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 | , | Leave a comment

The value of having walking as an activity

Workout: weights plus a 4 mile walk (55:24 for 32 laps of the outer lane; 14:25 first mile)
Weights: pull ups 5 sets (painful..NOT in an injury way…just sluggish) hip hikes, Achilles
Bench: 10 x 135, 3 x 180, 8 x 160 (out of gas…swimming yesterday?) rotator cuff
military: 3 sets of 12 x 50 dumbbells (seated, supported)
pull downs/Hammer Machine rows: 3 sets of (7 x 160 traditional, 7 x 100 low), 3 sets of 10 x 200 rows.

Then came the walk. I started to jog in the treadmill and it just didn’t “feel right”, so I was about to give up and go home and then thought: “why not walk, if you can?”

So I went to the track; the first 4 laps were 7:18 and mile was 14:25…then I felt better. 13:43, 13:30, 13:45 were my other miles (slightly longer actually).

No, it wasn’t hard, and shouldn’t have been. But it was better than ZERO.

Now: I need to complete my syllabi and to do other chores.

I am teaching a class on elementary topology. I had mentioned what a challenge it will be as I can’t “remember” a time during my professional life when I didn’t know this stuff. And I haven’t taught this course before, nor have I had a conversation about these topics with anyone but an active research mathematician in well over 20 years. But like it was new to me in 1980 (when I had my first course), it is going to be new to them.

And I have an excuse to take time to relearn some of the “fun stuff” that I haven’t used in a while. It is kind of fun to easily understand stuff that used to baffle me.

Oh, I am teaching two other courses; they are elementary by comparison but they are follow on courses to previous calculus courses. These students deserve a professional effort from me, so I can’t get so excited about FINALLY getting to teach something related to (most of) my own research that I ignore these classes.

January 15, 2015 Posted by | mathematics, walking, weight training | , | Leave a comment

Toward the end of the semester…

Workout notes: cold run (untimed 5.1 mile run; Cornstalk.) The snow started as flurries and started to stick midway through.
I am still tired.

The semester is winding down. I started with 61 freshmen between my two sections of calculus 1; now I am down to 55. And this number will drop; many are starting to come into full panic mode. Some just “don’t have it” and others didn’t study enough at first…and are now hopelessly behind.

So, the typical office hour visitor: at the start of the semester, these are the A-/B+ students. Toward the end: C-/D is typical; those making an F generally don’t care enough to show up.

I note with disgust that many of these students take the elevator to and from the 4’th floor whereas I walk up the stairs, every time.

November 13, 2014 Posted by | education, running | , | Leave a comment

Youth, college, etc

Two topics here: college education, and young people.

First, about the college students themselves. Yes, this article was more about responding to complaints that the student section at the Michigan State vs. Nebraska game became embarrassingly empty during the final part of the game, when Michigan State had to hold off a Nebraska rally.


Note: this isn’t the “issue” that I am writing about; my opinion, by the way, is that football is entertainment; go if you like, leave when you like (but please show courtesy to those around you who want to watch the game) and if not enough students are interested, sell those tickets to the public. However, don’t seat the public directly behind the student section as they like to do things like stand on seats.

Note: the Michigan State game was a long game, and it was cold and it rained and Michigan State build a large lead in the second half; that contributed to the early exodus.

But that is another issue. The gist of the article that I am writing about is that if an athletic department wants to get more students to attend games, they have to see what would attract them and they have to acknowledge how the students actually are:

But MSU will never solve 18-to-21-year-olds dressing for style over warmth, or get them to stop thinking in packs, or prevent them from following their crush right out of the stadium. This is also a new level of denseness, a generation that hasn’t yet figured out the light from a cell phone in a movie theater is distracting to others, and that lives each moment addicted to the device in their hands. The 40-second play clock is about 38 seconds too long for their attention spans.

That might sound snarky, but these kids take their “smart phones” everywhere…even to the gym! When I tell them that I like to “get away” from all that, they look at me as if I was crazy. They even text in class unless you call them on it (and I feel compelled to…and yes, it is often the weakest students that do this).

Now about getting to college: it is still a more affluent group that does…in fact the “dull but wealthy” offspring actually have a slightly better chance at finishing college than the “smarter but poor” group. And the margin of error is small for the poorer kids; in fact, the wealthy kids can make far more mistakes and achieve less and still be better off.

October 22, 2014 Posted by | college football, social/political | , , | Leave a comment

Contempt for elementary education and other topics

Workout notes
Shorter weight workout followed by a cold 4 mile road walk (Bradley Park hill course). It was cold (15 F, or -9 C), somewhat breezy and sunny; there were isolated 50 to 100 meter stretches that were completely “frozen snow/ice” covered. But I wanted to get outside a bit.

The weight workout was a bit different today: part of the rotator cuff (dumbbells), hip hikes, Achilles:
pull ups: 15, 15, 10, 10 (good)
super set with dumbbells: 3 sets each of:
seated military (sets of 12 with 50’s)
upright rows (sets of 10 with 25’s)
bench presses (sets of 10 with 70’s)
bent over rows (sets of 10 with 65’s)
curls: (sets of 10 with 30’s)

Then an ab super set; 3 sets of 10 with crunch, twist, sit back, vertical crunch.

