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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Politicization of Scientists

I've been spending a lot of time this week preparing the annual progress report for one of my grants (it's so unreasonable for them to give me $40,000 and then expect me to justify how I spent the money...), so I was reminded of a recent post by Sean Carroll on science funding. The article links to a David Appell post and a set of PowerPoint slides from a talk by Joel Parriot of the federal Office of Management and Budget.

It's always dangerous to read raw PowerPoint files, because any speaker worth listening to says a lot of things that don't make it into the slides. The general picture I got from them was of something sort of like a good blog-- the talk presents a brief sketch of what it is that Parriot does for OMB, and what the implications of that are for science in general. I think he was trying to be forthright, within the confines of his job.

Of course, given that he is a part of a government agency, his advice ends up being somewhat vague and self-contradictory. In his advice slide, he recommends "let[ting] the science drive the case," but that would seem to run hard up against the "Ethos and Mythos" of OMB on the previous slide, particularly the part saying that "Appetite of community for more $$ is boundless; everyone claims to be doing compelling, ripe-for-great-advance work." Given that "letting the science drive the case" basically amounts to arguing that your work is compelling and ripe for great advances, it's hard to see how anyone is going to make a distinction between proposals.

And "Many decisions are political at their core, so community needs to be more politically astute, but partisanship should be avoided" may be the most useless advice ever offered.

I do think that his description of the "Ethos and Mythos" of the scientific community is dead-on, though. It's put even better in the closing slide, with a quote from Sherwood Boehlert:

Congress is not besieged by groups asking for money that they describe as necessary to help their own narrow interests in the short run. The argument that science funding is a long-term national investment does nothing to set scientists apart. All that sets you apart is that scientists are the only group that thinks they're making a unique argument.

High-energy physics has been particularly awful in this area, working from the assumption that "This is really fundamental" is some sort of magical rhetorical trump card. Yeah, it's fundamental, touching on the origins of the universe, yadda, yadda, yadda, but it's also really, really expensive. You need to offer a little more justification than simple curiosity as to why it's worth spending millions or billions on the next generation of accelerators. Particularly when the budget is limited, and other areas of science can offer more immediate benefits.

Anyway, I though Parriot's slides were really interesting to look at, and his general advice seemed sound. It was rather depressing, though, to see his remarks being spun as some sort of extreme hackwork in the original Appell post and the comments. Granted, that's a small sample, but if we've really gotten to the point where anybody associated with the executive branch is automatically presumed to be some sort of ridiculous political flack (the man's a career OMB staffer, for God's sake-- he could be a Democrat, for all you know), well, that's just Not Good At All.

Posted at 4:42 PM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Alice's Grade Was Three Times Bob's, and Bob's Score Was Half of Carlos's...

Weirdly, the start of summer has found me doing a whole bunch of blogging about pedagogy. It's doubly strange because I didn't teach for the spring term, so it's not like I've just wrapped up grading, or anything like that.

Anyway, two quick pedagogical items today. First, via the Little Professor, a query about exam grades:

Do you announce the grade stats to your classes?

That is, when youÂ?re handing back an exam or a paper, do you tell the class that they collectively earned 5 As, 12 Bs, 1 D, etc.?

It's a more interesting question than you might think, as there are all sorts of arguments for all different policies. Personally, I tend to give three numbers when I had back exams: the high score, the low score, and the mean. The mean is there to help students gauge their relative standing in the class, the high score is there to make it clear that the test was not completely unreasonable, and the low score is there because the person who got the low score often needs the metaphorical kick in the ass provided by knowing they got the worst score in the class.

In the last couple of terms, I've also taken to putting a letter grade on midterms, which is a cumulative if-the-class-ended-today grade. I started doing this at the suggestion of a colleague, who found that it greatly cut down on the number of people complaining about their final grades, and it's worked well so far. It gives the students a clearer picture of where they stand for the class as a whole, and prevents some nasty surprises.

Elsewhere, some thoughts on math education from Learning Curves:

Some may think that 9th grade algebra is a fairly low place to set the bar for high school graduation. I would have thought so, too, before I started teaching lots and lots of college freshmen. My hunch is that a large number of students enter high school unprepared to learn algebra -- their sense of number and arithmetic and math common sense are not up to par.

