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 The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

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Saturday, November 5, 2016

The curmudgeonliness is strong with this one.

I don't have time to offer much commentary on it, but I like this post about project-based learning.  It's quite devastating.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Tobias, Chapter 2

I don't have time to write up my full thoughts on chapter 2; a lot of the themes seem to be repeated in what little I've read of the next chapter, so I think I'll just respond to those themes after I've read the whole book.  But a few quick thoughts:

1) The student in the second chapter took a physics class.  Some of the things that he reports are valid criticisms of how we teach physics.  I think we've actually made progress on a subset of them (remember, this book is more than 20 years old), but we could stand to make more progress.

2) Some of his critiques go to points that sound nice on the surface, but they would not work as well as he thinks if we actually tried to do it at scale with the students that we get.  The student does note that we actually do some things right, that our students do get motivated in certain ways that many humanities students don't (in his observation).  Of course, we also fail to motivate in certain ways that the humanities do more effectively.

It's tempting to say "Well, obviously just take the best of each!" but that implies that upsides and downsides are completely separable.  I don't think real life works that way.

3) I'm not going to name names, but in addition to the observations of the student, the author frequently cites (positively) the observations of someone whom I've interacted with.  I was...not impressed.  To put it mildly.  That colors my reading.

4) One thing that outside critics of physics often miss is that we'd love to spend more time on the Big Picture but we have a hard, cumulative, technical task in front of us.  There's no evading that.  We can talk about Big Ideas all day, but the real progress on those ideas was only made through painstaking technical work.  On the margin, we could (and probably should) spend a bit more time than we do on Big Ideas rather than technical calculation, but those technical skills are vital to either using physics or making progress on advancing the field of physics, and they take a lot of time to hone.  I'm open to providing more complementary/supplementary treatment of Big Ideas, but if students don't get a whole lot of practice on the hard, technical side of the field then we are cheating them out of the opportunity to have a career where they either use physics or make advances in physics.

5) Frankly, a lot of the "I am more, like, into the Big Ideas, man!" types are dilettantes, and usually white dude dilettantes.  Sorry, but it's true.  Yes, yes, there are flaky women and flaky people of color; I recognize and support the right of people of diverse identities to be flakes.  Still, the flaky "I'm, like, more into, like, the ideas than, you know, the math, because my mind is more about being weird and flexible and seeing the Real Ideas, you know?" types are disproportionately white dudes.  That's my in-the-trenches observation.  I try to avoid stereotyping but this one is born out by observation.

That's not to say that everyone who wants to talk about Big Ideas is a flake, but the flakes ALWAYS say that.  Always.

Why am I commenting on it?  Because everyone agrees that physics needs to diversify, so I find it hilarious that our critics then come at us with something that the dilettante white dudes have been saying to us since forever.  Believe me, you don't want us designing curricula around those guys if you want us to attract women and people of color.

6) That said, there are curricula that do more to address Big Ideas while also developing technical skills.  Moore's Six Ideas That Shaped Physics and also the Matter and Interactions curriculum are both excellent examples of that.  We need to do more of that.

7) While I can and will weigh the pros and cons of the critics in more detail, it is very much a marker of when the book was written that she couches the critiques in terms of "Maybe if we addressed this we could solve the STEM shortage..."  I am listening to Sublime as I type this.  The 90's were good times, man.  Good times.

Monday, October 31, 2016

90's flashback: _They're Not Dumb, They're Different_ by Sheila Tobias

My next reading project is They're Not Dumb, They're Different by Sheila Tobias.  Whatever else I might ultimately come to dislike about this book, it's 94 pages.  Too many people turn out 200-300 page books because they think that they need to, but Tobias doesn't do that.  Kudos to her.

This book was written in 1990, and while I've only read the introduction I can say that it definitely feels like a trip back to the 90's and old ideas about STEM shortages. You can almost hear Kurt Cobain singing Heart-Shaped Box.  You can almost feel the political and racial tension in the air as people are glued to their TV for the latest twists in the OJ case. It's easy to remember an era when X-Files was on TV and the Clinton Administration was rocked by sex scandals.

In the intro, Tobias motivates her work by talking about the country's shortage of science talent, and the need to recruit more people into science.  She mentions a longitudinal study that started with 750,000 high school students who declared a possible interest in science in the 1970's, and after more than a decade of follow-through a bit less than 10,000 of them have gotten PhDs in STEM.  In my opinion, 1.3% of a potentially interested cohort getting a PhD in science is hardly a problem; it might actually be over-production. But it's presented as evidence of a problem.

