Reflections on Matter and Interactions

I’m teaching introductory mechanics for the umpteenth time, using the Matter and Interactions curriculum, as we have for a while. This is going to be my last time teaching out of M&I, though, because last year the department decided to switch to a different book. Starting this winter term, we’ll be using Halliday, Resnick and Walker.

My physics blogging over at Forbes tends toward the contemplative anyway, for a variety of reasons, but knowing that this is the last time through M&I has had me thinking even more along those lines. Thus, recent posts on really simple physics and what it means to say something is fundamental and missing pieces. A detailed discussion of the pros and cons of the book is a little too inside-baseball for Forbes, though, so I’ll blog about it here.

First and foremost, I should say that the switch away from M&I to HRW is not one I would’ve made. I like M&I a lot, and enjoy teaching from it. Several of my colleagues really detest M&I, though, and haven’t gotten any happier about it over the years, so I understand the reason for the change. I’m really going to miss this book, though I suspect that the things I really like about it are also major factors contributing to my colleagues’ dislike of it.

The first thing I like, as mentioned in the missing pieces post, is that the curriculum has a very strong and definite narrative to it. They’re coming at the subject matter of introductory physics from a very particular point of view, and the sequence of topics and their presentation are carefully tailored to reflect and reinforce that point of view. It’s a very physicist-y way of looking at things, and emphasizes computation, always starting with discrete elements and repeated summation.

This sense of narrative is both good and bad– the book has a nice flow, and constantly reinforces its main ideas, but it requires some buy-in. And if you can’t adapt to their viewpoint, teaching from it is very awkward– the order of topics in electromagnetism initially struck me as strange, and I tried to do an on-the-fly re-ordering of the material the first time I taught it, with very limited success. In subsequent terms, I made more of an effort to go with the book as it was, and that worked much better.

The particular structure they choose also leads to some limitations in the material they cover. From the very first chapter, they emphasize the use of three-dimensional vectors for all physical quantities, using a very consistent convention for the axes where y is vertical and x and z horizontal. This choice of fixed coordinate system makes it awkward to do the traditional block-on-an-inclined-plane problems, though, where the key step is choosing to deal with coordinates defined by the plane, rather than by gravity. The end result is that they basically don’t do those problems at all, which is cause for rejoicing for some students, but also misses the key idea of the arbitrariness of the choice of axes.

They also have a weirdly perfunctory chapter on collisions, which sets up the difference between inelastic and elastic collisions, but doesn’t provide useful problems regarding the latter. Again, I think this is rooted in the consistent use of three-dimensional vectors, because elastic collision problems in more than one dimension are really hard to do at the intro level. (In the HRW-type curriculum, I usually skipped 2-d elastic collisions due to time constraints; with M&I, I often skipped the entire collision chapter, because they don’t get anything out of it but a couple of vocabulary words.)

On the other hand, it opens up other classes of problems, and they do more with air resistance than most texts, because those kinds of problems can only be solved numerically. As I said in the missing pieces post at Forbes, the complex-systems problems are great, and in the electromagnetism course they do some rally cool stuff using a microscopic picture of current that I haven’t seen elsewhere. So, you know, you win some, you lose some.

So, I like the narrative aspect, but it makes the text harder for a lot of faculty to adopt, or perhaps “adapt to” would be a better term. If you don’t find their viewpoint congenial, and aren’t able to fully buy into it, you’ll end up fighting against the book a lot of the time, and that makes for a frustrating teaching experience.

The other big factor that I like that puts some people off is that it doesn’t look like high-school physics. We used to teach out of HRW and its isomorphs, back when I started at Union, and I noticed a pattern in those classes where the students with the best preparation coming in would follow a particular bad trajectory. The first 5-6 weeks of the intro course on the HRW template looks almost exactly like a good high-school class: kinematics in 1-d, Newton’s laws, projectile motion, block-on-a-plane, etc., so students who had a good class in high school could pretty much coast on what they learned in that previous class. As a result, I’d see their study habits and general engagement drop off. And then when we hit them with genuinely new stuff in work and energy– dot products and integrals– they’d go all to pieces, because they’d fallen out of the good habits that would let them grapple with and power through new material.

M&I breaks that by not looking at all like high school physics. They start off with momentum– in the relativistic form, even– and everything is in three dimensions right from the get-go. Even the language used to talk about the physics is different– they don’t discuss “Newton’s 2nd Law” but rather “The Momentum Principle,” and frame the discussion not in terms of formulae for particular special cases, but iterative application of general principles.

This is confusing, even for the good students, and they can’t fall into coasting on their high-school classes. Which reduces the problem of study-habit atrophy, forcing them to stay more engaged even in dealing with material that they’ve seen before.

The down side of this, of course, is that it’s confusing, and that leads to a lot of questions from students, and a fair number of complaints. Which can be kind of a hassle, from the faculty side.

My personal feeling is that the extra confusion is actually a good thing, on balance. Others see it as being a sign that the curriculum doesn’t work for our students. There’s also some concern that students without a good background are at a big disadvantage, but I don’t really buy that. My impression over umpteen iterations of the class is that the least prepared and most confused students are no more bewildered under M&I than they were with HRW and isomorphs, but the students with good preparation are more confused, and more vocal about that confusion. I think they ultimately end up “getting it” at least as well as they did under the more standard curriculum, but they need to work at it more, and that will be to their ultimate benefit.

