Thursday, July 31, 2008


The Obama campaign is just now getting around to politely pointing out that a certain LIAR* has been making false statements for over a week now. Sadly, so-called journalists have played those lies for free on the grounds that they were controversial** rather than a flat out lie.

I'm glad they are not going to roll over and take it, but they have been a bit slow to react. Maybe they have been waiting for enough sound bites to show up so they won't have to air the lies again in the process of debunking them. That won't work in the final weeks of the campaign.

Now if they would only get some national talk-TV spokespeople who can point out that no one ever called Reagan "presumptuous" (UPPITY) for looking more presidential than the actual President at the time. It's not like Obama can help the fact that he is competent and has outstanding leadership skills that rival those of President Reagan. Sorry, J Sidney McCain III, you can't "presume" that you are owed coverage when you can't even lead your own campaign without having the campaign correct your mistakes, saying that you don't speak for your own campaign on Social Security tax policy.

As for calling Obama "arrogant" (UPPITY) or "elitist" (UPPITY), has no one noticed the "arrogance" of McCain to assert that he knows more about winning the War on Terror than anyone despite supporting a losing strategy against Al Qaeda since late in 2002? (How arrogant does he have to be to think he has shown us he can win a war, or that the President will actually make specific tactical decisions rather than the generals? Does the man think he is a cross between Napoleon and Eisenhower, leading our troops into the Pakistan tribal areas on horseback?) If McCain is such a military expert, where was he when Bush fired Gen. Shinseki for speaking the truth?

The next version appears to claim Obama is "out of touch", which is pretty funny coming from a man who does not know the difference between Sunni and Shiite, a crucial detail when dealing with the different sides in the Iraqi civil war, despite his many visits to the region - and might not know the difference between Persian and Arab given the way he talks about Iran.

One thing is clear: the McCain campaign told the media to pay careful attention to Obama's trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, watching for any blunders he made, as the cornerstone of their summer campaign. I think they were shocked to see Obama welcomed by cheering troops and perform flawlessly on the world stage while their own candidate made repeated mistakes - like not knowing the tax policy of his own campaign. Since they can't imagine a world where intelligence and articulating ideas matters more than race, they can only see "celebrity" as an explanation. When they say that, they seem to forget that McCain would not be a serious candidate if his role in a previous round of bank collapses had not been overshadowed by his celebrity status as a survivor of torture in North Vietnam.

*I am willing to concede the possibility that the Republican candidate for President was and is completely IGNORANT of the facts on the ground when he approved his false advertisements and made false public statements, but ignorance (on his part as well as that of the key staff who will run the government for him) is even worse than lying.

**I think it was Andrea Mitchell on NBC who set a new low for "journalism". Rather than simply report what she knew about whether Obama wanted cameras along during another visit with wounded troops as a simple fact, having been physically present during the trip to the Middle East and Europe, she repeatedly prompted a campaign staffer to point out the lie for her. What has happened to the media when a reporter is afraid to report her own observations?

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Physics Jobs - Part 5 (Community Colleges)

Unlike my other articles on jobs, this one, addressing what is required to get a job at a Community College, contains almost nothing that is specific to physics. That alone says something significant about the difference between the things you need to do to get a job at a CC and the sorts of things I examined in part 4 - where I looked at what tenure standards at universities implied about what you needed to do to make yourself look like a candidate who is likely to meet those standards as well as fit into a particular open niche in a department.

Here I look specifically at the rather different expectations you must satisfy if you want a job at a Community College and have a successful career there. My perspective is from someone who teaches physics to future engineers and has a close working relationship with people who teach chemistry and mathematics, but the differences between what goes on here and on the other side of the campus are much MUCH smaller than they are at a university.

Up front I want to direct your attention to the list of resources at the bottom of this article. Two in particular, the comments solicited by a CC Dean and the postings in the Two Year Track at the Chronicle, are a must read for anyone interested in working at a Community College.

