It's Always Harder than You Think

An open letter to Gov. Scott Walker: stop perpetuating the myth of the lazy professor

When you say we should work harder, I hear two things: 1) we aren’t working hard, and 2) we don’t think we have to. Professors seem like an easy target. We have good job security, we’re paid well, we often come from privileged backgrounds. We appear to have little to do but teach a class for a few hours a week, and we have extended vacations. It’s easy to see us as cloistered in the Ivory Tower, without much experience with the “real world” and the concerns of average folks.

The picture I’ve painted for you is incomplete, though.

Dogpile on Tyson!

An Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson

I mean, what the hell is that? I’ve been staring at this for a while, and really can’t find an angle from which it doesn’t look insulting to a whole bunch of people who don’t deserve your scorn. Are you trying to say that bad teachers are so common that every good student has had to work around them? That only bad teachers give A’s? That no student is so good that a good teacher would give them all A’s?

My most charitable interpretation is that a poor teacher is an obstacle — perhaps a student would not be as motivated, the student might have the conflict of misinformation from the teacher vs. knowledge gained elsewhere, or things like that, which could trip him/her up. A good teacher might not have so much heavy lifting to do with a talented student. But I’m working here — even considering the character limit of twitter, this seems like a dig at teachers.

As long as I’m piling on, Tyson hit another sour note recently, IMO. There’s also the one about unhackable systems, which is the sort of thing that happens to everyone from time to time, I guess: you aren’t familiar with the gory details, so you assume the hidden part is also the trivial part. It’s almost like saying “let’s build a perpetual motion machine to make some energy” (though I am unsure if they are impossible at the same level — does “unhackable” run into some fundamental problem, or is it just so hard to do that it’s transactionally impossible? I don’t know)

The larger point is that Tyson has a huge audience, and with great power comes great responsibility, as the saying goes. Most of the stuff he does is very good, but the mistakes have a large impact as well.

In this Corner, Cost. In the Other, Benefit.

Do the benefits of a college education outweigh the cost?

Spoiler alert: yes.

I do have an objection to strictly financial analyses I see; I hope people aren’t choosing careers based solely on how much money they can make rather than something they enjoy. The general benefits of learning how to think and being intellectually challenged are important as well. I wonder if the high cost amplifies a buyer’s remorse feeling, and/or if it pressures students to avoid certain choices which might mean an extra semester or two at school.

Others note that a college degree is no longer required to get a good job, especially since almost four of every ten college graduates are working at jobs that don’t require a college degree. Fruzsina Eordogh is one of those students who dropped out of college to work as a full-time writer for the Daily Dot (Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and Apple’s Steve Jobs are three of America’s most famous college dropouts.)

The objection here is that people don’t necessarily know what they want to do at 18 years old, so they have no idea that the job they end up in doesn’t require a degree. Plus there’s nothing here that indicates that these 40% are not aspiring to better jobs that do require a degree. And bringing up Zuckerberg, Gates and Jobs as examples is like encouraging people to play the lottery by saying, “I won it, so that means you can, too!”

I’d much rather focus on efforts to make education affordable and available to anyone who wants it and make personal cost/benefit discussions moot.

Should You or Shouldn't You?

Should you get your PhD? (in science)

I added the parenthetical in science because I’m not sure how well the advice works well outside of it — it may have less applicability outside of physics. I have quibbles with a few things, as I’m an experimentalist and an atomic physicist, and Ethan is a theorist and is trained as an astrophysicist. There are bound to be some differences, but I think most of it is going to hold up for science PhDs in general.

There are plenty of brilliant people who get them, of course, but there are also plenty of people of average or even below-average intelligence who get them. All a PhD signifies, at the end of the day, is that you did the work necessary to earn a PhD. There are many people who have PhDs who will dispute this, of course. There are plenty of people who are insecure about their lives, too, and base their entire sense of self-worth on their academic achievements and accolades. You probably have met a few of them: they are called jerks.

This was probably the biggest surprise in grad school to me — how much the ratio of intelligence to stubbornness actually was in the student population, vs. the larger value I had naively expected it to be.

The Color Purple (No Relation)

What Is Color?

A pretty good entry for this year’s Flame Challenge.

We don’t have spectrometers inside our eyes to measure wavelengths; instead, we see colors of light thanks to special cells in the back of our eyes that send a signal to our brain when they detect light.

I think Chad’s entry is better in breadth, depth and presentation than the winner from last year, but it’s also true that I thought last year’s question (What is time) was misguided. This year we’re back to asking about processes that can be broken down and explained.