So, as I said, I’m happy teaching from M&I and wouldn’t switch books at all. I definitely wouldn’t pick HRW as my first choice of new text. But I understand that others have a strong negative feeling about M&I, so I’ll go along with that. There are even some benefits– we’re closing in on the point with my current approach where I would need to blow up my notes and start fresh just to keep myself from getting bored, and this forces my hand. And it will make it much easier to crib materials from the Colorado PER group (which I’ve been doing already, but carefully selecting problems and altering wording to fit the M&I language). And while I think HRW is about the most boring choice we could’ve made, that’ll force me to find new ways to keep the class from looking so much like high school physics that the students get bored and tune out. I’ve got some thoughts along those lines already.

Still, I’m going to miss teaching out of M&I. It’s been fun, and I’ve learned a lot about intro physics from taking this different perspective on it.

Donald Trump Is Marion Barry for Rural White People

Here’s a thought that occurred to me during one of this week’s sleepless nights: Donald Trump is Marion Barry for rural white people.

That’s probably too cryptic for a lot of people, since I’m now an old man who yells at clouds, but what I’m referring to is Barry’s second election as mayor of DC, the one after he served time in federal prison for being busted smoking crack. Even prior to the bust, Barry was pretty much a disaster due to his drug problems, so when he ran again it was widely seen as a joke. But then he won.

I was in grad school at Maryland at the time, and remember a lot of shock and disbelief that the DC electorate would vote for such a walking disaster. And very quickly after his re-election, most of the DC government was put into receivership (the Republican Congress elected in 1994 was not a fan of Barry…). I recall lots of people asking each other “How could they vote this clown back into office? Don’t they know that he’s a wreck?”

The most persuasive explanation I heard of this was that yes, the voters of DC were perfectly aware that Barry was a disaster, but they didn’t care. They voted for him because they viewed it as a way to send a message a system that was screwing them over in numerous ways. If anything, his cartoonishly awful behavior just made him more attractive as a way to shock and horrify the elites who really ran things. And, sure enough, after one terrible term as mayor, the next few mayors were more traditional politicians who got the DC government back into reasonably functional shape. (By DC standards, anyway– none of them have really been paragons of virtue, but at least they’re in charge of their own affairs again.)

I think– and this is not a terribly original opinion– that a lot of Trump’s success stems from something similar, on the part of rural white people. That is, they voted for Trump not because they necessarily approve of his awful behavior, but because they wanted to send a message. And just as with Barry, in some ways the awfulness of his behavior was a feature, not a bug. There are a lot of people who feel like they’re being screwed by a system run for the benefit of people in big cities on the coasts who sneer at them as ignorant, racist hicks. Some of them positively relish the chance to vote for a vulgar buffoon who horrifies people from the coastal elites, even when they themselves would not behave a tenth as boorishly as Trump does.

Looking at it this way explains a lot of stuff that otherwise doesn’t make much sense. A rich developer with a history of stiffing small businesses is an odd choice for a champion of the downtrodden, but then DC residents voting to re-elect a guy who’d been doing a bad job before he went to Federal prison was pretty weird, too. A substantial number of people say Trump doesn’t have the right temperament to be President but voted for him anyway, in the same way that many of Barry’s voters were under no illusions about his personal character. And, of course, electing a bigoted buffoon plays to the worst stereotypes of rural white people, in the same way that electing an erratic drug addict played to the worst stereotypes of black DC residents, but as far as those voters are concerned, they’re being unjustly stereotyped anyway, and thus have little to lose.

In both cases people voted for candidates who, at best, do not plausibly advance their interests, but that’s because they’re not voting on the basic of dispassionate rational logic. Rather, they’re using their votes to send an emotional message.

This is what the much-derided calls for empathy for Trump voters were about. Empathy doesn’t mean uncritically adopting the worst policy ideas of your opponents, but rather making an effort to understand where they’re coming from and why they’re doing what they’re doing. That understanding can serve as a starting point to find ways to try to address their pain and anger without compromising fundamental principles of equality and tolerance. There can not and should not be any compromise on explicit racism and misogyny, full stop. But there might be ways to speak to those voters who let their anger at the system override their personal disapproval of Trump’s behavior, and bring them around. Empathy is a necessary prerequisite for that: understanding that their “deep story” is fueled by emotion, not rational analysis, and addressing it on that basis.

Of course, a non-trivial number of Trump supporters really do literally want all the most bigoted elements of his stump speeches, as we see from the seemingly endless catalog of horrific attacks over the last several days. Those actions, and those people have no place in civil society.

But out of the millions who voted for Trump, there are an awful lot of people who voted not from explicit bigotry and hate, but from anger and fear, people who might be reached. How many of those there are is open to debate, but you don’t need many– even if thirty-nine out of forty Trump voters were racist Twitter eggs, flipping the vote of that one decent human being would’ve been enough to tip key states to Clinton and avoid the current mess. That’s an effort worth making.

I expected to be writing along these lines on Wednesday morning in the light of a narrow Clinton victory, because I hoped that Trump’s awfulness was so cartoonish and obvious that not even the Marion Barry effect could save him. Like basically everybody else, I was wrong, and now we face the horrifying reality where the racist Twitter eggs feel empowered to lash out at everyone they hate. And we’re going to be dealing with that for a long time to come.

I don’t know how we’re going to deal with it– a bad President has infinitely more ability to do harm than a bad mayor of DC, and this Congress isn’t likely to step in and strip him of that power. And I acknowledge that my race, gender, and social position will largely insulate me from the worst personal effects. Even from this position of relative privilege, though, it’s been a heartbreakingly awful week. As I said Wednesday morning, all I can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other: doing what I can to stand up to bad behavior, contributing what I can to limit the damage that Trump’s election will do to civil society in general, and teaching my kids to be better people than their president.

