Saturday, March 21, 2015

Astrophysics is such a competitive field.

Each semester, I usually teach three classes. The first is a large section of general-ed astronomy for non-majors. The second is a large section of introductory physics for engineers and scientists.

The third is a smaller, upper-level theoretical astrophysics course for physics majors and grad students. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? We’re supposed to be exploring 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. As in: kaput / finito / apres moi, le deluge / hasta la vista, baby / hosed / past the point of no return / circling the drain like a turd / beyond the event horizon / having crossed the Schwarzschild radius / intercoursed, as in the PAST tense.

Why this, why now, you may be wondering?

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.

Childish behavior is less common in the introductory physics class. It’s a more advanced class, with prerequisites. When childish behavior does intrude there, it hurts.

This semester, I have for the first time encountered childish behavior from most of the astrophysics class. It REALLY HURTS.

More than once I've reminded them that astrophysics isn’t an immediately commercially applicable field. People do it mainly because it’s interesting. Those people are in good supply, relative to the demand for them.

So WHY do these students treat the wonders of the Universe as SUCH a dreadful CHORE? WHY are they oblivious to what a PRIVILEGE it is to get to study the Universe?

It may be 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 as undergraduates. If they think they're 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.

These are the wonders of the Universe. They deserve reverence and awe. Remember the scene in "The Martian Chronicles" where the drunk idiot from Earth vomits wine in the delicately beautiful crystal city? It’s SACRILEGE, Doug help it. IT’S A SIN! IT’S A SIN, IT’S A SIN, IT’S A SIN, IT’S A SIN, IT’S A SIN!!! PLEASE!!! STOP IT!!! I CAN’T BEAR IT!!! I BEG YOU!!!!!

And now for some old-school smackdown:

D: I’m sorry you signed up for the wrong course. Why is this my problem? Might I be able to BEG you to drop? You certainly are more than enough of a pain in the ass.

The other D: You are the first student I have ever seen who doesn’t take notes in a course on astrophysics. I think the results will be predictable.

The other other D: That blank look you get when you don’t understand something is distinctive. I am well acquainted with it, since you have it so often. You say you dream of becoming an astronomer. It’d be a good idea to know something about the subject. You might try reading a book.

The other other other D: You also say you dream of becoming an astronomer. Why do I never see you at meetings of the local astronomy club? I’ve told you to go about a million times now.

F: QUIT SMOKING THAT DOPE. It has a BAD effect on memory, and from the way everyone around you acts, I think they're getting a contact high.

The other F: Have you considered that when you can’t solve a problem, it might be a good idea to look in a book? The textbook we’re using for this course is a book. The library has others. I even managed to look up what you needed on this thing called the Internet. I’m willing to help you during office hours, but you apparently think this means I should do your homework for you. This is supposed to benefit whom?

The other other F: You suck at this. For mercy’s sake, find something else to do. Your mind is simply too imprecise and sloppy, and you put in too little effort, for me to be able to help in any way.

K: I’d have thought anyone in this course would know at least SOME of the immediate prerequisite. The admin have done a fine job fighting that rule that ‘D’s don’t satisfy prerequisites, haven’t they?

The other K: It may be common in other classes, and I do my best to stop it, but Congratulations! You are the first student I've ever seen using a tablet computer to surf the Internet in astrophysics class! Aren't you proud? Mind you, you wouldn't be the first if you were to take a cell-phone call, but then physics majors are notorious for poor social skills.

M: As a physics grad student, you really ought to know that when the problem says derive something, it looks inexcusably lazy just to state that the answer was given in a previous problem. Those of us in the know call that a hint, or a clue. I sure wish you had one.

E: You are the ONE genuinely talented student in the class. I'm sorry you're surrounded by these fools. It’s still no excuse for not coming to class, and even less for not doing the readings or the homework. You pain me much more than the others, because you might have potential.


  1. At first I thought you were referring to the students using their current grades: D, D, D, D, F, F, F--wow, how bad do you have to be to get a "K"?

    1. Pretty damn bad. Remember, this is a class on pencil-and-paper astrophysical theory in which I consider it a triumph that pencils don't get stuck up noses. Can you imagine what would happen if we were to use computers? I am thanking my lucky stars that numerical astrophysics is another whole course, one we don't have.

  2. At my joint, certain adminiflakes plot survey response data as histograms. The plot will be the likert scale, 1 through 5, on the horizontal axis, and number of respondents at each value on the vertical axis. The horizontal is labelled

    0.50 1.00 1.50 2.00 2.50 3.00 3.50 4.00 4.50 5.00 5.50

    The vertical also has two digits after the decimal. It makes me want to break things.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. The Adminiflakes know it's more "precise" that way! Also they don't know how to use Excel charts and graphs!


  3. 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.

    A colleague and I keep talking about a 'cultural literacy' prerequisite that we would construct: the books, movies, music that a reasonably fluent adult needs to get most of the references being tossed about on a regular basis. It includes Casablanca, The Old Man and the Sea, Tootsie, mid-career Beatles, Original Star Trek, High Noon... the list depends a lot on what hasn't worked in class recently.