Although I have lots of notes from my initial plan for this article (back in 2007), I'm going to start with my response to an inquiry I got this past year, one that is probably way too typical of how graduate students start looking for a permanent job. That is, they start thinking about their career a few months before graduation. [The failure to prepare for a job search one or two years in advance was also the implicit theme of my remarks in part 4 of this series.]

Letter from a Grad Student

What follows is a heavily paraphrased version of a letter I got from a physics graduate student who was within a month or so of finishing his MS degree:

I came to graduate school [at Wannabe Flagship] with the goal of working at a teaching college after graduating with a thesis-based Masters degree.
I could use some advice on how to get work as a physics or math instructor at a community college with a tenure-track CC job as my eventual goal.

Before I get down to specific advice, I'll list my immediate reactions (none of which were in my e-mail reply to the actual letter I got) as a list of bullets:
  • Why would you do a thesis Masters if you want a teaching job? The only people who care about research are 4-year schools that are unlikely to look at someone with an MS degree.
  • You could have looked into doing some teaching-related research along the lines of a Science Ed study, something like active learning, workshop physics, blogging about homework, whatever.
  • You can't simply teach math at a CC because you know how to do math at a very high level, you have to have 18 hours of graduate credit in mathematics. You actually might have better luck getting a job teaching math in high school than in college.
  • I didn't see any mention of teaching experience at Wannabe Flagship, where it is easy to teach a lab or recitation section without the minimum degree and hours that are necessary to be the instructor of record at a CC.
  • I am pretty sure you never contacted us about teaching a class, or I would have heard about it from my chair. You need some teaching experience.
  • Are you sure you're not getting an MS because you failed the PhD qualifying exam? Going to Wannabe Flagship for a teaching masters does not pass the smell test unless something has really changed there.
Someone with teaching as a career goal and a decent mentor would never have written the e-mail I got.

Community Colleges are Different

Really different. So different that you are unlikely to get any useful advice, any at all, from a professor at a PhD-granting university on how to get a job here. You might get some useful advice if you are working on a Masters at an MS-only university, because teaching is part of the mission there, but it will be fairly limited unless the person you are talking to can answer "yes" to the following litmus-test question: "Did you have to give a sample lecture on a specified topic or be observed teaching a class as part of your interview?"

We don't advertise in Physics Today. We don't have the budget for it. Our ad will run in the Chronicle of Higher Education. (Did you even know that newspaper exists?) You might have to dig to find it in the print version, but the on-line ads are searchable by job type. Our ad will only appear in one or two issues, usually early enough in the fall to have an application deadline in December.

We expect you to actually demonstrate that you can teach. Not only that, we are more impressed if your sample class looks like something you could prepare for two or three different classes every day of the week for three months than a dog-and-pony show just for us. One person practically got the job on the spot when he just picked up the chalk and did it, without any notes at all. Another was dead meat when he gave a talk using PowerPoint slides directly off of a textbook CD and actually read them to us. Ditto for one who had some really nice animations of magical algebra that would have taken an entire day to develop for one half of one class, not leaving much time to prep for the other half of that class or the other classes to be taught that day, let alone grading papers. We will ask questions during your class, questions we know our students will ask. Be ready for anything, and answer those questions seriously. And it does not hurt if you are actually enthusiastic when teaching your class.

The person we are looking for will be still be enthusiastic teaching the class for the 40th time as they were the first time. You better not look bored the first time.

Our student body is different. Questions about how to reach different types of learners or engage a diverse student population are not just throw away questions included on our list to keep some Office of Politically Diverse Correctness happy. Not at all. Every one of us is concerned about this topic because we struggle with it every day. At nearby Wannabe Flagship, the black students are as likely to be middle or upper-middle class as the white students. Few of their freshmen are single mothers or refugees from Haiti or the horn of Africa. Few of their white students work to support themselves or hold a full-time job. One size definitely does not fit all here, and we expect a well-thought out answer to that question.

