Monday, September 18, 2006

Students, Arghh!

I thought things were going pretty well...that is the students seemed to be paying attention and actually working through their difficulties.

Of course, now that I'm finally grading some of their work I have an awful yucky feeling inside. It doesn't help that I'm already way behind on my grading. But that awful feeling consists mostly of this frustration that there really is no point to my teaching. It's kind of like making your bed. What's the point?

So I take a break and go get some food. But I don't feel any better. Then you start to wonder "Maybe it's my fault. Maybe I just suck as a teacher." It doesn't matter that I've been doing this for years. Well, I console myself by hoping that at least they should get better since it's so early on...they can't get worse. Plus, the weather will get worse and that usually Spring, it's the opposite.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy teaching, though there are plenty who just can't stand it. And I don't need the best students. I just wish they tried a little harder.

On a related note, I'm thinking about putting together an elective for nonscience majors on modern know the cool stuff such as quantum mechanics, relativity, cosmology, and some other things...using popular level books. Am I nuts? Any recommendations for which books? Other tips?


ekzept said...

why do you own it so much? you know how well you prepared lectures, notes, problem sets, answers to problem sets. you know that you've done good for some students in the past.

if there are losers who just don't want to know or just don't want to learn, that is not your fault. don't compromise the standards for them or because of them.

just move on.

give 'em a warning, say the help and resources are there, say they can do it if they put in the time, but they're not in elementary school any longer.

Sailor Moon said...

Every teacher perceives that students get dumber every year.

It may be an illusion -- after you've taught the course for 20 years, it seems simpler and simpler to you.

Perhaps we can blame television, the internet, or a gradual accumulation of persistent toxins such as PCBs, lead and phalates in the environment.

The educational system itself deserves some blame. You couldn't devise a better procedure for producing irresponsible people other than having them spend 12, 16 or 21 of their formative years in a place where they know the same thing will happen whether or not they show up.

(This counts for grad school. An astronomy graduate student tried his own experiment: see how long they keep sending him paychecks after he disappeared. The paychecks continued for six months, stopping only when his parents came to town to look for him.)

Spend some time on the hostel circuit in Europe and you might find yourself dreading American students; you hear the same conversation again and again...

"I go to school X",
"I took a class in Y",
"I'm about to start a program in P at institution Q"

Students get sour going to school rather than doing real things.

What's this got to do with physics?

For many students, physics is the first subject that they take where they need to really understand and apply math. They can pass math classes by memorizing and following rote algorithms; "soft" classes such as history and English teach students that they shouldn't take initiative -- no matter if your teacher is Alan Bloom or Cornel West, students learn they can pass such classes by telling teachers what they want to hear.

Many of them are baffled when they find this doesn't work for physics.

I pity today's students. College has become a vast conspiracy to keep the middle class down. Since the 1980's, the educational system has found an unlimited source of funding in the form of student loans. Parents need to empty their pockets and leave their kids with $80,000 in debt so they can qualify to be line managers, people who answer phones at mutual funds and so forth.

Anonymous said...

Re your planned elective course, I'd recommend "The New Physics" as a book (, edited by Gordon Fraser. Really good book.


Anonymous said...

I guess that link didn't work. Try this one.


thm said...

Physics education is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Almost by definition, the ones who teach physics are the ones who were able to learn physics through traditional physics teaching. Whether the operative phrase is "in spite of" or "because of" is an open question.

The book Teaching introductory Physics by Arnold Arons is worth looking at. There's also a physics teaching listserv, PHYS-L, that occasionally fosters useful discussions.

Angry said...

Ekzept: Well, it's tough when so much of the class demonstrates this. And it's frustrating when there seems to be no point and no learning.

SailorMoon: Always fun to read your comments (sincerely)...makes me feel chipper in comparison. I'm not that cynical towards school, but certainly there are students who stay as long as they do because they're either not fit or not anxious to be in the "real world." I do wonder what happens in these kids' math and chemistry classes (which they take before they get to me). They seem to know so little science! I guess that's what others must think in whatever science they take after my physics!

Sid: Thanks, it looks like a great book, but not for art majors!

THM: For me it was definitely "in spite of." I'll look for the book sometime, but I've never been able to get much use out of materials meant to teach me how to teach physics.