Banazîr the Jedi Hobbit (banazir) wrote,
Banazîr the Jedi Hobbit

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The Power of Plasticity: discussions on mentoring and learning

Those of you who have been following my LiveJournal since the "good old days" may remember my little essay on virtuosity, where I examined the problem of "nature versus nurture" in academic talent, argued that it is important to motivate people of significant potential rather than dissuade those of small talent, and laid forth my reasons for why it is much easier to discourage than to encourage. The part about intrinsic talent, and to what degree success is predictable as a function thereof, prefigured the brouhaha a year later over former Harvard president Larry Summers' comments on female students in the sciences.

In subsequent months, you saw me wax argumentative over the nascent Intelligent Design debate in Kansas, get snarky about the sad deterioration of childrens' television, and finally blow my top entirely at allergy towards challenging material and teaching styles in graduate courses.

Much later, I mellowed considerably in a modest little critique of the mathematical mindset and review of the differences between math and applied math (including theoretical computer science). I then waxed indignant once more in my rage against the know-nothing mindset that is becoming sadly pervasive.

For those who have been keeping track, but may have missed the posts, every year, around October, I put my money where my mouth is and spend a good half day just digesting and summarizing what we have talked about in the department and how we are looking to institute needed reforms. In 2004, I wrote about a discussion that Dave Schmidt started on CS track areas; the next fall, I took a straw poll on "essential CS topics".

I've agreed with some of the suggestions that have come out of the Undergrad Studies Committee (such as forming Computer Science, Information Systems, and Software Enginering track areas), been indifferent to others (such as turning Math 655, Numerical Analysis, from a required course into an elective), and opposed others (such as doing the same to Math 551, Matrix Theory and making CIS 560, Introduction to Database Systems, an elective for Information Systems majors!). I think I have a chance to swing the vote in the CIS 560 decision, but not in the Math 551 decision.

As you may know, my pet project is Math 510, Discrete Mathematics: to wit, turning it from an intermediate combinatorics course into a first course in discrete mathematical structures so that students will stop deferring it, flunking it, giving up on it, and otherwise dashing their CS careers on it.

Now, here's where I'm especially interested in your viewpoints: last week, in a reply to a comment by julisana, I wrote:
My point is: rejoice that you learned things as an undergrad, even painful things, especially painful things! Even if you hated them, you have a better chance of making them second nature and "powering through" to more interesting and profound concepts. Accept and exploit that advantage. There's a reason why Heralds of Valdemar are chosen as younglings, why Jedi are normally only taken as infants, why Klingon kids practice with batlethmey from the age of three. It represents the power of plasticity.

Now, I know there is some debate in the "cognition, learning, and memory" community about this. What do you all think?

In other news: Apropos of the above, I have started a Cognition, Learning, and Memory seminar with Greg Monaco in the Psych department. Anybody who's interested - please comment. It's currently a K-State Online group, similar to a lecture series or journal group, but we can see about including people from outside K-State if there is interest.

Tags: cognition, computer science, learning, memory

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