Guest Post: Joel Corbo on Graduate School and Teaching

By Sean Carroll | June 12, 2008 10:35 am

Today’s episode of lazy-bloggers-solicit-guests-to-fill-in features Joel Corbo, a graduate student in physics at Berkeley. Joel and friends were disappointed by some features of the graduate-school experience, and (unusually) decided to actually do something about it — they founded the Compass Project, which supports excellence in science education, especially for women and minorities.

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My name is Joel Corbo, I’m a physics Ph.D. student, and I’m a little frustrated.

My trajectory through the US educational system has been a great one. I have parents who care deeply about me and my future and who believe in the value of a strong education. Because they cared, I went to an elementary school that laid a good foundation and allowed me to attend a high school that was more academically rigorous than many colleges (both of these schools were private, although the latter was also free). I also majored in physics at MIT.

My story may sound typical, at least in certain circles, but there are a few more details to add to the story. My dad is a recent immigrant without a high school education who worked as a maintenance man in the NYC Housing Projects, and my mom is the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants and a lucky survivor of the NYC public school system. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college. Statistically speaking, I shouldn’t have succeeded — but I did.

Looking back at my education, it’s obvious to me that a huge factor contributing to my success was the presence of people in my life who believed in me and supported me: my parents, my teachers, and my peers. Even at MIT, which is primarily recognized for the quality of its research (and rightly so), I found a physics department that openly cared about undergraduate education, where teaching was valued and done well and which fostered a community of undergrads who learned from and supported each other.

So, why the frustration? My relatively rosy view of physics education was shaken up not long after starting grad school at UC Berkeley (By the way, I don’t want to single out Berkeley as particularly flawed, as I’m sure its problems are shared by virtually every physics department in the US to one extent or another. However, I can only write about what I know and this is where I am). Back in the cocoon of the MIT undergrad experience, I came to believe that physics was awesome for two main reasons: (1) because it answers deep, fundamental questions about how the world works and (2) because it is a community driven, collaborative exercise that thrives on the effective sharing of knowledge among its practitioners. In my mind, grad school would build upon these dual pillars of awesomeness and help me become (1) a great researcher and (2) a great teacher.

The jury is still out on the great researcher thing, but it turns out that, in principle, grad school has precisely zero to do with becoming a good teacher. Oh, you can TA a class here and there, as long as that doesn’t get in the way of what grad school is “really” all about. The unfortunate thing is that the lack of value assigned to teaching seems very systemic, to the point of being embedded in the culture; perhaps this attitude appears to benefit physics in the short-term by weeding out all but the most “serious” students, but in the long run it does nothing but damage.

The damage done to grad students is fairly obvious. First of all, if they are not provided with encouragement and avenues to become better teachers, then they won’t improve their teaching skills as well as they could have. If you happen to believe that an essential part of being a physicist is the ability to pass physics on to future generations of students, to inspire them to follow in the footsteps of their intellectual ancestors, then it is hard to justify allowing people to graduate with PhDs who have not demonstrated the ability to do just that. Of course, this happens all the time.

Secondly, there are always some grad students, including me, who have a deep interest in teaching (I remember deciding in high school that the only way to know if I really understood something was to try teaching it to someone else — so I can genuinely say that education has been on my mind for a long time). When people with such a passion are met with disinterest or even disdain by the people they want to emulate (successful physicists), the blow to their motivation can be severe. After all, who wants to stick around when their interests and talents aren’t valued or supported? I’ve heard it implied (and sometimes even said outright) that such students aren’t “serious enough” about physics and therefore aren’t worth keeping around, but without a crystal ball, who can really say which student will end up making important contributions to the field?

Let’s put the grad students aside for now (didn’t we just talk about that?), and spend some time looking at how undergrads are damaged by this attitude. Teaching is the single most fundamental service an academic department provides to undergraduates, and if, on average, a department is not interested in teaching well, the implication is that it’s not interested in serving undergrads in any way. But serving undergrads is vital to the survival of an academic discipline, because some of those undergrads are that discipline’s future experts. As I stated above, I was fortunate enough to attend schools that did serve their students well, but I can talk about the opposite through my observations as a TA.

Many students arrive at their undergraduate institution with a substantial number of long-held academic “bad habits”, especially in the sciences. High school has managed to convince many students that physics is a dogmatic, memorization-centered subject. As a result, they don’t have the skills necessary to solve real physics problems, because all that they have learned to do is to pattern-match and to plug-and-chug. Still, popular science books and NOVA specials have kept them interested enough that many intend to pursue the physical sciences as undergrads. Once they get to college, however, their passion for physics is quickly squelched by a number of factors:

  1. Because they don’t have the skills necessary to problem-solve, model-build, and generally think like physicists, these students actually don’t know how to effectively learn physics as it is typically presented in a large lecture-based class. This doesn’t mean that these students are stupid, or somehow not worth teaching. It simply means that there are things they need to be taught other than “the material” in order to help them become better learners. Unfortunately, many of them come away feeling like they don’t have what it takes to be physicists (as though there is some intrinsic “physicsness” that they are lacking) and so they leave the field.
  2. The typical introductory physics sequence, at least at Berkeley, is very isolating for potential physics majors. The vast majority of people in those classes are engineering students who are there because their departments require that they take physics; they have largely no interest in physics for its own sake. This makes it very difficult for potential physics majors to identify each other — they are like needles in an apathetic haystack. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that even the physics department cannot identify these potential majors. So, these students end up isolated from the department, from upperclassmen physics majors, and from each other – that is to say, from the physics community – for the three semesters it takes them to get through introductory physics. However, an important part of the excitement of physics is the collaboration with peers, the shared goal of building knowledge through interaction and discussion and asking “What if”. Without that, it’s incredibly difficult to paint physics as an interesting field, to really sell the idea of being physicists to these students beyond the level that NOVA can, and so they leave the field.
  3. The problems of interaction and perceived lack of “physicsness” are magnified for a certain set of students: women and underrepresented minorities. At this point, so much has been said about the lack of women and minorities in all levels of physics due to the “leaky pipeline” that I don’t have much to add to the subject. For this discussion, the important point to note is that in addition to the issues that their well-represented peers also face, they have to face majoring in a field where they don’t see people like themselves. They arrive at the seemingly logical but erroneous conclusion that success in physics is unattainable unless you are a white male, and so they leave the field.

So, here are three of many reasons why undergrads might leave the field of physics – notice that none of these reasons have anything to do with these students’ ability to be good physicists. If the physics community wants to recruit the best minds into its ranks, it stands to reason that these impediments must be removed, but not enough people seem interested in doing so. Hence, my frustration.

[More below the fold…]

Well, kiddo: you’re frustrated, and it even sounds like your frustrations are reasonable (at least to me, since you and I are the same person). What good is that going to do? Were I alone in my frustration, probably nothing. However, it turns out that I wasn’t alone: there were other grad students around me who were also frustrated, and for similar reasons. Three of them found each other, and decided to do something about the problems that they saw: they started to work on creating a program called The Compass Project during the summer of 2006, and I joined the project a year later.

So, what is Compass? At its core, The Compass Project is a program whose goal is to address all of these problems, both on the undergraduate and graduate level, with the ultimate aim of strengthening the physical sciences at Berkeley (I admit, we are a little bit ambitious). Central to our work is a two-week summer program for incoming Berkeley freshmen who are interested in the physical sciences (targeted at women and underrepresented minorities). The summer program addresses many of the issues I outlined above:

  1. By bringing together a set of 15-20 incoming freshmen for an intense two-week education experience, Compass starts the process of forming the network of peer interaction and support that doesn’t form during the intro physics sequence.
  2. Compass’s teaching methodology focuses very heavily on collaborative learning and group work. The Compass instructors (who are all grad students – more on this later), act more as guides helping the students answer a realistic physical question (for our pilot year, the question was “What do earthquakes tell us about the interior of the Earth?”), rather than an authoritarian source of all knowledge. We focus on building problem-solving and model-building skills in our students, which are skills not explicitly address in traditional physics classes.
  3. Compass introduces these students to the physics department very quickly. Through interaction with the Compass grad students, the Compass undergrads learn that physicists are real people, with real problems and real struggles, just like them. They get the message that they are valued members of the physics community as soon as they arrive on campus, and many of them choose to self-identify as physics majors before their first semester is done. We hope that as Compass grows, this sense of ownership will lead future Compass students to act as nuclei in their intro classes around which potential majors who were not in Compass can aggregate.
  4. The curriculum for the summer program is developed and implemented entirely by grad students. This means that Compass provides a tremendous opportunity for grad students involved in the program to hone their teaching skills in ways that simply aren’t possible without that level of freedom and control. Additionally, Compass provides a space where a passion for teaching is actually valued and encouraged, and therefore serves as a seed for the creation of a community of grad students. For many (including me!), the friendships formed through that community are invaluable for actually making it through grad school.

As though the summer program didn’t already keep us all busy, Compass also has several components that extend throughout the academic year, with the goal of supporting the Compass undergrads throughout their academic careers. Among those are (1) a mentorship program that pairs each Compass undergrad with a grad student to help them navigate the challenges of college, (2) a set of office hours, staffed by grad students and upperclassmen, to provide Compass students with academic help, (3) a lecture series where physics faculty describe their research at an undergrad level (this has been well-attended by Compass and non-Compass undergrads alike), and (4) pure social activities. So, yes, our goals are ambitious, but so are our methods for achieving those goals.

So, how can you help support this fantastic program? As I alluded to earlier, Compass was founded quite recently (our second summer program is happening this August!), and is entirely run by physics grad students. Right now, the main problem that Compass is facing at Berkeley is a lack of financial support (apparently times are tough in Sacramento as well as in DC), so we are trying to get the word out about our existence and the good work we are trying to do. So, if you think our program is worth supporting, spread the word! Tell your friends in important places about us, let us know if you are interested in hearing more or helping out, and, if you are able, donate some money to Compass. Every bit of help we can get is vital to keep this program going.

And if you happen to be a grad student at some school, and you happen to feel frustrated about these issues too, don’t despair. Consider starting a program similar to Compass at your school (and by all means, tell us about it). You’d be surprised how many good things your frustration can create.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Guest Post
  • Sara House

    Joel –

    Thank you for your post. I have many of the same frustrations, though I come from a different field – psychology. I teach a course in research methods (and I love psychology research) but have some difficulty convincing my students that 1) research and statistics are not as difficult as they think and 2) that research (and statistics) can be fun! And I think introductory psych courses suffer from many of the same problems as you mentioned, because they focus on memorizing theories and terms rather than teaching problem solving and using creativity. So then when students make it research methods, they don’t have (and don’t think they can develop) those skills they need to use psychology knowledge to solve practical problems.