This definitely fits with my experience teaching freshman physics. The students who struggle with the math in our calculus-based introductory classes are never struggling with the calculus parts. If you give them an expression, they can easily take its derivative, and most of them can work out an integral. But they struggle at solving the resulting equations.

Somewhat ironically (after blasting a Luddite in my last post), I think part of the blame for this lies in the ready availability of calculators. Only a very tiny minority of our students are willing to manipulate equations symbolically-- the very first thing the rest of them do is to plug all the given values in, and get a big mess of ten-digit numbers (because, of course, they're bad with significant figures, too). From there, they grind through the problem by adding and dividing and multiplying these long collections of digits, and more often than not, they get lost in the middle.

But the mental effort required to plug numbers into a calculator is much less than that required to keep track of a handful of symbolic variables, so they start punching buttons at the very first opportunity. Back in the olden days, the situation was reversed-- the effort needed to multiply out all the number by hand, and chisel them into stone tablets, was much more than that required to do algebra, so we learned to work with symbols all the way through, and only plug in numbers at the very end. It's a little more up-front work, but you make fewer mistakes that way.

Of course, I'm not really sure what to do about this (other than assigning the occasional problem with no numerical values at all, which always provokes great wailing and gnashing of teeth...). Maybe the solution is to combine the two issues, and distribute grade information only in the form of algebra problems...

Posted at 7:57 PM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Uphill Both Ways

Another week, another desperately stupid article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, this time griping about technology in the classroom (temporary email link), a pet peeve of mine (the griping, not the technology).

What's remarkable about this particular article is not so much the specific complaints, as the class that inspired the piece does sound fairly bad:

Throughout the class the students took notes on the computers, creating a ceaseless keyboard clatter and making it difficult for anyone to hear the teacher's voice. Worse, as they faced their screens they looked away from the professor and away from one another. The class had no sense of communal purpose, and some students scarcely gave the professor a glance.

The PowerPoint remote control didn't work quite right at first -- tinkering with it caused a delay -- and students periodically whispered to one another about technical problems when they should have been learning the day's topic. One rogue was covertly checking his e-mail messages; another was browsing supermodel Web sites. As the class ended another student swore a horrible oath when he realized that, by pressing the wrong key, he had accidentally deleted everything he had written in the previous hour, and that it was gone beyond recall.

What's really impressive here is the operatic pining for the good old days:

How much better the class would have been with no more than a blackboard and a few sheets of paper! Note taking would have been silent; students would have talked to the teacher and each other, would have concentrated on the substance rather than the technology, and would have had more time -- not less -- to devote to their work. Best of all, a warm atmosphere of collective endeavor would have displaced the anonymity and chill that the machines created.

You have got to be kidding me. If your memory is so hazy as to make you believe that PowerPoint is the only thing preventing "a warm atmosphere of collective endeavor," you need to lay off the dried frog pills. If all your memories of classes taught with chalk are warm and communal, it's probably because you were huddled together after walking barefoot through the snow.

Other than the keyboard noise, most of the complaints listed in the quoted passage could easily apply to the worst class I had in my career as a student. The certainly wasn't any "sense of communal purpose" to it, unless all of the students desperately wanting out counts as a communal purpose. Many of us would go through most of a class with scarcely a glance at the professor, and there were a few people who would read other material in class. There was even whispering and note-passing regarding technical difficulties.

That class used no technology beyond the chalkboard, and didn't use that especially well. The "technical difficulties" mostly related to the professor's obvious discomfort with spoken English, and the other material being read mostly took the form of magazines. One guy I knew spent a couple of classes writing out the lyrics to Eric Clapton songs from memory. Another "took notes" by checking off the equations in the textbook as they were written on the board.

In fact, very few of the classes I took used any technology beyond the chalkboard, for the simple reason that computer projection hadn't really taken off in the early 1990's. I can think of all of two-- one computer science class in my undergrad days, where the professsor created Word files containing all his notes, and projected them on screen, and one team-taught class where one of the two professors lectured from overhead transparencies.

The CS class might sneak into the Top Five Worst Classes of my career (I'd have to think about it a bit), but the graduate class was one of the very best, and the guy with the transparencies was one of the best lecturers I've ever met. He's also got a Nobel Prize... Technology has essentially nothing to do with the quality of a class.

