Laura's List - was Re: new years resolutions

Ben Leslie benno at
Tue Jan 7 03:23:39 CET 2003

On Mon, 06 Jan 2003, Laura Creighton wrote:

> > On Sun, 05 Jan 2003, Laura Creighton wrote:
> > 
> > > > Now, if I may ask a personal question, what you didn't like in science/ac
> > adem
> > > > ia ?
> > 
> > Although I agre with a lot of what you have said, I thought someone
> > better stand up on the side of academia. I'll add the disclaimer however
> > that I've only just finished my first undergraduate degree, so I may
> > not have had enough time to experience all the lows possible in 
> > academia, or more likely I've been lucky with the lectures I've had
> > and the other students I've worked with.
> Thank you ever so much for writing.  Your perspective is interesting.
> You, sir, have an interesting problem.  Somebody asked me what
> I didn't like in academia, and your response is to decide that academia
> needs _defending_ from people like me.

I'm not sure defending academia was my goal, rather providing another 
perspective on university life, which does, in some aspects, contrast
some of your points. The secondary aim was to generate discussion, which
would possibly lead to a better understanding of some of the problems that
do exist in universities.

>   And, what is more, some of
> your defences are 'well it is no worse than industry'.  

Well, to me, a useful list of "what is wrong with academia" would distinguish
"what is wrong with academia" with "what is wrong with <anything else>", so 
including things like "too many fools", it not so useful, because, there are
fools almost everywhere.

> We are never,
> ever, ever going to reform ourselves into becoming a more ideal
> institution as part of a more ideal society if we cannot even dream
> of a better world without the things we dislike about ourselves. 
> Marx said that religion was the opium of the masses.  Today, I suspect
> he would pick  mass-entertainment, and in particular Spectator Sports.
> You sound, to me, as if you believe that the sort of blind loyalty one
> traditionally gives to one's home town sport's team belongs to your
> profession, your field of study, or some other class interest (say
> the class 'academics').  

It is interesting, to me at least, that that is the impression my post
generates, mainly because I do not think that is true. There are plenty
of problems that I see in university education, however it makes a boring
post to simply say "me too". 

> I suggest shaking the obedience out of your
> head at the earliest possible opportunity ...  (BUT AFTER YOUR
> LAST SET OF EXAMS if you aren't done yet!  Save mental housecleaning
> for AFTER you get your marks back ...)  But we will assume that you
> are completely done, and continue ....

I don't think obediance and loyalty to academia is really needed to
succeed in exams. In fact the opposite, displaying some critical 
thinking, usually pays dividends in most subjects. (I say most, because
in some subjects regurgitating what has been spoon fed to you by
the lecturer is the only way to get good marks.)
> >  
> > > This is just off the top of my head....
> > > 
> > > 1. preoccupation with cleverness as opposed to wisdom
> > 
> > Care to expand on this point? I don't quite get what you mean.
> Sure thing.  Do you mean -- 'I don't know the difference between
> wisdom and cleverness?' or 'I don't know how to recognise clever
> foolishness when it happens around me?' or 'I don't know why
> getting the correct answer --- as opposed to having the correct
> process -- tends to reward cleverness and not wisdom?' or (most
> likely) something else.

Well, I guess to my foolishness and cleverness are a disjoint set, so
maybe an example of clever foolishness would clear it up for me.
> > 
> > > 2. giving the job of 'preparing people for industry' to people who have
> > >    mostly never been there.
> > 
> > Is this really the task of university? I thought university was there to
> > teach me to think, not to cram me full of <insert overhyped technology
> > here>.
> Now that is an interesting comment.  Did you really need to be 'taught 
> HOW to think'?  I don't know any universities which actually teach that.
> (Some of them, however, teach 'what are good study habits' to people who
> up until that point, had never needed any because they were bright enough
> to 'wing-it' on no study habits at all.  More should.  Would save on
> the suicide attempts, some of which are successful.)  

I was probably too breif in my explanation here. I expect a university to
teach me how to think about various problems. Not simply what the solution
is. So for example, how to go about writing/designing and algorithm, rather
than say, here is the algorithm for a quicksort. Of course in teaching
the general concept, it generally helps to study specific examples. Of course
studying specific solutions is a lot easier than generalising, so this
is often what ends up being learnt.
> I would dearly like it we could separate the people who want and
> need advanced vocational training, from the people who want to become
> academics, from the people who are only having their entrance into
> the workforce delayed for some number of years.  

I think that an undergraduate degree at least, provides (or should
provide) a good base education, which would then allow the student
to either obtain specific vocational training, or continue
onto a research masters or PhD.
> Then we build different institutions for the different needs and get
> rid of the fiction that:
> a) education is better than training (for all things, since training is
>    so, low-class)

Why do you say that this is a fiction? Surely a better education, alows
you to train more quickly and easily?

> b) that which best prepares you to be an academic also best prepares you
>    for industry

Clearly not true, though I think there would be a common ground.