    The one problem psychology does not have is the gender difference, though in the past, the majority of women became counselors and the men in the field became the researchers/academics. I do think that’s changing now.

    Anyway, your post has convinced me that I just need to keep trying. Thanks again!

  • Ambitwistor

    It would be useful to add a link to Sean’s article, “The Purpose of Harvard is Not to Educate People”. The comments there discussed some of the underlying factors behind Joel’s complaints.

  • teadrinker

    Thank you, Joel, both for being who you are and
    for addressing this serious problem.

    I fear we are going to have a future full of drones
    whose idea of a major life goal is a new sports car
    or designer outfit. Oh heck, it’s happening now!

    Of course that will just make it easier to be led
    and controlled by the government. A planet full of
    sheep who don’t know when they are being led to the
    slaughter and don’t care.

  • Evan

    Joel,
    I am a physics undergrad at the University of Florida and I feel like the factors you mention above are spot-on. Although I can’t associate with the third factor as I am a white male, I find it very frustrating as an undergrad that there is no real ‘physics community’ here. Even in the ‘enriched’ introductory physics courses (which are supposed to be populated mainly by majors), there is no real connection outside of the lecture hall. Also, the physics we are learning is, although somewhat advanced for intro-physics, it is still mainly generalized theory with no appreciable emphasis on problem-solving. It seems that this type of educational process is exercised over much of the sciences as my chemistry courses have operated in the same way.
    I wanted to become a physicist mostly because of the ‘awesome’ things I have seen on NOVA and have read about (especially through this blog). These things inspired me to want to look for the deep, fundamental truths of the universe, but thus far, it seems college has turned this almost romantic quest for knowledge and understanding into, like you said, an isolated, plug-and-chug endeavor.
    I hope your program changes this for your students, and when I become a grad student, I hope I can make the type of impact your group is making.
    Good Luck!

  • mgary

    Joel,
    I felt it was my duty to point out one minor error in your post. While it doesn’t change any of the points you made (and, as a fellow grad student interested in teaching, I agree with most of them), Berkeley does in fact have an introductory physics sequence specifically designed for students interested in majoring in physics, the H7 series. Unfortunately, not all prospective physics majors take the H7 series, and the campus advisers do little to nothing to promote the series. While the sequence is quite difficult, if all of the students interested in physics took a course more like H7, focused more on learning how to solve problems and thinking “like a physicist,” I suspect far fewer students would be turned away from physics. I know this is somewhat of a Berkeley specific item, but I hope that as part of your program, you encourage the students to take as many classes with an H prefix as possible (they can also be found in the math department).

  • http://www.dfcd.net Chris Clark

    I applaud your efforts to make changes in the system. Unfortunately, I think the problems with grad school are the most pressing and I don’t think they will be easily solved. I have finally managed to replace my idealized view of the academic world with the realistic view of economists that “people respond to incentives”. The whole incentive structure is set up in favor of research over pedagogy and that makes people neglect pedagogy. Why is it set up this way? Even if physics started in a world where research and pedagogy were equally respectable (maybe in Newton’s time?), there would still be an initial bias towards research because it is easier to measure. When someone publishes a new result, everyone has to acknowledge it. But it takes a lot more intellectual fortitude to claim that a new explanation of something is the best explanation yet written, or that a certain professor’s course is better than the all the rest. It seems that pedagogical explanations are only revered when the author has already gained fame through research. For example, The Feynman Lectures, which actually happen to be terrible as a freshman-level introduction as is evidenced by the preface which indicates that the class was gradually drained of freshman who were being replaced by grad students and professors.

    This inherent bias towards research is exacerbated over time. Professors become programmed to churn out papers, sacrificing the pedagogical quality of their courses, which causes the true intellectuals to turn to mathematics or elsewhere. If an intellectual student does stick with physics until graduate school, he or she is faced with the option of becoming an “operator” or dropping out. Sometime during grad school, the last remnants of philosophical interest in physics are suppressed or weeded out of the physics community.

    The only way to fix this problem in the long run is to change the incentive structure. In the absence of economic and political factors, there would be a natural bias towards pedagogy due simply to curiosity. But there is no way to isolate a community from such factors, so the only solution is to manipulate these factors to work in our favor. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is to prevent the current system from manipulating the factors against us. The easiest quick fix for this is to change how professors get paid. For example, suppose a professor’s pay was divided into three main parts: a base salary of $30 K, a supplement for each student enrolled in their courses (maybe $1 K for lower division and $5 K for upper division), and a bonus based on their course reviews. Assuming that the latter was the largest of the three for a good teacher, this would be a strong incentive to teach well.

    I also think all the “free money” floating around causes a lot of problems. Professors spend so much of their time begging for their share of the loot stolen by the government through taxation. Most physicists blindly assume that such “free money” is necessary for basic science, but there are plenty of other morally acceptable sources of money such as tuition, patent licensing, and voluntary donations. Though this may sound absurd at first, I actually believe that science would be better off without public funding. Professors could put an end to the eternal process of lobbying for funds, and just get back to work. Think of the consequences. First, more students would go into theory since the economic playing field would be leveled. Second, imagine a professor who wanted to do a big experiment. They wouldn’t spend the next several months writing grant proposals and talking on the phone to politicians. Instead, they would design a new course to increase profitability or find a group of professors to pool funds with. Or they might create a website for public outreach to solicit donations. And as Milton Friedman would tell us, if those professors are paying for their experiments out of their own pockets, they are going to be much more likely to spend that money wisely. As for expensive experiments like the LHC, if they can’t be funded without the use of violence, then is it really the right time to perform them? As usual, economics can tell you the solution to the problem, but the real challenge is convincing everyone else to listen.

  • web design company

    Kudos to Corbo for not just complaining about the quality of his graduate school education, but for doing something about it by founding the Compass Project!

  • Terri Yu

    Hi Joel! I remember you from MIT. I graduated from the physics department just one year before you. I’m glad to hear that you’re doing this diversity project. I’m sure our MIT professors would be proud.
    I sent the link to your website to our department chair and she got wildly enthusiastic about the idea. Hopefully, some form of “Compass” will come to Yale, too.
    Sincerely, Terri

  • Kuas

    It’s all logical. Physics graduate programs don’t emphasize teaching because teaching physics is a waste of time. Those that are any good don’t really need to be taught, those in need of good teaching will never amount to anything. That may sound harsh, but it’s the truth.

  • science marches on

    Re: Kuas at 3:35 pm

    Clearly, all contributions in the field of physics, related to physics, or requiring any kind of pedagogical background in physics (in other words, most other arenas of science and medicine!) have been made by approximately a few dozen physicists who, over the past few hundred years, have not required any teachers.

    Please get over the outdated and downright damaging Western ‘cult of the genius’ attitude, and the incorrect notion that studying physics is only for those few planning to make a major, paradigm-changing contribution to theoretical physics, or for those otherwise planning to live in the ego-massaging realm of the isolated ivory tower.

    Most physicists have needed good teachers at some point. But more importantly, most non-physicists — like all other scientists, teachers, physicians, academics, engineers, and so on — have needed good teachers at some point.

    It is to the benefit of all of us that physics education and science education is improved. It is to the benefit of all of us that our future biologists, astronomers, teachers, civil engineers, and doctors, in addition to our future Edward Wittens and Richard Feynmans, have a grasp of physics.

    It is a real disservice to emphasize that (mostly Westernized, I note) aspect of the physics culture that focuses on slavish worship of some idealized notion of the lonely geniuses who needed no one else. By far most of the work in physics, and in most sciences these days, is done in large collaborative efforts by bright men and women who value excellent teachers who could lead them on to real insight.

    Excellent, well-thought-out education is never a waste of time.

    Don’t speak for all of us, Kuas. As a physicist, I fully support anyone and everyone who wants to improve the prospects of education in the sciences.

  • science marches on

    I should note that there seems to often be a split in attitudes on this subject, between two crowds:

    1. The group who believe that physics, and the other sciences, should play a major role in improving the prospects for humanity, and who consider it a duty not to forget that physics is not an island;

    2. The group who believe that physics is primarily an intellectual battleground and competitive arena in which the goal is to find out who is “best” and “cleverest” and will “amount to something.” In other words, the physics is no longer about the science!, it’s about the people doing the science.

    I have never been a fan of the cultism surrounding the big names. I don’t enjoy the obsession with celebrity that characterizes physics anymore than I enjoy many people’s fixation with Paris Hilton. It is a game of celebrity, gossip, and often of competitive backbiting. It is about apes thumping chests, and grabbing their genitals, showing their place in the dominance hierarchy — no longer about the science.

    I think a lot of us are here to work, to do good science and to enjoy doing good science, to do something helpful to the rest of the world, not to play politics or ego games or to “beat others.” If that be the case, then educating others is part of our duty.

    May it be so that all of us are able to leave some work on this planet that has been useful to others.

  • Andy

    Re: Kuas

    There is nothing logical about what you just said. What do you mean by “those who are good”? Did they get good by themselves? Were they born with a “physics” gene that allowed them to magically learn the subject without any outside help? You know full well that the world does not work that way. New knowledge doesn’t emerge out of nothing – it only comes from knowledge that has already been constructed by those who came before you. Without them around to nudge you along, you wouldn’t know where to start. Heck, even the ability to learn efficiently is not innate – it has to be taught.

    Ask yourself honestly: would you have been able to get where you are (wherever that is, it sounds like a pretty bitter place) without a single teacher? And then email a few well-known physicists and ask the same question – I bet you will find out just how wrong you are.

  • none-of-the-above

    6. Chris Clark on Jun 12th, 2008 at 2:12 pm writes:

    “As for expensive experiments like the LHC, if they can’t be funded without the use of violence, then is it really the right time to perform them?”

    Violence?! Do you really think that the LHC was funded by having the CERN director general rob banks and mug little old ladies? [incidentally, the LHC is an accelerator; the individual experiments at the interaction points are: ATLAS, CMS, ALICE, and LHC-B]. Note also that support for research in fundamental physics worldwide is tiny [tiny!] compared to the world’s annual expenditure on armaments, so you are certainly right that violence is expensive. But I would suggest that international collaboration at facilities such as CERN works to strengthen international ties, and helps decrease international tensions, in as much as it is a demonstration of what can be accomplished if people and nations cooperate and work together.

    “if those professors are paying for their experiments out of their own pockets, they are going to be much more likely to spend that money wisely.”

    My observation [as an interested theorist] is that experimentalists pinch pennies like crazy, because any money saved can be ploughed back into: supporting another graduate student on the experiment; buying new CPU’s for the analysis processor farm; hiring another undergraduate for a summer work term; et cetera… They do this because at the end of the day, it’s all about trying to get as much science done as possible, given your resources… [and yes, the vast majority of my colleagues really do care about, and are excited about, the science that they do].