Then came the outdoor walk.

Posts of the day
The NSA sometimes put tracking/control devices in computers that were going overseas; hence they could easily spy on or manipulate computer activity.

Fun with statistics:
Of course correlation and causation are not the same. Then again, sometimes there are good reasons for a non-causal correlation (e. g. my time to run the mile slowing down with years of marriage or the years that Obama has been in office) and sometimes the correlation is simply spurious. Here is a “fun” collection of them.

Oh yes, sometimes there is a valid correlation but the cause and effect are reversed: for example basketball players tend to be tall. So, your “how to get taller” program involves getting your client to take up basketball. 🙂

Educational matters

Some time ago I remember seeing a poster outside of a student affairs office; I believe the poster had a picture of various women yelling at a man in the middle; one of the things being said by the females was “how we dress has nothing to do with sex.” Really? Check this out. This is about a sorority “twerk off”.

So, now we’ll hear stuff about “sexualization” and…oh yes, “slut shaming”. Seriously. 🙂

My view: this twerking contest is young people being, well, young people. It is all part of the human mating ritual. It neither surprises nor outrages me. No, these women aren’t doing this for me or with people like me in mind; for me, “twerking” is, say, my wife bending over to get her pills out of the lower cabinets or bending over in the garden, etc.

Our society is too tense about these matters, IMHO. The only thing that I ask: if this is going to end up in “new kids”, make sure that you can SUPPORT those kids BEFORE having them, ok? I am not a conservative, but the old saying “you breed ’em, you feed ’em” makes sense to me.

And speaking of kids, they need to be educated too.
In the local paper, there have been a series of articles about cheating on standardized tests for “special needs” students. Here is one such article:

■ “Charter Oak staff violated ISAT testing protocol in providing inappropriate testing accommodations to special education students during the administration of the ISAT.” Teachers directed students to correct answers in a variety of ways, going as far as to erase answers themselves.

■ “All staff members interviewed reported they did not receive any formal training on ISAT administration on a yearly basis.”

So, they appear to be saying “I’m sorry we cheated, but we weren’t trained enough to know that changing the pupil’s answers or erasing their wrong answers was cheating.” You need to be TRAINED to know that is wrong?

Then there is this little gem from the St. Louis paper (about a month ago):

The proud parents who attended Lincoln Elementary’s honor roll assemblies years ago assumed the school was a shining example of academic achievement.
Kids by the dozens lined up to be celebrated for earning grades that put them on the honor roll.

Then the school in St. Charles got state test results.

Most of the students failed, casting doubt on the school’s success and challenging the validity of many of its students’ glowing report cards. Administrators knew they had a problem.

What they did next upended everything parents, teachers and students thought they knew about grading.

St. Charles joined a national movement that — sometimes amid a formidable backlash — is rebuilding how a child’s performance in a class or course is calculated.

It’s a switch that seeks to move away from rewarding students merely for completing work, and instead bases grades on mastery of a subject.

Swept away are points for finished homework assignments, or good behavior and class participation. Instead, grades are more heavily based on exam results and the quality of work.

Oh my goodness: you mean making a good grade in the subject should infer having some demonstrated ACTUAL KNOWLEDGE of the said subject???? Who knew?

But reading this was useful to me. Some time ago, a “business calculus” student came up to me in anguish. She showed me her homework paper with 0 points on it. She said “I did all this work here, and it was marked WRONG.” I said: “yes, it was marked wrong because the “work” was totally incorrect; there was no correct work here. She gave me the “are you serious?” look; it was if having to be correct to get credit was a new concept for her.

Maybe this is why?

So, none of this is flattering to our grade school educators or educational system. But….yes, I know, this isn’t ALL school districts; these aren’t ALL of the educators and yes, much of the blame might be put on what happens to the pupil BEFORE they get to school (at home) and on this as well:


So yes, I know that there are good, dedicated teachers and educators who are busting their rear ends to do something about it, and these people need good pay and our moral support.

January 15, 2014 Posted by | education, human sexuality, social/political, statistics, walking, weight training | , , , , | Leave a comment

Passing of the torch: daughter’s first day in college

Yes, today was my daughter’s first day in college.
But this is a different type of transition. My parents grew up during the depression era; they wanted me to have it better than they did.
What they meant by that: they wanted me to have realistic opportunities for success.

And it worked; I succeeded or failed to the degree that my talent and willingness to work allowed me to; I was treated fairly and didn’t have extreme bad luck (cancer, hit by a drunk driver, etc.)

But, because I didn’t become filthy rich, well, my daughter is having basically the same opportunities that I had. She has the chance to go to college without drowning in debt, which is pretty much all one can ask for in this day and age.

Ok, she has one advantage that I didn’t have. Both of her parents graduated from college and she sees that we aren’t exactly superpeople.

If her Dad can do it, ANYONE can. 🙂

August 26, 2013 Posted by | education, social/political | | 2 Comments

No…you can’t start over

I had talked about going with my daughter to orientation.

