Monday, August 23, 2010

Paddling one's own canoe

Merely Academic said:

> I cannot get over the feeling that all of
> the students know more than I do and they
> know it and are just being polite.

What?!?!?!?!?!?!?!? Are you kidding? What field are you in?

I genuinely envy you. I'd have thought this would feel -great-. My students never seem to understand much of my field, astrophysics, at all. I'm pretty sure this isn't all my fault, either.

Maybe this is because I am at a Masters-granting, mid-size state university, and not an R1. Every semester, 2-5 physics majors come to me and ask to be involved in research. (We don't have an astronomy major at my university.) I usually agree. I've learned to weed out the ones that can't even name the planets in the Solar System in order, or are unwilling to stay up past midnight while observing.

I always tell my research students to read a particular book about my sub-field that was written for amateur astronomers. They never seem to understand or even to remember even the basics from it. Whenever I ask them to tell me honestly whether they read the book, every last one of them swears they did. This is the only such book at this relatively easy level on this topic that's ever been published. I can't give them an easier one, and I think it's a huge improvement over the papers I copied from the refereed journals that I read when I got started in research, in 1986. I might try writing one myself, but that would be a good year of work, at minimum.

Amazingly too, they keep coming back. It can't be because I'm an easy grader, because research is pass/fail, and I'm very stingy with As in all of my classes.

They keep telling me they want to be involved in research, but astrophysics is competitive. If I were to start spoon-feeding them, the way they clearly want, it wouldn't be astrophysics or research anymore. Fortunately, the large astronomy lecture class for non-majors pays the bills.

I always take research students for academic credit. I never use my NASA funding to pay them. There just isn't anything they can do to help with this. To be fair, we don't have a Ph.D. program here, but even with Masters students, I give them data from our own observatory to analyze. Over the years, I've developed step-by-step instructions for them to follow, and they can be helpful with processing and plotting these data, if they follow my checklists. Still, rarely do they understand the significance of what they're doing, even when I point them to the pages and figures to look at in that book for amateur astronomers I've told them to read.

Tellingly, none of my students can program a computer in any language, even though nearly all of them have passed a course in C programming taught by the computer science department. My students complain that the course is badly taught, but somehow those CSCI instructors learned to program, and so did I. It may or may not have helped that I never had a lesson, I just picked up a copy of the manual by Kernighan and Ritchie and started programming. (All right, so I'd previously had a course in Fortran programming at the local community college when I was in high school in 1975, because I thought it was so cool I could barely stand it.)

Remember the old saw, "A poor workman blames his tools"? Ultimately, aren't we all ultimately responsible for paddling our own canoes?

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