  • Retired from DRG I

    So pleased to see forward thinking college students who are planning for responsible education. Although strong science education gets lip service for high importance – reality appears not to support the crusade.

    As a veteran (36+ years) educator of younger students, I know that we need knowledgeable thinkers at many levels of the educational process. Some physics majors may end up teaching in middle and high schools and not in research. I hope we can find some soon. The long term result of fine teaching at many levels will certainly serve us a greater benefit than a few physicists who may or may not make broad contributions to our society.

    Purposeful thinking and modeling logic for problem solving is necessary at all levels of education. Learning how to question and self-talk through a problem solving exercise is paramount in both science an mathematics.

    Keep up the fine work ot improve ‘the system’. If your institution and others begin to take notice, perhaps a new era will evolve.

    Thank you.

  • Count Iblis

    In the current educational system, we only start to teach real physics to university students when they are already 18 years old. They are required to master everything from classical mechanics to Introduction to String Theory in 4 to 5 years time.

    So, if we want to improve physics education, it is more efficient to do so by teaching physics to high school students. Why not make physics an optional subject and teach topics such as classical mechanics, special relativity, quantum physics, statistical mechanics, electrodynamics and the necessary math subjects like calculus, linear algebra, functional analysis, etc. to 14 to 18 year olds?

  • Haelfix

    Excellent program, and nicely thought out.
    From my experience, I didn’t really meet any serious peers at my university until well into my junior year and its something I regret. There was occassional problem solving days, but I generally did the work myself b/c the other students were behind my level (my highschool was harder than pretty much the entire undergrad experience) mostly b/c they couldn’t follow what the proffessor was saying.

    Meanwhile many of those people have gone on to nice careers in the field, so I regret not knowing them better and im absolutely positive they would have advanced much faster with programs like this had they been given the opportunity. I had erroneously lumped them in with all the nat sci requirement individuals I had known just one semester or two previously.

    As for teaching perse. Unfortunately its a fact that in smaller departments, things like etaching excellence is an afterthought, pretty much b/c they feel the need to compete with larger institutions in the all important research area.

    People have been talking about it for decades, but alas there is no great solution. Generally i;ve found grad students/TAs are better teachers than most tenured professors (especially the foreign ones, who unfortunately sometimes have language barriers).

    Still programs like this would perhaps help ease the pain a little bit.

  • jim

    Kuas,

    It is a logical argument – and you conclude your premise. If you believe that then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because the only ones that succeed in the field are those you didn’t exclude. It also happens to be false. The great minds had great mentors; to find this out do some research:)

    A mind is easy to destroy, and many great ones are lost.

  • Juan

    Kuas has been maybe a bit too brutal, but he has put his finger on it. It hurts of course. The only “learning” worth the name is that done on your own. Graduate school is the place where “swim or sink” slaps you in the face, full force. Some people react, some others “grow frustrated”. Natural selection is a wondrous thing.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Actually … no. The truth is that some people get slapped in the face, learn to succeed all by themselves, and go on to great careers. Others get slapped in the face, decide that there are more pleasant ways to live their lives, and choose to do something else. Still others are challenged, but receive some sort of useful guidance or support from people around them, manage to make a few adjustments, and go on to great careers.

    Different people respond to different combinations of harsh challenge and helpful encouragement, solitary discovery and structured learning. Pushing away a substantial fraction of talented students out of some misguided notion that science should resemble boot camp might flatter the macho fantasies of the survivors, but it doesn’t produce the highest quality scientific workforce.

    Sorry, Juan. You know you’re my dawg, but I have to keep things honest.

  • http://uslhc.us/blogs/?author=9 Seth Zenz

    Hi Joel,

    I agree with your points about undergraduate education, but I’m a little more dubious on what you’d change about graduate school. You write:

    If you happen to believe that an essential part of being a physicist is the ability to pass physics on to future generations of students, to inspire them to follow in the footsteps of their intellectual ancestors, then it is hard to justify allowing people to graduate with PhDs who have not demonstrated the ability to do just that.

    The way I read that, you propose to replace (to some degree) the weeding out of people who aren’t “serious enough” about their research, with people who are too serious. That seems like a bad idea to me; people who are great researchers but lousy teachers make substantial contributions to science. Although obviously it’s preferable that that they make these contributions from non-teaching jobs, they still need their PhD’s. (It’s also worth noting that they may be great mentors of graduate students without being any good at teaching courses.)

    Having a doctorate is ultimately about the ability to understand and work on physics, not necessarily the ability to teach it. It always has been; I doubt that your professors at MIT learned to teach because that was a huge priority when they were graduate students, and I doubt that that’s what they emphasize for their graduate students today.

    What’s not true is that being a professor is only about research; it is a teaching job by definition. What needs to be changed is not how graduate school works, then, but rather faculty hiring and tenure. If part of the job is to teach, faculty members should be required to have demonstrated abilities in that part of the job. I fully support taking that requirement seriously rather than just giving it lip service.

    Next you will ask me where potential faculty members will learn to teach, if they are not required to do so as graduate students. My answer is, frankly: on their own initiative, and very possibly their own time. This isn’t as harsh as it sounds. I’ve done it (although it’s harder from Switzerland), Sean’s doing it by blogging among other things, you and the other people on Project Compass are certainly doing it. In fact, most of the graduate students I know at Berkeley are involved in teaching or outreach in one way or another. Great!

    In my ideal world, people who wanted to be faculty members would know they had to be able to teach. If they didn’t pick up those skills somewhere, they would lose job opportunities, and it would be too bad for them–graduate students may need mentors, but they don’t need to be held by the hand that much.

    I want to make clear that I think teaching is important, and my respect for those who work on it, but I think you’re barking up the wrong tree by blaming the education of graduate students. Being a skilled teacher shouldn’t be required for being a physicist; but it should be required for being a teacher of physics.

  • Ellipsis

    Seth — your points are good, and indeed non-teachers shouldn’t be penalized, however having been there I can say that graduate school is a better place for this than as a postdoc, which are unfortunately the only two options prior to faculty in the present system. I think the program is a very good idea (and I have sent it around to a few colleagues in my department), hopefully NSF (and equivalent funding agencies in the case of other countries) will give it a bit of funding, since it unfortunately isn’t free.

  • mike

    I’m a recent Berkeley grad: EE, with a not-quite minor in physics. It’s been a while since I’ve taken the 7ABC sequence, and I haven’t devoted much time to pondering about my experience, but here’s a few thoughts.

    Textbook. I can’t say I’m a big fan of the intro textbooks, the sort that are full of pictures and colors. They don’t teach you how to approach problems — they do a few examples and then put equations in bolded boxes. The books used in the H7 series are great, but more difficult.

    Mathematical maturity. It takes some time to get comfortable with manipulating expressions and tying them to physical concepts, especially if the math knowledge is raw.

    Requirement mentality. The 7 series is required for all engineers, so there’s a lot of “gotta slog through this class” thinking that can be infectious.

    Berkeley intimidation. My impression is that Berkeley emphasizes mastery of a subject, which is how it should be. But then the midterm comes around and the average is a 30 or a 50, which can be demoralizing.

    GSIs. I personally had great GSIs, but other people I know were definitely not so lucky.

    I should say, though, that all the upper-div classes I took were awesome.

  • Pirate of Silicon Valley

    Hopefully NSF (and equivalent funding agencies in the case of other countries) will give it a bit of funding

    Private donations probably won’t hurt either. They have a donation bin set up through the Berkeley BigIdeas (http://bigideas.berkeley.edu/donate/193 – it looks similar to DonorsChoose, but limited to projects at UC Berkeley), and I just threw in my 2 cents (a little more, but literally) :-). Now if I can get my company to match it, that’ll make it all the sweeter.

  • Joel

    @ mgary (#5)

    It’s true that Berkeley has an honors version of the intro sequence; I didn’t mention it because this post was long enough as it is, but I am definitely a fan of the H7s (most of my TAing has been for the H7s). Those who succeed in the H7 sequence definitely do learn the “thinking like a physicist” skills, and the sheer difficulty of the courses tends to build community among the enrolled students as they realize that they need to collaborate with their peers to effectively learn.

    There are some caveats, though. First is the one you mentioned: the H7 sequence is not well-advertised. Secondly, I’ve noticed from talking with upperclassmen that once people leave the H7 sequence, that community tends to break down; I think this largely happens because there is no set order to the upper division classes, so people do not end up taking the same ones at the same time. Finally, not everyone is academically prepared from high school to jump into the H7 track, although they can start in the regular 7 sequence and switch into H7 later.

    All that said, Compass has encouraged people in the program who seem prepared to try the H7 sequence (of 11 students so far, 4 went into H7 immediately, and another 2 did regular 7 for a semester before switching to H7 for this coming fall), and they have been happy with the experience thus far.

    @ SethZenz (#20)

    Hi Seth!

    The way I read that, you propose to replace (to some degree) the weeding out of people who aren’t “serious enough” about their research, with people who are too serious. That seems like a bad idea to me; people who are great researchers but lousy teachers make substantial contributions to science. Although obviously it’s preferable that that they make these contributions from non-teaching jobs, they still need their PhD’s.

    Actually, I would propose replacing the weeding out of people who aren’t “serious enough” with the weeding out of no one at all. This idea of “weeding out” in a graduate program doesn’t make sense to me. If a department chooses to admit a student for graduate study, presumably it believes that student could make a good physicist. Furthermore, grad students cost the department money. Why would a department admit a student, pay for them to hang around for many years, but not try to support them in becoming good researchers (never mind good teachers)?

    It seems to me that if someone decides to leave physics (or any other academic field, for that matter), it should be because they find something more interesting to do, not because (1) they couldn’t find a sane advisor, (2) they found an advisor, hated their research, but felt trapped by time pressures and didn’t find a different project to work on, (3) they had endless funding issues, (4) they experienced any of the other arbitrary events that fall under the category of “weeding out”.

    I’d also like to take this opportunity to discuss an issue that people like avoiding: mental health. Mental health problems affect a significant fraction of graduate students. For those of you who like data, check out the Berkeley Graduate Student Mental Health Survey from 2004. In the executive summary alone you will discover that “In the last 12 months, 45.3% of respondents had experienced an emotional or stress-related problem that significantly affected their well being and/or academic performance.” and that “9.9 % of respondents seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months.” Mental health is a significant issue, and I doubt that it is helped by the “weeding out” process.

    Next you will ask me where potential faculty members will learn to teach, if they are not required to do so as graduate students. My answer is, frankly: on their own initiative, and very possibly their own time.

    I want to make clear that I think teaching is important, and my respect for those who work on it, but I think you’re barking up the wrong tree by blaming the education of graduate students.

