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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, November 18, 2005

The System Works

Slate has been doing a "College Week" this week, with lots of people writing short pieces about what's wrong with American higher education and how to fix it. Slate being Slate, there isn't a really good way to link to a compilation of these pieces (their page for the topic leaves out a whole bunch of stuff), and there are too many of them to link individually.

The articles themselves also tend to be considerably less interesting than their New York Post-esque headlines (sadly, this is also typical of Slate). The most extreme mismatch is probably Robert Boynton's article on academic blogging, which is also the piece most likely to draw attention in blogdom (Dave Munger and Clifford Johnson have already weighed in).

The headline screams:

Attack of the Career-Killing Blogs
When academics post online, do they risk their jobs?

This seems to promise stories of academics being dumped from their jobs for stuff they posted on-line. For an untenured (some might say tenure-obsessed, though that would be redundant) academic, this is like a red flag waved in front of a thing that really likes red flags.

The actual article was pretty dull. It's basically another piece saying "Dan Drezner didn't get tenure. He wrote a blog. The sky must therefore be falling." Most of it is consumed with the question of how to get blogging considered as scholarly activity. This really doesn't excite me-- Dan Drezner and Sean Carroll (who is mostly neglected, as Slate confuses "academia" with "the liberal arts") don't really represent a major trend, because, as Dave Munger puts it, "Chicago is in that league of schools that seems to believe that their reputation is made more by who they deny tenure to than who they grant it to." And I may be in the minority here, but blogging just isn't scholarly activity, and I don't really buy any of the arguments that it ought to be considered that way.

(Not in the sciences, anyway. It may be that there are corners of the humanities in which blog posts might be indistinguishable from actual scholarship. But then, my impression is that there are corners of the humanities in which writing Harry Potter fanfic is indistinguishable from actual scholarship.)

I'm not saying that blogging is a completely frivolous activity. Obviously, I find it personally rewarding, or I wouldn't be maintaining this site. But what I do here isn't scholarship, and I don't expect it to be rewarded as such.

That's also not to say that running a blog can't be beneficial for other academic activities. Many of the physics posts I've put up here over the years have served as basically dry runs for lectures I gave later on those topics. To the degree that this sort of blogging has helped my teaching, I'm already indirectly rewarded for it through our teaching evaluation system.

I haven't received any really direct research benefit from running this site (though it has provided the occasional morale boost), but other science bloggers (mostly theorists) are fond out touting the medium as a new way to exchange ideas with colleagues. While that may eventually lead to new research results, it still doesn't count as scholarship in its own right.

After all, I've gotten great new research ideas from giving tours to visiting speakers. Does that mean showing people around my lab should be rewarded as scholarly activity? Absolutely not. I do (hopefully) get rewarded for the scholarship that results-- in this case, two publications and an NSF grant-- but for every lab-tour conversation that has resulted in improved scholarship, I've had about thirty that were nothing more than gossip and idle chatter.

To the extent that blogging even belongs in an academic evaluation in the first place (which is debatable-- I have colleagues who knit, and I very much doubt that they presented a portfolio of socks to their tenure review committees), it belongs in the category of "public outreach." As Clifford Johnson puts it, "blogging should be no more frightening to our colleagues than you having a course website, or you giving a public lecture in the local bookstore or school." It might be a bit more than that-- maybe closer to writing op-eds for some national paper or the Chronicle of Higher Education-- but that's the manner in which it should be evaluated.

Of course, you might point out that blogging is already rewarded as well as other public outreach activities, which is to say "not at all." (Hence the post title...) I think there's a good argument to be made that public outreach and other service activities ought to be rewarded more than they are under the current academic system. You can perfectly well throw blogging into that conversation, but it has nothing to do with blogging per se, and there's nothing special about blogging that ought to lift it above other sorts of outreach and service activities.