Needless to say, I thought about my undergraduate years.

I was last in the classroom, as a student, when I took some masters degree classes in industrial engineering. I stopped and never did the thesis. I took 33 hours; 4.0 but never did the thesis or project. But…my classes were mostly applied statistics; it wasn’t as if I was learning something that was completely new to me.

So…the fantasy that THIS TIME, I’d do it right, carry my undergraduate knowledge straight to grad school and then kick butt and finish at the top…are BS. Eventually, I’d bump up against my natural limitations, just as I did before.

I had my chance and now it is time for the young people (such as my daughter) to have their chance.

You cannot go home again, and there is no “starting over from scratch with a young mind”; I can only go forward from where I am now. 😦

I wish I had done better but I suppose that is common.

June 30, 2013 Posted by | education | , | Leave a comment

Some discussion of today’s young people….

Yes, there appears to be an “entitlement” mentality; here some professor talks about a column in the USA Today titled More Students Deserve to Graduate. Uh, no. You might argue that we should have a higher percentage of entering students graduating, but that is because we probably admit too many students to college.

Interestingly enough, there is soem debate on whether many entering students are really prepared. College professors and high school teachers see it differently:

Yes, they’re ready. No, they’re not. A new survey shows a wide gap between high school teachers and college professors when it comes to the question of whether incoming freshmen are prepared for higher learning.

Just 26 percent of college instructors believe students are well-prepared for first-year courses, compared to 89 percent of high school teachers, according to the ACT National Curriculum Survey.

“We’ve seen for a number of years that there have been gaps between what skills colleges say are most important for students to learn and what high school teachers and school districts are teaching,” said Ed Colby, spokesman for ACT. “There doesn’t seem to be enough collaboration between local schools and colleges.”

David Dowell, vice provost for academic affairs at Cal State Long Beach, said that was certainly true in the past.

“One of the findings from the California work was that high school English teachers focused on expressive writing in reaction to literature,” Dowell said. “Colleges

expected fact-based expository writing. (Students) were doing well in their writing, but it was a different kind of writing. “ACT produces the report every three to five years. The survey looks at what is taught in schools and what is expected for student success at the college level when it comes to math, science, reading, writing and English.

What else might be going on? I have some guesses, but no data to back these guesses up.

1. High school teachers, especially if they have been teaching high school for a while, may have forgotten what a big step up it is from high school to college.

2. High school teachers might be comparing their best students to the rest of their students in their school instead of against the best students of other high schools. It is the latter group that their students will be going to college with. Hence, when they grade their honors classes, the work might be graded a bit too easily; after all, the high school teachers are used to seeing the work of average high school students. For example, \int sin^3(x)cos(x) dx  = might be a medium to hard question in a high school calculus exam, but at the college level, it is barely a “question 1” caliber question. You put something like this on an exam so that no one gets a zero.

3. It could also be that the high school students ARE taught what they are supposed to be taught and that they get the questions right on their high school exams…only to “brain dump” after the course is over. In college, you sometimes see this happening in courses that have a prerequisite course. You’ll see a student with, say, a “B” in calculus one and you’ll note that they took the course from a well respected professor. But in your course, it is almost as if they’ve never seen the prerequisite material before.

I think that, in many cases, the students really don’t learn the material at a “know it while walking around” level until they’ve both seen it and used it several times. This is no knock on anyone but rather a statement on how the human brain works (at least for those of us who aren’t like Stephen Hawking)

But the students are clever too. Students use social media, and many have found a way to communicate in a type of social code, so as to protect their privacy: (via Bruce Schneier)

danah boyd points out something interesting in the data:

My favorite finding of Pew’s is that 58% of teens cloak their messages either through inside jokes or other obscure references, with more older teens (62%) engaging in this practice than younger teens (46%)….
While adults are often anxious about shared data that might be used by government agencies, advertisers, or evil older men, teens are much more attentive to those who hold immediate power over them — parents, teachers, college admissions officers, army recruiters, etc. To adults, services like Facebook that may seem “private” because you can use privacy tools, but they don’t feel that way to youth who feel like their privacy is invaded on a daily basis. (This, btw, is part of why teens feel like Twitter is more intimate than Facebook. And why you see data like Pew’s that show that teens on Facebook have, on average 300 friends while, on Twitter, they have 79 friends.) Most teens aren’t worried about strangers; they’re worried about getting in trouble.
Over the last few years, I’ve watched as teens have given up on controlling access to content. It’s too hard, too frustrating, and technology simply can’t fix the power issues. Instead, what they’ve been doing is focusing on controlling access to meaning. A comment might look like it means one thing, when in fact it means something quite different. By cloaking their accessible content, teens reclaim power over those who they know who are surveilling them. This practice is still only really emerging en masse, so I was delighted that Pew could put numbers to it. I should note that, as Instagram grows, I’m seeing more and more of this. A picture of a donut may not be about a donut. While adults worry about how teens’ demographic data might be used, teens are becoming much more savvy at finding ways to encode their content and achieve privacy in public.

May 25, 2013 Posted by | education, social/political | , , | Leave a comment