> c) that being an academic means that you are a smarter, and hence better
>    person that somebody who isn't an academic, but only a 'professional',
>    both of which, of course, are miles above people who don't have
>    'professions' but only 'trades'.
> This is one bear of a job.  All the people whose sense of self-worth
> is based on the notion that they are _better_ than _other people_
> rather than that they are _good_ at _some things_ are going to fight
> it tooth and nail.  And universities are the absolute model for the
> belief that 'I am better than you are because I am smarter than you
> are'.  Taking that attitude out of the university is going to make a
> Middle East Peace Plan look easy-as-pie.
> > > 3. believing that teaching is something that comes naturally.  No effort
> > >    is made to train professors on how to teach well.  This is a trainable
> > >    skill.
> > 
> > Have to agree with this one.
> > 
> > > 5. Greedily embracing the notion that 'a university education is for
> > >    everyone' because it means more funding, reguardless of what it means
> > >    for would-be academics who now usually have to wait until they get
> > >    to grad school -- or now in some fields a postdoc before they can do 
> > >    anything truly original.  That is too long a wait.
> > 
> > I'm not sure what you are suggesting here. Are you saying there are not
> > enough interesting problems to tackle, or that universities provide the
> > opportunity for people to tackle the problems? (I'm going to assume the
> > latter :).  Surely this is up to the student as much as anything, what
> > is stopping them from finding some interesting original work?
> No, I was actually referring to the wisdom of merging 'professional
> training' with 'how to be an academic'.  See part 2.  But your
> question is interesting enough in itself.
> The answer to your question -- is way too much assigned core preparatory
> work which is held out as 'necessary preparation'.  Your own cool
> research is the carrot that they hold out to you to keep you on the
> treadmill of degree getting.
> This, of course, varies from department to department.  There were over
> 10,000 computer science students in EACH YEAR when I was an undergraduate.
> None of those poor souls got to do any original research or work at all.
> The whole notion was laughed at, and I got laughed at when I tried it.
> This was in direct contract to my experience as a Physics major.  There
> were 55 of us in my year, after the first year, (we started with about
> 200).  There, if you wanted to do something interesting, and you could
> get it funded, there was no problem.  The department made sure all the
> students were aware of summer work on NSERC funded projects, and when
> a we dedided that we wanted to get NSERC to pay for us to fool around
> in the laser-lab (though we made things sound more respectable on
> the grant) the department was right behind us.  Several professors
> volunteered to supervise us, and help us with our ideas.  The rule
> was 'if you can get the funding to do it, we will let you fool around
> with the laser lab as much as you like'.  It was great.  So I mostly
> got the educational experience I wanted from school.  Being a physics
> undergraduate was wonderful.

Well the cool thing about computer science is that you don't need funding
or special equipment or such things to do something cool. (Well if you
are playing with software anyway, hardware dev is another matter.)

In my experience the assignments and projects we were given for
actual subjects were usually open-ended enough that it allowed you
to do your own thing to a certain extent. <on-topic>Some even let me
use python!</on-topic>
> But I think the life of the computer science undergraduate was
> complete and utter hell and misery.  And it made them a most obedient,
> unimaginative, uncreative passive sheep. 

Did it turn them into passive sheep, or were they that already?

> (Which, perhaps, is the
> point.  This may be what they believe industry wants, needs, or
> deserves.)  There were exceptions, of course, but most of them were
> finding the course work hellish because it wasn't interesting enough
> -- or because they were spending their time on their own projects,
> which was great for them as people but put them at a
> grade-disadvantage to most of the people who only lived for marks.

Surely your work in the laser-lab took up time that could have also
been spent studying? I don't see the difference between this and 
people hacking on their own projects while doing a CS degree.

> > 
> > > 6. Classroom teaching as opposed to Master/Apprentice type relationships.
> > 
> > Well unfortunately the funding arrangements in most universities do not
> > allow this sort of interaction in earlier years. In my expereience though,
> > you do have the opportunity for this the Master/Apprentice style of teaching
> > in later years.
> Or there are too many students.

Well sure, but that is as much a reflection on society in general and
industry as it is universities. Students want to do CS because there is
the perception that to get a good job in industry you need a piece of
paper which says you have a degree. It is the uni's responsibility to try
and teach these people.

>  Note, that I am not saying that the
> world would be better off without advanced professional training or
> that most people would not be better off wihtout what they learn in
> universities.  It is the wisdom of joining professional colleges and
> academic ones into something called 'the multi-disciplinary university'
> that I question.

