Survey-Related Inadequacies

I recently participated in a survey of higher education professionals about various aspects of the job. It was very clearly designed by and aimed at scholars in the humanities and social sciences, to the point where answering questions honestly made me feel like a Bad Person.

For example, there were numerous questions about teaching methods that just aren't applicable to what I teach-- things like learning through community service. while there is some truth to the old cliche that you never really learn something until you have to teach it, something like turning a bunch of would-be engineers from our first-year mechanics class loose on a local middle school isn't really going to help anybody. Similarly, the hot trope of the moment, interdisciplinarity, really doesn't come into play when the main task I face is teaching a bunch of first-year students about Newton's laws. While you can sneak in the occasional biology or physiology-related example, those are pretty much physics through and through.

Still, as I went down the list checking "No" to each of the areas they chose to highlight, it was hard to avoid feeling like I was horribly inadequate as an academic. When, in fact, it's just that the survey isn't a good fit for the sort of thing that we do.

I was also asked to rate the importance of a variety of ideas and concepts, which again, is hard to do honestly without feeling like a jerk. Do I think that the personal growth of college students in terms of ethics, morals, appreciation of diversity, and so on is important? Sure. Is it important to what I directly teach? Not really. Do I think engagement with the community outside the college is important? Absolutely. Is there any practical way to make it an important part of my teaching? Not really.

So, I end up answering a bunch of questions in ways that probably make the grad student sorting the results think I'm some kind of conservative dinosaur still grumbling that we were too soft on the hippies back in the 60's. But really, it's just that the questions being asked are a bad fit for my particular discipline.

It's also striking that there are very few items that might go the other way. There was basically nothing on there that could reasonably apply to labs, for example-- a question or two about the amount of time spent prepping labs and demos, but nothing asking about, say, the importance of hands-on learning, or student involvement in the construction of research apparatus. Labs and undergrad research are a huge part of what we do in physics, but because they're not a big part of professional activity in the parts of academia where they collect and analyze survey data, they don't really get counted.

The last time I participated in this survey, I had the exact same complaints, and went to the trouble of sending email to the survey organizer. I got a very polite reply telling me that feedback was appreciated and would be taken into consideration. As near as I can tell, though, they've added new humanities buzzwords to the survey since then, but nothing relevant to my concerns. so this time, I'll just bitch about them on the blog, and ten years from now, when they ask again, I'll probably skip it, because there are lots of other ways I could use the time it takes to fill out the survey.

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I worry that too many physical scientists, mathematicians, and biologists see this sort of survey and ignore it since it's too humanities/social science oriented. This makes the answers and, in turn, the questions skewed toward those academic disciplines.

But then again it does seem like a waste of your time to keep taking the surveys without them acknowledging your comments.

Can you write a real physical officially-letterheaded-paper letter to the survey heads addressing this issue and get it signed by several professors from different departments at Union (maybe different department heads)?

This will probably get noticed and sent to the right people where an email may not. It may also open up a dialog and cause more work for you (a downside) but it's much more difficult to ignore a physical piece of paper with ink signatures from a half dozen people (especially done in different color inks).

It's hard for me to say because I haven't seen the survey in question, but it sounds from your description as though the survey is badly designed in general.

The only way the "community service" aspect makes sense to me is if the survey authors assume that this is the normal route for acquiring hands-on learning experience. Even in the humanities, there aren't many disciplines where community service is directly classroom relevant: maybe some economics/political science, maybe some peripheral aspects of medicine/nursing, definitely language skills if you are not a native speaker of the local language. But it doesn't help you understand Shakespeare any more than it helps you understand Newtonian dynamics. For that, hands-on experience--labs for physical science, practice reading and commenting on Middle English texts for Shakespeare--is what you need. As an outside-the-classroom experience, community service may make some sense.

Interdisciplinarity is a favored buzzword these days, but physics does better than you might think. There is a reason you expect your students to have taken a semester of calculus before enrolling in intro mechanics, so you can always remind them that they should have seen some basic calculus trick before. This is even more true in upper level physics courses, many of which are (at least in part) thinly disguised mathematical methods courses. And of course you can bring in engineering and chemistry examples where appropriate.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 03 May 2011 #permalink

I don't know if those things really are irrelevant, or if physics just has a generally hidebound culture.

How do you know that going out to a middle school wouldn't be good? The last outreach event I did we extracted some DNA... but the kids wanted to blow something up. Maybe only chemists get to do that? Still, I seem to remember... yep, my undergrad has a physics van that goes out to middle schools Yes, "soap suds explosion" and some liquid nitrogen stuff. It's more explodey than DNA, anyway!
And as far as 'interdisciplinary', there is a *lot* of cool stuff where a sound grounding in physics would have helped me as a biologist. Not lame 'calculate the force in a blood vessel' trumped up 'physiology related' examples. But the real basis for understanding quantum dots comes to mind. Nanomaterials is a very cool field, and you can help students understand this.

I realize you have a curriculum and textbook and it's easiest to keep teaching that, and your metrics that you are evaluated on may force that you focus on those things, to some degree... but I also suspect that everybody, even people in humanities and social sciences, first hears about these buzzword things and thinks something like "wow that sounds like a great idea, but I don't see how it would fit in with my classes, so, oh well...".


I don't disagree with anything that you say about freshman physics. The "Calculate the force in an unrealistic blood vessel model..." problems are horrible, and should be either upgraded or phased out. And certainly it would be good to give some understanding of things like quantum dots.