    You’re right (assuming I am interpreting you correctly) that it’s ultimately up to individuals to decide that teaching is important to them and to therefore spend time and effort on it. I also don’t think that learning to teach should necessarily be a large component of graduate education (although requiring everyone to TA for one semester, for example, isn’t particularly burdensome). What I do think needs to be changed is the general negative attitude towards teaching that seems to pervade physics academia.

    It would be sufficient, I think, if physics departments could excise the attitude that good teaching isn’t important, that it is a waste of a student’s time, that students interested in teaching aren’t “serious enough”, and so on. It would be even better if they provided real avenues for students who are interested in teaching to improve their skills (a lecture series on physics pedagogy, or a faculty member who can act as a “teaching mentor”, or similar things). The problem with the current system is that it’s not even neutral towards teaching – it’s against it. And that means that students who want to teach will encounter obstacles, or at least will find their teaching inclinations to be undervalued. What’s the use of that?

    What needs to be changed is not how graduate school works, then, but rather faculty hiring and tenure. If part of the job is to teach, faculty members should be required to have demonstrated abilities in that part of the job. I fully support taking that requirement seriously rather than just giving it lip service.

    I can’t imagine how this requirement will ever be taken seriously if the attitude I just described doesn’t change. However, if it does change, it will likely also lead to more support of grad student teaching as a natural consequence. Sounds good to me.

    @ everyone supportive

    Thanks! You’re awesome!

  • Ellipsis

    Actually, I would propose replacing the weeding out of people who aren’t “serious enough” with the weeding out of no one at all. This idea of “weeding out” in a graduate program doesn’t make sense to me. If a department chooses to admit a student for graduate study

    Occasionally, departments do make an unavoidable (or avoidable) mistake and get a grad student that is not qualified. While this is generally largely the department’s error rather than the student, it wouldn’t be fair to the high quality of the other students’ PhD’s to make sure that absolutely everyone who is admitted to a graduate program uniformly must get a PhD. Often the way it is dealt with is to make sure the student qualifies for a masters and then point to other options (in a few cases, the door). A PhD student leaving physics after a masters probably shouldn’t happen in more than ~10% or so of an incoming PhD class, IMO. And then occasionally, a student just won’t finish his/her dissertation. Some coaching is needed in those cases — however the department cannot do this for the student.

  • http://www.thechocolatefish.blogspot.com Yvette

    Hi Joel, thanks very much for your post. It touches on a lot of points that I’ve been concerned about for awhile now, because I’m a physics undergrad very interested in the education aspect of physics. (And to all those who are arguing physics education isn’t particularly important, come on. We all know better than that.)

    One point I will digress with you on, however, is the problem of having physics majors mixed in with engineers. I attend Case Western Reserve University, and while CWRU does have an “honors” track for physics students no one tipped me off on this so I was with the engineers in their physics track. I really had no problem with this and some of the people I did homework with were friends ever since, so I think having classes like that lets you meet others you might not otherwise and who don’t necessarily think like you do (which is an integral part of undergrad, in my opinion).

    This isn’t to say I don’t feel close to my fellow physics majors- we attend classes together sophomore year on, have a lounge, and a very active Physics and Astronomy Club, so in my year there’s a joke that we have all lived with, shared a drink, or dated every other major in the year. I remember going on study abroad and finding it fundamentally odd to be in a department where this wasn’t the attitude- at the institution I attended no one worked together on homework and there was even occasionally hostile tension over grades, but that’s another story I guess.

    I guess what I’m saying is while getting to know everyone else in a department as soon as possible is a great step to take early on, specific classes aren’t nessecarily the way to do it. Bribing interested frosh to come to the lounge with liquid nitrogen ice cream does wonders, after all. ;)

    As for your third point about “physicsness” and minorities in the field… as a female, I don’t see this as the case at all and never thought anything of it. (If I felt like there were lots more guys than gals in freshman physics- and I did, as I came from all-girls school- I sat towards the front so I couldn’t see them.) I haven’t heard of any females who arrived on campus planning to do physics and changing their minds over this point, either, so while it might be a factor I wouldn’t list it as a major contributing factor. But then, that’s my experience here.

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  • Harold

    As a physics major at Berkeley, I agree with mgary – the H series does a wonderful job of bringing potential physics majors together. It’s a problem, as Joel said, for non-H introductory courses since classes sizes of over 100 are filled mostly with engineering students. The thing I discovered is that the sooner students find out about the Reading Room, the sooner they become part of the community. I found out about it the beginning of my 2nd year, and that’s how I started to meet everyone. SPS at Berkeley is particularly good at frequently holding BBQs too. The incoming physics majors have to be willing to look around, and maybe it takes a bit of a push. I admit that I wouldn’t have found out about the Reading Room if my friend who knew a friend who knew a friend didn’t tell me.

  • http://www.dfcd.net Chris Clark

    Re: 13. none-of-the-above writes:

    “Violence?! Do you really think that the LHC was funded by having the CERN director general rob banks and mug little old ladies?”

    Yes, the LHC was funded by robbing banks and mugging little old ladies, literally, albeit in a fairly sophisticated way. The government rarely actually has to pull out the gun because people know it will be there if they resist taxation. Of course they will try to imprison you first, but if you resist that, then you will start to see their guns. And I agree that international collaboration rocks, but the removal of public funding will only encourage more collaboration because each collaborator will bring in new funding from their own pockets.

    I also agree that experimentalists act quite efficiently with the money that they are awarded, but there is the additional consideration of whether they would have even began a given experiment if they didn’t have grant money. Milton Friedman’s advice applies to situations where a government agency might fund an experiment that nobody would want to personally contribute funding to.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/ Anonymous hero

    The purpose of a grad school in physics is simply not to educate teachers. The study is culminating in a PhD degree. It is not a doctor of teaching of kids, it is a rather selective “doctor of philosophy” – the actual scientific subject. For example, cosmology or nuclear physics.

    If someone wants to teach high school kids, she doesn’t need a PhD degree. If someone wants to teach at universities, she needs a lot of expert knowledge – to be professionally above the college kids and to be a genuine scientific authority that college students from whole regions and countries are expecting – and skills that do require the PhD degree and there are simply so many of them that teaching is just another distraction.

    When professors are hired, of course that teaching skills do play a significant role. But it is very correct that they don’t play so much role when PhD degrees are being awarded – i.e. they don’t play a key role in grad schools in general – because the PhD degrees are about science, not about enthusiasm in teaching.

    Good teachers are partly made by their talents and temperaments, and partly they can learn to be good teachers. The first category doesn’t improve if we add teaching to grad schools. The second category does improve but it improves at a wrong time. People should be “trained” to do certain things before these things are actually important. Professors may be improving their teaching skills once they are professors, too.

    The teaching skills of grad students should only be refined for the purpose of their performance as TAs because there is no other good reason for it.

    Quite generally, “teaching” is the weaker, less selective activity for scientists. A proverb says that “who can’t do the science, becomes a teacher”. It would be extremely bad if physics PhD were awarded just for teaching of high-school-level and similar level of scientific subjects.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    “Even at MIT, which is primarily recognized for the quality of its research (and rightly so), I found a physics department that openly cared about undergraduate education, where teaching was valued and done well and which fostered a community of undergrads who learned from and supported each other.”

    Do you have any hypotheses as to why the culture at MIT is healthier than at Berkeley?

    Don’t get me wrong- it is great that you’ve put this program together. But it is a shame that the culture was bad enough that you felt the need to act.

  • Harold

    Hi Anon,

    Wouldn’t it be great if there could be both great teaching and great philosophizing? It is interesting that you found so simple a definition for the purpose of grad school.

    Another “proverb” I’ve heard is “You only really learn something when you can teach it.”

    Although I do see your point that sometimes the faculty hiring committee might emphasize other things over teaching, I’ve tend to observe that most of the best are both great researchers and great teachers.

  • Peter

    I must admit that I’m bothered by the common attitude that physics education exists primarily to produce more physicists – by the numbers shouldn’t the intro classes be more concerned about the apathetic engineers? It’s not too crazy to say that the most important classes are the the ones full of people who will have only a glancing interaction with physics, and whose needs are rather different from those of the physics majors. (This is coupled to the “grad students are failures/have been failed if they don’t become professors” problem, but that’s a topic for a different day…)

    Anyway I certainly agree that graduate departments typically don’t make access to teaching development resources easy, so I’m glad that you’re working on this.

  • Count Iblis

    You have to wonder what happens with the money the universities get from the astronomically large tuition fees the US students have to pay.

    Wouldn’t it be better if students at university were just given the opportunity to take exams and nothing more for a very small fee? Studens can then keep the money for tuition fees in their own pocket and spend it as they see fit.

  • fh

    Great effort Joel. I certainly benefited tremendously from the close contact that physics majors had with PhD students in my home university as part of the normal organization of things, and coming to grad school was likewise severely disappointed at the lack of this interaction at my grad university. Even more shocked though at the lack of interest in discussing and exchanging research between researchers.

    And yes, we can do something. we started a series of regular colloquia in my particular field bringing together isolated PhD students from different institutions, which by now has gone Europe wide! It’s a small and intimate program in comparison to your monumental efforts but I’d like to join your rallying cry to other grad students, if you don’t like stuff, start changing it!

    “You’d be surprised how many good things your frustration can create.”

    word!

  • http://uslhc.us/blogs/?author=9 Seth Zenz

    @Joel

    My understanding (from highly anecdotal evidence), is that the department sees it as very much in its own interest to keep graduation rates high… and that the research groups also a strong (perhaps stronger) interest in looking after their own students. But as Ellipsis says, not every student works out–it seems hard to avoid that, although there are certainly some specific ways in which Berkeley (I, too, write about what I know) could handle the process more gracefully.

    Also, if believe that “it is hard to justify allowing people to graduate with PhDs who have not demonstrated the ability” to teach, aren’t you proposing a graduation requirement of some type? Won’t people who can’t do it fail to graduate (i.e. be weeded out)? And how on earth would a graduate program tell in advance whether its admitted students were up to teaching or not?

    But ok, I see you’ve said that you’ve said it would be enough if departments changed their attitudes about teaching. But what do you mean, concretely? If you think students oughtn’t to be penalized or sneered at simply for expressing an interest in teaching, that is obviously very fair. However, I think that much of the source of negativity toward teaching is from a more subtle issue: the perception that a student’s research suffers because of time spent on teaching. That, I think, is a fair thing for a department to be concerned about.

    @Count Iblis and Lab Lemming

    UC Berkeley, as a state-funded school, doesn’t get to charge anywhere near $40k per undergraduate, and it has a very large number to teach. Those things are a major challenge to teaching undergraduates well.

