Twofish's Blog

August 16, 2006

Love letter from MIT…..

Here they are. These are the two speeches on Technology Day 2006 that invited me back after fifteen years away…… One was a speech by President Hockfield on MIT research priorities and the second was a speech from Woodie Flowers about a liberal arts education in the 21st century.

It might seem odd to talk about love and passion in the context of institutions and educational, but that oddness is merely a reflection of how mutated our society has become.

The speech by Woodie Flowers is particularly important. I’m using MIT as the emotional center of my efforts to try to improve the undergraduate physics curriculum, and that is because there is an MIT professor willing to get in front of the entire world and say that there is a problem. If someone from University of Phoenix or the University of Texas at Austin were willing to go an a podium and make a similar speech, I’d be putting my efforts in those institutions, but I’ve found that trying to change a large institution that doesn’t want to be changed is a useless and painful experience. No one from UoP or UT Austin has talked publicly about the need for change, so I’ll leave them alone.

August 12, 2006

Notes on More Jobs in Science

Something about my own background.  One thing that I did was to take a lot of EE courses and spend real effort in writing and Chinese courses.  My undergraduate physics dissertation was in courseware development.  I spend a huge amount of time in the Undergraduate Association and with the Course Evaluation Guide.  This *did* have an *major* adverse impact on my getting into graduate school, but it made me hugely more employable once I got out.

In hindsight, it probably was a good deal for me.  I did manage to get into a pretty good graduate school (University of Texas at Austin), although I was rejected from the top ones (Harvard and MIT) I wanted to go to.  Not being able to get into the prestige graduate programs (and was *extremely* personally painful) and has ripple effects because it makes it harder to get post-docs and faculty positions.  On the other hand, I was able to go into industry easily, and I have enough money saved up so that I am getting back into academia through a non-traditional route (i.e. just publish).
Some lessons:

1) The main reason that I did what I did, was to appeal to basic principles, and that was that it was a good thing to develop flexibility and well-roundedness, even if you have to fight the system to do it, and even if the system rewards the opposite behavior.

2) The problem with getting advice is that the advice is often geared toward optimizing toward the speakers goals rather than the students.  My undergraduate education was not optimized for going into academia the traditional way, but by compromising a little bit, I exchanged getting into top tier graduate schools for employablity, and I still got into a good graduate school, and learned Chinese and writing in the process.

The other problem is that there are a lot of things in my career path that involved things that *no one* really thought about in 1991.  The impact of globalization, the rise of China, and dot-com boom and bust.  The one thing that my education did provide was the flexibility and tools to figure out what to do in situations that no one forsaw in 1991.  One thing that worries my about talk of curriculum is that a lot of it involves optimizing for the world of 2006 rather than the world of 2036, which will have issues that no one now knows about.

Something that was *really* useful to me was studying philosophy, history, Chinese, and literature.  A lot of what I’m doing now involves studying what Chinese of the mid-19th century did when *they* had a massive degree overproduction problem.  A lot of the issues I had to face are basically social/ethical ones.  What is my duty to my wife, my kids, my co-workers?

All this has been useful, but I had to actively fight the system in order get that education.  Because I cared a lot about the humanities, I couldn’t get into the grad schools that my peer group was able to get into, and that was very, very painful.  It’s like being rejected by a woman that you deeply love.  Love turns to hate and resentment.
What was even more painful was being “rejected” by the MIT physics department, since I had grown to truly love the place.   It’s only in the last few months, that I realized that if I fly to Cambridge, hang around the physics department, that they won’t send the Campus Police to eject me, and that I really have some useful experience to offer them, and if they don’t listen to me its they that have problems, not me.

The thing that concerns me about traditional academia is that it is getting extremely inbred.  If you want a position of power in academia, you have to do everything right, and if one thing goes different than the system rejects you.  This is bad because it adds unnecessary pressure, it prevents people from actually trying to do new and different things, and it means that the people who end up in power basically see the world in the same way.

I don’t think that there should be a standard physics curriculum.  What I think there should be is some basic guidelines, a lot of choices and flexibility, and *lots* of information for the student, and then you trust the student to figure out what to do since they know more about themselves than the teacher.

August 8, 2006

Professional societies and peer review as quality control

Someone needs to insure quality in education, and IMHO that job should be more in the hands of professional societies and journal peer reviewers than in college admission boards for one reason.  It doesn’t matter how smart people are, Harvard can only admit 30,000 students.  It doesn’t matter how smart people are, the stupid weed out classes in UT Austin science and engineering insures that only a small fraction survive.  (And the reason that I want to use MIT as the model is that MIT doesn’t have physics weed out classes.  It is tough, but its like the Marines, most people that make the program, make it through.  The nasty stuff I saw at MIT undergraduate education is minor compared to the really nasty stuff I’ve seen at the UT Physics department.)

In each case the limits are artificial, and as people become smarter and better trained, the result of these artificial limits are to insure that what determines if someone survives *ISN’T* quality but rather luck, the ability to game the system, and personality traits such as obsessiveness.  And it is just going to get worse.  People are getting smarter, and the social systems designed to weed out people just can’t cope with this influx of smart people.

Professional societies and journals don’t have these hard artificial limits.

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