Girrard, and I'm sure I'm forgetting a few people. Of course, I also took my share of "I'm not going to drink this" blow-off classes, but I won't mention the people who (indirectly) aided my slacking.

On a more frivolous note: you are here (the page doesn't work right under Opera, but Firefox displays it properly).

Posted at 8:01 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Peace on Earth to Men of Good Will

I've got a bunch of backlogged links that will get dumped here before I go out of town, because I haven't really had time to blog lately. I do want to post this one while it's still fresh, though: Kyle at the Mid-Majority has launched his Red State Basketball Goodwill Tour:

The message of the RSBGT is a positive one - that college basketball can bring us together as a nation and help make us strong again. In addition to watching exciting mid-major basketball games, I'll be listening and talking with the people, extending the olive branch of Hoop Love to all who I encounter. Maybe there'll even be a few friendly pickup games in public parks, who knows. And everything will be chronicled and blogged - post upon post transmitted from Starbucks coffeeshops and Kinko's stores and illicit warchalked hotspots all over God's Country.

It's six games in six days, in the heart of Red America. And, of course, the games all go toward the 100 Games Project. Mired as I am in grading, driving across Tennessee and Alabama to watch basketball games actually sounds kind of attractive. In the end, I'll probably be happier just reading about it, but if you offered me a choice between lab grading and a Waffle House right now, well, I can't say that I'd make the responsible choice.

Even if you don't like basketball (Heathen!), it's worth a look. Good luck to him on his mission.

Posted at 8:16 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Appearance Schedule

I aten't dead, I'm just in Grading Hell. This is unfortunate, as I have some things I'd like to say on the whole GenEd/ academia topic, but I'm not likely to get to it this week. We gave an exam tonight, so I have those papers to mark, and then I have to put grades on all those lab reports that I've just about finished marking up.

And then there's Boskone this weekend, where I'm going to be on some panels. For lack of a better topic, and in hopes of having some commenters suggest witty things to day, here's the list (the full preliminary program is now online):

If you've ever wanted to heckle me in person, here's your chance. And if you know anything really fascinating about global disasters, please let me know, because I'm not all that clear on what I'm going to say (beyond "Here are the panelists. You guys talk now.")

Posted at 9:50 PM | link | follow-ups | 9 comments

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Thank God for the Pro Bowl

The Pro Bowl is being played in Hawaii tonight, which is sure to thrill the dozens of people who will watch it on tv. It's already had a positive effect on the sports world, though: the game will be carried on ESPN, which means that Mike PAtrick is in Honolulu.

Which means he wasn't in College Park last night for Maryland's win over Duke in overtime. We still got Dick Vitale, but he was partnered with Brad Nessler. Despite years of working with Vitale, Nessler retains enough residual professionalism to actually talk about the game, and mostly keep Vitale on topic. That made the broadcast tolerable, and saved a great game from potential Announcing Hell.

Maryland led for a lot of the game, and were up five at the half. Duke rallied to take a nine-point lead in the second half, before Daniel Ewing got T'ed up for jawing at Ekene Ibekwe. The free throws started an 8-0 Maryland run, and the lead see-sawed back and forth for the rest of the game. The unpredictable Mike Jones played a big game for the Terps, scoring all eight of those points, and the game went to overtime, where foul trouble and a short bench wore Duke out.

This was a nice demonstration of everything that's maddening about this year's Maryland team. When they get up for a big game, they can play brilliantly. But when they take a night off, well, they lose to Clemson. I'm not sure I'd be happier if they lost the big games, but won the games they're supposed to win, but I'd probably stay on a more even keel.

Random notes:

- John Gilchrist played a very good game, ending up one assist short of a triple-double. He didn't score much in the second half, after a ridiculous one-on-one contest with Daniel Ewing through much of the first half, but he played well throughout.

- Chris McCray did a great job keeping J.J. Redick from getting any good looks at the basket through most of the game. Over the course I've occasionally been sort of puzzled as to why McCray gets so much playing time, but he certainly justified his minutes last night.

- This is Maryland's second victory over Duke this season. I think that makes a regular-season sweep. I can't remember when that last happened-- if only the announcers had mentioned that...

- Duke got into massive foul trouble, with five guys eventually fouling out, including most of their stars. The late stretches of overtime were hilarious, as Maryland looked like they were running an inverse box-and-one: four guys were guarding Redick, and the fifth guy had Duke's other four.

- Nik Caner-Medley was good early, but awful late. Go figure. He threw up some of the worst shots I've ever seen in OT, and at one point, he got the ball out on the wing, and I swear Gary Williams called a time out just to keep him from shooting.

