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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

November Basketball

Monday was the last day of open gym before the break, and we managed to turn out eleven players for the usual lunchtime game. That was good, because it let us run five-on-five full court. Something was a little bit off all day, though.

It's not that the games weren't competitive-- the scores were 15-12, 15-13, and 7-5 (my team lost the first, and won the next two)-- they were just sloppy. Dropped passes, missed lay-ups, weird lapses of communication that sent passes flying into empty space. The start of the second game was sort of like a soccer match-- everybody ran around for half an hour, and the score was 1-0.

That's November basketball for you, though. Granted, we come at it from a different direction than the college kids do (we're all at the end of our "season," giving and taking final exams, while Div. I teams are just starting up, and a little bit rusty), but the results are more or less the same. Basketball games played in the month of November just go a little bit wrong, at whatever level. (Whatever it is that they play in the NBA is probably a little sloppy, too, but I couldn't really say.)

Take, for example, Maryland's loss to Gonzaga on Monday night. It was an impressively intense game, particularly on the part of Maryland's D.J. Strawberry, but sloppy as hell. The two teams combined for 26 turnovers in the first half of play (14 by the Terps), most of them the same sort of weird mental lapses as in our lunchtime game. Passes were thrown to guys who weren't cutting, who were cutting, but in a different direction, or who just plain weren't there.

Gonzaga pulled it together a bit in the second half, and came back from an early six-point deficit to take control and cruise to victory down the stretch. Maryland went about four minutes without scoring in the middle of the second half, and continued to turn the ball over far too much (they finished with 26 turnovers), and that was pretty much your ball game. They should also expect to see a lot of zone this year, because damn, their zone offense looked awful.

But then again, that's November basketball for you. It's rare to find two good teams playing each other at all in November, let alone two good teams playing ball well. Last night's triple overtime thriller between Gonzaga and Michigan State was an exception, but you'll note that the decisive play in the game involved a Michigan State player chunking an open lay-up. November basketball, baby.

Meanwhile, Maryland beat Div. II Chaminade by 30 (though they trailed at the half, like a pack of mopey knuckleheads), so all is more or less normal. Not good, mind-- Syracuse dropped a home game to Bucknell (and there was much rejoicing among people who aren't me)-- but typical.

The important thing about November basketball isn't the quality of the games themselves, it's the simple fact that there are games. November basketball is the herald of March Madness, a lone sneaker squeaking in the wilderness to tell us all that we've made it through another desolate summer. Roast up a turkey, it's time to give thanks.

Still, would it kill them to look before throwing those stupid passes?

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

Monday, November 21, 2005

The True Purpose of Grades

Things got busy last week, so I didn't get around to responding to it, but I don't want to let this post by Zak at [Translator's Note] (mentioned in a comment here a little over a week ago).

The post is probably best summed up by the penultimate paragraph, which is a bit of imaginary dialogue froma student to a professor:

"I am here because I wish to learn. You have the knowledge I want, and I am paying you a very handsome salary to impart that to me. I will do most of the homework and attend most of the classes because I want to master the material, but I reserve the right to follow the assignments only so far I think it benefits me, or so far as it does not interfere with things I judge more important. My future, my learning. Now hop to it and teach."

There are a huge number of problems with this approach, starting with the "very handsome salary" (we're not paid that handsomely). The biggest problem is the underlying assumption about the judgement of college students.

I'm not talking about the question of what fraction of the students really want to learn-- that's really not a major problem in most majors courses. Leaving aside the insulting waiter metaphor, I don't particularly have an objection to that approach. If a student came to me, and rattled off that little speech, I wouldn't respond with a punitive "F." If a student wants to learn, and can do so without jumping through all the little curricular hoops, they're welcome to do so. They may not get the best grade, but that doesn't necessarily matter all that much.

The flawed assumption here is that college students are actually capable of correctly determining the point at which the assignments cease to be of benefit to them. For the most part, they can't.

How do I know this? Because I've played this game from the student side. At various points in my college and grad school careers, I've attempted to take classes while "follow[ing] the assignments only so far... as it does not interfere with things I judge more important." And every single time it blew up in my face. In some cases, I managed to get things turned around and learned stuff, and in some other cases, I got a second crack at the same material, but to this day, I have only the sketchiest understanding of solid state physics, largely because I judged other things more important than doing the homework when I took it in graduate school.

Believe me when I tell you that nothing would make me happier than finding a way to teach introductory physics effectively without that complicated homework policy I outlined earlier. I don't assign and collect homework because I get off on giving students bad grades. There's a long list of things I enjoy more than grading homework assignments. A very long list.

I assign the homework because the only way to really learn the material is by doing problems. I grade some of the homework because that provides incentive for students to actually do it-- without at least some credit being attached to the homework, a dizzying array of activities start to be judged more important than completing the assignments, and the students don't end up learning the material.

It's not completely impossible to do well learning the material without handing in homework assignments, but it's pretty close. I have had students who blew off the homework, and still scored well on the tests, but for every student who gets an "A" on the test to go with a "D" homework average, there are ten who match their "D" on the homework with a "D" on the exam.

To paraphrase a Federalist Paper, if college students were angels, we wouldn't need grades. If they could be counted on to do the work on their own, and to make a correct determination of what areas require extra work, and what areas they already understand, then we could dispense with the whole business of grading assignments.

Having noted a distinct shortage of Powers, Thrones, and Dominions in my classes, however, I plan to continue collecting and grading at least a fraction of the homework.

Posted at 8:09 PM | link | follow-ups | 14 comments

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Radio Call of the Year

My Giants outlasted the severely depleted Phildelphia Eagles this afternoon, in a classically ugly NFC East game. The halftime score was 10-0 Giants, with the one touchdown coming after a blocked punt gave the Giants the ball on the one-yard line. After three ineffective run-int-the-line plays, they went for it on fourth down, and Eli Manning found Amani Toomer in the back of the end zone.

Kate and I were alternating between the Giants and Patriots radio broadcasts, on our way back out the Mass Pike from visiting Boston, and switched over just in time to hear the Giants radio crew griping about the play calling just before the fourth-down scoring play. Play-by-play man Bob Papa summed up the whole sorry spectacle:

The scoring drive went one yard. It took four plays and a whole lot of angst.

As I said, the Giants hung on to win by ten, and the Patriots intercepted a pass as time expired to preserve a win over the Saints. A good football day, all in all. Other than the Cowboys winning, that is.

Posted at 8:37 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

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