Part of that fight involves working to treat everyone with respect and decency and empathy. We need to be especially sensitive to support people who have been victims of centuries of abuse and oppression, but that can’t be taken as a license to be insensitive to the relatively privileged who find themselves falling on hard times. Whether they’ve earned their anger or not, they are angry, and they’re willing to use their votes to send a message, even when that’s pretty obviously a disastrously bad decision.

Two-Month Physics Blogging Round-Up

As the post title says, it’s been a whole two months since the last time I did a round-up of my physics blog posts for Forbes. That’s less content than you might think, though, because with the new academic term starting and some deadlines I had for other stuff, I posted basically nothing for most of September. October was a little busier, amounting to more than enough for a links post here:

How The History Of Measurement Shapes The Language Of Physics: While writing up some stuff about blackbody radiation, I ran up against the weird thing in optics where we default to talking about wavelength for visible light, frequency for radio waves, and energy for x-rays and gamma rays. This is largely a matter of historical detector technology, which I think is weird and cool.

How Hatching Pokemon Eggs Is Like Proving The Existence Of Atoms: The one sort of positive feature of my grand jury sentence was that there’s a lot of Pokemon GO action in downtown Schenectady, giving me something to do while lawyers jerked us around. Watching my avatar wander randomly due to GPS errors made me think about Brownian motion, and led to this post.

Nobel Prize In Physics 2016: The Phase Transition That Shouldn’t Happen: I ended up with some free time on the day the Nobel was announced, and banged out this moderately technical explanation of what it was all about, expecting it to serve as an add-on to the more general explainers I was sure would come from other writers…

How This Year’s Nobel Laureates In Physics Changed The Game: Sadly, I was very disappointed by the general media response, which was to make jokes about the topology of baked goods, complain that the winners weren’t who they wanted, and run like hell from explaining condensed matter physics. So I did a second post about the Nobel, this one a little more general-audience-friendly. Which did remarkably well, traffic-wise, so maybe I should strike the “Sadly” at the beginning of this description…

The Surprising Power of Really Simple Physics: A look at how physicists make use of analogies to remarkably basic systems, with great success. Inspired by one of my favorite bits of intro mechanics.

Science Needs The Nobels More Than Movies Need The Oscars: A late entry into the annual “Do we really need the Nobel Prizes?” argument.

What’s Really Fundamental In Physics?: More intro-mechanics-inspired blogging, this time spinning off the fact that you don’t really need anything beyond Newton’s Laws to explain classical mechanics

What Math Do You Need For Physics? It Depends: And just sneaking into November, a post about how huge, glaring gaps in my mathematical background didn’t prevent me from making a career as a physicist. Because what math you really, truly need for physics varies enormously depending on what subfield you work in.

So, there you go. That’s a bunch of stuff, that is.

Traffic-wise, October was the best month I’ve had in ages, mostly on the strength of that second Nobel Prize post. Which seems to have filled a need, so I’m glad I wrote it. I still wish more writers would see the complexity of the subject matter as a challenge to rise to, rather than an obstacle to route around in favor of complaining that LIGO didn’t win. Condensed matter is an enormously important part of the subject, and there aren’t all that many opportunities to explain it to a mass audience, so it’s a real shame that so many people missed this one so badly.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to. I’ll try to update a little more frequently in the next couple of months, but there are always new and different deadlines heading my way, so I can’t guarantee anything…

Grand Jury Thoughts

As I’ve mentioned several times, I just finished a two-month sentence on a grand jury in Schenectady County (well, technically, I have to go back for one more day, because they didn’t finish everything). I’m not allowed to talk about the details of the cases we heard, but I have some general thoughts about the process that I think are blog-safe.

Several people I’ve talked to about this who also did grand jury service at one point reported finding the experience more interesting than annoying; sadly, I can’t say the same. I have an extremely low tolerance for people inconsiderately wasting my time, and large amounts of the process made me feel like I was being jerked around, which always makes my blood boil.

The fundamental issue, to me, has to do with respect for the people who are giving up their time to serve on the jury, and the court was frankly awful on this count. We were asked to report at 10am every day we were called in, but never once started before 10:15, and they never had any clear schedule for the day. On one occasion, we sat waiting in the jury room past 10:30 because two different attorneys each thought the other was presenting first, so neither one came in. On another occasion, an assistant DA rolled in at about 10:30 to start, and got a little huffy when told that he had to wait until some jurors came back from the bathroom.

Cases came and went with no explanation, sometimes with a week or more passing between parts of the same case– on our final regular day last week, we couldn’t come up with a solid count of how many open cases we have yet to wrap up. On a couple of occasions, they didn’t even tell us they were done with a case for the day– the ADA finished a witness, left the room as if to get the next witness, and a different ADA came in to start a different case.

It’s remarkable how little effort it would take to fix that, too. The one ADA I ended up actually liking left a positive impression because he treated us like adults. When he started late, he apologized, and explained the delay (he’d had a meeting with a judge, or a witness showed up late), and when he took a break or was done for the day, he told us that, and explained why, and roughly what to expect in the future. It’s not much more than basic courtesy, but its absence from the rest of the proceedings made it really stand out.

As for the process itself, I described it to some other people as “like being stuck in an all-day faculty meeting.” In the same way that faculty meetings are often bogged down in silly procedural details, or derailed into old and long-running arguments, much of what goes on in the presentation of cases has absolutely nothing to do with the actual topic at hand and the people who are present.

