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Modern Professing

Old-school. Prof. Max von Laue. "You likely don't understand this."
Erin gave me a profound insight this morning. The idea of being a professor used to entail "professing." Yes, we still profess today. But in the past, the professor was the one person, or one of only a few  people in the world who had expertise on a specific area of study. If you wanted to understand the nature of young stars and you were a student in the 1960's, George Herbig was one of only a few people in the world who could profess on the topic.

These days, things are very different. If you want to know about young stars (or planets, or galaxies, or any other topic) you can do a Google search and you'll find a Wikipedia page, a slew of PDF documents, and a bunch of crap. You could also go down to your library and find numerous books, or you could turn to NASA ADS and turn up hundreds, if not thousands of papers. The availability of all of this information in the modern age is orders of magnitude beyond what was available in 1970, but the sheer volume, variety and, importantly, the range of validity of all this information is overwhelming to a student just getting started.

Thus, these days the job of the professor is not so much to profess and serve as the primary source of information on a given topic. Instead, our job nowadays is to provide context, motivation and a more flexible means of understanding. It's that last part that I think often goes missing in University teaching today.

This revelation nicely complements something else I've been thinking on lately. In physics and astronomy in particular, there used to be only a small number of students who could learn the subject. By that I mean there were only a handful of students with both the specific talents and opportunity to learn. The study of physics in the 1920's was therefore a guild system, with only a chosen few who could and would make it as Ph.D.-trained scientists. Take this description of the German systems of physics graduate education in the 1920's from The Making of the Atomic Bomb:
Physics students at that time wandered Europe in search of exoptional masters much as their forebers in scholarship and craft had done since medieval days...If someone whose specialty you wished to learn taught at Munich, you went to Munich; if at Gottingen, you went to Gonttingen. Science grew out of the craft informal system of mastery and apprenticeship over which was laid the more recent system of European graduate school. This informal collegiality partly explains the feeling among scientists of [that] generation of membership in an exclusive group..." [emphasis mine]
This attitude exists to this day, and not only among the older generation of professors. Some physics and astronomy professors see themselves as part of an elite group, members of a select corps. An extension of this view is that only a few individuals after you should be capable of accomplishing what you, the professor have accomplished. So only a minority of any group of students should be good enough, while the rest are simply not up to snuff. Only a chosen few get the A by exhibiting the same level of intellectual talent as the professor; the rest just aren't cut out for physics. The job of the professor is to profess, the students try their best to receive, and the few who do move forward with initiation into the guild.

A more modern conception of being a physics professor is to take the vast quantity of information available to the budding physics student and make it accessible and understandable. I see my job as not finding the one student out of 20 who can hack it, but to find a way for every student in my class to understand the material. The challenge, therefore, is not to first be the first to understand and then profess that understanding. The challenge instead is to find ways of making that hard-fought knowledge broadly accessible, not only to a wide variety of students and learning styles, but also to the general public.
New school: Prof. Joe Barranco
To my mind these ideas go a long way toward helping me understand the tension between old-school and new-school approaches to physics/astro education today. The old-school professors see Physics as an exclusive club that only a chosen few may enter, and only after a lengthy apprenticeship and a great deal of blood, sweat and tears. Those who pass the "hazing" of graduate school are strong, those who cannot are culled. The strong move on and become the next giants of the field. The rest should not let the door hit them on the back on the way out.

The new school looks at this approach and sees it as inefficient, and therefore an opportunity for innovation. They see students who are plenty smart enough to make an impact in the field, but these students struggle because they do not think like a traditional physicist (note that Richard Feynman did not think like a traditional physicist). They are creative and have strong physical intuitions, but, for example, they don't quite "see the Matrix," both literally and in analogy to the movie, where the raw mathematics are as intelligible as English. But when an explanation, example or exercise is used that meshes with the way they think, they get it the same as, or even better than the traditionalists.

This is a very good description of my learning style, and if it weren't for a number of new-school profs who have mentored me along the way I would not be where I am today. My experience, in turn, informs and guides the way I teach. My goal as an educator is to figure out the myriad ways in which my students learn and find methods that help them make sense of difficult physical concepts. I tell my Intro to Astro students that my goal is for every one of them to not only pass the class, but get As. Not because I give them As, but because I managed to help them learn, and they in turn respond by performing at a level commensurate with an A. Not everyone likes this approach. But fortunately, the students almost universally do. While the old school views this inclusive approach as "coddling" and "hand-holding," the new school sees an empathetic, and ultimately more challenging and rewarding approach to education.


Ellen Price said…
The "new school" is definitely a better way of doing things; before I took your Intro Astronomy class, I had been told by another professor that I should drop astrophysics and do something else, like computer science, because I was having trouble with E&M. I almost took that advice, but I'm glad now that I didn't. Astro is a lot more fun :)
Thanks for sharing, Ellen. Wow. Being told that you should drop out of astronomy because you're struggling in your E&M class. That's...dubious. At best. But it's a clear manifestation of the old-school approach to "teaching." I'm also very happy you didn't take that advice.

For those of you who don't know Ellen, she is working on using a Fisher matrix analysis to quantify the uncertainties of orbital eccentricities measured from Kepler light a sophomore.
Ellen Price said…
To be fair, I think he was also worried that, when he asked whether I would consider pure physics instead of astro, I said no. I may have answered too quickly at the time, but I had just said I was struggling in the subject, and it was something I'd never thought about before. Changing my major based on that five-minute discussion would not have been been the best life choice ever.

And yes, I'm having way too much fun doing research! It's much more gratifying than endless problem sets, and actually has the potential to be useful someday.

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