On Being a Good Student/Being a Good Professor

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FemaleScienceProfessor has a thoughtful course-evaluations-time post about student evaluations of professors who are teaching their first course. It’s worth a read, most especially because it presents the question, “What can be done to prepare new professors to teach?” The comment section offers further insight into the issue. This is a topic about which I have some great concern as a graduate student who ultimately hopes to go into teaching (as well as research), but on which I shall not comment much at this moment. Instead I just have some general observations:

As an undergrad I had some absolutely excellent professors and some fairly dismal ones as well. What seemed to distinguish the good from the bad was a combination of method and attitude. Interestingly, I think that professors and students expect the same things from each other:

1) Attention

2)Honsty

3)Organization

4)Neatness and Clarity

5)Passion

6)Effort

7)Flexibility

8)Creativity

9)Respect

The list is not in any order, other than that respect is obviously the most important attribute for both students and professors. The moment one party loses respect for the other, it is inevitable that the other loses respect  and that mutual respect  be extremely difficult to restore. The key question for either is to ask: “What if I were a student/the professor?”

One commenter for FSP’s post noted that he used mid-course evaluations for the courses he taught. I had a physics professor in my second year of undergrad who did this and  happened to be an excellent professor for a number of other reasons.  I never had another course in which a mid-course evaluation took place, but the impact of that incident remains. As a student I was impressed with the professor’s concern that he teach us as best as he can and his humility in voluntarily accepting our feedback (as opposed  to the evaluations at the end of the semester which are obligatory).  I don’t remember if there were changes in his style of teaching or in the course afterward but I think that it probably increased the students’ respect for the professor and as a result improved the learning atmosphere.

Tradition

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For my  graduate courses I am using what  are  considered the some  of the  “classic”  graduate textbooks for each subject (or so I’m told).  For  classical mechanics, I am using Goldstein, Poole, and Safko. For  quantum I  am using Sakurai. When I  take E&M, it  will invariably be Jackson which I use. These books are well known, and some of  them have  a reputation for being the standard for  graduate textbooks in physics.

Professors have confessed to  disliking the textbooks used in their courses several times. They concede that the books are riddled with  mistakes or that they aren’t especially clear. They even suggest other books  which would be better for a specific topic. But each year, the particular textbooks are used by  the professors who also criticize  them…The reason: tradition.

I’ll admit that I’m not in a particular position to critique these textbooks as a student, partly because I haven’t had exposure to many others, and partly because I am still learning the material.  However,  I  am curious  about the extent and origin of the tradition of using specific books. I’ll be the last person to criticize tradition, I think that tradition in general is a very good thing,  one form of transmitting wisdom from one generation to the next and also of establishing cultural connections. So perhaps the use of these books is part of the culture of physics education and perhaps they also include  a degree of wisdom (or at least knowledge of physics). But  I wonder what  is lost at the expense of adhering to a status quo in textbook use.

Anyone else come across this?

Lots of News

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So much to write about!

  • Carl Sagan Day?

Saturday was dubbed Carl Sagan Day in honor of what would have been the 75th birthday (on Monday) of Carl Sagan. Broward College in Florida hosted a celebration and New Scientist had a blog post, from which I learned about the celebration.

Carl Sagan, with Richard Feynman and several others, was one of the great communicators of science of the 20th century. His miniseries Cosmos introduced the wonders of modern astrophysics to people around the world. If you have not seen an episode of Cosmos, watch one: they’re on Hulu; although they’re old and some of the science is outdated, they remain a classic. The movie Contact was conceived by Carl Sagan (though released after his death) and inspired the book, which by the quirks of history, was published well before the movie. The novel Contact, in my opinion, is deeper than the movie. It’s a great  “What if?’ on first contact with extraterrestrials and a wonderful meditation on the relationship between science and religion by an agnostic/skeptic who knew how approach the issue with class and respect. Sagan was not my inspiration to go into physics or into astronomy, but exposure to his works certainly egged me on and he helped nourish public interest in astronomy at a time when the end of the Apollo program meant that national interest was fading.

  • Behavioral Genetics Shapes Sentencing of Murderer

This deserves its own blog post but the summary is that an Italian court has shortened the sentence of a murderer because genetic testing suggested he was predisposed to violent behavior. Here is the Nature news story. Apparently this is first time such a decision has been made in Europe, but a few similar decisions have been made in the US. This story raises some really interesting ethical questions, about which I’m not at all qualified to write, but nonetheless, which I think could make for an interesting post.

  • Babies Cry in Native Language

This is interesting. A German study suggests that babies’ cries differ by language even in the days immediately after birth. This follows up with studies that suggest that language recognition begins in the third trimester, with response to native language. Really cool stuff if you ask me….I wonder if there is also response to other sounds too? Music? I’m not so much thinking of the Mozart Effect, which hasn’t really been proven, but of the effect of prenatal exposure to music in regard to later musical preference.

  • Art and Science

I attended an excellent talk by an artist who works with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Blog post to come.

  • Went for a walk in Rock Creek Park…Miss the Cuyahoga Valley.

Top-down improvements in science education and literacy

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At ‘A Kind of Desire for Knowledge,’ the group blog of which I’m a member, I’ve posted a short summary of an article from the October edition of Physics Today about astronomy education. Go read it: Then, participate in a discussion here or at that site.

What kind of experiences have you had with intro science courses? Were they good or bad?

Teaching Wonder

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It only took me two weeks to do it, but I have finally taken advantage of my close proximity to Washington DC for the summer.

It rained (actually poured, if even that word suffices) but I missed it because I was inside at the Natural History Museum. The highlight of the day was visiting the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It was my intention to go, pray in some chapels and attend the Saturday vigil for the Sunday Mass, which I did. However, I discovered when I arrived at basilica that the vigil Mass would also be the fiftieth anniversary Mass for Cardinal McCarrick, the Archbishop Emeritus of the Washington Archdiocese. So I attended a Mass presided over by a cardinal and several bishops and archbishops, including the papal nuncio to the US!

It was a beautiful Mass which focused on the vocation to priesthood and ministry, appropriate for an ordination anniversary I suppose. It left me with a deeper appreciation for the life to which the priests I have known dedicate themselves and which my friends in seminaries are preparing to join. It is a life of service and devotion to God and the Body of Christ, full of deep faith and love. It is not necessarily a call which I have myself, from what I can tell at this point at least, but it is most certainly one of the most beautiful and challenging ways in which one can give of himself. So I shall have to keep that in mind and be thankful for those who respond to it.

This summer I am at an internship in part to experience it would be like to be an astrophysicist . For a while I have been somewhat bugged by the feeling that besides adding to knowledge, an astronomer does little to help the the world. However, perhaps I need to look at things in a slightly different manner. We are called to use all the many things that make up who we are to serve others, to devote ourselves fully to God and each other in lives of faith and love. It is in all of our living, not merely in how we make a living, that we follow Christ. So then this summer through prayer and greater awareness of my actions each day, I may also come to understand how it is that I am best to respond to this call, in life as an astronomer or otherwise, but also in daily life as a better model of Christ. As so often happens, it may also be that like stumbling upon a Mass presided by a Cardinal when all I expected was a typical Saturday vigil, I’ll find myself in a place far bigger than I could of imagined. But one does not go looking for serendipity and so for now, I shall just have to continue to patiently, hopefully, and ever more faithfully use whatever opportunities come each day.

Aestas adveniet et focillor ignes Spiritus Sancti!

(Summer is coming and I am refreshed by the fire of the Holy Spirit)