Laura's List - was Re: new years resolutions

Laura Creighton lac at
Mon Jan 6 12:59:42 CET 2003

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

> > 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.

> > 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 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.  

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

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.  (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.

> > 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.  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.

> > 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.)

> > 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.

> > 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_.  

> > 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'...)

> > 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'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.

Laura Creighton

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