Posted at 8:00 PM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments

In Which I Give a Colloquium in the Valley of Darkness

I gave a colloquium talk at Amherst yesterday, with minimal rivalry jokes. It was a great deal of fun, as these things almost always are, and reminded me that being invited to give colloquia is one of the few things I really miss about being at a major research institution. I enjoy talking about my work, I like meeting new people, and I'm enough of a geek that I really enjoy touring other people's labs and seeing what they do.

(So, if you're a faculty member who drew the short straw to be colloquium organizer, and would like a colloquium with the title "Counting Atoms for Astrophysics," drop me a line...)

Of course, yesterday was also the first day of exams. This made for kind of a long week:

Monday: Last class of the term. I gave the "trick questions" quiz ("Which falls faster, a light object or a heavy one? And if you get this wrong, I'm going to find a way to fail you."), and handled the rest of the class as a review session, answering student questions and going over homework problems.

We also had a visiting speaker on Monday, Ivan Deutsch from the University of New Mexico, talking about quantum information. I was the one who invited him (I know Ivan from NIST), so I spent the non-class parts of the morning giving him the tour, and talking physics. After the talk, I drove him to the train station, and then went back to the office to make up my final exam. Then I went home and spent a chunk of the evening making chili for the department pot-luck luncheon Tuesday. (I got chili grind beef this time, but not quite enough of it, so there were still kidney beans added. I also grabbed a can of tomato paste "With Italian Seasonings" by mistake, so I bumped up the amount of chili poweder a little to cover the oregano. It was pretty spicy, but that's not a bad thing...)

Tuesday: Normally, this would be Lab Day, but with a talk looming on Thursday, I spent pretty much the entire day making up my talk. I have a research institution version of this talk, but it's been a while since I gave it, so I decided to start over from scratch, and make a whole new set of PowerPoint slides for the liberal arts college version. That took longer than expected, partly because I spent a bunch of time scouring the Web looking for pretty pictures.

Mixed in with the talk-making was the department pot-luck (a good time, as always-- believe it or not, physics faculty can cook). After work, I went to a "thank you" dinner for the student tutors who run our Help Center. Those sorts of events are always a good time, because I really enjoy hearing the student take on the latest campus gossip. After that, I went home to make up a few more exam questions.

Wednesday: As previously noted, a large chunk of Wednesday was taken up with meetings of one sort or another. In between the faculty meetings, I managed to cobble together enough multiple choice questions to round out the exam, and run the whole thing past one of my colleagues (to make sure there weren't any glaring omissions or wildly unreasonable questions). I also met with a couple of students who had study questions, and spent one hour running through my talk in an empty room to check the timing.

I had agreed to run a review session Wednesday night (even though I'm a little dubious about the utility of review sessions twelve hours before a test) at 8:00, and after dinner, I went back over to campus a little early to Xerox the exams and formula sheets. I had also hoped to run through my talk again, but there were already students in the class room at 7:45, so the talk run-through had to wait until I got home. Which had to wait until I shooed those same students out of the room at 10:20. Kate was good enough to listen to the whole confusing spiel, even though it meant not getting to bed until midnight.

Thursday: My exam was scheduled for Thursday at 9:00, so I went over to campus at 8:30 or so to make sure everything was ready. One of my colleagues was kind enough to combine my exam with hers, and proctor both tests, so I stuck around just long enough to verify that all my students had made it to the test (this was by no means a sure thing), and hand out the papers, and then I headed for Amherst at about 9:30.

I got there a bit before noon, had lunch with the faculty, and spent the afternoon touring labs and talking to people. The colloquium was at 4:45, and I think it went very well-- nobody was obviously sleeping, people laughed at my jokes, and everybody said nice things about the talk afterwards. I had a quick dinner with some of the faculty, then got on the road, getting home around 9:30. I half-watched the first half of Syracuse's sloppy blowout win, then went to bed.

Friday: This morning, I have a big stack of exam papers waiting for me at work. But you know what? They can wait a little while longer...

Posted at 8:23 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Academic Time Management

As in any bureaucratic setting, academic meetings expand to fill all available time.