For those not familiar with the quirks of the American legal system, “grand jury” is an intermediate step between investigation of a crime and the sort of jury trial that you see in movies and tv. The grand jury hears evidence only from the prosecution, not the defense, and the end result is not a conviction but an indictment, which indicates that the prosecution has enough evidence to justify proceeding to a regular jury trial. The standard is not “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” but “reasonable cause to believe the offense was committed,” and the vote of the grand jury does not need to be unanimous.

That’s a really low bar to clear– there’s a lot of truth to the lawyer joke that a DA who wanted to could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich– but despite that huge amounts of time were wasted on anticipating a defense that wasn’t going to be presented to us. And a few of the cases involved massive overkill in establishing points that really weren’t in any doubt. This is done not because it’s necessary for the task the grand jury has, but (as far as I can tell) so they can impress the defense with the big list of witness and evidence they showed the grand jury when they sit down to make a plea deal.

There are also a bunch of ridiculous inefficiencies involved in the testimony, for basically historical reasons. The official record is produced by a stenographer who transcribes everything that’s said, which means that even when they have photographs or documents, they have to go through this stupid dance of making the witness describe the picture in words so it ends up in the transcript. When photographs were difficult and expensive to duplicate that might’ve made sense, but these days, they’re all digitized, and could easily be stored together with the electronic transcript.

The transcript format also forces a bunch of stupid redundancy, as each case needs to have a self-contained record. Which means that we had to re-establish the professional qualifications of the same handful of police officers over and over again. On one occasion, the same two officers testified in two different cases on the same day, and we had to go through the “How long have you been a police officer?” dance again, despite the fact that the officer in question had gone through the same story for the same grand jury fifteen minutes earlier.

I was also bothered a bit by the fact that the process explicitly emphasizes the least reliable forms of evidence available. Everything that comes in has to come from personal testimony of witnesses, often at a great remove from the events in question. We regularly had police witnesses admit they couldn’t remember some detail of the case, whereupon they– but not the jury– would be shown the report they wrote at the time, to “refresh their memory.” Which usually wound up with them essentially reading the report to us, taking five times as long as it would’ve if they just gave us the report to read.

This is not a knock on those officers, by the way– these are busy people, who handle a lot of cases, and it’s not unreasonable to be confused about the exact address of a call from months or years earlier. Those officers who confidently rattled off the exact details of the cases probably weren’t doing so because they had exceptional memory ability, but because they had reviewed those very same reports before coming in to testify. But given the vast amount of research showing how memories shift over time, it’s kind of farcical to go through this process at all– if you ask me to pick which I trust more, I’m going with the report written at the time the events happened, not the personal recollection of the witness a long time later.

The ostensible reason for this emphasis on personal testimony is that having the witnesses there in person allows you to assess their credibility, but that’s undermined by the process. In the absence of any kind of defense or cross-examination, everybody looks credible, particularly to the low standard needed to hand down an indictment. One of the few interesting ways to pass time during the duller bits of testimony was playing “If I were the defense attorney, how would I counter this?” And while I could see plenty of ways one might raise a “reasonable doubt” about the guilt of the accused, there was never anything that made me question whether there was “reasonable cause to believe” that the case being presented should go to trial.

So, in terms of the process, the net effect was probably a slight increase in my cynicism about the legal system. I suspect a trial jury would be a different and maybe more interesting experience, but this did not leave me with a particularly positive impression of the DA’s office, or the general notion of grand juries. And it really emphasizes the awfulness of those high-profile cases (generally involving police misconduct, as in Ferguson, etc.) where a grand jury does not return an indictment.

As for the cases themselves, I can’t discuss details, but they were mostly just depressing. We caught some fairly awful stuff, but for the most part, I was just reminded of the bit from Donald Westlake’s Bad News, where a judge reflects that “It was his task in this life to acknowledge and then punish stupidity.” The cases we heard were mostly sad stories about sad people making utterly terrible decisions. Some of them were bad enough to be kind of hilarious, but the cumulative effect was just sad.

A week or so into the term, I jokingly said on Twitter that my advice to anyone receiving a grand jury summons was to postpone it for the maximum period allowed, and during that period move to another state. That’s exaggerated, of course– I met some interesting people, and had some enjoyable conversations during the breaks– but on the whole, I really can’t recommend the experience.

Online Life Is Real Life, Aleph-Nought in a Series

Back before The Pip was born, our previous departmental administrative assistant used to bug me– in a friendly way– about how Kate and I ought to have another kid. (She had two kids of her own, about two years apart in age.) “When are you guys going to have another baby?” she would ask, and I always said “We’re thinking about it.”

About a week passed between the last time we had that exchange and the day I came in and taped ultrasound photos of the prenatal Little Dude to my door. “You sonofabitch!,” she said (again, in a friendly way), “You were expecting this whole time!” “Yeah,” I said, “but we weren’t telling anyone until now.”

I thought of this while I was reading John Scalzi’s epic post about self-presentation, prompted by someone who complained that he behaved differently in person than that person had expected from Scalzi’s online persona. (Personally, having met John in person several times, I don’t see it, but whatever…) Scalzi rightly notes that there’s nothing at all wrong with this, and that much of the difference is (probably) just basic courtesy and politeness.

This is not remotely a new argument, as you probably got from my snarky post title– it’s come around before, and will come around again. I side with Scalzi in thinking that there’s nothing wrong with presenting yourself in a slightly different way online than off. I’d go maybe a little further than that, though, and note that presenting yourself in different ways to different people is something we do all the time, even in strictly offline interactions.

This made me think about the incident with our former admin, which is a bit of an extreme example, but illustrates the point. At home, Kate and I had obviously known about the proto-Pip for a couple of months, and were making all sorts of plans and so on. But while I cheerfully talked at some length about SteelyKid, I dodged any questions about future kids, because Kate and I had agreed that we weren’t making it public, yet. I think our parents knew (but I don’t recall the exact timing), but it wasn’t something going out on the blog or even to people I spent a lot of time talking to at work.