I guess I see this happening due to external pressures. The cred
of having a university degree making uni more popular. Then employers
complaining that people with university degrees aren't ready for
industry, so the uni's change what they are teaching to become more
useful to industry. And from here you have a vicious circle.
> > 
> > > 7. Preoccupation with novelty, and originality, as opposed to soundness.
> > > 8. The complete disreguard of 'good workmanship' as the counterpart to
> > >    'sound design'.  These days people are likely to learn that the work
> > >    is good because it was 'designed well', as opposed to the fact that
> > >    one of many good designs was selected -- the result was good because
> > >    _the workmanship was good_.  (Good workmanship cannot save a really
> > >    rotten design, unfortunately.)
> > 
> > I haven't experienced this in my university education. Of course YMMV :)
> If you have just finished an undergraduate degree, then I hope this is
> because you have attended a rare place that values workmanship.  If
> not, if you are moving to industry, you may find that your problems
> by knowing too much about design and too little about workmanship
> are just beginning.  If you have ever had a design of yours tossed
> because it was 'too clever' then you know what I am talking about.
> If, on the other hand, the thought of this ever happening to you fills
> you with outrage, then I know what the next few years will hold in
> store for you.  (It gets better, by the way.)

Well, having worked part time during semester and full time during breaks 
whilst I was studying I already have some idea of working in the industry.

(Of course having already worked made me laugh at some of the things
lecturers tried to teach, but you get that.)
> > 
> > > 9. A life focused on Grading people.  Making grades, not knowledge or
> > >    wisdom the important centre of the universe.
> > 
> > I don't know about focused, but this definately is true to a certain
> > extent. To get a degree you just need to pass the test, which basically
> > ends up meaning, not being in the bottom 25% of a course, because they
> > get scaled anyway. There is no measure of how much was actually learned.
> > 
> > > 10. (in some places) The notion that only the top 10% matter -- the
> > >     rest can all go hang.
> > 
> > I've found, in most courses, a balanced approach. Most of the teaching 
> > is really aimed at average. This leaves probably a lot of the top 10%
> > bored out of their collective brains. (Unfortunately people learn at
> > different rates; it can be frustrating when lecturers revise basic
> > concepts (like say converting hex to binary) in 3rd year subjects.)
> > Fortunately a few courses balance this by providing advanced challanges
> > for the top 10%. I don't see this as a bad thing. (But I may be
> > biases, oops, there is that ego you were talking about :).
> Grin.  You are seeing this from the perspective of the students, which
> is quite understandable.  What I was more unhappy about is the fact that
> many professors think that only the top 10% of the people in their
> classes matter -- or only grad students matter -- or only _TOP_
> grad students matter.  The rest are just cannon fodder which keep
> the university in funds.

This could well be true, I'm probably not in the best position to 
judge that :).
> > 
> > > 11. The belief that business is somehow demeaning.
> > > 12. The belief that business is somehow superior. 
> > > 13. Too many fools.
> > > 14. Too swollen egos.
> > 
> > And how exactly does this different from industry? I find it difficult to
> > believe that all the fools and egoists go to academia and none into
> > industry.
> This isn't the 'why is industry better than academia' list.  'Too many
> fools' and 'Too swollen egos' would make my list of what is wrong
> with _anything_.  

Yeah, ok. I read more into your list than I should have. (Being too clever
perhaps :).
> > > 15. The furthering of the belief that Art is merely entertainment.
> > > 16. The furthering of the belief that it is a good idea to appear
> > >     better than you really are.
> > > 17. Too many people who feel they have the right to be contemptuous of othe
> > rs.
> > 
> > This is sad, but true. :(
> > 
> > > 18. Too much paperwork.
> > 
> > Again, I can't really see it as being that much more than industry.
> Hee hee.  You need a CAPS system.  see ...
> Seriously, that is the problem that I actually think I mostly know how
> can be fixed.  Now there is just a 'simple matter of programming'.
> (This is a common phrase around Strakt.  It fits up there with 'in
>  our copious spare time'...)

Again, I'm probably missing something, but doesn't such a system
merely change "too much paperwork" to "too much filling in electronic forms"?

(Ok, you can probably save on some administrative staff, but this
isn't really an academics problem.)

> > > 19. Too much specialisation within a given field.
> > > 20. Not enough play.
> > 
> > I think this probably depends a lot on the group you work with.
> indeed.  but that is the problem in itself.
> > 
> > > 21. Really boring textbooks written by people who cannot write.
> > 
> > Oh yeah. It does make you really appreciate good textbooks
> > though :).
> Thought you might like this one ...
> > 
> > > 22. An over-reliance on analytical as opposed to geometric methods.
> > > 23. Avoidance of risk.
> > > 24. Avoidance of beauty.
> > > 25. Focusing on that which can be measured (in itself a good thing, and
> > >     the secret of Western success) but not to the extent where that
> > >     which cannot be measured is deemed unimportant, or even non-existant.
> > > 26. Students who sit like turnips in your lectures.
> > 
> > Hey, its a lot better than students that answer mobile phones in your
> > tutorials!
> You need to institute the 'beer buying' rule in your tutorials.  Anybody
> whose phone rings in the tutorial has to buy a beer for every single
> member of the tutorial, yourself included, at the pub at some set time.
> Fixes that  little problem quite nicely.

I like it! I'll definately be using that one :)
> >  
> > > I'll stop now.  I am sure you will get plenty more answers from other
> > > people.
> > 
> > 
> > Benno
> Thanks ever so much for writing.  You take care now, and good luck
> in all your endeavours in the next year.

Thanks for bring up an interesting topic of discussion :)


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