The problem: To do these things well, while still covering the usual topics in mathematical detail (as opposed to purely qualitative) is basically impossible in the constraints of 3-4 lecture/discussion hours per week in one year.

The solution: Free me from all of the usual constraints, give me some release time to develop a new course, and I will teach a kick-ass physics for biologists course (borrowing from several different texts) that is actually relevant.

But note that there are several constraints:
1) "See, untenured professor, we've always covered it this way..." That one can be solved by tenure, and by some political support for the experiment. Not impossible, but not as easy as you think.

2) "Professor, I took the traditional course for the first quarter; can I take yours in the second quarter?" This seems like it should be an easy one to solve with a bit of institutional willpower, but see its converse in objection 3.

3) "Professor, I took your section last quarter, but this quarter I'm in the regular section and I'm really not prepared for any of the usual material. I couldn't take your section because it conflicted with [insert other class, outside job, extracurricular activity, or intercollegiate sport]." See, as soon as one class does something weird one quarter, it messes everything up unless students follow a very straight and narrow path.

Again, it should be solvable, but you'd be amazed.

4) "Wait, you mean, in order to do physics to model and understand relevant problems, I need to take more than the 1 quarter of calculus that the biology department requires for my major? THAT'S NOT FAIR!!!"

Ah, now we're getting to some meaty objections.

And, of course:

5) "But, but, the MCAT tests us on traditional stuff. WHY DIDN'T YOU COVER THAT?!!!??!?!?!11?!?"

Two more things:

1) I largely agree that community service activities don't usually do much to help reinforce what is learned in college science. There are of course exceptions, but exceptions are exceptional.

2) becca, if you want to see some awesome fodder for a "physics for bio majors" course, check out this book:…

It isn't a textbook, it's just a book full of examples that we really ought to teach in "physics for bio majors."

Now, if only I had the time to do a course redesign.

Remember your observations the next time someone writes a story about the state of pedagogy. It likely came from that very same crappy survey, or one just like it. I've never seen a well designed survey about academia, because they always originate from fields that have no clue about math or the sciences ... or maybe even about statistics.

IMHO, service learning can be real learning if you are tutoring math or reading or providing hands-on science demos. Other community service looks more like they are compensating for not teaching anything in class.

If that survey did not bring up various forms of active engagement, collaborative learning, or inquiry-based learning (like in labs), they are totally out of touch with reality. Which would not be surprising given the lectures I have heard about how we shouldn't lecture.

I'll second the comments about interdisciplinary work with your math colleagues. I can tell you from experience (since math and physics and chemistry faculty are in randomly assigned nearby offices at my CC) that math professors have NO IDEA what we use in physics. I had all I could do to not laugh when asked if we ever used complex numbers. Your place is small enough that you should be able to develop some collaborations to reinforce math in physics and physics in math in ways that will make your engineering faculty really happy.

PS -
Next time, don't skip the survey. Better to start it and leave it incomplete as soon as you get to a pointless question. That will really mess up their data analysis.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 04 May 2011 #permalink

Alex- first, thanks for the linky!
Second, yes, the MCAT is the bane of all our existences. We has a common enemy there, we does.
Third, on the math objection, that totally could have been me when I started Undergrad. It's worth considering that if you *can* stomach teaching more of the calculus integrated *with* the physics (which, admittedly, puts the physics instructors at severe risk of boredom of teaching routine math), you will reach a lot of students like me. I disliked math (was convinced I sucked at it, mostly), and it was a part of the reason I did not take P-chem (that, and P-chem had an atrocious rep in it's own right on my undergrad campus). Then I got to physics, and it all fell into place- the math just clicked in a way it never did in math class. Calculus can do many things, but it was invented as a tool to do physics, and that is still where it shines brightest.
Aside from my biases as a biologist wishing she had different exposure* to physics, I really do think that calculus-physics integration is valuable, and I suppose that really could legitimately be looked at as 'interdisciplinary'. That's probably the low hanging fruit, not the quantum dots type stuff. Alas for quantum dots.

*Really, I want those hours I spent filling out 'lab report' worksheets on 'predict which cylinder will go down the ramp fastest' BACK- literally the most pointless and intellectually insulting part of my undergrad... although I will give credit for the labs with the model circuits. They were awesome.


First, I would be happy to teach calculus in combination with physics. Now, how many topics from each subject do you want me to cover, in how many hours per week, and for how many semesters or quarters?

Second, we also have a common enemy in the "predict which cylinder will go down the ramp fastest". If it were me designing the lab, there'd still be something on motion, but it would be more of a project design/data analysis exercise, and you'd have several weeks to execute it.

And after that you'd do a project in a much more exciting context.

Alas, I'm not the person who decides these things.

And quantum dots could totally be done after we do acoustics. "See, electrons are waves. And remember how when we did musical instruments you had to be able to 'fit' a certain number of half-wavelengths inside the pipe for it to resonate? Well, you have to fit a certain number of half-wavelengths of the electron in the dot for it to resonate. And that sets the wavelength, and hence the energy."

Does anybody know how to apply Fermat's Last Theorem to the study of Nature?

By Andre Saharig (not verified) on 04 May 2011 #permalink

Does anybody know how to apply Fermat's Last Theorem to the study of Nature

I do, but the comment section of this blog is too small to contain it.

(Sorry, couldn't resist.)