It really helps if you have taught at a CC or attended a CC at some point in the past, or have taught in a similar environment (high school or an open admissions college). It really helps if you have several stories that give examples of things you have done that worked for different kinds of students.

We don't care about research. At all. Your five publications mean no more than the fifty papers I published or the zero publications our department chair has when it comes to teaching. No one is impressed by your publications. No one gets promoted for doing research. We would only be interested if that research has something to do with teaching or if you have actually involved a typical CC sophomore (think first semester freshman at a university) in your work, but even that is secondary to teaching.

You don't want to do or say anything that gives even the faintest impression that you find research more interesting than teaching or that you are settling for a teaching institution because you can't find a job you would really like to have. We want to hear about specific techniques from the research into physics education that you have tried, and how they worked for you, and what you did to improve the next time.

Our pay system is different. Our system is definitely equal pay for equal work. You will not see the disparity between male and female faculty that show up at research universities. Same rank, same experience, same pay. It may sound like a union contract, but it isn't. (It has more in common with how K-12 systems work.) You can learn more by reading Dean Dad's column about
negotiating your starting salary and the many cogent comments. The only thing you can really negotiate at our college is credit for experience. We only count classes taught as the primary instructor on a fairly full-time or half-time basis in the field you will be working in.

Our work load is different. We teach. A lot. And we have more office hours. You may see the terminology 5/5 used, which means 5 classes in the fall and 5 classes in the spring. A "class" is normally defined as a MWF 50 minute class or a Tu-Th 75 minute class with 30 something students in it. We do offer larger classes, because our college is big enough that it makes sense to have someone teach one gen-ed bio lecture to 70 students instead of two classes of 35. However, those three hours not in class end up as extra office hours, not time working on your tan. (We trade the lack of active learning in such a situation for the efficiency of meeting the demand at specific times within our space limitations. Students who prefer a smaller class still have that option and the ones in the big class have more options to see you in the office.) Unlike a university, where one office hour per week is common, you are likely to see 10 to 15 office hours on our schedules.

In my department, where labs are part of the load, the relevant measure is 15 contact hours in class. Our labs, like our composition classes, have fewer students than a regular class, which helps make up for the heavier grading load. We also might have fewer office hours as a result. The best way to find out about our teaching load without sounding lazy is to inquire about how we assign classes, although that is usually taken up by the Dean during that part of the interview. Ditto for time of day, since we have faculty that teach only in the late afternoon and evening and others who teach bright and early at 8 AM. We have quite a few f-t faculty teaching at night.

And, of course, there is also service. At our college, community service is considered as important as serving on a committee. Some faculty spend time as mentors or tutors. It even counts if you help out at your kid's school.

Minimum Expectations

Our teaching emphasis shows up from the very start of the application process. You would do well to notice the "odd" things we ask for and take them extremely seriously. We will reject out of hand any application that does not include all of the items listed in the job advertisement. We have tolerated one or two where it was possible to interpret a sentence in the cover letter as having addressed that item, but the "cannot follow directions" cluelessness flag meant it did not go past the initial screening phase. Similarly, a very low score on one of those items will likely keep you out of the second phase of the search.

Your CV should be redesigned with teaching in mind. Do not lead with your research experience and goals. Lead with your teaching experience and goals. Present your research and publication record as indicative of the breadth of knowledge you will bring to the classroom to add to what might be in a textbook about quarks or integrated circuits or genetic engineering.

We will ask you about your teaching philosophy. We will expect a well-thought-out essay that does not run much past one page. Remember, we might be reading 50 or 100 of these, so you need to get our attention with specifics, not boilerplate. If we don't ask for a separate statement about dealing with under-represented groups (a big issue for math or science at the CC level, because most of our students fall in that category) or different learning styles, you should include a paragraph on how you have dealt successfully with each of these in your previous teaching experience. The same comments apply to using technology in the classroom. Hint 1: See comments above about PowerPoint lectures as viewed by people who teach math or physics. Similar remarks may not apply to organic chemistry or history, but you must demonstrate active engagement when you use that tool in your sample lecture. Hint 2: If you say you use technology toward a certain end, you had better use it that way in your sample class.

