Some stark reality: academia and otherwise

This is from College Misery and discusses the lament of someone teaching an astronomy course to, well, less than talented and less than motivated students:

Each semester, I usually teach a large section of general-ed astronomy for non-majors. I also teach a large section of physics for engineers and scientists.

I also teach a smaller, upper-level theoretical astrophysics course for physics majors and grad students. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? We’re supposed to be delving into the secrets of the Universe.

Well, THIS semester’s astrophysics class has convinced me that American university education is without question in its death spiral.

The large, general-ed astronomy class is packed with freshpersons. Sniveling, patently unprofessional, childish behavior is common. I hate it, but it’s like the smell you get living near a slaughterhouse: you get used to it.

Similar childish behavior is rarer in the physics class for engineers. This is because it’s more advanced, with at least three other prerequisite classes. When childish behavior does raise its ugly head there, it hurts.

This semester, for the first time, I am encountering childish behavior from most of the upper-level astrophysics class, and it REALLY HURTS. More than once I have reminded them that astrophysics isn’t an immediately commercially applicable subject: people do it mainly because it’s interesting.

So WHY do these students treat the wonders of the Universe as such a dreadful CHORE? Probably because even the simplest wonders are quite beyond them. Most of the grad students don’t understand significant digits, despite my TRYING to explain what they should have learned on their FIRST DAY of college. If they think they are going to GET A JOB doing this, they’ll be going up against people from Caltech and MIT, ALL of whom funnily enough DO understand significant digits.

I think that we are seeing “regression to the mean” effects: we are sending higher percentages of people to college. So: this means more jobs for professors at “teaching oriented” institutions but also…a less talented student body. None of the lament surprises me at all.

We even see this in the humanities:

I recently left a teaching position in a master of fine arts creative-writing program. I had a handful of students whose work changed my life. The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it. My hope for them was that they would become better readers. And then there were students whose work was so awful that it literally put me to sleep. Here are some things I learned from these experiences.

Writers are born with talent.

Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t. Some people have more talent than others. That’s not to say that someone with minimal talent can’t work her ass off and maximize it and write something great, or that a writer born with great talent can’t squander it. It’s simply that writers are not all born equal. The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare.

There is more in the article. But yeah, what is said there counters many popular but hare brained ideas:

1. “You can do anything you want to do if you want to do it badly enough.” Anyone who believes this has never accomplished anything of significance.

2. “It is never too late to start”. Wrong. It is probably not to late to learn something new, but if you start from scratch late in life, you are all but guaranteed to not be good at it (there are isolated exceptions, of course). And by “good at it” I mean “good compared to the stronger people in the profession”, not good compared to “the other average old geezers”.

As you get older, it becomes more difficult to pick up brand new material, though if one is still active in an area one can often compensate by having a broader perspective and by having a larger tool box of knowledge to draw from (just from learning for so long).

Extrapolation from the local
Yes, it may have been cold where you live…but:

Screen shot 2015-03-21 at 3.03.17 PM

Yes, I live in the dark blue area.

Being certain…even if the facts are against you. Zealots are very good at doing this:

The Times has an interesting headline here: Richard Fisher, Often Wrong but Seldom Boring, Leaves the Fed. Because entertainment value is what we want from central bankers, right? I mean, Janet Yellen is such a drag — she just keeps being right about the economy, and that gets old really fast, you know?

OK, never mind. What is remarkable is Fisher’s complete confidence in his own wisdom despite an awesome track record of error. What’s even more remarkable is that his unshaken certainty is the norm among inflationistas and anti-Keynesians in general. So wrong for so long — and the other side has been right, again and again — yet not a hint of self-doubt.

And check out this anti-new atheist article.

This is supposed to come from a “sophisticated believer”, but never once does he even make the case that the existence of any deity of any kind is even a reasonable conjecture, much less a belief in their deity of choice.

Really. We live in one average galaxy and orbit one of billions of stars in said galaxies ….among billions of other galaxies. And somehow, the scribblings of profoundly ignorant groups of humans made are supposed to be taken seriously as a guide to knowledge of how things work now? Oh boy…if the old blue hair says so… 🙂

What is comical is that these sort of writers expect to be taken seriously.

March 21, 2015 - Posted by | astronomy, atheism, economics, education, religion, social/political | ,

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