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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.



( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 14th, 2006 11:40 am (UTC)
I don't think that I remember every detail of the painful things I learned in undergrad, but I do know that I can pick up a book on those painful topics and grab up some of the important bits now. I also know that those painful things were often a bag of useful tools that I occasionally apply to interesting problems now. I think the key is having some watered down exposure to those interesting problems while learning some of the painful things.
Mar. 14th, 2006 11:55 am (UTC)
Without a doubt, the instructors that I learned the most from were the ones that I whined the most about. HOWEVER, there is whining (complaining mostly because you are lazy and they are making you work) and then there is being truly upset and confused.

I have had many good professors/instructors challenge me and force me to use my full potential. Admittedly, I lose respect for instructors when I get "easy As" on assignments that I whipped out the night before they are due. (Sure, I'll bitch if I get a B, but just you see if I don't work that much harder on the next one. For every "easy A" I get, I slack a little bit more.)

However, I have also had painful experiences. Some of these, I came back to later and rejoiced at my sudden comprehension (differential equations during Fluid dynamics, Bode plots in control systems). Some of these have soured/scared me off the subject entirely. My dynamics professor was so utterly terrible that in addition to not teaching me anything or being willing to help me, he did me the greatest disservice he could have--he passed me. Granted, failing the class would have been an ego blow that might have caused me to give up engineering altogether (it was a very bad time) but passing me has left me as a MechE who is terrified of dynamics--the very heart and soul of my major. I keep telling myself that I will teach myself with my old book. I might just do that this summer. It's a demon that I want to lay to rest.

I guess what I am trying to get at is it depends why the experience was painful. If it was painful because you were being pushed to work harder, or in a different style than you were comfortable with, if you were being forced to expand your mind and work outside of your "comfort zone" it is amazing. But if it is painful because you are not being taught, helped, or supported, then it isn't helping you. In fact, it has a greater potential to hurt you.

I would like to note however that there is a lot of gray area in between, and when in doubt, having at least seen the material and heard the terms is almost always preferable to knowing nothing.
Mar. 14th, 2006 12:01 pm (UTC)
Also in regards to plasticity, I think that part of it is the openness to learning. Teaching young children is an amazing experience, you say draw and they do. By the time that they have reached even 5th grade, you ask them to draw and they will point out the "artists" and say that they can't do it. No wonder we have a hard time learning. It's not just that our brain development has changed, we have found our "niche" and we don't want to leave it.
Mar. 16th, 2006 01:22 am (UTC)
How's the engineering job market in your area of the world, anyway?
Mar. 17th, 2006 07:34 am (UTC)
Like everywhere else it depends on what you want to do and what experience you have. We have a lot of engineering firms here, but it really depends on what you want. I will say that the jobs I am interested seem to be found primarily here, in the Bay Area, and in random tiny towns (ie: Neenah, WI, Pawtucket, RI) scattered across the East Coast.
Mar. 14th, 2006 04:28 pm (UTC)
Hmm...I have a comment on the relative hardness of undergrad engineering and grad textiles (or whatever the name of the department I'm in is. [Can't you just imagine the respect dripping off me?]) I followed your link about whining about grad students being lazy. I am also a lazy grad student but I have no illusions about that, nor do I expect any of my professors to cut me slack because it's Tuesday.

Engineering was tough for me. Very, very tough. I had to retake several classes, especially calc 2 which finally on the fourth try I got my C and was allowed to continue! But I certainly DID learn plenty. The most important lesson was that failure on the first try did not mean I was a loser nor was it a guarentee of failure the next time, or the time after that, or the nth time. There was plenty of book learning, too. If I was given a book, I could probably relearn most of it fairly quickly if I had to. In a nutshell while I was far from graduating with a good GPA I did graduate and I didn't whine about bad grades to the professors.

I spent at least 10 hours a week doing homework per class. That's probably a little low but that's all I could mentally handle. That was another important lesson I learned: when it was worth pushing myself and when it wasn't. Overall the professors I had knew the material they were teaching inside and out and were not afraid to make us work for knowledge.

Grad school is an entirely different beast. I enjoyed my more sciencey classes, but after taking the three or four offered in the department, I'm stuck taking classes like "Fashion Theory." I spend 2 days a week reading social science articles. After half of a semester of this I have lost most of the respect for social science as a real science. Last semester I had a teacher who was not consistent with expectations and who didn't know a single thing about the class she was supposed to be teaching. Her excuse was "you're in grad school now, you're supposed to learn this stuff on your own." That applied to clarifying things we went over in class.

After my experience I've come to the conclusion that a masters in this department is worth even less than an undergrad engineering degree as far as knowledge gained. It's not specialized knowledge like what I thought a masters would be like: it's reading stupid articles that have nothing to do with real life, learning a few factoids, and writing summaries, research proposals and discussion papers. Spewing pages and pages of BS is not a problem (I have a LJ afterall) nor is phrasing my thoughts in a coherent manner (no, this comment is NOT the best example of logic or coherency). I'm finishing up because perhaps at some point later in my life having a diploma that says "masters" will help.

I have no idea how or WHY some of my fellow grad students say, "I need help with my writing skills. Writing papers is hard for me." None of the papers we write require more than basic literacy and the ability to employ logic. For example on our research proposal we were given a formula to follow. How did they get into grad school without knowing how to write? Or are they just self conscious about it? I'm not sure, but it makes me wonder if we as a nation will one day be too illerate to read children's books.

Mar. 14th, 2006 04:30 pm (UTC)
I accidently left an annoymous comment because I didn't know I was logged out at the time. Sorry about that. I was rambling about engineering vs. textiles in case you got more than one.
Mar. 15th, 2006 06:58 pm (UTC)
but it makes me wonder if we as a nation will one day be too illerate to read children's books.
Regrettably, already true.

My Dearest Mouse: .... is about the rough draft for The Wind In the Willows (with commentary), target age 12-ish. The vocabulary was not uptwanged for The Wind In the Willows...and that would give most high school students below AP English a hard time.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 15th, 2006 11:06 pm (UTC)
Hmm...that's at least partly a false duality.

Most people I know who say they can't multitask, I also know don't concentrate well in the first place. And I only multitask well when concentrating well, so (at least from within) multitasking is a different use of concentration, not a replacement.

I also focused on vocabulary, because there was a severe style shift in mass-printed fiction between 1930 and 1960. While I don't mind writing in pre-1920's conventions — after all, it gives you half of forever to set things up clearly — there is not even a niche non-academic market for that kind of fiction.
Mar. 15th, 2006 04:35 pm (UTC)
I think pain should be crouched very carefully in it's structure and it's expected reward.

Example: say the alphabet backwards as fast as you can.

Most people find this incredibly difficult; learning the alphabet backwards is nearly as difficult as learning it forwards.

We don't teach learning the alphabet backwards, although it could theoretically be handy if you come in at the end of the library bookshelves.

You should teach the skills on which you can form the hierarchy for other skills. Notation, classification, grammar, structure, abstractions. Form the general principles, show where they could take you, and then drill them until they flow.

It is widely believed that the neocortex works in this exact manner, finding sequences of primitives, and learning those as primitives. This should be the first guide: what flow will best serve your students, for what they desire.

Notice that this is a two way sword: if they can't learn a pattern, or if they can't imagine a path by which the pattern will serve their desires, then, as an educator, you lose.

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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