We may ask for a sample course syllabus or an abbreviated teaching portfolio. All colleges and universities have fairly strong policies about what needs to be covered in a syllabus, both as a legalistic framework (for grade appeals) and as a teaching tool. If we ask for this, it will play a major role in our initial evaluation of your teaching and will be discussed in your interview. If we don't ask for it, it may be addressed in your sample teaching exercise. Attention to detail here (or lack thereof) is a sure sign of how much someone has been involved in the actual nuts and bolts of teaching at the CC level. If you have applied for a position at a PhD institution, you might recognize this as the teaching version of a research proposal. Take it just as seriously. Like a research proposal, it is often the difference between interview and no interview.

Even if we don't ask for a portfolio, including an appendix with a sample lesson plan, active learning exercises, sample quiz, etc (ideally including the lesson you will teach if you interview and the ones that come before or after it) is not a waste of your time. Just don't overdo it in terms of volume since we won't look at it until the interview unless we specifically asked for it up front. But don't bring it with you to the interview. We have enough to do without dealing with new information. Our homework will have been done by that point.

Your letters of recommendation need to mention teaching. A set of canned letters about research efforts suitable for an R1 job will count for very little when we read them.

Closing Comments

Be sure you understand the minimum requirements for the job. These are dictated by the accrediting agency, as I explained in the "minimum requirements" section toward the bottom of an earlier article in this series. There I gave links to the relevant policies of one regional accrediting organization. You might also look at this article by Two Year Track for a fairly detailed discussion. We will literally count graduate hours on the official transcript to decide if you meet those standards. This means you need 18 semester hours of graduate math classes and 18 semester hours of graduate physics classes if you want to teach both math and physics at a CC. You also need a Masters degree, but that could be an MA in education. The field of the degree does not matter. Coursework matters.

We expect the same requirements for an adjunct, hence my comments about getting early experience teaching labs or recitations at a university where you are not instructor of record (and thus don't have to meet this requirement). That won't count as experience toward higher pay, but it will count as teaching experience and will help you get appropriate letters of recommendation when you apply here as an adjunct or for a f-t job.

Diversity can help. Astronomy and physics are covered by the same set of rules, and there is a fair bit of demand for people to teach a really basic (no mathematics, very little in the way of numbers that can't be memorized) astronomy class or two along with physics. Or physics along with many astronomy classes. If you are interested in teaching that subject, pick up a grad class in the area to help your CV and/or get some teaching experience in a Stars for Actors class.

For additional insight into the competition, take a look at the statistics in this article from IHE. These are faculty at Masters-level institutions where both teaching and research matter. Just look at the line for "articulate a teaching philosophy". The ones who are weak in that area might not have gotten a job at a CC because the research talk at an MS school won't make up for that weakness. You can see the change that results from experience, and learning from that experience. That will help you get a job at a teaching institution.

My Experience

I have served on several search committees at this CC and have participated informally in some others. (Any faculty member is welcome to attend the sample teaching exercise, which is public, and I have attended all of them for some job searches in math that impacted on the course I teach. I wanted to know what they were looking for and what they had to choose from.) I have also served on a search committee for a research faculty position and was an active, but not voting, participant in another search at an R1. Finally, I have been on the other side of searches at both a CC (this one) and universities (one of which I turned down). [If you did not know it, we are trying to be sure you will like our college enough to take our job if offered while sorting out who we want to make that offer to.]


Highly Informative Resources:

I highly recommend Dean Dad's summary of suggestions for someone seeking a CC job. You should read the comments there as well, and also read the comments on the IHE version and many comments initially offered in response to his Blog Beg on that subject.