  • fh

    On a more philosophical note, the assumed strict distinction between research and teaching that is implied today is not necessary, the German University system used to be build explicitly on the unity of research and teaching. Though they are separating it out somewhat these days….

    It’s one of these implied truths so universally accepted that we no longer realize it’s contingent and that there ARE other ways to frame the debate/think about these issues.

  • Ed

    I think the world is producing enough physicists.. as evidenced by the competition (and often low pay) for physicist positions. What I would like to see is engineers and other students develop deeper model building skills and understanding of fundamentals (physics).

    But although it may be sized correctly, the physics community could certainly use more diversity, as can engineering and CS. I would rather people think “more diverse” vs using other terms. “Underrepresented minority” as implemented it is usually about what you look like vs. your experience and what you think. ‘Look different’ is correlated to ‘diverse’ but not completely.

  • Costanza

    I’m considerably older than most of you (at least I expect so), but my educational trajectory was much the same, tho’ I did a stint in the evil private sector, before returning to academe. Let’s face it – and be honest – university work is a business. The primary task of the university is to make a profit (not altogether unreasonably). Skill at teaching, while admirable, is not really in line with this goal, and as a result, it does not figure into tenure decisions and promotions, except in a superficial way. Now, a PhD is a research degree; I don’t believe anyone would argue otherwise. So university teachers are largely self-taught. It takes motivation, hard work, and practice to be good in the classroom. As there is very little reward (other than personal satisfaction) in being good (which does not necessarily translate as popular), and as the time spent in prep, grading, and so on, is time taken away from research, writing, and grant proposals (the things that DO count in tenure/promotion decisions), there is little motivation to spend a lot of time on classroom stuff. And the university is going to be more interested in the things that bring in grant money. By the way, I should say that do have tenure, so this is not sour grapes about the system; I have perhaps a broader perspective having been in the private sector). And there are notable exceptions; Rabi used to insist that everyone teach, everyone WILL do it well, and he always put the best of us in the “Physics for Poets” class.

  • Mike

    Very nice post. I had the luxury of getting to actually teach with my TA assignment at Caltech, and to work for a professor who cared very much about undergraduate education (Prof. Politzer).

    Personally, I think of being a physicist as a bit like being a scribe in olden days. Sure, we research, and every once and a while the very best of us discover something really interesting. But most of us are not writing thousand citation papers — our ideas will not be described in history books. For those of us, I see our value as being keepers of knowledge and methods, to pass on to others. Because everything it takes to do what we do cannot be put into a book, it needs a living, thinking vessel. At least that’s how I justify being a physicist despite the marginal value of my work ;).

    Anyway, from this perspective, teaching is very important. From this perspective, research is something you do to keep yourself sharp, to add value to what you can share with others. Of course we all hope that maybe we’ll be one of the lucky ones who actually discovers something of real value to the world, something of tangible interest to people outside our circle of colleagues. But for me, that hope is just too chancy to stake my assessment of the value of what I do.

  • Andy

    @Anonymous hero

    Quite generally, “teaching” is the weaker, less selective activity for scientists. A proverb says that “who can’t do the science, becomes a teacher”

    And yet another proverb says: “If you can’t explain it to an undergraduate, you don’t understand it yourself.”* Teaching is not a skill that you can learn-once-and-be-done-with-it, like riding a bike. Every piece of knowledge that needs to be taught requires very careful consideration of how it was constructed in the first place — because the best teacher doesn’t just read off what they know — they lead the student in figuring it out themselves. For the student, the metaphorical difference is between watching a video of someone climbing Everest for you, and following a sherpa who helps you along as you climb to the top of the mountain yourself. And I would argue that though you could be a good researcher without that sherpa skill, you are even better with it. So, no, good teaching shouldn’t be required, but it should be encouraged.

    * Now, I can’t think of anyone who’s been able to explain string theory to undergrads. What does that tell us? ;)

  • http://whenindoubtdo.blogspot.com/ Eugene

    Nice post. Good luck with COMPASS. Sounds like something both fun to do and rewarding.

    On the question of whether Universities are suppose to teach or do research, I think the answer is both. On whether the Universities are doing both, I think the answer is yes.

    There is always a tension between the two, simply because there is only so much time/resources around to do both. Not everyone can be a good teacher and a good researcher. Someone who is a good researcher but a poor teacher is probably doing the university a favour by not doing as much teaching as s/he is required : how many of us remembered that terrible teacher that you and I have wasted our time with and said “Man I could have learn that better on my own.”.

    Well, that’s my main point : I think good teaching are great, but no good/bad teaching is going to make or break a student’s time in school. Universities are not simply places you enroll in to sit in classes : there are other students, the energy of being there, the off-hand discussions, the motivation you get from being surrounded by fellow scholars/learners. That’s why the internet can never replace the physical university.

    (Disclaimer : I love teaching people stuff. But I always have the sneaky suspicion that I get more from teaching than people I teach.)

  • riptide

    Lab Lemming said “Do you have any hypotheses as to why the culture at MIT is healthier than at Berkeley?”

    As a former MIT undergraduate, and interested in physics when I arrived, I can say that’s because the OP is full of bulls**t. The introductory physics class 8.01 is notorious for failing upwards of 20% of the entering class, and in my opinion it’s because the teaching sucks. (This is suggested by the observations that those who fail get a second try with the few TAs who speak English, and a professor who also speaks English – and these students inevitably pass). So yea, while the OP may have been a talented physicist-in-the-making and thus soaked up material, believe me when I say that physics teaching at MIT is not all its cracked up to be.

  • JC

    riptide,

    When I was a freshman undergrad, the intro to physics courses had over a 50% flunkout rate. Every second grade was an F.

    It was basically used as a “weedout” course to kick out as many engineering and science majors as possible.

  • Lord

    It’s not about teaching but about research and limiting entrants to the size of the program, which is as small as possible since it is all about research. Expectations need to be crushed to fit in the available opportunities. Even then, too many are produced.

  • Andy

    It’s not about teaching but about research and limiting entrants to the size of the program, which is as small as possible since it is all about research. Expectations need to be crushed to fit in the available opportunities. Even then, too many are produced.

    So, by that logic, we should abolish undergraduate education altogether, because the professors shouldn’t spend any time teaching, and instead devote their full time to research. So, after you graduate from high school, you should go and spend four years backpacking in Europe, at which point you’ll be magically ready to either enter the workforce, or start research for your graduate degree.

    This is sheer idiocy. While your quality as a researcher should be judged solely by the papers you put out, your quality as a well-rounded member of academia should necessarily include teaching. In fact, if we were to get down to semantics for a second here, the very word “professor” has everything to do with teaching: it comes from Latin “professus”, which means to “declare openly”, that is – to share and disseminate knowledge.

    So yeah, someone whose title is a ‘researcher’ should just concentrate on research, and someone whose title is a ‘lecturer’ should just teach, but a professor (that most Ph.D. students presumably aspire to be) should do both, and do it well.

  • A

    Dear Joel,
    I think what you are doing with the Compass Project
    is great, and wish you success.
    The students in your summer program will certainly
    benefit in many ways. (Before my undergraduate studies,
    in Europe, I also profited much from a program, which had
    me take a 4-week modern math course [though traditional
    lecture format] before the first semester; after that,
    I was ahead in the first-year math classes, which otherwise
    weeded out many students.)
    And it will allow for better social connections between the
    sometimes ‘nerdy’ science students.

    But why is teaching not rewarded in a research university?
    I’d think that the main problem is economic: As a professor,
    at a research university you *must* get grant money.
    The University adds to the money you apply for an overhead
    charge (to pay for office/lab space, admin. cost)in the
    range of 50 to 70%; the department gets back some money
    from this overhead charge. The direct grant money will
    pay the professor’s summer salary, or sabbatical salary,
    travel to conferences, computers, experimental equipment,
    and graduate student salaries.
    So if you don’t get any grant money, your (professor’s)
    life is miserable, your chairman will visit you and
    suggest to move elsewhere…
    Also, the fact is that if you won the prize for best teacher,
    but do not get grant money, you won’t get tenure.
    (Of course, during commencement addresses, the university
    president will always say to the assembled parents how important
    he thinks teaching is, but three weeks later, we learn that Asst.
    Prof. So-and-so, who won an award for teaching three years
    in a row, did unfortunately not get tenure.)

    (Anecdote: I remember that at an earlier time, I applied for
    postdoc and teaching positions in small colleges;
    when I asked for recommendation letters, my adviser asked
    to make sure in which letters he might mention that I had been
    a prize-winning teaching assistant; as he thought, that
    mentioning good teaching in a letter to a research institution
    would be the kiss of death;
    it would be understood as a disrecommendation, meaning
    “I cannot say enough about the candidate’s research, so I throw
    in some remark on his teaching to fill the space.”)

    So then, if your grant pays a graduate student, you, of course,
    want that graduate student work more than full-time on research,
    so that you can mention much progress in the progress report or
    grant renewal application. No time for any other activity.–

    Now there used to be (and might still be) many colleges which
    value teaching. However, as there was in the last 20 years such
    a great supply of very good physics graduates, with Ph.D.s and
    research experience, even small colleges -who in the (long)past even
    allowed instructors with only a M.S.- nowadays routinely ask for
    Ph.D. and many publications. The work on Compass migh give you
    and your colleagues working on it an additional brownie point
    when applying to such an institution, if you find it.
    Also industry might be more open-minded, as there they are aware
    that presentation skills are important.

    Now, please excuse the rant following here, on comments 6,29:
    Chris Clark [CC]of comment 6 has it right that it is the incentives.
    But he drank of some cool aid when he writes:
    “I also think all the “free money” floating around causes a lot
    of problems. Professors spend so much of their time begging for
    their share of the loot stolen by the government through taxation….
    ….science would be better off without public funding….
    As for expensive experiments like the LHC, if they can’t be funded
    without the use of violence, then is it really the right time to
    perform them?”
    Well, I’d think that
    – taxation is the dues we pay for living in a civilized society.
    – for certain things, public funding is needed, as the ‘free market’
    fails in providing it, such as roads, schools, a legal and court system
    (>~90% of federal court cases are brought by companies, shouldn’t
    they be taxed to pay for it?), police (mainly enforcing property
    rights)….and funding for research, which provides a public benefit
    (Remember: taxpayer-funded high-energy particle physics research
    gave you the WWW, ARPA + NSF built the internet…)
    – certain things are possible only by public tax funding, due to the
    size of the problem; e.g. welfare (could not be replaced by private
    charity) and certainly it seems ridiculous to suggest that LHC
    should be built by contributions from physics professors’ salaries.
    But society has agreed to fund such things, by the imperfect means
    of our legislature/congress/government.
    (Perhaps CC’s argument is that there should be no big science; my
    observation is that in the U.S., industry has totally abandoned basic
    research, so it wouldn’t be replaced; there is no more Bell Labs;
    the free market took care of it.)
    CC (Comment 29): “Yes, the LHC was funded by robbing banks and mugging
    little old ladies, literally, albeit in a fairly sophisticated way.”
    “Taxation = robbery?” What did you just smoke?
    (Remember, those who presumably are taxed most, also profit most
    from the social system which makes their income possible. Or do you
    suggest having private armies instead of the police, to protect your
    property and enforce business contracts (well, the Mafia worked well
    enforcing theirs, but somehow I prefer the court system, for all its
    imperfections).
    You may argue that LHC is too expensive. But I am happy that my taxes
    pay for a minuscule part of it. (But I am open to suggestions to have
    optional wars funded by bake sales, and canceled, if not enough is raised.)