And basically anyone who ins’t a phenomenal boor modifies their self-presentation in this sort of way. If you have a job and family, there are things you just aren’t allowed to share with people outside those contexts, and that modifies your interaction with different groups. I talk about campus life in a different way when I’m with a bunch of students than when I’m with fellow faculty, for example. Milder versions that don’t involve trade secrets also happen all the time: when we’re with friends who share a particular interest, we play up that interest, and play down other things– I talk a lot about sports at the gym with the regular pick-up basketball crowd, but sports aren’t as big a topic around the physics department. Even when we don’t have the Internet as an intermediary, we’re slightly different things to different groups of people, because that’s one of the things that lets human society function.

This is something we do so smoothly that we’re often not really aware of it, which is why so many people think it’s an online-only phenomenon. But if you think about it a little, it’s probably not hard to come up with offline examples of people who behave very differently in different contexts. Even people who insist that they present themselves the same way in all possible situations almost certainly change the way they talk and what they talk about when they go from home, to work, to whatever they do for fun. It’s just how we work, and sticking a computer in the middle doesn’t fundamentally change that.

You might argue that, by removing some of the non-verbal cues and ingrained rules about in-person interactions, the Internet enables a bigger disconnect between on- and off-line personae than are possible in a strictly offline context. I’m not entirely sure I buy that, though, because I’ve seen some pretty extreme divergences in offline-only interactions. (And, of course, there’s the “He was such a quiet guy…” trope about serial killers and the like.) What’s different about the Internet is the possibility of exposing these different personae to the whole world, rather than a small group of close acquaintances who might happen to run into a person in two different subgroups.

But that’s another topic. The main point at the moment is that I agree with Scalzi: there’s nothing inappropriate about self-presenting in a different way in person than online. Mostly because that sort of shifting is a phenomenon that pre-dates the Internet by a good many years.

Teaching Evaluations and the Problem of Unstated Assumptions

There’s a piece in Inside Higher Ed today on yet another study showing that student course evaluations don’t correlate with student learning. For a lot of academics, the basic reaction to this is summed up in the Chuck Pearson tweet that sent me to the story: “Haven’t we settled this already?”

The use of student course evaluations, though, is a perennial argument in academia, not likely to be nailed into a coffin any time soon. It’s also a good example of a hard problem made intractable by a large number of assumptions and constraints that are never clearly spelled out.

As discussed in faculty lounges and on social media, the basic argument here (over)simplifies to a collection of administrators who like using student course evaluations as a way to measure faculty teaching, and a collection of faculty who hate this practice. If this were just an argument about what is the most accurate way to assess the quality of teaching in the abstract, studies like the one reported in IHE (and numerous past examples) would probably settle the question, but it’s not, because there’s a lot of other stuff going on. And because a lot of the other stuff that’s going on is never clearly stated, a lot of the stuff people wind up saying in the course of this argument is not actually helpful.

One source of fundamental conflict and miscommunication is over the need for evaluating teaching in the first place. On the faculty side, administrative mandates for some sort of teaching assessment are often derided as brainless corporatism– pointless hoop-jumping that is being pushed on academia by people who want everything to be run like a business. The preference of many faculty in these arguments would be for absolutely no teaching evaluation whatsoever.

That kind of suggestion, though, gives the people who are responsible for running institutions the howling fantods. Not because they’ve sold their souls to creeping corporatism, but because some kind of evaluation is just basic, common-sense due diligence. You’ve got to do something to keep tabs on what your teaching faculty are doing in the classroom, if nothing else in order to have a response when some helicopter parent calls in and rants about how Professor So-and-So is mistreating their precious little snowflake. Or, God forbid, so you get wind of any truly outrageous misconduct on the part of faculty before it becomes a giant splashy news story that makes you look terrible.

That helps explain why administrators want some sort of evaluation, but why are the student comment forms so ubiquitous in spite of their flaws? The big advantage that these have is that they’re cheap and easy. You just pass out bubble sheets or direct students to the right URL, and their feedback comes right to you in an easily digestible form.

And, again, this is something that’s often derided as corporatist penny-pinching, but it’s a very real concern. We know how to do teaching evaluation well– we do it when the stakes are highest— but it’s a very expensive and labor-intensive process. It’s not something that would be practical to do every year for every faculty member, and that’s not just because administrators are cheap– it’s because the level of work required from faculty would be seen as even more of an outrage than continuing to use the bubble-sheet student comment forms.

And that’s why the studies showing that student comments don’t accurately measure teaching quality don’t get much traction. Everybody knows that it’s a bad measurement of that, but doing a good measurement of that isn’t practical, and also isn’t really the point.

So, what’s to be done about this?

On the faculty side, one thing to do is to recognize that there’s a legitimate need for some sort of institutional oversight, and look for practical alternatives that avoid the worst biases of student course comment forms without being unduly burdensome to implement. You’re not going to get a perfect measure of teaching quality, and “do nothing at all” is not an option, but maybe there’s some middle ground that can provide the necessary oversight without quintupling everybody’s workload. Regular classroom observations, say, though you’d need some safeguard against personal conflicts– maybe two different observers, one by the dean/chair or their designee, one by a colleague chosen by the faculty member being evaluated. It’s more work than just passing out forms, but better and fairer evaluation might be worth the effort.