More tellingly, she notes that 61,000 of them started graduate study in STEM, even though "only" 9,700 of them got a PhD.  This is a lesson in how narratives are made when people start from the assumption of a moral crisis in need of resolution.  If 61,000 people enrolled in PhD programs and only 9,700 of them got a PhD I would agree that there's a problem.  I might not classify it as a problem of under-production, but I would agree that there is a problem of inefficiently identifying and channeling talent.  There's no reason for so many people to invest prime years in a hard endeavor that so few will finish.  But who said that they all entered graduate school in pursuit of a PhD?  The gold standard for an engineer in industry is an MS (and many have great careers with just a BS, or even a BS and MBA).  And who said that the gold standard for retention in STEM is completion of a PhD?  Can't a person have a career doing economically and socially significant things in science and engineering without a PhD?

The fact that Tobias opens with these dubiously status quo assumptions, these cultural artifacts of a long-standing consensus, does not mean that there will be nothing of value in what follows.  But it does mean that when I read it I detect a certain voice in the author's writing.  It's like reading an old novel written in the musty language of an earlier era; you know you're reading something of a particular place and time and class.  It's a narrative that sounded so seductive when I was young and dumb, something that never should have made sense yet somehow did even in an era where the SoCal aerospace industry was being completely restructured (and mostly downsized) while the IT industry was taking shape.  A narrative of a strange era that is past.  Oh, people still tell this narrative, but now it's a narrative that faces challengers, because the internet exists and every disgruntled postdoc and adjunct out there can take to social media.

Anyway, the focus of this book will be her "Second Tier" study.  The premise is that science and engineering only select for people who will stick with it through numerous hurdles, rather than recruiting.  (We shall ignore the fact that since Sputnik there have been numerous efforts to sell science and engineering to kids, numerous earnest people standing in front of students and telling them that STEM Is Our Future and we desperately need them, numerous Official Reports On The Need To Recruit and subsequent curricular redesign efforts in k-12 and beyond.)  So, Tobias recruits smart people who have been successful in other fields but never gave any thought to science, and asks them to audit college math and science classes, to provide a field study of one tribe by another.

Sociologically I agree that it's an interesting concept on its own, and certainly worthwhile for a science educator who wants to engage in introspection and take in some outside critiques.  I can read it with that goal in mind.

What I can't do is read it as a study that must a priori be relevant to solving systemic problems in my field, and not just because I reject the narrative of a STEM shortage.  Working in the trenches of college-level science education, the problem that I face is not an abundance of empty seats while students flock to other fields.  Rather, I live in a world where the classroom is filled with ill-prepared students, the cultural mindset of my peers and superiors is that it would be unjust to tell them to consider another field, and scholars in the humanities and social sciences are scared that their disciplines will be axed for the ascendant STEM fields.  In this world, our biggest challenge is not to win over the bright kids who chose to major in literature or accounting, but rather to help the ill-prepared kid who harbors a dream of rocket science, and either make them into a rocket scientist or gently guide them to another path.

We can still learn something from the observations of genuine outsiders, just as we can learn something from any number of experiences and observations.  There may be serendipitous insight in here, and if so, great!  But I don't think that I can feasibly or realistically approach this book as one whose design promises solutions to the practical problems immediately in front of me.  The design of the study means that any such solutions will emerge by lucky happenstance, not by careful targeting.  I can learn new things to add to my general mental toolkit, but my inner Bayesian assigns a low prior probability to the notion that this book has direct solutions to my problems.

Also, I can read this book as a cultural artifact, as an example of what people actually believed in the early 1990's, an era when the Cold War was won, our greatest geopolitical problems were (allegedly) solved, a tech boom was building in the aftermath of a recession, the House of Clinton was ascending after a Bush presidency, and the music on the radio was good.  The elite consensus that places STEM on a pedestal is a source of never-ending frustration for me, and this book is a time capsule that might help me understand it.  Mind you, STEM mania predates this book by several decades, but in order for a consensus to survive it must adapt, and this book might tell me something about the current incarnation of STEM mania.

With all that said, let's see what outsiders have to say when they observe a science class.