There are some other good resources at Inside Higher Education. The Megan Pincus Kajitani (blogging in Mama PhD) writes about community college careers in response to a question to the "Career Coach" from someone still in grad school. That might make a good counterpoint to my observations and those in Dean Dad's blob.

Everything written in the Two Year Track essays at the Chronicle for Higher Education is relevant. Much of what Ms Mentor writes is also highly relevant.

I recommend looking at all of the articles archived in the CHE career news and advice section every week or so. One of those articles was an excellent column specifically on seeking a CC job.

Two older columns about the job interview process (from 2006 and 2004) plus one about discussing your approach to teaching are particularly good. Also look for any articles from the CV doctor. Badly designed CVs are a big problem for CC jobs.

Finally, Chad Orzel wrote a very nice column on what they look for (or look to avoid) when hiring faculty at a small liberal arts college. I strongly recommend it as a detailed description of what they look for at a 4-year school that has a teaching emphasis. Much of that applies to a CC, particularly when it comes to connecting research to teaching a freshman class.

PS -
This pretty much wraps up the priority items on my list of things to do this summer after my first-year retrospective, although there is at least one more to go.

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Friday, July 25, 2008


I don't know about you, but I always dread reading the class roll that first day - and I worship the guy who reads the names at graduation. (Even with phonetic spellings, I still don't know how he does it.) I always have some students with creative names.

So imagine my reaction when I saw this story about a name change being granted in New Zealand.

I don't think I could read "Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii", or, rather, "Hawaii, Talula Does The Hula From?" with a straight face.

Or "Number 16 Bus Shelter" (from the article).

Or "Mangled Brown Fence-Post" or "Jenna Dana Bananarama Rater" from the comments. "Mr Fence-Post, what did I forget to include in that free-body diagram?"

But I can related to "Russell Sprout". I once knew a guy who wanted to name his daughter Peach Pitt.

And now I know why Monty Python made up some of those crazy names ...

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Question for Readers

I know this blog is sometimes read by bloggers who are engineers, including several women (some of whose blogs I have been reading off-and-on for a long time). I teach physics to future engineers and an eager, nervous new crop is showing up in a month or so. Many will not succeed.

What can I do to make a difference? What made a difference for you, or what do you wish you had learned when taking physics that you didn't figure out until later?

I wouldn't have mentioned women in the lead if the question wasn't partly about underrepresented groups in STEM areas. My classes at this CC often contain more minorities and women (as well as rural first-in-family men) than is the norm elsewhere. I remember being stunned one day in my Physics 2 class when I realized that white males were a minority. I know we have an impact, and not just in numbers: I know some of my female students have been extremely successful.

But I also know the physics classroom and lab is an alien environment. It helps that there are many more women around, but it is evident to me that they are more likely to face prejudices within their peer group than black students. (Mirror of misogyny meets racism in the Democratic primary season?) Part of this is the "boys talk authoritatively" problem mentioned in Saturday's blog.

Any advice?

I don't mind long comments, so feel free to "hijack" the thread. If you decide to blog about this instead, please post a link in the comments area so I will be sure to see it.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Big Read

This meme concerns the NEA Top 100 book list, via Swans on Tea and Faraday's Cage, from Abbi.

There is also a BBC Top 100 list that I might do, since I might have read more of those. They list the Harry Potter books separately, as they should. This list double counts, since Hamlet is part of the works of Shakespeare.

The rules
1) Bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you have started but haven’t finished.
3) Place an asterisk * by those you intend to read/finish someday.
4) Mark in a different color the books you LOVE. [not done]

Updated: I put a trailing "++" after the ones I really love.]

PLUS Like Swans on Tea, I put a dagger † where I've seen the movie without ever bothering to read the book, often because I've seen the movie enough to be as literate about it as those who read the book.

Wow, I've read almost one quarter of them! (Mostly not for school.)