On the administrative side, more acknowledgement that evaluation is less about assessing faculty “merit” in a meaningful way, and more about assuring some minimum level of quality for the institution as a whole. And student comments have some role to play in this, but it should be acknowledged that these are mostly customer satisfaction surveys, not serious assessments of faculty quality. In which case they shouldn’t be tied to faculty compensation, as is all too often the case– if there must be financial incentives tied to faculty evaluation, they need to be based on better information than that, and the sums involved should be commensurate with the level of effort required to make the system work.

I don’t really expect any of those to go anywhere, of course, but that’s my $0.02 on this issue. And though it should go without saying, let me emphasize that this is only my opinion as an individual academic. While I fervently hope that my employer agrees with me about the laws of physics, I don’t expect that they share my opinions on academic economics or politics, so don’t hold it against them.

Advice for New Faculty, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to speak on a panel about teaching during Union’s new-faculty orientation. We had one person from each of the academic divisions (arts and literature, social science, natural science, and engineering), and there was a ton of overlap in the things we said, but here’s a rough reconstruction of the advice I gave them:

1) Be Wary of Advice

Because it’s always good to start off with something that sounds a little counter-intuitive… What I mean by this is that lots of people will be more than happy to offer advice to a new faculty member– often without being asked– but a great deal of that advice will be bad for the person getting it. This isn’t the result of active malice, just that teaching is a highly individual endeavor.

The relatively harmless example I use to illustrate this comes from my first year of teaching, when I went around and asked my new colleagues for advice. One very successful guy said that he made an effort to maximize the effect of our small classes by “breaking the fourth wall” and walking away from the chalkboard out into the middle of the room.

That sounded good, so I tried it for a while. And quickly found that while it worked well for him, it was a disaster for me. I’m multiple standard deviations above average height, and several years later a student wrote on a course evaluation “He is loud and intense.” That combination meant that when I would walk out into the room while lecturing, the students closest to me were basically cowering in fear. Once I noticed that, I made a point of staying back near the blackboard unless I needed to go out into the room for a demo or activity, and everybody was happier.

So, my advice to new faculty is: be wary of advice from older faculty. You’ll get lots of it, but much of it will be bad for you. You need to be independent enough and self-aware enough to recognize and use the bits that will work for you, and discard the bits that won’t.

2) Don’t Be Afraid to Try New Things

One of the big categories of well-intentioned bad advice that most new faculty can expect to hear is some form of “don’t rock the boat until you have tenure.” This particularly comes up in the context of teaching– I had people who were speakers at a workshop on improving introductory physics courses tell me not to try to implement any new methods as a junior faculty member. The logic is that changing anything will have a short-term negative effect on your teaching evaluations, and you shouldn’t risk that before a tenure review.

I think this is bad advice, because if you’re going to go with that, there’s always some reason not to change things– you’ll be up for promotion to full professor, or looking for a fellowship, or an endowed chair, or something. There are always good, logical-seeming reasons to keep your head down and do something functional and not take risks that could improve your teaching.

So, my advice is that if you look around and see something that you’d like to try that would improve your teaching, go for it. Again, you need to be independent and self-aware enough to recognize what’s likely to work, and make adjustments when needed, and you need to be prepared to defend the choices you make should it become necessary: “My evaluations went down when I changed teaching methods; this is a well-known effect of change, but they’ve improved since, and student learning is better by these metrics.”

3) Don’t Assume Your Students Are Like You Were

I count this as the best one-sentence piece of advice I got as a junior faculty member. It’s really important to remember that people who become college faculty are necessarily unusual– we’re the ones who had enough interest in our subjects to continue into graduate school, and who were sufficiently passionate and self-motivated to succeed there.

That’s just not going to be the case for the vast majority of the students we will encounter as faculty. There will be a few, and we should cherish them, but most of them are not going to find the subject as intrinsically fascinating as we do, and won’t put in the same level of independent effort.

So, my advice is to remember that (paraphrasing another famous comment) you go to class with the students you have, not the students you wish you had or the students you were. If you go in expecting students to react the same way you did, you’re going to end up disappointed and frustrated. This doesn’t mean you can’t ask them to become better than they are, it just means that you need to make an effort to meet them where they are, and move them toward where you’d like them to be.

(For much of my college career, I was probably closer to the mean attitude of our students than many of my colleagues were– I played rugby and partied a lot– but I still regularly need to remind myself of this…)

That’s the advice I offered, with the repeated caveat that they should remember the first item on my list, and be wary of all advice, including mine… Happily, many elements of this were echoed by my fellow panelists, so I think I was basically on the right track, but still, it’s impossible to succeed for everyone

362-366/366: Sillyhead-Centric Closing

And now, the photo-a-day project straggles in to the finish line, with a final five photos dominated by the kids:

362/366: Kid Art I

A set of figures drawn by The Pip at day care over the summer.
A set of figures drawn by The Pip at day care over the summer.

363/366: Kid Art II

Awesome owl drawing by SteelyKid.
Awesome owl drawing by SteelyKid.

One of the official end of summer activities is cleaning off the “art shelf” in the bookcase in the dining room, where we pile the various projects the kids bring home from school and day care. I sort these, and take photos of the best, for historical documentation purposes, and these are two of my favorites from the lot. The four round-bodied figures all came home on the same day, from The Pip. The owl was in SteelyKid’s backpack the last week of second grade, which shows just how long we’ve gone without cleaning that shelf off. And also how good she’s gotten at drawing…

Also, here’s some bonus kid art: a fan decorated by SteelyKid:

A fan decorated by SteelyKid.
A fan decorated by SteelyKid.

