Syllabus (the book)

I just read Syllabus by Lynda Barry. It is a set of syllabi and daily in-class instructions, along with some reflections, from a few years of teaching cartooning and writing at Wisconsin. It is a combination of hilarious and insightful, both about learning to draw and cartoon, but also about the practice of teaching.

A page from Lynda Barry's Syllabus.

The syllabi and daily exercises include many great practices. For example, when students are listening to something (being read or previously recorded), she has them either draw tight spirals in their notebooks or else color in a line drawing. She has the students sketch in non-photo blue pencil and ink in later; it reduces inhibitions. She has simple forms for students to write daily diary or journal entries so that they make close observations of the world, in words and pictures. She loves most the students who have never drawn (since childhood), and she makes exercises that capitalize on their newness (and defeat those who are more experienced at rendering), like forcing them to do drawings in increasingly short time intervals.

The book is hilarious in part because she shows lots of great student work (it is not clear she has proper permissions here, because she does not individually credit each student drawing), and because the whole book is a collage of drawings, writings, and found objects, in the Lynda Barry style. I doubt there is another book out there on teaching that makes you laugh out loud all the way through.

A great question for me is what of Barry's practices could carry over to a class in Physics?


Make it Stick

I just read Make it Stick, about research-based results in how people learn and the implications for education. I loved it; it is filled with simple, straightforward ideas that will be useful in the classroom. For example, it is better to do many low-stakes quizzes than a few high-stakes exams. For another, it isn't useful for students to re-read the textbook, and it is useful for the lectures and the textbook to be misaligned. For another, students' perception of their learning is often wrong and misguided. For another, it is useful to interleave topics and not just do “massed practice”. It points out that it is very adaptive for learners to believe that their brains are plastic and their abilities are not innately limited. Luckily this also appears to be true. All of these things will come into my next pre-health (or other big) class. And I will explicitly explain to the students why.

My quibbles with the book are few. One is that they slag off unschooling, and then immediately follow with a long profile of a Bruce Hendry, who is a perfect example of the power of unschooling (he is entirely self-taught through self-directed projects of great importance to himself!). I also found the writing repetitive and a bit slow. But the book is filled with good ideas. Also, it is not just informative, it is responsible: The authors clearly differentiate between research findings and speculations or over-generalizations of them. This is a great contribution to the literature on teaching and learning.


emission lines from stars

At the end of Mike Blanton's brown-bag talk at NYU yesterday, Matt Kleban asked: Why don't stars produce emission lines; why only absorption lines? Maryam Modjaz said "because they are hotter on the inside and cooler on the outside". That's true! But it is slightly non-trivial to see why the consequence is always absorption-lines only. And does it mean that if the stars were cold, condensed objects bathed in a hotter radiation field, they would produce emission lines? (I think the answer here might be "yes"; think of a gas cloud bombarded with ionizing radiation.) Also Kleban pointed out that actually the very outside of the Sun is in fact hotter than the surface, which is true, but it must be that this is just so optically thin it barely matters.

In some ways, the biggest paradox about stars is that they aren't all the same temperature: After all, the "surface temperature" of a star is the temperature around the place where the photosphere becomes optically thin; shouldn't this be around 10,000 K for all stars? After all, that's the temperature around which hydrogen atoms recombine (see, for example, the CMB). I don't know any simple answer to this paradoxical question; to my (outsider) perspective it seems like the answer is always all about detailed atomic physics.


oscillations and the metric

In class, I was solving the normal-mode problem for a solid object near equilibrium, using generalized coordinates, in the usual manner. This starts by orthogonalizing the coordinates to make (what I call) the "mass tensor" (the tensor that comes in to the quadratic kinetic-energy term) proportional to (or identical to) the identity. This operation was annoying me: Why do we have to get explicit about the coordinates? The whole point is that the coordinates are general and we don't have to get specific about their form!

In my anger, I solved the problem without this orthogonalization. It turns out that this solution is easier! Of course it is: I can do everything with pure matrix operations.

I had two other in-class epiphanies about the problem. The first is that the solution you get when you don't do the orthogonalization is more analogous to the simple one-dimensional problem in every way. The second is that, in a D-dimensional problem with D generalized coordinates, the tensor that goes in to the kinetic energy term is some kind of spatial metric for a D-dimensional dynamical problem. (Or proportional to it, anyway.) That is simultaneously obvious and deep.


many-body systems; composite objects

Every time I teach mechanics (and this is something like the 21st year I have taught it at the undergraduate level) I learn something new. This week we are talking about many-body systems; I had two epiphanies (both trivial, but still): The first is that the description of the object in terms of a center-of-mass vector and then many difference vectors away from the center of mass (one per "atom") is purely a coordinate transform. Indeed, it is just generalized coordinate system that is related to the Newtonian coordinates by a holonomic transformation. Awesome! So when the Lagrangian separates into external and internal terms, this is just a result of the appropriateness of that transformation.

The second is that the definition of the many-body system is completely arbitrary. It should be chosen not on the grounds of being bound or solid or connected but rather on the grounds of whether choosing it that way simplifies the problem solution. Both of these realizations are simple and obvious, but it took a lot of teaching for me to get them fully. I am reminded as I realize these things that the physics concepts we expect first-year undergraduates to manipulate and be comfortable with are in fact pretty damned hard.


air resistance, again

I should stop complaining about air resistance, but I can't help myself! I am teaching this semester from Kibble & Berkshire, and in Chapter 3 there are problems about air resistance that use speeds of around 100 meters per second and an atmospheric drag law that is proportional to velocity to the first power. I don't think there is any physical system that could have these properties: If you are small enough to have viscosity matter, you can never go 100 meters per second. Well, I guess molecules can go that fast, but (a) that isn't what the authors have in mind, and (b) molecules aren't really well described by continuum mechanics!


the answer "that question is ridiculous" must be accepted

My friends who work in education of the young (the 'fuzz included) like to quote studies that show students answering without comment or concern questions like "Farmer Jake has 13 sheep and walks them 21 miles. How old is Farmer Jake?" There are many mixed-up reasons for this problem; some relate to rote learning; some relate to the artificial dichotomy set up between reading and math; some relate to the decontextualized ways we teach math; some relate to the testing environment that saturates schools; and so on. I feel all these things!

Imagine we want to see students using their common sense and their judgement with every question they consider and answer. I think that would be good. How do we foster this kind of thinking and exercise of common sense? I think we have to let the students call "bullshit".

Here's an example: "Johnny has twelve toy cars. He gives eight to Frances. How many does he have left?" Obviously we should accept the answer "four". But we should also accept the answer "No way! Who would give more than half of his toy cars to someone else?" If we don't accept that answer, we are saying to the students "calculate without thinking". That might be okay for quantum physicists (though I disagree), but it isn't okay for the rest of us.