Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Myths about learning styles and digital natives

Inside Higher Ed has a nice essay on the helplessness of students, the most extreme example being a student who emailed a professor to ask for the name of the author of a book.  (The student had a copy of the book, and the author's name was on the front cover.)  In the comments section we got to talking about how this helplessness contrasts with the myth of the "Digital Native", the information-savvy student who doesn't need anything traditional in education because they have the world's information at their fingertips.  One commenter pointed me to an article titled Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education.

I don't have time to give a detailed response to the many excellent points in that article, but I will note that it is basically a literature survey that debunks the myth that today's students are information-savvy, great at multi-tasking, and attuned to their own unique learning styles.  I particularly appreciated this cynical observation:
Thousands of articles and books have been written on learning styles and their application in education. Furthermore, a lucrative commercial industry has been set up around (a) selling measurement instruments meant to help teachers diagnose their students’ learning styles and (b) holding workshops and conferences meant to provide information and training to teachers on how to align their teaching to the learning styles of their students. Yet there are fundamental problems with regard to both the diagnosis of learning styles and the alignment of instruction to these styles.
Yep.  The more hype and enthusiasm you see around something in education, the more likely that there's a vendor or workshop presenter hunting for cash.

Interestingly, one of the authors of this article (Kirschner) is also an author on a lovely piece of heresy from the previous decade.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

One more thing from the Deresiewicz essay

I forgot to quote this part:
I had a third student, a junior, who wrote about a friend whom she had known since the beginning of college and who, she’d just discovered, went to church every Sunday. My student hadn’t even been aware that her friend was religious. When she asked her why she had concealed this essential fact about herself, her friend replied, “Because I don’t feel comfortable being out as a religious person here.”
When my student wrote about her churchgoing friend, she said that she couldn’t understand why anyone would feel uncomfortable being out as a religious person at a place as diverse as Scripps.
There's a belief that tolerance is about bringing together people whose identities are different, not people whose beliefs (or lack thereof) and practices are different.  There's an idea that diversity of the first sort--a diversity achieved through presence, not practice--not only confers moral legitimacy but also automatically exudes a sense of comfort.

I remember encountering bits of this in college in the 90's.  It was different from intellectual relativism, postmodernism, etc.  Those ideas involved hard reading and mental challenges that went deeper than smiling and saying "Thank you for sharing that."  It was not as developed as what's going on now, but the stirrings were there.  Contra Deresiewicz, it didn't come from Foucault or the humanities faculty, it came from Student Affairs.  It is the process of academia replacing academics with administration.  Academic work should exhaust the mind when it's done right, not make everyone feel happy-shiny and smug.

Make a whole new religion, a falling star that you cannot live without

William Deresiewicz just published a nice essay on political correctness. It is longer than it needed to be, but it still has plenty of good stuff.  I don't have time to frame a single, cohere response, so I'll just address it in bits and pieces.
Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.
What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern.
This seems accurate, though I think it's important to emphasize (as he does later) that this is to a large extent an elite phenomenon.  The viewpoints he describes go beyond the most elite institutions, but the rigidity of the code, and particularly its power over the wider student body, is not as bad everywhere as it is in the places that he's talking about.

As to this:

The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.
The first sentence seems wildly inaccurate.  I can't speak to humanities, but I haven't heard anyone mention Foucault (outside of a few libertarian friends with decidedly non-leftist views on power) since the 1990's.  Frankly, if today's campus identity liberalism were rooted in Foucault it would be a step up--at least Foucault is a hard read!  The writings that matter in identity liberalism on today's campuses seem to be shallow think-pieces at the level of Slate and Huffpo, emotional personal accounts, and egregiously misapplied/misinformed social science, not French intellectuals.  Indeed, the last sentence notes the unscholarly attitude of identity liberalism, further casting doubt on the assertion that it's rooted in thinkers like Foucault.  They don't want thick treatises, they want 3 Quick Tips For Implementing Best Practices!

Also, French postmodernists would have cast a disparaging eye on claims to objective truth, whereas today's identity liberalism holds that privilege blinds one to truth and oppression opens one to it.  There is an objective moral code, an idea of settled questions, as Deresiewicz notes.  French postmodernists would laugh at the idea of settled truths, let alone settled moral truths.

But of course, Scripps and its ilk are only diverse in terms of identity. In terms of ideology, they are all but homogeneous. You don’t have “different voices” on campus, as these institutions like to boast; you have different bodies, speaking with the same voice.
 Elite private colleges are ideologically homogenous because they are socially homogeneous, or close to it. Their student populations largely come from the liberal upper and upper-middle classes, multiracial but predominantly white, with an admixture of students from poor communities of color—two demographics with broadly similar political beliefs, as evidenced by the fact that they together constitute a large proportion of the Democratic Party base. As for faculty and managerial staff, they are even more homogenous than their students, both in their social origins and in their present milieu, which tends to be composed exclusively of other liberal professionals—if not, indeed, of other liberal academics. Unlike the campus protesters of the 1960s, today’s student activists are not expressing countercultural views. They are expressing the exact views of the culture in which they find themselves (a reason that administrators prove so ready to accede to their demands). If you want to find the counterculture on today’s elite college campuses, you need to look for the conservative students.