- I can't really make up my mind about Shelden Williams of Duke. Whenever I see him play, I'm not that impressed with him, but he puts up big numbers (23 points and 16 rebounds last night). I tend to think he's the beneficiary of a weak class of big men in the ACC and Duke's heavy reliance on long jumpers (leading to lots of long rebounds, and a relatively open lane), but whatever the reason, he's productive.

The next game for Maryland is at NC State, who walloped the Terps at home during last month's Bad Stretch. You might think that the revenge motive would ensure that Maryland's stars will come to play, while the Wolfpack are reeling. But if you think that, you obviously haven't watched a lot of ACC basketball this season.

What will happen Wednesday is anybody's guess. But regardless of what happens in the future, a win over Duke is pretty sweet.

Posted at 9:50 AM | link | follow-ups | 5 comments

Accentuate the Negative

Maryland beat Duke in overtime last night, and there was much rejoicing. Since I know how much my readers love basketball, I'll post some detailed comments about the game in a little bit, but I want to split off a couple of things that annoy me into a separate post, to keep the actual hoops commentary more positive.

Maryland and Duke has been the best basketball rivalry in the ACC over the past few years-- UNC-Duke has a longer history, but the Tar Heels have been getting flattened by the Blue Devils recently, while Maryland is the one team that's managed to beat Duke consistently. That sort of competition gets people pretty heated up, with predictable consequences.

One of those consequences is the inevitable "Riot in College Park" story after every game. Sure enough, there it is in this morning's paper:

WJLA TV reports police used riot gear and tear gas to try and disperse the crowd as it was blocking traffic on U.S. 1. Officers brought in horses and helicopters for crowd control. They also lined streets wearing riot gear.

Somewhere, some annoying Duke fan is banging out a message board post about how this proves that Duke students are just better people than Maryland students. Duke never riots after big wins, after all. This drives me nuts, because the difference between the schools is a matter of geography, not "class." There are two major reasons why post-game celebrations at Maryland get ugly: Route 1, and the Prince George's County Police Department.

Duke, like most private schools, has a campus that is easily closed off from the rest of the town. When their students celebrate big games, they do so on campus, and they're easily contained.

Maryland's campus, on the other hand, is almost bisected by US Route 1, which becomes New Hampshire Ave., and is a moderately important road in and out of Our Nation's Capital (tm). In particular, the frat houses are on one side of the road, while the academic buildings and athletic facilities are on the other. There's no way to keep celebrating students from interacting with the rest of College Park, and that means the PG County Police.

Now, I haven't been in the DC area since before the big riot stories started (the Terps started to get good during my time there, but the Duke thing didn't heat up until after I left town. But I definitely recall the PG County police as prone to excess.

Two stories from my time there, that show what sort of operation we're talking about: In one incident, a PG County policeman tailed a suspect from inside the county across the state line into Virginia (without notifying anyone, as required by law), and into the guy's driveway in Alexandria. When the guy got out of his car, and approached the cop car demanding to know why he was being followed, the officer shot him dead.

The second incident involved a hostage situation, in which a crazy person barricaded himself in the house with a shotgun, and had a stand-off with police. Their response? They sent in a tank. I'm serious-- there was footage on the evening news of an armored vehicle rumbling down suburban streets. To deal with one guy with a gun.

So, let's just say that I'm skeptical that horses, helicopters, tear gas, and riot gear were actually strictly necessary last night.

After the riots, the other big annoyance surrounding yesterday's game was the traditional spate of pre-game pieces describing the uniquely difficult life of J.J. Redick (here's an example from the Post, and ESPN was endlessly flocking a SportsCenter segment on the same topic). Redick, of course, is the Duke guard who has become famous for being the first player in the history of college basketball to have taunts screamed at him by fans of opposing teams. The members of Texas Western's 1966 NCAA championship team are said to admire his courage.

The Post piece speculates at great length about why it is that Redick gets so much taunting, suggesting race as a possible factor. I actually agree, but not in the way that they mean. I don't think that his race is a major reason why he's taunted, but I do think it's a major reason why there are stories written about him being taunted. He's a clean-cut, well-spoken white kid, who comes off well on tv-- he's perfect for that kind of story. Nobody's going to write that story about a black kid from the inner city with tattoos and cornrows and a pronounced accent, no matter what people yell at him.

Which is a sad commentary on the state of the nation, but, hey, Maryland won. Actual hoops content in the next post.

Posted at 9:09 AM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

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