1 † Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 † The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee ++
6 The Bible [And I never intend to read the begotcha books]
7 † Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 † Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller ++
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 † Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 † The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 † Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams +
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck +
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll ++
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 † Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 † The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 † Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 † Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 ? The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 † Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 † A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 † A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 * Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 *† Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 † Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 † Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker +
73 † The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 † The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 † Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White
88 * The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle +
90 The Faraway Tree Collection
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad ++
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 † The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 † Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 † Les Miserables - Victor Hugo


†† Yes, I have watched a lot of old movies. I've seen more than one version of some of these.

I think I was the only person in my circle who did not read #12 in HS.

I read #24 in fourteen days flat, the library loan period, including all of the essays at the back of the Norton Critical Edition. I've read parts of some of these in the original foreign language.

But where the heck is Rabbit Run? or Heart of Darkness? [Oops. Found it and fixed it.] Not to mention Physics by Halliday and Resnick? How can you read the Bible and not read the 2nd edition "blue bible"? Its opening is at least as enchanting as that of David Copperfield. I mean, how can "Chapter 1: I Am Born" compare to "Chapter 1: Measurement"? The latter features the failure of the first transatlantic cable because the company building it had ignored the careful new experimental measurements made by its hired engineering consultant, William Thomson (aka Lord Kelvin). That story, along with Lord Kelvin's view that "when you can measure what you are speaking about,and express it in numbers, you know something about it", is a great way to kick off a fine piece of technical literature.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Magnetic Movie

Here is something for Matt's Physics 2 students studying magnetism ...

There is a question below the fold; only look at the question after you watch the video. [BTW, the list of what YouTube considers "related" to this video is a really mixed bag!]

I spotted this 'featured video' when I went looking to see if "Physicists Gone Wild!" from tonight's rerun of The Big Bang Theory was actually on YouTube. Of course it is, but the network people didn't put it there. Stupid network people. They just don't get this new inter-tube stuff.

The question: Did you try to figure out whether those were real fields and how they were being produced? Then you might be a physicist. Looks like a lot of the comments came from people who thought it was all real after watching the whole thing!

(To me they appear to be computer simulations of fields like those found in stars or galaxies, superimposed on various lab settings by very clever film makers. The one they started with, which looks like it might be the sun, almost looks like a huge bit of ball lightning you might try to make in the lab. See side note below.)

A very nice movie, aesthetically interesting with some good physics here and there if you look closely. I really liked the realization of helical motion of charged particles around magnetic field lines, like what is responsible for the aurora and trapping charged particles in the Van Allen Belt. I should take a few minutes this fall to emphasize this connection between physics and astrophysics.

Side note 1: Ball Lightning
Making ball lightning on a small scale, here and here, looks like a lot of fun. So do the ones made in a microwave, but I don't have a microwave I feel like toasting. Having microwaved a few CDs, I can almost smell the burning case and Li-ion battery of the iPhone someone microwaved in a related video. BTW, I don't think a claw hammer is the Apple-approved way of opening up an iPhone. Clearly a future physicist. An engineer would use a screwdriver as a chisel.)

Side note 2: Unrelated time-wasting discovery
How could I not know about skeet fishing? [Why you want to look: The guy is 'shooting' down clay pigeons with a fishing rod. That is hard enough with a shotgun! Another video makes it clear he has a casting plug on the line, so it makes sense that it has enough energy to break a clay pigeon. He has no trouble breaking an egg.]

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

39 Years ...

Today is the 39th anniversary of the first moon landing by Armstrong and Aldrin in the "Eagle" LEM, at 4:17:40 EDT during the Apollo 11 mission.

Click here for a wav file of the landing announcement.

The "first step" and the moon walk started late that night.

Somewhere in my Dad's slide box is the picture I took of the TV screen at about the moment he stepped off of the pad onto the moon. It remains unforgettable today.