    CC (comment 6):”As usual, economics can tell you the solution to the problem,….”
    No, it seems some ideology from defunct economists which tells you that.

    Sorry for rant. But this ‘taxation=robbery’ crap shouldn’t be propagated without some opposition. The U.S. has been much harmed by too many people falling for this.

  • fh

    “The primary task of the university is to make a profit.”

    No. No it’s not. Simply put that is entirely and absurdly wrong, at least in most universities I have been involved in. That is one of these completely basic assumptions that is presented as if it was some sort of common sense that everybody ultimately has to agree to even if it might make them feel uncomfortable.

    In truth it makes us feel uncomfortable because it is a vicious destructive ideology wrapped into a s seemingly common sense statement. Because it is presented as such arguing against it immediately makes you feel like you are just making excuses through sophistery. You are not. Given the economic framing of every debate simply makes it harder to express more appropriate sentiments and debates because you always need to deconstruct the framing first.

    It is a sad testament to our society that this insidious debating technique is so effective today.

    I submit:
    “Let’s face it, economic constraints are a reality, but the primary task of a university is to further an disseminate human knowledge and culture.”

    or even:
    “Let’s face it, the primary task of a university is to further an disseminate human knowledge and culture. Economic matters need to be evaluate with respect to this goals, they hold no meaning in themselves.”

  • Lord

    So, by that logic, we should abolish undergraduate education altogether, because the professors shouldn’t spend any time teaching, and instead devote their full time to research.

    It is not totally absent of opportunity, only mostly so.

  • Lord

    The better approach in my view would be to statistically detail the outcomes to be expected of new entrants in their first class all the way to eventual career, position, pay, success, status, obstacles, etc., and let students decide for themselves whether they should pursue it, even though each may expect they will be the exception.

  • Costanza

    Re 48:

    Making a profit is not, in and of itself a bad thing. One could argue that it’s morally neutral, depending on how it’s obtained and for what purpose(s) it’s being used. If a university does not (at least in some sense) make a profit, then there are no facilities (e.g. buildings, libraries, or lab space) to support the faculty who teach the students who pay tuition, and who increase the basic store of human knowledge, no matter how trivial it might be (cf William Briggs’ most recent blog posting). This is true of all universities, tho’ more true of private universities, which are generally all soft money. It’s my experience that faculty are generally isolated from this aspect (e.g. they never have to go begging to alumni) and therefore can retain the fiction that what they do is completely divorced from economic realities. It’s simply not true.

  • kris

    I disagree that a requirement for a Ph.D should involve teaching. I particularly (and strongly) disagree with this:
    “The damage done to grad students is fairly obvious. First of all, if they are not provided with encouragement and avenues to become better teachers, then they won’t improve their teaching skills as well as they could have. If you happen to believe that an essential part of being a physicist is the ability to pass physics on to future generations of students, to inspire them to follow in the footsteps of their intellectual ancestors, then it is hard to justify allowing people to graduate with PhDs who have not demonstrated the ability to do just that. Of course, this happens all the time.”

    1. Not all graduate students end up as professors of any sort. In fact most of
    them probably don’t and end up leaving academia.
    2. Although there is a great deal of stuff said about the importance of teaching
    (mostly by tenured faculty members), most of it is blatantly hypocritical.
    Teaching is usually not given its due in academia (especially in the junior
    ranks of the professoriate).
    3. Be careful what you ask for, graduate student teaching requirements can
    always be used to shift the burden of teaching on students and adjunct
    faculty as has happened in the humanities.

  • kris

    Finally (sorry for the double post), this stuff about “seriousness” is a narrowminded attitude. A good physics graduate degree can be useful for a lot more than academic research. Given the realities of the academic job market, it would be highly disingenuous to both encourage increased enrollment in physics graduate school and cultivate this culture of “seriousness”. I think physics departments would be better off recognizing the reality that most of their doctorates will be held by people who will have to find jobs outside academia, rather than pretending that every student of theirs should have academic jobs as their only (or primary) goal. Instead of making graduate students satisfy teaching requirements, they would be better of helping the transition of those of their students who want to leave academia after graduation.

  • Jeff

    Andy said:

    “Now, I can’t think of anyone who’s been able to explain string theory to undergrads. What does that tell us?”

    On the other hand, Peter Woit said:

    “A First Course in String Theory by Barton Zwiebach, based on a course on string theory for undergraduates taught at MIT….The whole idea of trying to teach a very speculative theory that hasn’t really worked and which is based on 2d quantum field theory to undergraduates seems to me to be utter lunacy.”

    Man, I guess you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t!

  • Teaching

    kris

    I would agree that teaching should not be a requirement for a PhD. Having teaching experience is something that should be controlled by demand. Universities should definitely offer grads teaching opportunities, if the grad intends on applying for a teaching position at a university, than it would probably be in there interest in gaining that experience through their own initiative.

    “Teaching” is merely an art that can be taught to anyone in a relatively short time. The Navy still runs a school that “teaches” people to “teach” in a matter of weeks. The biggest takeaways are

    1)Always face the class when speaking
    2)Erase the board using up-and-down motion instead of side-to-side motion (side-to-side causes your butt to shake)
    3)Throw erasers at people who are sleeping in your class and tell them to stand in the back of the room.

  • piscator

    Costanza,

    A university is in some ways like a company. It is also in some ways like a high school, a monastery, a political party or a sports team. In fact though it is none of the above, but is instead a university.

    Neither a monastery nor a sports team is divorced from economic reality either -the monks still need to eat and the football players need somewhere to play. However in neither case is the purpose of the institution to make money for their shareholders.

    A university needs money to pay its faculty and repair its buildings, but the success of a university is not measured by how much ‘profit’ it makes or how big its endowment is. The size of Harvard’s endowment does not a priori tell you anything about how good a university Harvard is.

    piscator

  • Haelfix

    This is such an old debate. The whole ‘my proffessors suck at teaching’ schtick has pretty much always existed in academia, and despite the best efforts to change things it amounts to a drop in the proverbial bucket.

    Like it or not, teaching is a gift and it can’t really be taught past a certain point. You can get better at it sure, but some people will never be Sidney Coleman despite all the effort in the world.

    Should those people be excluded? No. B/c they likely have been selected for outstanding research, which is and should always be the number one priority.

    Some departments have special ‘lecturer’ positions devoted entirely to just that, and that helps. But keep in mind, thats money spent on a person who statistically isn’t going to be as qualified in research or at least spends most of his time teaching.

    In the end, I prefer solutions like the one the OP has created. Practical, student driven and without a negative impact on the university perse.

  • http://swimmingthechannel.blogspot.com Clara

    Kuas on Jun 12th, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    It’s all logical. Physics graduate programs don’t emphasize teaching because teaching physics is a waste of time. Those that are any good don’t really need to be taught, those in need of good teaching will never amount to anything. That may sound harsh, but it’s the truth.

    This is a load of bull. Yes, there are those people who can be good at physics without being taught anything, but the field would be in a sad state indeed if those were the only people who could “amount to anything.” I can personally say that when I arrived as an undergrad at MIT, I struggled a little with the intro physics major version of mechanics because I had come from a high school education in which physics and calculus were not considered to be related subjects and physics was an exercise in looking up and applying formulas. Thanks to having good teachers and wonderful study group, I mastered those problem-solving skills, and am now one of the top students in the major. I will never be the next Einstein, but I hardly think that because my understanding of physics was founded in good teaching, that I will become an utter failure in life.

    On a slightly different tack, I think improving the quality of physics education across the board would have wonderful effects, beyond just the physics majors. I’ve always seen physics to be a love-it-or-hate-it subject among my classmates (with the hate-it’s winning by a long shot), and I think the teaching is at fault. If students learned the problem-solving skills necessary to understand and appreciate physics, even if they ultimately decide that their true calling is biology or political science, just imagine the consequences. On the small scale, people wouldn’t be conned into buying Bluetooth headsets because they saw a video on YouTube where some dudes apparently popped a few kernels of popcorn with four cell phones. On the grand scale, imagine if our nation’s policy makers had all received good, quality education in the sciences. I personally think that would cut down on the rather large number of stupid and uninformed decisions made at that level, don’t you?

    So yeah, maybe the best of the best never will need those great educators, but quality education of those in the many levels below them is nothing to take lightly.

  • Snotnose kid

    I think teaching college students to read is far more important than teaching.

    If the average college undergrad (including physics undergrads) were actually taught how to read the textbooks they are required to buy, and then actually spent 2-3 hours reading the text book for every hour the spent in class, I think their would a lot less whining.

    The reality is that a college degree is a bullet on a resume. University’s sole purpose is to act as a filter for industry/government/academia. Most of the filtering happens at the admission level.

    Research is by far more important than teaching. Good students will crack open the book and ask a good research professor valid questions. There is little incentive or need to invest a lot of time in someone who isn’t actually going to take the time from their busy social life to study.

    For all those people out there who think that they are owed something, and that they study hard and still get no where, either:

    1) You are full of BS
    or
    2) You need to face reality and find a job in retail (this is especially good advice since the service industry is 70% of the economy, and the sooner you start, the better of you’ll be)

  • Snotnose kid

    p.s.

    Yes there are spelling errors…damn

  • http://swimmingthechannel.blogspot.com Clara

    Snotnose kid, does it occur to you that some people might not be able to learn just from books? If everyone was able to understand perfectly anything they read in a textbook, there would be no point in having classes in anything at all. Personally, I have a much harder time teaching myself material from the textbook when I’ve missed class than from lecture, and attending lecture beforehand helps me follow the textbook better.

    Furthermore, a textbook can’t answer your questions, and not all textbooks are well-written or easy to follow. Just as there are good and poor teachers, there are good and poor textbook writers (and they don’t necessarily coincide). On the same note, I think a professor who actually cares about teaching would be more likely to put in the time and effort to find a good textbook.