This I agree with 100%.

And this:

There is one category that the religion of the liberal elite does not recognize—that its purpose, one might almost conclude, is to conceal: class. Class at fancy colleges, as throughout American society, has been the unspeakable word, the great forbidden truth. And the exclusion of class on selective college campuses enables the exclusion of a class. It has long struck me in leftist or PC rhetoric how often “white” is conflated with “wealthy,” as if all white people were wealthy and all wealthy people were white. In fact, more than 40 percent of poor Americans are white. Roughly 60 percent of working-class Americans are white. Almost two-thirds of white Americans are poor or working-class. Altogether, lower-income whites make up about 40 percent of the country, yet they are almost entirely absent on elite college campuses, where they amount, at most, to a few percent and constitute, by a wide margin, the single most underrepresented group. 
We don’t acknowledge class, so there are few affirmative-action programs based on class. Not coincidentally, lower-income whites belong disproportionately to precisely those groups whom it is acceptable and even desirable, in the religion of the colleges, to demonize: conservatives, Christians, people from red states. Selective private colleges are produced by the liberal elite and reproduce it in turn. If it took an electoral catastrophe to remind this elite of the existence (and ultimately, one hopes, the humanity) of the white working class, the fact should come as no surprise. They’ve never met them, so they neither know nor care about them. In the psychic economy of the liberal elite, the white working class plays the role of the repressed. The recent presidential campaign may be understood as the return of that repressed—and the repressed, when it returns, is always monstrous. 
The exclusion of class also enables the concealment of the role that elite colleges play in perpetuating class, which they do through a system that pretends to accomplish the opposite, our so-called meritocracy. Students have as much merit, in general, as their parents can purchase (which, for example, is the reason SAT scores correlate closely with family income). The college admissions process is, as Mitchell L. Stevens writes in Creating a Class, a way of “laundering privilege.”

Here's the most important part:
The culture of political correctness, the religion of the fancy private colleges, provides the affluent white and Asian students who make up the preponderant majority of their student bodies, and the affluent white and Asian professionals who make up the preponderant majority of their tenured faculty and managerial staffs, with the ideological resources to alibi or erase their privilege. It enables them to tell themselves that they are children of the light—part of the solution to our social ills, not an integral component of the problem. It may speak about dismantling the elite, but its real purpose is to flatter it. [Emphasis added]
Exactly.  That's why people eat that shit up like pita chips and humus from Trader Joe's.

Later in the essay, Deresiewicz acknowledges the role that class plays, and the difference between elite private and non-elite public institutions:
But public schools are very different places from private ones. Their student bodies, for the most part, are far more diverse, economically and in every other way, which means these institutions do not have to deal with a large bolus of affluent, sheltered white and Asian kids who don’t know how to talk to black and brown people and need to be “educated” into “awareness” by the presence of African-American and Latino students (who are, in turn, expected to “represent” their communities). When different kinds of people grow up together, rather than being introduced to one another under artificial conditions in young adulthood, they learn to talk and play and study together honestly and unselfconsciously—which means, for adolescents, often frankly and roughly—without feeling that they have to tiptoe around sensitivities that are frequently created by the situation itself.
I'm at a non-elite public institution, and while few of the faculty were first-generation students, some definitely came from more privileged backgrounds than others.  The politics correlate pretty well with the level of parental privilege.

Post title explained:

Sunday, March 5, 2017

How narratives are formed

One should always take it with a grain of salt when CEOs complain about skill shortages (maybe they'd get more skilled people if they offered more money), but here I'm less interested in the CEOs' claims than in the response to them.

Here's what CEOs said about the challenge of filling jobs:
One executive said in discussions with White House officials that his company has 50 participants in a factory apprenticeship program, but could take 500 if enough were qualified. But he said that in his experience, most students coming out of high school lack the math and English skills to absorb technical manuals.
That certainly accords with my experience.

Here's what the sub-headline says:
Manufacturing leaders urge President Trump to encourage high-tech skills training.
Basic math and English skills are not high-tech.  They're essential to a high-tech job, but they themselves are not high-tech.  And that's the problem: People want the hot and new, not the fundamentals.  CEOs say that they will train people for high-tech manufacturing if they have basic math and reading skills, journalists translate that into high-tech skills, and no doubt some shill in higher ed is busy explaining that this is why we need people with advanced degrees in STEM...because a CEO wants a reasonably competent high school grad who can be trained to work on the production floor.

