Monday, April 30, 2007

What can you expect from students?

This is a recurring topic in the pedagogic course I'm currently attending. Primarily, this question is brought up in response to the general notion that the base knowledge appears to be dwindling with each generation of students, but also in response to the instructors' persistence that teachers should strive to present the material using the latest technology (video recordings of lectures, online discussions/tutorials, etc), and also to encourage interaction with students using e.g. Facebook and Myspace platforms. Wielding the awesome powers of the 50+ hours of pedagogic training I've had so far, and correlating this with my own teaching experiences, I've begun to develop some pretty strong opinions about the subject, the majority of which can be formulated as follows:

  1. Alas - the knowledge base in certain topics - especially math and physics - is strongly reduced among the majority of students, which is ironic, seeing as how the number of required courses in these subjects appears to have increased over the last couple of years.
  2. The students have obviously not become dumber over the last 20 or so years, so that's hardly the problem. Not even the combined effect of Teletubbies and reality TV could affect the evolution that quickly.
  3. Seeing as how university teachers observe this "in real time", i.e. there is a decrease in the amount of knowledge between generations of students, it is highly unlikely that the problem lies at the university, unless the same teachers become progressively worse at teaching. There are many things one can blame on university lecturers, but this is probably not one of them.
  4. There is however a direct correlation between a decline in the knowledge base and graduation from new reforms as implemented by the government. Every time the powers that be try to change mathematics into an arts&crafts-project at and below high school level, we see the consequences. For all I know, there might be tons of positive feedback from other disciplines, but for natural sciences, it's a disaster. Again, this is somewhat ironic, seeing as how natural sciences have been the benchmarks for each reform.
  5. University funding is now to a large extent based on the number of passing students each academic year. In other words, if X students graduate, we get Y amounts of cheddar. Which means that if z% flunk out, we miss out on z% of our funding. I'm not sure how instituting financial penalties for failing students and then setting the universities in charge of evaluation is the best way to improve the our academic institutions. Does it work? Well; since this was instituted, the percentage of failing students has dropped significantly. I'll leave it up to y'all fine folks to figure that one out.....
  6. Assuming that the decline is cased by a steadily widening gap between knowledge obtained at high school and the level we base the introductory university courses on - what should one do? Lower expectations at the introductory level and postpone the sharp learning curve which is sure to come unless the education should be prolonged? Not care and let students fail? Devalue the programs? Or actually start to rank high schools and universities in 1st and 2nd-tier institutions......
  7. We haven't actually done ourselves any favors by giving more and more local colleges university status, thereby effectively providing more university-level seats than there are university-attending asses. We don't increase the quality of the output by a) not setting any requirements for entry and b) not failing substandard candidates due to financial penalties. And why should the students make an extra effort when the papers they get out count for more or less the same regardless of at which institution they obtained them?
  8. So; how can we as educators motivate the students to surpass their previous efforts? By jumping at every possibility to communicate with the students through media where they are likely to reside anyways, like Facebook and Myspace? In my opinion, nothing spells "three to five years" like a male professor haunting the Myspace pages of his female students, so I'm gonna have to put that idea in the "sucks" category......
  9. Video lectures? I guess they work great for repeating certain subjects, but if you're able to pass a math class by simply attending the lectures or by looking at video tapes of lectures, you'd pass anyways.
  10. By providing the students with more and more snippets of information through different learning channels, I think we're increasing the surface (as opposed to the depth) learning. Looking at a video of something is no substitute for having to work through the material for yourself. Interestingly; while we try to implement whatever technologies we can get our hands on in explaining why something is called "free energy", the institutions which objectively speaking produce the best students use traditional lectures on the blacboard. Go figure...

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Git yo' book recommendations hyuh

...three more books in the category "voted least likely to appear in a compilation of 1,000,005 books recommended by everyone and read by noone as found at your local bookstore".

Woman With Violin: The Autobiography of Ida Haendel (1970)
In my opinion, Ida Haendel is among the very best violinists ever to grace a stage. A Polish-born child prodigy, she won the 1st Wieniawsky competition in Warsaw at age 12 in 1935, before getting rave reviews at age 14 of her soloist performance in the Brahms concerto under Sir Henry Wood's direction in London. Ida Haendel became a naturalized British subject in 1940, and has remained so ever since. Her stunning virtuosity and mature musicianship led to Jean Sibelius composing a piece for her specifically. Suffice it to say that if you ever come across a record with Ida Haendel as a performer - buy it. For example - in one of the rare recordings ever made with legendary Rumenian director George Enescu ("listening to a record is like making love to a cardboard cutout"), Ida Haendel was again the director's first and only choice as soloist. Woman With Violin is a fascinating insight into Ida Haendel's development as a musician and as a person. First as a child prodigy, and then beyond to the level of Kreisler himself. It's definitely a book worth reading again and again if you're at all interested in (classical) music.

