Monday, March 17, 2008

Wo is me

Reasons to be depressed:

  • My intro physics class consists of students who have no interest in the subject and in whom none can be inspired.
  • The University committee I chair consists of the laziest faculty on campus.
  • The NSF budget is wreaking havoc on my plans/research.
  • I've been plugging away on two different projects for months with only incremental success and continued obstacles appearing.
  • I wasn't invited to talk at the last couple significant meetings.
  • A certain someone I've self-appointed as my most comparable competition put out a pretty good paper in the last couple weeks.
  • Wondering if it's normal to think in lists all the time...or maybe I just started this when I started blogging? Or maybe I've got some kind of Lisp virus infecting me? I try to wash my hands.
  • I've been so busy, I haven't had time to read blogs, let alone to blog myself. Now, I'm all caught up on my blog reading which is, itself, reason to be depressed because I'm not working hard enough.

Logical reasons to be happy

  • I've got my health.
  • I've got a pretty good job with a likely pay raise coming.
  • My NSF funding might actually hold up until the budget havoc straightens out.
  • I've actually had some time to try to figure out some physics lately in between all the proposal writing, refereeing, etc.
  • My home life is mostly good.
  • None of my secret, wicked ways have been made public with a force resignation, nor have I lied to Congress recently.


CarlBrannen said...

On the first count, that the 1st year students show no interest, that's not your fault. It's the curriculum. They should split that herculean class into 9 quarters of much easier stuff.

Angry said...

Well, it *could* be my fault if I were a terrible teacher :). But I'm not sure splitting the material or going slower or really anything would change things. I've experimented a bit each time I teach it, and it seems that it's just inevitable that you get an entirely uninterested bunch every once in a while.

Anonymous said...

I've found that the class for non-majors ("physics for poets") tends to be filled w/ students who are interested and want to learn more. AND you get tougher questions; rather than "Is this the right integral?" the questions are more along the line of "My tax dollars are paying for this. Exactly WHY is this worth doing?" It's a harder class to teach as well, which to my mind makes it more FUN to requires a deep understanding of the material and good pedagogical technique; you're not preaching to the choir.

Kea said...

I find it hard to imagine there is NOBODY in the class interested in physics. And one sometimes has to be enough. Gee, I wish I had your problems.

Angry said...

Anonymous: Physics for poets is definitely more fun. Harder? I don't know about that. As for not preaching to the choir, the students I've seen are, at the least, generally pretty accepting...I have to encourage them to be skeptical (but healthy skepticism).

Kea: Certainly, one can be enough. There's one who's arguably interested but he had to fly off on business (older student) for a week and it was tough without him there.

As for "Gee, I wish I had your problems," believe it or not, I understand. I know I've got it good but that doesn't make it easier being happy nor ignoring the small things. They say a crazy person doesn't know s/he is crazy, but I'm not so sure!

CarlBrannen said...

I was discouraged from studying physics when I was an undergraduate, mostly by the difficulty of the classes. In particular, I took the junior quantum mechanics class my first year and had to work like the dickens in it, but though I survived it, I didn't think I'd learned anything because I thought that still didn't know a damned thing about quantum mechanics.

Then I started taking grad classes in physics while I was a math grad student and found that the subjects were actually quite simple, and they were all very unified and related and connected and beautiful.

I felt that the difference was 2-fold. First, as a grad student, I had a lot more math under my belt and so I wasn't spending my time trying to figure out "what do all the little d's mean." And second, the graduate introductory classes (for quantum mechanics and E&M) were year-long classes instead of a semester or (for the 1st year introductory class) a couple of weeks of very fast flying concepts.

If I were to be given the ability to reorganize the classes, I would teach the concepts at the freshman level without as much calculation. Or better, I would restrict the freshmen to "toy models" where the calculations are completely trivial.

That would unlink the mathematical difficulties from the physical concepts and (hopefully) reduce the vast volume of material that students were required to memorize.

To put this into perspective, I passed the PhD qualifying exams at U. Cal., Irvine without knowing the basic laws of thermodynamics. However, at the oral exam the professors had discovered this fact and asked me thermodynamics questions. Of course I still didn't know the basic facts of the subject but I could very quickly derive the results using statistical mechanics and probability theory (which was my math major). They supposedly had a fight but decided to pass me anyway. I had skipped over most of the undergraduate education in physics and went straight to grad school without it, so I always had big holes in certain areas.

I think the question comes down to "just how many terms do you want your students to have to memorize before you will give them a degree?"

For me, the answer to the undergraduate question for the freshman introductory class was "too many". And it's not just physics that had this problem for me. Certain parts of mathematics define way too many terms, particularly abstract algebra. Ironically, despite algebra being a complete disaster for me in grad math, my specialty now is a branch of Clifford algebra.

Frank said...

"Or maybe I've got some kind of Lisp virus infecting me?"

I don't detect a Lithp. *LOL*

Anonymous said...

Angry, you are not depressed, who do you think you're fooling ? Your second list is much better than the first...


Anonymous said...

Maybe your disinterested physics students need a more entertaining presentation. Some examples:
actually firing a projectile into a block of wood to accompany lectures on momentum, (or maybe safer, use a pool table and balls for that subject.) Use surgical tubing tied to objects of various mass to demonstrate elastic potential energy. When I was an undergraduate we used oranges and grapefruits - outside of class - tied to surgical tubing and if you stretch it about 30 feet, the fruit just obliterates! Maybe get a radar gun to measure velocity of whatever you tie to the surgical tube to verify the math formulas.
Or, use lasers, mirrors and oscilloscopes to measure the speed of light, etc....
I never liked sitting in a classroom watching my General Physics professor derive formulas on the board. Blow stuff up and you'll get their attention!
Just don't use the Los Alamos 'tickle the dragon's tail' experiment!!

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