If Life Gives You Straw, Build Straw Men

Obama vs. Art History

I saw this in a tweet, with the tag line “Obama becomes latest politician to criticize a liberal arts discipline”

I am sympathetic with with those on the side of the colleges and universities when they are defensive about criticism that they are not preparing students for the workforce — that’s not their primary function, and I am very aware of the irony that many who are complaining also have a phobia about socialism — and yet they want someone else to shoulder the expense of training their potential employees, and don’t want to pay taxes to make this happen.

But I think this article fails to counter what the president said (especially in context of the speech) and also that the author doth protest too much.

There are all sorts of ironies about the president selecting art history as a discipline to question. He is a graduate of Columbia University, whose undergraduate college is rare in American higher education (outside of art schools) in requiring study of art history.

There are none that I can see, because criticizing the possession of an art history degree (regardless of the validity of the criticism) is not the same thing as criticizing taking an art history class. Recognition and avoidance of straw man arguments is one of the things one would hope people learn with a liberal arts education. The President didn’t say people shouldn’t take art history classes. He didn’t even say you shouldn’t major in art history.

Really this is no different from those of us who think that people in general should take a few more science classes so that they are scientifically literate, only to have it countered with the argument that no, this shouldn’t happen, because we don’t need more scientists in the workforce. Again, it’s the difference between taking a class or two and thus being exposed to a subject, and majoring in that subject. They aren’t the same thing.

The article then goes on to try and rebut the notion that these degree recipients have a tough time finding jobs, but don’t use art history majors but arts majors in general (so the author is moving the goal posts). One link points out that arts majors have an unemployment rate of 8%

A large majority of respondents (92 percent) who want to work say they are currently working.

which is right around the overall unemployment rate, or perhaps slightly better, since there would be a lag between the poll and the article, but ignores the fact that a college degree generally shaves a percentage point or two off of the unemployment rate. So arts majors (not art history majors) are doing slightly worse than other college graduates.

The next provided link implies there are successes in liberal arts degrees, going even further away from the President’s comments, but if you read the paragraph carefully, you’ll notice that the author makes no actual claim that a degree in the liberal arts leads to a high salary. If one clicks through, one finds out why that is so.

Among graduates with a baccalaureate degree only, those with humanities and social sciences degrees consistently earn less than anyone else, peaking at about $58,000 a year.

Of course, that brings to mind a separate argument, that career success is only measured by one’s salary, and I don’t agree with that, either, and just in case anyone takes exception, I think you should do what you love, or at least like. As long as you can make a living doing that, who cares what anyone else thinks? I also think liberal arts education is important, because a broad base of understanding and critical thinking skills are valuable things.

But that’s not the subject of the article. An article which never actually knocks down any of the straw men that it built.

I Come to Bury Math, not to Praise it

The Death of math

I have no problem with the viewpoint that math instruction needs to improve, and that covering a lot of ground but only superficially is a bad idea. Plus all the standardized testing idiocy.

But I disagree with the “math should be an elective after grade 8” proposal. The point is not, as is suggested, to churn out a bunch of math majors. Math is the language of science, and people need to be math and scientifically literate — that’s why they should be taught math and science. If you don’t teach math, not teaching science necessarily follows. And there is no way to teach some science any way but superficially without math.

One could easily replace the math examples in that section with English and Shakespeare (or fill in your favorite novels), and much of it would read pretty much the same, and I don’t think that’s a selling point of the argument. The point of teaching English and Shakespeare is not because we expect all of our students to become literature majors in college. They take English because they have to be able to communicate effectively, and they study Shakespeare because culture is important, too. If people understood that math is a language, I think it would blunt some of these arguments. You don’t hear people arguing that little Timmy/Sally “isn’t wired for English” as an excuse for trying to get it out of the curriculum. Understanding math and science adds value to how one gives context to information and how one interacts with the world. It’s a necessary part of education.

Piled High and Deep

I get this question a lot: “Should I go get a PhD?”

I have never seen a convincing case that getting a PhD is something that you need to get if you’re not going to be a prof.

While Joe cites a harsh fact in the conclusion — that a faculty position is what a minority of PhD recipients achieve — I don’t get the above quote. (Others often couple this with the sentiment that not getting a faculty position is failure, which is thankfully absent here) It’s like there’s this great blind spot about research, by most people blogging about research — they imply that it’s all done by university faculty. A great many people do research in government labs (well, not so much now in the US, what with the shutdown and all) and in private industry. I’m not sure what Joe would find convincing. When an announcement asks for a certain level of experience, I suppose technically one could argue that it need not come from graduate school or a post-doc, but that just creates a circular argument about how a person got that experience in the first place.

I’m not a prof, and you’d better believe my job requires a PhD. I know/am acquainted with many people to which this applies.