The video clip above is really nice in that it shows Aldrin coming down the ladder and testing the drop (and 36"+ vertical leap in 1/6 gravity) between the bottom step and the ground at about the 2:00 mark. Watching this, it would seem that Armstrong had already finished the same test before the 0:30 mark despite the audio that comes after it: "OK, I just checked ah gettin back up to that first step." The audio and video are not correctly correlated at this point in the video clip. (See below for correct audio.) The sync is correct later in this video clip.

There is another clip available on YouTube that was not AFAIK broadcast. This is looking down the ladder from (inside?) the LEM and starts about a minute earlier than the clip shown above. This audio is different, since it includes a message to Aldrin about adjusting the aperture on this camera (the "sequence camera"), which improves the image quality at 1:40 into the clip. This clip also shows that the audio in the clip shown up above has been editted, because the comment about seeing Armstrong and his testing the first step is earlier, before the top clip even starts (you can see him go down, up, then finally jump down onto the pad at about 1:14, which is where the other clip starts).

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I woke up this morning from a dream about the first day of the semester.

Which is actually about FIVE weeks away!

Oddly, I was outside in a courtyard on campus tearing pages out of student composition or lab notebooks so they could be recycled for this year's students. Not so oddly, I then had to struggle through a mass of lost students (and a few lost new faculty) to get to my office on the way to class.

Maybe that means I did manage to get the syllabus and everything else ready for the first day of class ...

[If you don't follow this blog, that is actually a major understatement. Three syllabi are done except for some details regarding the homework assignments. Recent advice from a Chronicle columnist about using the summer to prepare for fall. It must be excellent advice, since my time is spent on the "big picture" topics he lists - such as desired outcomes - and not the minutiae implied by my dream. My dream was reminding me that the details remain incomplete, and that there will be lab reports to grade about a month from now.]

However, what I could use is a copy of the "grid" that Name Under Development mentioned in a comment early this month. That concept for giving advice to new students about the level of different gen-ed classes would be a great help. My e-mail is in the right column near the top.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Hard to Believe / Easy to Relate to

Top 20 of all blogs on engineering? (on July 19) Hard to believe.

Doubt if it will stay there. I stumbled on this site ranking top engineering blogs while looking for something else. Although my appearance there makes me question its methodology and scope, it does have some interesting places listed there and I can see why I fit in. After all, most of the people I teach physics to are future engineers and (as a result of being related to engineers) lots of engineering topics and blogs come my way.

Boys talk authoritatively? Easy to relate to.

“The boys take over the hands-on projects and the girls take notes,” Eaton said. “Boys will answer a question more authoritatively. Girls pose answers as a question. They are not as confident in their answers.” (Quote from a newspaper article featured in a blog about a Beloit College program.)

This is a problem I have talked about before in my blog, and should think about more. For now ...

... I'll remind you that this important teaching-related point appeared at the very bottom of my article about teaching lab classes. The biggest problem I see in the lab is when a young man gives a highly authoritative answer that is 100% wrong and the young woman, who had much better physical insight into what should be done, goes along. Usually this doesn't show up until I see it in a lab report, which is a bit late for effective feedback.

I don't really have a simple solution, but the best one so far seems to be to watch how groups form (all female groups often work well, but individual personalities also matter) and monitor the lab group dynamics during the lab. I have also talked to some of the women after or outside of the lab about this issue.

One thing that does work is telling a favorite story in class about applying knowledge to a new situation, where the heroine is a former student (now an engineer). I knew (and told her so) that one young woman was definitely going to make a great engineer when she told me about an experience the previous weekend. She had been helping her boyfriend work on his truck, but they had run into a problem: the timing mark was gone. She realized that she could measure the circumference of the wheel and use 10/360 to figure out the distance from "top dead center" to where the mark needed to be. !! Is there a better elementary example of a high level of critical thinking within the infamous Bloom's Taxonomy?

(Oh crap, now I have seen Bloom's Wheel. Until now I had only heard about it.)