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card (1982)
Perhaps THE best science fiction book I've ever read. Excellent story, and the rest of the series (both the "Ender Quartet" and the shadow saga) is warmly recommended as well. Granted, the rest of the series lacks the effortless flow of Ender's Game, but still worth reading. What else is there to say....

J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer Of Worlds, by Peter Goodchild (1985)
Excellent biography about one of the truly great scientific minds of the 2oth century - and also the recipient of one of the most thorough screw jobs courtesy of Joseph "Communist Inquisitor Extraordinaire" McCarthy following his denouncement of nuclear weapons post WWII. The man deserves a better legacy than "Father of the atomic bomb".

Conversation topics 101

Every so often, one is forced to make small talk with strangers with whom one has absolutely nothing in common - typically at luncheons, conferences, business dinners, etc. If you're a foreigner in Norway - or in my case if you're assumed to be a foreigner in Norway - and entertaining international guests at some function, there seems to be a list of universal, lowest common denominator topics which will appear during the course of your "conversation". Some people appear to just be reading off of said list:
  1. So; where are you from?
  2. (follow-up to #1) Do you know ........? (If subject answered "France" to the above question, feel free to make up a regionally-sounding name like Jean-Francois LeFrenchguy if you don't actually know someone from that country - keep the ball rollin')
  3. Where'd you go to school?
  4. What do you do now (what type of research/studies/..)
  5. Why'd you choose to go to Norway?
  6. Doesn't it get, like, really cold in Norway?
  7. It's expensive to live in Norway, isn't it?
  8. The roads in Norway are in such a horrible condition, aren't they?
  9. So; did you see the ........ vs. ........ soccer match last night? (bonus points if you remember the name of the home team and whichever pack of third-tier losers they got defeated by)
  10. Alcohol and gasoline appear to be really expensive in Norway
  11. Why do Norwegians refer to fuel usage as litres per 10 kilometers instead of miles per gallon?
  12. Is it true that Norwegians are cold and unsociable?
  13. Does the King of Norway have any political power?
  14. So; can you say anything in Norwegian?
  15. My kid Bubba/Günther/Igor/Jean-Claude actually visited Norway last year - him and a couple of other kids spent a week in ....... (insert name of random SWEDISH city here)

Feel free to add to the list

Monday, April 23, 2007

Tenure Track

Recently, I borrowed one of the many "1001 books you should read for whatever reason" book, which left me more than a little puzzled as to the process and criteria behind the selection. For example; wouldn't it have been logic to automatically include the works that have won the Nobel literature prize? Being Norwegian and all, I found it a bit hard to swallow that the only Norwegian author in this book was Knut Hamsun, listed with Sult and Markens Grøde. Both stellar works, no doubt, but why no Sigrid Undset, Henrik Ibsen or Amalie Skram when the book practically doubled as Henry Miller's publication list? I thought I'd suggest books which in my opinion are worthy of inclusion in such a list, one book at a time. Starting with

Tenure Track, by Joseph Meigs
I stumbled across this book completely by accident in the discount bin at the Borders off of Walnut Street in Cary, North Carolina, in early 2003. The only thing going for this book in terms of sales pitch besides the ridiculous price of $1.99 or whatever was the connection to academia.

The book deals with the trials and tribulations of a newly hired assistant professor at some Southern university. Meigs manages to capture the quintessential academic characters that anyone who's been exposed to colleges and universities past BSc can recognize, in a way which transcends scientific disciplines. Tenure Track is written from the standpoint of an English literature professor, but it works equally well for those anchored in natural sciences. In many ways, this is a short, academic adaptation of Faust. That alone should be sufficient motivation to read Tenure Track.

If you've had any close encounters with university lecturers and professors, this book's for you.

Edit: As has been brought to my attention, this entry was even made on World Book Day. Yesss!!

Friday, April 20, 2007

...and so it begins

Seeing as how just about everyone else has a blog, I thought I'd jump on the bandwagon. there...