I’m not sure exactly how she did this– whether the paper was pre-stretched on the fan, or whether she painted on a flat paper that somebody then attached to the frame. I should ask, as I bet the explanation will be entertainingly detailed.

364/366: Farewell to the Pool I

SteelyKid going off the diving board at the Niskayuna town pool.
SteelyKid going off the diving board at the Niskayuna town pool.

365/366: Farewell to the Pool II

The Pip swimming with a noodle at the Niskayuna town pool.
The Pip swimming with a noodle at the Niskayuna town pool.

These are from the next-to-last day of our summer membership at the Niskayuna town pool, when we all went over as a family (which is why there are good photos– Kate was in the pool with The Pip, just out of frame). It’s been really remarkable to see The Pip’s development in terms of swimming. At the start of last summer, he wouldn’t even dip his feet into the pool, and now, he’s an eager swimmer. He’s using a noodle here to help him float, which lets him really motor around, but he can furiously dog-paddle short distances all by himself. And will, in fact, angrily insist on being allowed to dog-paddle freely over short distances even in the wave pool at Great Escape (which we also visited last weekend, to catch the water park before it closed), which is utterly terrifying.

He’s extremely proud of this too, and asked for this to be the picture we printed out to send in for inclusion in his kindergarten class book. And commemorated it with a self-portrait, which I’ll throw in here as mor bonus kid art:

The Pip's drawing of himself swimming with a green pool noodle.
The Pip’s drawing of himself swimming with a green pool noodle.

And we’ll close this out with the thing that’s making me close this out: the return of the school year.

366/366: Workspace

My new office on campus.
My new office on campus.

After three years in the department chair’s office (which is much bigger), I’m back in a standard-size office. Not the same office I was in before I was Chair, but one a couple doors further down the hall. A colleague wanted to be in the office I used to have, though, and moved the giant desk I ordered when I arrived to make room. So I moved into the office where my good desk was, and have, for the moment, organized things in a sensible and reasonably aesthetic way. This will be covered in random stacks of books and papers within three weeks, but it looks nice and professional right now, so we’ll give it the final spot, to mark the closing of my sabbatical with a picture of the workspace I’m returning to.

And that’s it for that. I may or may not have some wrap-up thoughts in a day or two, but for right now, I have classes to teach, and need to go get ready.

353-361/366: Penultimate Photo Dump

Another day, another batch of photos from August.

353/366: Trail Blaze

One lost sock next to the hiking path in the Reist bird sanctuary.
One lost sock next to the hiking path in the Reist bird sanctuary.

This is actually a slight reversal of chronology, as the hike through Vischer’s Ferry was the day after I went for a hike in the H. G. Reist Wildlife Sanctuary. The pictures from Vischer’s Ferry were better though, as despite the name I didn’t see much wildlife in the Reist Sanctuary. I did, however, find this bright pink child-size sock sitting next to the trail right after a fork. Presumably a way for some wandering toddler to find their way home…

354/366: Web

Spiderweb near the top of a tree i the Reist sanctuary.
Spiderweb near the top of a tree in the Reist sanctuary.

I didn’t see much in the way of wildlife in the wildlife sanctuary. They did, however, have a wealth of spiderwebs, mostly strung face-high across the path. This one high up in a tree was a pleasant exception, and caught the light well.

355/366: Window

A dead tree trunk with a hole clean through it, in the Reist sanctuary.
A dead tree trunk with a hole clean through it, in the Reist sanctuary.

356/366: New and Old

Fine tendrils of new vine on a dead tree in the Reist sanctuary.
Fine tendrils of new vine on a dead tree in the Reist sanctuary.

The sanctuary did have a wide variety of interesting-looking dead trees, though. The second of these is one of those “imprinted deeply on The Lord of the Rings” moments, because this kind of thing always reminds me of Sam and Frodo finding a defaced statue in The Two Towers.

357/366: Please Repost

The hanging remains of a broken telephone pole in Niskayuna.
The hanging remains of a broken telephone pole in Niskayuna.

On the way back from the Reist sanctuary, I stopped and made a stab at getting an image I’ve wanted for months. this is a telephone pole on Balltown Road that was hit by something and shattered several months ago. They brought crews in and cleaned out the wreckage, but left this one bit of pole hanging from the wires. I have no idea how the wires are attached in order for this to seem like a good idea. Or maybe it’s just capitalism in action– something like “National Grid owns the power lines at the top, and takes care of the poles, but can’t be bothered to remove a hanging weight stressing the telephone lines owned by Verizon down below.”

358/366: Market Morning

The Schenectady Greenmarket, our regular Sunday-morning activity.
The Schenectady Greenmarket, our regular Sunday-morning activity.

Every Sunday morning, I take the kids to the Schenectady Greenmarket to get a few things and give Kate a bit of a break. I don’t generally take the camera along, though, because it’s hard enough to wrangle the sillyheads without also looking for aesthetic views. My parents took the kids for a weekend in late August, though, so I finally got some decent shots of the market; this one is from the steps of the Post Office across the street.

The market takes up two streets in an “L” shape, so here’s the same scene from the other angle:

The Schenectady Greenmarket, looking down Franklin Street.
The Schenectady Greenmarket, looking down Franklin Street.

I’m sort of torn as to which of these I like better; the first gives a better sense of the market itself, because it’s a longer street and thus more crowded, but the isolated building in the second really pops. So I’ll put them both here, and you can decide for yourself which is the real photo 358.

359/366: Hanging Flowers

Planters hanging from a light pole in downtown Schenectady.
Planters hanging from a light pole in downtown Schenectady.

I’m sort of proud of the alignment in this one, as there’s an ugly smokestack behind this that I managed to hide pretty well behind the lamp post.