  • snotnose kid

    Clara

    let me restate the previous
    “Good students will crack open the book and ask a good research professor valid questions.”

    Are you owed a good lecturer? In many cases the lecturer’s grasp of material is not much greater than the student’s.

    This is simply a reality of statistics. Good lecturers are a rare commodity, good lecturers that actually have full mastery of the material are even rarer.

    In my own experience, after spending time actually reading the books I have, it became pretty apparent that the reason that most lecturers don’t teach out of the book is that they don’t understand it as well as they should.

    Are there a lot of poorly written books? Absolutely. Do you know how many books I have on QM alone? I know I have at least 7.

    Calculus and DFQ’s? At least 9.

    Teaching is another issue. A good teacher is one that takes control of a classroom and doesn’t look like a fool in front of the students. Ever wonder why good teachers don’t let themselves get dragged down by questions? Why they will eventually tell a troublesome student to come see them after class? Its because they understand that showing their control over the class is by far important than total mastery of the material. A good teacher also knows how to kick the can down the road (ever been told who you need to talk to, or what book to read in order to find the answer to your question?).

    Seek and you shall find answers, that is where personal initiative plays a big part. There are probably fewer than 10,000 individuals in the world at any one time who have the level of mastery of physics that is expected by students. Everyone wants to be taught by a Feynman or a Boltzmann. Odds are that unless you have been lucky enough to become a graduate student at a top university, you will never have an instructor that meets the expectation.

    You are on your own.

    Read up, young person, read up.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    snotnose kid, I think you are way off the mark here. I’ve met physics lecturers at hundreds of universities, ranging from major research universities, to tiny teaching colleges, from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, and without doubt they understood the physics they were teaching extremely well, and certainly much better than the students they taught did. Whether they were able to teach the material well is an entirely other matter.

    I don’t take issue with the sentiment that individual work time is crucial, and that many students neglect it, and I certainly think that research is the primary reason why many of us do what we do (and, indeed, were hired and tenured), but it doesn’t mean one shouldn’t put some effort into being a good teacher.

  • http://swimmingthechannel.blogspot.com Clara

    I agree with Mark, and I have to say, Snotnose Kid, I really don’t understand your championing of books over lectures. Aren’t textbooks just lectures in written form? I mean, yeah, it’s a good thing to have some personal initiative and read stuff on your own, but students don’t pay $40,000 a year for people to tell them which textbooks to buy.

    Everyone wants to be taught by a Feynman or a Boltzmann. Odds are that unless you have been lucky enough to become a graduate student at a top university, you will never have an instructor that meets the expectation.

    Ok, I agree that not everyone gets to be taught by a Feynmann or a Boltzmann, but that doesn’t mean that you have to give up on finding a good instructor. The greatest minds aren’t necessarily the best teachers.

    Also, you said a good student will ask a research professor valid questions… but part of the point is that many professors view students not as an opportunity to educate the next generation of researchers, but as nuisances that cannot be avoided. No matter how much initiative students show, they won’t get anywhere if none of their professors are interested in teaching.

  • Snotnose kid

    IRT Clara

    “I really don’t understand your championing of books over lectures. Aren’t textbooks just lectures in written form?”

    If this statement were true, than the appropriate rebuttal questions would be:

    If all textbooks are lectures, than why do we need lecturers? Can’t you just read the book?

    “but part of the point is that many professors view students not as an opportunity to educate the next generation of researchers, but as nuisances that cannot be avoided.”

    Most students are nuisances that cannot be avoided. How many students ever bothered to ask a researcher what they are actually working on? Or volunteer to help out? I bet it’s less than 1 in 100, maybe even less than 1 in 500.

    “but students don’t pay $40,000 a year for people to tell them which textbooks to buy”

    You are correct. Students pay $40,000 dollars when they can’t get a scholarship, and they really need that bullitt on their resume.

    IRT Mark

    “I’ve met physics lecturers at hundreds of universities…”

    Isn’t that exaggerating a little…who funds trips to hundreds of universities?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I meant from hundreds of universities (as in people who lecture at hundreds of universities. And no, it isn’t an exaggeration. Seventeen years of attending workshops, conferences, summer schools, symposia, seminars and colloquia make this an easy claim to make.

  • Snotnose kid

    Is this sampling with or without replacement?

  • snotnose kid

    Mark

    On a side note, I was looking for new books to supplement my copy of Gravitation and appreciated your recommendation of Andrew Liddle’s book. It and the book by Dodelson (which Amazon recommended) will be fine additions to my library.

  • http://astro.ucla.edu/~mperrin/ Marshall Perrin

    Hi Joel,

    I just thought I’d chime in to offer my support. You’re definitely not alone in wanting more balance between research and education in the graduate years. In fact, the NSF is officially on board as a supporter of that – that’s the idea, in part, behind the “broader impacts” criterion used to evaluate all NSF proposals. Now, there’s a lot of room to debate how that could be made to work better in practice, but it’s encouraging at least to see such high-level emphasis on the dissemination of knowledge as well as its production.

    And for the sake of disclosure: I’m a bit biased here as an NSF-supported postdoc. The NSF’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowship program is the only one of the major national prize astronomy fellowships to require a substantial education and outreach component to the proposal. I cannot recommend it strongly enough for any aspiring astronomy educators out there! Our annual meetings each year (held immediately before the AAS meeting in January) always include discussions of both current research and education projects, with keynote invited speakers generally including some of the ‘big names’ in astronomy education. These meetings are open to the entire astronomical community, especially including graduate students and potential Fellows. I’m organizing the next one in Long Beach in January 2009, and would invite all of you to come join us!

    The Compass program that you describe sounds like a great addition. Every department should have something like that. On the astronomy side and local to California, the Center for Adaptive Optics at UCSC has been running an education-focused Professional Development Workshop for grad students and postdocs every spring for some years now (again sponsored by the NSF). It was at the 2002 CFAO PDW that I myself was first really exposed to the academic literature on science teaching, which was a tremendously eye-opening experience and has shaped my outlook ever since. Here at UCLA, my colleague Nate McCrady just ran a 1-quarter seminar on science education for the department’s grad students, which went superbly well in my opinion. I wish that all grad students could have the opportunity to attend something like that.

    Switching to a different topic: I completely concur with you about the importance of building a supportive community for undergraduates. In the Berkeley Astronomy department, this is something that’s taken very seriously, and the junior-level undergraduate lab class is specifically designed to encourage this collaboration. (That’s a large part of why undergrads all get after-hours access to the lab, which includes sofas and work tables as well as computers, and we encourage them to use it as a shared space to work on problem sets and even just hang out with other majors.) It’s a shame nothing like this has been implemented in physics! Interestingly, the anecdotal evidence is that the lab class has been especially effective at encouraging women to stick with the astronomy major. Community matters tremendously!

    Everyone wants to be taught by a Feynman or a Boltzmann

    Feynman was one of those rare masters who had both an astounding command of the physics and the storyteller’s art in crafting it into a compelling lecture. But not all great physicists are also great educators! When I was an undergrad at Harvard in the late 90s, the consensus wisdom was very much “avoid anything taught by Sheldon Glashow like the plague”. Now, I can’t speak to whether his lecture style was really that bad or not, since I followed that advice wholeheartedly, but clearly, there are plenty of brilliant physicists out there who should be encouraged to focus on research and not teaching – and likewise, plenty of brilliant educators who should be encouraged in their teaching, and not evaluated solely on their research output. The academic enterprise needs all types.

  • http://swimmingthechannel.blogspot.com Clara

    I think the advantage of lecturers over books is that they can a) answer your questions, and b), as previously mentioned, offer information in a different way. The idea is to read the books AND go to lecture.

    And what does it matter if a student asks a research professor about their research if no one bothered to teach them well enough that they could understand what the research is about?

  • Snotnose kid

    IRT Clara

    “I think the advantage of lecturers over books is that they can a) answer your questions,”

    let me restate the previous
    “Good students will crack open the book and ask a good research professor valid questions.”

    “b), as previously mentioned, offer information in a different way. ”

    and I’ll also restate
    “most lecturers don’t teach out of the book is that they don’t understand it as well as they should.”

    “And what does it matter if a student asks a research professor about their research if no one bothered to teach them well enough that they could understand what the research is about?”

    which brings me full circle
    “If the average college undergrad (including physics undergrads) were actually taught how to read the textbooks they are required to buy, and then actually spent 2-3 hours reading the text book for every hour the spent in class, I think their would a lot less whining.”

    IRT Marshall Perrin

    My personal experiences have led me to associate the word “community” with the word “gang”. Eventually, the whole thing degrades to beating up people who are different, and mindless banter about who is sleeping with who.

    The history of physics is about building institutions around a few individuals who spend most of their time in isolation with pencils, paper, books and some various other correspondence.

  • Snotnose kid

    second restatement was truncated…sorry
    “the reason that most lecturers don’t teach out of the book is that they don’t understand it as well as they should.”

  • Count Iblis

    I agree with snotnose kid that the value of lectures is overstated. They ae only important because many students, when they arrive at university, are not yet used to studying directly from textbooks.

    A typical college lecture will contain not much more than what yo can read in textbooks (perhaps even less). But if we were to say to the students: “Here are your books, the exam is in three months from now”, then many students will look at their books of many hundreds of pages and think: “Gosh, how on earth am I going to work my way through that book?”

    So, what the lectures do is to break up the stuff the student need to learn into small managable parts. This is not enough for the students to master what they have learned, they need to work on problems etc.

    But gradually the students will have to learn to study for themselves. Otherwise they can never become researchers. So, I think that in high school the students should be taught these studying skills. Then one could abolish lectures. Professors could then focus more on problem sessions which is where you really learn physics.

  • http://astro.ucla.edu/~mperrin/ Marshall Perrin

    My personal experiences have led me to associate the word “community” with the word “gang”. Eventually, the whole thing degrades to beating up people who are different, and mindless banter about who is sleeping with who.

    Wow, I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had such negative experiences. I certainly don’t wish to come across as disagreeing with your description of your own experiences, but allow me to say that mine have been extraordinarily different. None of the academic communities I’ve been a part of have ever degenerated into “mindless banter about who is sleeping with whom.” Have you never been lucky enough to have a research partner who you can bounce ideas back and forth with? Never had a friend and colleague who encouraged you to keep working on some particularly challenging problem, or offered an insight that let you move ahead? If so, that’s a real shame.

    The history of physics is about building institutions around a few individuals who spend most of their time in isolation with pencils, paper, books and some various other correspondence.

    Tell that to to folks who found the top quark, or discovered the acceleration of the universe, or developed the semiconductor physics that launched the electronics revolution. Large collaborations and broad communities of scientists, in all cases! Some physics is done by brilliant individuals working alone, certainly, but nowhere near all.