There are good classes, and there are bad classes. Technology won't make a good class bad, any more than it can make a bad class good. The things that determine the quality of a class-- the organization and presentation of the material, the interaction between students and faculty, the quality and grading of assignments-- those things are all independent of technology. A good class taught with PowerPoint will have the same qualities as a good class taught with chalk, and a class that fails miserably with technology will fail because of factors that have nothing to do with the technology being used.

I've taught good classes with PowerPoint, and I've taught good classes with a chalkboard. I've taught bad classes with PowerPoint, and I've taught bad classes with a chalkboard. The classes that were good were good because I did my job well, and the classes that were bad were bad because I failed at some aspect of my job. End of story.

Posted at 7:24 PM | link | follow-ups | 10 comments

Monday, June 20, 2005

"Then You Realize, Well, That You're Not Feynman."

Dave Bacon uses another great geek-post title to talk a bit about teaching his first full course. That's a pretty scary feeling-- I still remember the dread I felt about my first day (teaching pre-meds, no less...). Of course, it could always be worse-- my predecessor at NIST got an academic job, and had to teach astronomy his first term, never having taken an astronomy class in his life.

He used that experience to make a really good point about teaching, though. I was talking about my concerns about my first term teaching (I had never even TA'ed in grad school), and he explained that I had nothing to worry about. "They literally will not be able to ask a question that you can't answer," he said, and he was right. They sometimes asked questions that I didn't know how to answer right away, but I could always reason my way through to an answer, even if I sometimes had to fight off panic at the start.

(This may be less applicable in Dave's case, as he's teaching quantum information to Masters students, not mechanics to pre-meds. Still, that extra couple of years of grad school almost always translates into enough physics experience to stay ahead of anyone you might be asked to teach.)

Of course, as Dave goes on to note (though not in these words), a lot of the process involves finding your own voice. As Dave says,

Something I've noticed about a large number of the good speakers and lecturers, including Feynman, is that while their actual vocabulary might be limited, they almost universal express themselves in ways which are very unique. Reading Feynman's lectures, there aren't many sections which are just ordinary drolling on. Saying the ordinary in extraordinary manner appears to be vital to keeping a lecture going. And certainly this also adds to Feynman's humor.

It's not necessarily a matter of finding new and unique analogies to explain physical processes, so much as finding a way to express things that is your own, and that you're comfortable with. That can involve different analogies, or personal mathematical tricks, or it could just be a style of expression. The Gordon Watts quote list Dave links is an excellent example-- those sound like lectures I'd enjoy.

I've had other faculty members tell me that they don't even attempt to crack jokes in class, and one guy said he would never even consider saying something sarcastic in a lecture, for fear that students would take it seriously, and be offended. I tried to do that for a little while, but I'm a very sarcastic person by nature, and playing it perfectly straight just doesn't work for me. In more recent terms, I've loosened up a bit, cracked wise more often, and gotten the best results of my (admittedly short) career thus far, both in terms of student evaluation scores, and in terms of student performance.

On the other side, probably my least pleasant teaching experience to date was my first term, when I taught from somebody else's syllabus. You might think I would've known better, as the most excruciating class I took as an undergrad was a math class where the professor was using a colleague's syllabus (I took another course with the same guy later, and he apologized for that class), but I thought I could make it work well enough for one term. And I was wrong. The next worst term was another one where I was following a plan laid out by someone else.

Since then, I make it a point to do my own thing, even when I'm doing only one of several sections. I try to keep in synch with the other classes, well enough that we've all done the same material by the time the mid-terms roll around, but the order and presentation of topics is my own. Even when I cover a class for someone else, I use my own notes for those topics. It just doesn't work well any other way.

Looking at those Gordon Watts quotes, a lot of them sound like the sort of things I find myself saying in class. I can't help wondering what a list like that would look like for one of my classes. Then again, given the one line that I've had quoted back at me by students ("The Photoelectric effect: 'photo' as in light, 'electric' as in... electric."), maybe I'm happier not knowing.

(My favorite professorial quote was from a professor at Maryland, who said in the middle of one Math Methods lecture: "And we see that we just integrated through the singularity. But we know that everyone-- including Feynman!-- has done this, so we continue..." Proof by Invocation lives on...)

Posted at 8:09 PM | link | follow-ups | 11 comments

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