    But this would make a good Thirsty: If you were designing a "First Day Of College" course, eight hours of basic information students would be responsible for knowing from that day forward, what would it include?

    1. How about the way "right" and "left" are used in a political sense? Apparently it's not only possible, but typical, that a student can get all the way through high school and complete all of their general eds and still not know that.

    2. Our school has a course required of all first time college students called University Experience 101. Alas they use it for things like which building is the library and the fact that they have books in there and people to help you find and use them; where the bursar's office is and if you don't pay your bills they will drop you from your classes; that you are expected to actually come to class and actually do the homework; and some of those other things that you would have assumed came even before basic cultural literacy.


      Dear Jonathan,

      Please repost this comment as a whole new post, it's good enough for one.

  4. I'm working on getting my class of upper division physics students to take me seriously when I say that they don't get points for saving trees and they should turn in their homework with no more than one (1) problem per page, and that they should have a sentence or two explaining each major step in their reasoning.

    I've actually had to make these things requirements, because exactly zero of eight took this advice when I couched it in polite language.

    They also didn't get the point when I handed out keys written in that form.

    My colleague and I are searching for some accessible paper to copy with all the explanatory sentences remove so that it consists of little more than a string of equation. We plan going to ask them to determine if the argument is correct or not as homework. Then when they turn in their evaluation of the stripped version we'll give the actual paper and ask them to do it again.

    Maybe they'll understand my frustration if they have to live a little of it themselves.

    1. Good luck, but I think it's likely your attempt will bounce off, just like the spears off the metal door at the end of "Jonny Quest." One reason is that our students have grown up with so many badly written computer manuals, they think this is normal.

    2. I like that stripped assignment: historians have a different methodology, but "show your work" is pretty critical in any persuasive field.

  5. I know the type of students you referred to because I had lots of them while I was teaching.

    I think they were being deliberately obtuse because they knew they could get away with it. Many were fresh out of high school, so they were used to being amply rewarded for behaving that way.

    But they also did it because they believed they were all going to get jobs when they graduated and their employers were going to teach them what they needed to know. So what was the point in studying hard? Besides, they paid their fees, so they were guaranteed a piece of paper after 2 years.

    Then there was the attitude of behaving that way because "he can't fail us all". Sadly, they were right. I was expected to maintain a minimum class average of 60% and, if I didn't, I had to answer some very pointed questions. So, by being obstinate, they thought that I would have to lower the standards in order to meet that requirement. However, I often made it simple enough that house pets could understand it and it would still be over the heads of the students.

    Of course, *they* never got blamed. It was all my fault for not "engaging" them or making it "interesting" or "fun" or "relevant", or some other lame excuse used to absolve them of any responsibility for putting any effort into their studies.

    1. I do know much too well the behavior of which you complain, having seen it far too often in other classes. I hate to tell you, but that isn't the problem in this semester's astrophysics class. The problem is that they're not smart enough even for that.

    2. Yes, I've had to take certain measures due to the 60% expected pass rate and the "can't fail us all" attitude. First, I try to make sure that no more than 40% drop. Of the remaining ones: there will be lots of Cs. Some of them aren't t really earned (should be Fs), but the choice is up to me. I don't "grade on a curve" (it's on the syllabus), and the cutoff for a C is, after all is said and done , 50%. For a B or higher, 70%; and there are very few of those.

  6. Same in math. It was bad already twenty years ago, and has gotten much worse over the years. Except I abandoned a long time ago the notion that "math major" has anything to do with "future mathematician".

    I am the advisor of record to about twenty majors (this means: making sure they can read the requirements in the catalog). I look at their academic histories: Cs in intro math classes, no evidence of particular aptitude for the subject. Why this major, I ask. Dropped down from engineering or science, or can't write their way out of a paper bag. Hence: math. Plans after graduation: "teach, maybe?" In the best cases: actuary, or medical school. We send maybe two honors majors a year (out of sixty majors) on to grad school.

    There is nothing wrong with that, in principle. It's just that the curriculum was designed (back in the 50s) and texts were written (and gradually watered down) with a very different student population in mind. What we teach our seniors today makes sense as foundational material, not as "the last math course you'll ever take", which is what it is in reality.

    I try to stay away from first year like the plague ("the unfiltered sample" as I call it.) Second year service courses for engineering majors are a little better: at least they know they have to do something. The problem is, they never really know much about the prerequisite material. Can you take differential equations without knowing integration? No, but they forgot everything already. Plus the gaps in basic algebra, etc.

    Upper division courses for majors are sad. There are maybe 3-4 students (in a class of about 20) in a position to learn math at that (humble) level: typically engineering grad students, physics double majors, or the rare math honors student. The rest struggles (or more likely, doesn't) to grasp a minimal amount of material. Fourier series? Unrealistic, for most. The weakest students in any senior-level math class? The future (high school) math teachers.

    I teach at a place that calls itself a university, but for most students is in effect a glorified technical school. The nominal curriculum we force down our majors' throats is irrelevant for any career they can realistically expect to have. They know it, we know it. Going through the motions, that's all it is.


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