  • Snotnose kid

    IRT Count Iblis

    I think the model you propose is the most efficient to date. I would agree that most freshmen have no organization or prioritization skills.

    IRT Marshall Perrin

    “Have you never been lucky enough to have a research partner who you can bounce ideas back and forth with? Never had a friend and colleague who encouraged you to keep working on some particularly challenging problem, or offered an insight that let you move ahead?”

    –My colleagues are professionals, and I don’t know what my friends think of each other, and I really don’t care.–

    “Tell that to to folks who found the top quark, or discovered the acceleration of the universe, or developed the semiconductor physics that launched the electronics revolution.”

    –I have a list of five names, one of which you should recognize. I would recommend you look each of them up.

    Martinus Veltman
    Julius Lilienfeld
    Jack Kilby
    Robert Noyce
    Willem de Sitter

    I think Veltman’s story is of particular interest.–

  • Chris Sheehy

    Re: Marshall Perrin #69

    I completely concur with you about the importance of building a supportive community for undergraduates. In the Berkeley Astronomy department, this is something that’s taken very seriously, and the junior-level undergraduate lab class is specifically designed to encourage this collaboration. (That’s a large part of why undergrads all get after-hours access to the lab, which includes sofas and work tables as well as computers, and we encourage them to use it as a shared space to work on problem sets and even just hang out with other majors.) It’s a shame nothing like this has been implemented in physics! Interestingly, the anecdotal evidence is that the lab class has been especially effective at encouraging women to stick with the astronomy major. Community matters tremendously!

    I attended undergrad at Berkeley as a physics/astrophysics double major. The problems Joel describes – isolation of the undergrads, lack of interaction with professors or even graduate students, not knowing other majors (I did not take the H series) – were a huge problem for me in the physics department. Without this interaction, a student is left to asses his or her abilities in relation to the perceived abilities of others, and given that it’s the snotty physics students who work hard at projecting images of themselves as geniuses who are often the most visible, this perception is often way off base. If you develop (like I did) a feeling that you lack “physicsness” you pretty much lose the drive to spend untold hours doing problem sets, taking the time to understanding material, or seeking out research opportunities.

    Harold (#28) points out about Berkeley undergrad physics that

    The thing I discovered is that the sooner students find out about the Reading Room, the sooner they become part of the community. I found out about it the beginning of my 2nd year, and that’s how I started to meet everyone… The incoming physics majors have to be willing to look around, and maybe it takes a bit of a push. I admit that I wouldn’t have found out about the Reading Room if my friend who knew a friend who knew a friend didn’t tell me.

    …which is true. I am partly to blame for not more actively seeking out a community, but having more departmentally institutionalized ways to encourage interaction would benefit a great many undergrads.

    Contrast this with the junior-level undergraduate lab class offered in the Astronomy department. The professors and TA’s are not only available most hours of the day, but spend tons of unscheduled time in the lab for answering questions. (Marshall was my TA and seemed to thoroughly enjoy teaching!) I do think self-reliance is extremely important in learning physics, and I myself learn mostly from reading books. So what I think is more important than just “good teaching” is just having professors and TA’s who actually WANT to engage with students and who take the time to do it. In short, having instructors who think teaching is important and put a high priority on it. These are the teachers you aren’t afraid of looking stupid in front of, the ones from whom you aren’t intimidated to ask for a research job. It’s the aloofness, the idea that teaching is not worth the time commitment, that leads to the disenchantment of many potential physicists, including those with both the ability and the drive to be successful.

    The astronomy lab also virtually ensures meaningful student-student and instructor-student interaction, as opposed to the the physics department model, which only allows for the possibility of it. (Couches, all-hours access, professors and TAs who camp out there on the off chance a student might have a question.)

    I was intent on leaving physics and astronomy after graduation. Were it not for the astronomy community and the undergraduate lab Marshall describes, I would have. (I’m an astrophysics grad student at the University of Chicago now.) For a friend of mine, it was an encouraging TA from her non-major astronomy class who convinced her that she could do astrophysics, no problem, and now she’s a grad student at the CfA. That some undergraduates will not be successful in physics is inevitable. But departments that do not place value on teaching or on fostering a robust undergraduate community are abandoning their students.

  • Chris Sheehy

    Re: Snotnose kid

    Ever wonder why good teachers don’t let themselves get dragged down by questions? Why they will eventually tell a troublesome student to come see them after class? Its because they understand that showing their control over the class is by far important than total mastery of the material.

    Stopping class for a half-hour to answer a “troublesome” student’s tangential and (usually) misguided questions is done at the expense of everyone else. Assuming that an instructor who asks this student to see him or her after class does so because of his poor grasp of the material takes an unbelievable amount of hubris and is, most often, wrong. My physics instructors at Berkeley, most of whom I assumed and some of which I knew had an unquestionable mastery of the material, did this routinely. They were, however, delighted to spend time answering thoughtful questions from students not interested in grandstanding.

  • Snotnose kid

    IRT Chris Sheehy

    Why should it take someone a half-hour to answer a tangential and misguided question?

    I spent my entire time in high school physics senior year figuring out new tangential and misguided questions to achieve just that effect. It wasn’t until the end of the third quarter that the instructor finally caught on.

  • M

    Disclaimer: I have not (and will not do it until I get some more free time) read most of the comments above. Nevertheless I would like to comment about Joel’s post.

    The brief version of this is as follow: I agree with Joel. Bellow is the long version, including my personal experiences.

    I went to undergraduate school in Puerto Rico and mayor in physics with an almost second mayor in mathematics. Most of my teachers were Puerto Ricans, and they were great professors. Now I am a third year graduate student in Stony Brook University.

    Looking back at my undergraduate years, I frankly do not know how I got through them and stayed in physics. The physics majors consisted of mostly the students who failed to enter to the engineering programs. In this way UPRM is different from Berkley (and most colleges in the US): students must declare a major before they even start classes. Most physics majors simply did not want to be there. The professors were enthusiastic and encouraging, but most of the time it felt like they were talking to dead ears. I was lucky to have at least three other classmates that were into physics and we were able to experience an exchange of ideas and mutual support. But it was between a small number of people. In the end it is better than nothing, so in this sense my experience was not that bad. Still, it was very difficult to get through college with very little support and motivation from the rest of the student community.

    Besides my professors in Puerto Rico, I do not know of Puerto Rican physicists. There should be quite a few. But not knowing about any example was what drove me to want to become a successful theorist: I felt I had to do something about it. I was actually discouraged by one of my professors from pursuing theory versus experiment. In the end he might be partially correct, but I could not give up without trying. Right now I am in the process of becoming a research student working on AdS/CFT. Even if I finish my PhD successfully, my chances of working as a professor are quite slim. In fact this chances are slim for everyone. So I am starting to not see myself as working in academia in the future. Maybe this is what happen to others?

    Teaching is very important for me too. I was excited to teach my labs in Stony Brook. Unfortunately, it was not what I expected. My sections were big (+25 students) and late at night (8 – 10 PM, but that was partially my choice). Most of the students were unmotivated (pre-meds). Still, I tried very hard to be as good of a TA as possible. What really bother me was the attitude that some of my fellow grad students and TAs had toward teaching: they were lousy and on top of that, their students liked that lousiness (in the sense of not taking grading so seriously or being way laid back). Of course, I worked really hard on my teaching and I notice that my course-work went a bit down. Then I realized that “teaching” was not a good excuse: in grad school what matters is your learning and your research.

    It was very frustrating to understand this. Sadly, I had to concentrate more attention to my own business and dedicate less efforts to teaching. I was not able to find a balance between teachin duties and classwork/research. From what I heard I still managed to be quite popular among pre-med students (in a good way, of course ;-) ).

    There should be a balance. Students should be allowed to teach and practice that teaching. I also belive that suffering through professors that are bad at teaching can lead to someone becomening a good professor becuase they do not want others to go through what they went through as students. This is how I think, and probably most people do not share this view. Maybe people can get even more motivated by good teachers and emulate them. But in a way, bad professors are a bit nessesary.

    Joel: I belive Compass is a great idea. Good job and thank you and your fellow Compass collaborators.

  • Snotnose kid

    It is now very apparent to me what the problem is. Most universities only value the physics department because because the other “cash-cow” majors like engineering, pre-med, etc have physics as a required course in the accredited curriculum.

    If it wasn’t for the pro-active work of the staff PhD’s at attracting funding through their reputations as researchers, most physics departments would collapse, lose their accreditation, and only have money to pay for a few low-grade teachers whose sole purpose would be to educate the aforementioned “cash-cow” majors.

  • JC

    Snotnose kid,

    Didn’t something like this happen in Britain over the last decade or two, where some science departments (ie. physics, chemistry, etc …) at smaller less well known universities were downsized and/or consolidated? Basically what remained was kept around for the purposes of teaching the “service” courses like freshman physics, chemistry, etc …. for other majors like engineering, etc …

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/5399346.stm

  • Snotnose kid

    JC

    Thank you for the excellent real world evidence

  • AB

    You are making a fundamental mistake. The University treats you as a student; you should try NOT to think like an employee. As a grad student instructor, your “students” are NOT your students at all! You don’t owe them anything.

    Please note that I am saying nothing about the relative importance of teaching and research. I am just pointing out that the TA system is a deliberate means to dupe young people into thinking that they are teachers and need to perform professionally in their job. By focusing on teaching, you are NOT addressing what you think is a flaw in Berkeley and academia in general, you are just walking into a trap. You have the illusion that you are a teacher; the university does not. They see you as a carefree student whom they are doing a huge favour by giving a couple of pennies each month. And of course, they would like nothing better than for you to nurse the illusion that you are a paid employee who must perform professionally at his job!!!! Who wouldn’t like DEDICATED CHEAP LABOUR!!!!

    Mark my words; your thoughts on the importance of teaching are justified; but save these thoughts for the time you are given the rank of a professor. For the time being, “neglect” teaching with a clear conscience; because YOU ARE NOT A TEACHER! As such, you are “neglecting” your teaching in the very same way that you are “neglecting” any other kind of work in the world…such as building roads, flying airplanes or selling shoes. Teaching is just not part of your job!

  • http://swimmingthechannel.blogspot.com Clara

    AB, how is one supposed to be able to well as a professor with no experience? If you suck at teaching when you start out as a grad student, well, there are always other TA’s for students to go to for help, so they probably won’t suffer too much, but without that learning experience, you will likely go on to suck at teaching as a professor, and then the students have no hope. I don’t think this is about feeling any obligation to teach the undergrads as a grad student, it’s about his interest in teaching in general and having the OPPORTUNITY (not obligation) to learn to do it properly.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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