(“Why not pick a different post?” you ask? Because the others on this street don’t have as clear a view of the sky as this one, and it was easier to hide the smokestack than the stuff that would clutter the background for the others.)

360/366: Planted Flowers

Roses outside the Wold building at Union.
Roses outside the Wold building at Union.

The end of August means the start of a new school year, which means making campus look all pretty for the new students when they arrive. I’m not sure if these roses in front of the Wold building just bloom at a fortuitous time, or if they’re recent transplants, but they’re very pretty.

361/366: Green Lions

Cool lions on the base of a lamp post by Memorial Chapel.
Cool lions on the base of a lamp post by Memorial Chapel.

Probably the most enduring affect of this experiment in taking lots of pictures will be a somewhat heightened awareness of odd little photogenic things around me. Like these funky lions holding up a light outside of Memorial Chapel. I’ve been here fifteen years, and never noticed these guys until I was wandering around campus with a camera, looking for interesting shots.

That’s it for today. The final five photos will be posted in one last photo dump, probably tomorrow morning, but maybe Tuesday.

344-352/366: Wetland Walk

Another in the sadly delayed wrapping-up of my photo-a-day project. These are all pictures from a hike in the Vischer Ferry Nature Preserve over in Clifton Park. We took the kids over there one time, but a thunderstorm started coming in before we got very far. While the kids were at my parents’, I decided to go over one afternoon and take a more thorough walk around the place. This ended up going quite a bit longer than I had expected, as I misremembered part of the trail map, but I got some good photos out of it.

344/366: Fake Jungle

Part of the old Lock 19 from the Erie Canal, cosplaying as a ruined Mayan temple.
Part of the old Lock 19 from the Erie Canal, cosplaying as a ruined Mayan temple.

The park is technically both a nature preserve and a historical preserve, the historical part mostly being a stretch of the old Erie Canal, with the towpath serving as part of the hiking trail network. At one end of the park, there are the remains of an old lock from the canal system; it’s not all as overgrown as this, but I like the way this looks like some sort of Indiana Jones movie set.

345/366: OBSwamp

Dead trees in a swampy bit of the Vischer Ferry preserve,
Dead trees in a swampy bit of the Vischer Ferry preserve,

The park is very flat, mostly down at the level of the river, and includes some swampy bits. Which feature the obligatory skeletal trees poking out of wet patches. I’ve never been certain whether this is technically a defining characteristic of a swamp, but they do look kind of cool.

345/366: BW Bulge

Black and white shot of an interestingly textured tree.
Black and white shot of an interestingly textured tree.

One of the things I thought about doing with this was taking a few days at some point to deliberately shoot stuff in black and white. The timing never worked out for that, but here’s a token nod in that direction, a tree with an interesting bulge in the bark that was very nearly B&W even before I changed the color settings in GIMP.

346/366: Trick of the Light I

Grass on the edge of deep woods.
Grass on the edge of deep woods.

347/366: Trick of the Light II

Pink flower catching a stray sunbeam in a shady spot.
Pink flower catching a stray sunbeam in a shady spot.

One of the things I’ve always tried to do with the camera, but had a hard time with, is to capture cool transient light effects. I have dozens and dozens of shots of different scenes where the thing I was trying to capture was a particular effect of the light, and it just doesn’t pop on the screen the way it did in person.

I can’t say with any confidence that I’ve gotten better at this, but it does occasionally work out all right.

348/366: Bugs I

Bumblebee headed into a flower to look for nectar.
Bumblebee headed into a flower to look for nectar.

349/366: Bugs II

A butterfly striking a dramatic pose.
A butterfly striking a dramatic pose.

This was the second-best hike I’ve taken this summer, in terms of getting photos of wildlife– second to taking the kids to Vroman’s Nose and seeing a peregrine falcon. This one got a lot of different critters, including some insects. I’m not sure what these flowers are called, but they were everywhere, and it was neat to see how the bees wriggled their whole bodies inside. And this butterfly– not sure if it’s a monarch or a viceroy– was kind enough to settle on a high tree branch where it made a nice photo against the sky.

(Not pictured: about a billion tiny flying midges, because fuck those annoying little bastards.)

350/366: Tuck

A turtle sunning itself on a log.
A turtle sunning itself on a log.

Also out in great numbers: turtles sunning themselves on various rocks and logs along the banks of the canal. These generally dove into the water as soon as they noticed me, so walking along the tow path was accompanied by a string of loud “PLOP” noises from either side as turtles made a break for it. I got a few good shots, though, thanks to the telephoto lens.

351/366: Then Again, Too Few to Mention

Egrets in flight at Vischer Ferry Nature Preserve.
Egrets in flight at Vischer Ferry Nature Preserve.

I spent several minutes watching this pair of egrets soaring and swooping around each other across a stretch of still water. I’m not sure if they were courting or fighting, but it went on for a good while, and was very cool to watch.

352/366: Action Sequence

Great blue herons in the Vischer Ferry Nature Preserve.
Great blue herons in the Vischer Ferry Nature Preserve.

The other birds of note on this particular day were great blue herons, at least two of which were out and active. I stumbled across the one seen standing here when I think it may have been sleeping– its head was tucked down so I couldn’t see it, and it was so still I wondered whether it was a headless decoy of some sort. Then it heard a noise and picked its head up, and I got a couple of shots before it exploded into the air.

The flying one is actually a different bird, taken earlier in the walk– I have a whole bunch of heron photos– but I felt like playing around in GIMP, and it went nicely with the other two.

Probably two more photo-dump installments to come, these a little more human-centric.