On the other hand, I find it fascinating that the CEOs are talking about technical manuals.  Normally we assume that it's higher ed that's stodgy and unable to Get With The Times, but here we see business executives saying that they need people who can read manuals while the most progressive kool-aid drinkers in higher ed all say that we need to embrace the post-literate society and de-emphasize books in favor of videos.  I find this amusingly ironic.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

A fun little argument in relativity

Confession:  I know next to nothing about general relativity.  My graduate work was in materials and optics.  My current research is mostly on optics and biophysics.  I enjoy the elegance of special relativity, but I never studied general relativity.

In a couple weeks I'm teaching students about Newtonian mechanics in non-inertial reference frames, and I felt like I should try to learn at least a few tidbits of general relativity.  I wanted to understand gravitational time dilation, so I came up with a nice little argument that I'm quite proud of.

Suppose that a pair of particles collide and produce two photons.  One photon goes left, the other goes right.  We use mirrors to send them upward (i.e. to a place to higher gravitational potential) and then recombine them.  The photons collide and produce a pair of particles of the same type as the original particles.  (Such things can happen, though the cross-sections are small.)  If the photons did not change their frequencies, i.e. did not lose some energy, then we have a new pair of particles at higher gravitational potential energy but with the same kinetic energy. We have gained energy. We can let those particles fall and extract energy from the system to power machines...for free.  We have thus produced energy from nothing, and that's not allowed.

The photons must thus lose some energy, i.e. must change their frequencies. Say that the kinetic energy of the new particles is zero, i.e. mgy(final)=KE(initial)

The frequency shift can be found via:

KE(initial) + 2m = 2*omega (initial) = 2m + 2mgy

And 2m must also equal 2*omega(final), since the two photons have just enough energy to produce the particles, so we get that 2*omega(initial) = 2*omega(final) + 2*omega(final)*gy

omega(final)*(1+gy) = omega(initial)

omega(final) = omega(initial)/(1+gy) or approximately omega(initial)*(1-gy) (to first order)

(We are working in units where hbar and c are equal to 1.)

So the fractional frequency shift has to be of order gy/c^2.  Once we have the frequency shift, we can argue that clocks based on oscillations of EM fields must run slower lower in the gravitational field, since the people above them are receiving consecutive ticks at longer intervals.

I will present this at the end of my lecture on Newtonian mechanics in non-inertial frames, along with the argument that a guy in a falling elevator sees light curve.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Next Book: Edward Teller's Memoirs

I haven't been blogging books lately, for a lot of reasons, but I'm determined to get back to it.  Right now I'm reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.  Teller has a lot to answer for (e.g. his treatment of Oppenheimer, his utter fascination with WMD), but we're entering an era where peering inside the minds of villains might be of great practical significance.  He was a towering figure who participated in great events, working with Heisenberg as a postdoc before going to the West and getting involved in nuclear weapons.  His narration of events may not be wholly reliable, but his mind is worth peering inside.

Besides, every villain has an origin story, and in that origin story there is tragedy and triumph.  One uplifting thing I've already learned from Teller is that the British were quite proactive in recruiting German scientists as early as 1933.  I had no idea how much effort the British put into that; it is a credit to them. There's plenty else to fault them for, but at least that episode is a good one. A part of me wonders if I should be helping my Middle Eastern colleagues find jobs overseas.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Public schools have charters too

With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education there is now much discussion of charter schools and school choice.  I have no interest in debating the merits or demerits of Betsy DeVos in this venue, and I will not offer a final stance or recommendation on charter schools.  But I will offer an  observation on the wider context:

The most substantial criticism I've seen against charter schools is that they get better results by being selective about their student bodies, filtering out students with weak preparation or behavioral problems.  To the extent that the question is whether the performance of charter schools is truly superior in an apples-to-apples comparison, whether "is" statements regarding their alleged merits are based on scientifically valid comparisons, I think it's an entirely fair point to raise.  I haven't reviewed the data closely enough to know whether it's an empirically valid point, but if we take the claim at face value it is certainly valid.

On the other hand, if the question is whether excellence (by whatever yardstick) can be cultivated when one abandons democratic mandates, I think that the performance of charter schools is telling us something very, very important.  I'm not convinced that the public schools are irredeemable if we speak of the schools as buildings with trained people inside them, people who could accomplish tasks if given resources and leeway.  I am convinced that the demands we make on public schools are impossible to satisfy, and that no amount of Special Programs and bureaucratic infrastructure ladled atop a school can bring about True Democracy in education.

The people invested in the system itself--and its democratic legitimacy--cannot admit this.  Even a person who is of right-wing leanings has to believe that with proper accountability we can somehow get schools to serve all students equally, at least if that person buys into the cross-partisan democratic narratives that Americans have long bought into.  To reject these democratic assumptions you need to either have a dark, naked embrace of inequality, an idea of better and lesser people, or you need to be individualistic and believe that there is no one-size-fits-all and a system can really only serve those who choose to be served. Either way, you have to reject the charter that the public schools labor under.

My favorite teacher in high school said that America could have the best public schools on earth if we struck one word from the laws governing them:  "Compulsory."  The success of charter schools proves that.