Today is the day between the last day of classes (yesterday) and the first day of exams (tomorrow). There are no classes scheduled for this day, on the theory that students could really benefit from a day to study without other responsibilities.

Faculty, on the other hand, can apparently derive great benefits from spending half of this day in meetings of one sort or another (we've recently hired a new president, who's being introduced to the campus community today, and there are a number of committees and other administrative bodies having business meetings today). This despite the fact that we need to make up exams for the students to take starting tomorrow, and hold the hands of panicky students who are worried about the exams that they're going to be taking starting tomorrow, and grade past assignments so we can calculate final grades in a timely manner, and, in some cases, prepare for talks we're giving at other institutions tomorrow...

The fun, it just never ends...

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

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Dr. Oppenheimer Isn't the Sort of Doctor Who Can Help You

I may lose some Science Geek Cred for this, but I get a kick out of watching terrible paranormal shows on cable. You know the ones I mean-- they're usually on the Discovery Channel or TLC, sometimes the History or SciFi channels, and they feature lots of grainy black-and-white photos of mysterious objects, dramatic re-enactments of hauntings or alien abductions, and interviews with the credulous.

One of the things that I enjoy about these shows is the way they work really hard to squeeze everything possible out of whatever credentials their experts can muster. The lowest level of identification is an unadorned "Researcher," a sure sign that the person speaking is cooking Ramen noodles over a propane burner in a basement apartment somewhere. Next up is "Ph.D." after the name, but that by itself is a little misleading, because if the doctorate was in anything relevant, they wouldn't hesitate to give the field-- "Ph.D., Clinical Psychology" or "Ph.D., Nuclear Physics." And, of course, faculty affiliations are played for all they're worth.

Of course, I find this entertaining largely because I've spent the last dozen years or so working in places where all my co-workers either had Ph.D.'s, or were working on them (relevant Ph.D.'s, too-- there aren't a lot of clinical psychologists doing physics research...). I'm just not impressed by a doctorate-- I've known too many slightly goofy Ph.D.'s to think that a graduate degree is some sort of talisman of wisdom.

The real target audience for those shows, though, is probably a set of people who have a different attitude. Hard as it may be for jaded academics to believe, those letters after a name may actually carry some weight for some of the public.

It shows up in lots of odd places, not just on cable. There's a weird interplay between anti-intellectualism and credentialism out there, that leads to an odd deference to the holders of advanced degrees, sometimes even from people who are prone to denouncing pointy-headed intellectuals. My favorite example: a former colleague was once getting the run-around in an angry exchange of faxes with a car dealer, until he started signing his responses "Dr. Firstname Lastname, Ph.D.," at which point the service dramatically improved.

I thought of this the other day, when I was talking with someone at a faculty happy hour about the weird attitudes some of our students have about life after graduation. As she put it, many of our students just don't understand the opportunities available to them, and can't imagine themselves in a Ph.D. program. This happens even with some of our best students, who ought to be the ones pursuing higher degrees-- somehow, it's just not part of their conceptual universe.

Thinking about this a little, I can't really recall a time when I was really wowed by the idea of a Ph.D.. I knew from a pretty early age that I wanted to be a scientist of some sort, and when I became aware of the existence of doctoral degrees, it was as a necessary credential for being a scientist. And, I figured, if you needed one of those to be a scientist, well, I was going to get one.

But then, I come from an education family-- both of my parents have Masters degrees, my father in education, my mother in library science, and they both worked in schools when I was growing up. I wasn't particularly intimidated by the idea of higher education. A few years ago, someone asked me why it was that I always did well in school, and the only answer I could come up with was "I wasn't aware that there was any other option." College was always a given, and grad school was always an option. (That doesn't mean I really understood what I was getting into when I went off to college, mind...)

It's weird to be reminded that the world looks completely different to a lot of other people out there. Even some students at a reasonably elite Northeastern liberal arts school.

Posted at 4:31 PM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

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