And I keep adding to my list of such stories as I learn of the successes of my former students. One characteristic of a CC is that we do get the non-traditional student, some from rural areas where experiences like working on equipment can translate into real success in engineering once they develop the confidence that they can do it.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Surviving Academic Committees

Late last year I was elected as the science department rep on the ExComm that has a high level role in shared governance at our college. This was the biggest time challenge for me this past year (and this coming year), which put it at the top of the list for things to blog about this summer.

Given the high level of aversion to service on any of our major, college-wide committees by my fellow faculty and the fact that a recent report says the confidence of new faculty that they are "very effectively prepared" to serve on any academic committee only rises from 10% to 50% in five years (and that probably includes the most mundane ones), this is probably something that deserves writing about.


I did not enter into last year's major committee assignment lightly, because I knew (more or less) what I was getting into. I had served on the university-wide policy committee for my Grad U during the later part of my years in grad school, and that invaluable experience probably added 6 months to my degree. Just as importantly, some of my CC office neighbors have active roles in governance (two on this particular committee) and helped mentor me on what was involved, but also reminded me that I had the skills to deal with the sorts of policy wonk and legalistic details that might show up.

(Given the unbloggable events we ended up having to deal with this year, in retrospect it was incredible luck that someone was representing our part of the campus who had dealt with something just as nasty and political in the past millennium. Even my experience with Roberts Rules from a mock legislature in middle school and going to Boys State came into play, it turned out.)

But I digress, other than to start by saying that these sorts of jobs need some of the best faculty in them, not just the minor politicos and union leaders who might be drawn to this task, and that you cannot predict what will come your way. Even that situation was "interesting" (in the Chinese proverb sense), because I learned a lot about individual faculty and administrators that I had no inkling of before. The most important lesson there was that the campus rumor mill is very inefficient and often wrong, leading one to assume the pump was primed somewhere with false information. Never act solely on your perception that a fellow professor is rational. (This is where service on a high-level committee can be risky for an untenured professor. That is one of two reasons - the other being knowledge of the institution itself - that argues against junior faculty taking on this sort of service. If someone is interested, get them involved at a lower level or mentor them by bringing them up to speed on the things that must be acted on.)

Well-run meetings

Although this article by Dean Dad is about running a faculty meeting (either departmental or college level, where the Chair or Dean dictates the agenda) rather than a committee meeting, much of the advice applies here as well. In particular, an open discussion is sometimes needed to frame the problem, but that should only be done once. After that "put a concrete proposal on the table and ask for specific objections. When they're voiced, ask for specific alternatives", as Dean Dad put it.

For another point of view, and some additional tactical matters, see this IHE article about Faculty Meetings. This is more in the form of humor therapy, but your meeting will run better if you have tactics to deal with these people (some are in Dean Dad's article).


We always have a printed agenda with information items first, as he recommends, but we waste a lot of time on those when an item triggers discussion. Technically, any such discussion is out of order until we get to New Business, so the chair should put an action item under New Business if it is expected that an Information Item will require action at the meeting. Since most of those information items exist in some convenient format, I wish those announcements were printed in the agenda or attached to it so they don't even have to be read out loud.

Put the hardest decisions last and limit "me too" agreement statements if possible, but don't move so fast that there is not time to find details that got missed when read the first time. One meeting for discussion, the next for a vote. Maybe split "old business" into action items and discussion items to move things along. The basic rule of order (that no one speaks for a second time until everyone else has had a chance to speak once) will keep one person from monopolizing the discussion. Everyone should have a vague idea of the key points in the good FAQ available from the official Roberts Rules of Order (Newly Revised).

Organizing your life

I can't say enough about the importance of organizing your efforts and managing your time. Just as a meeting can go off track by spending an hour on pointless discussion of an information item while action items sit patiently waiting to be deferred to the next meeting, your day can go off track if you write a long response to an e-mail from someone with the spare time of someone who teaches a multiple choice class. Save it for the next meeting.

  • Plan ahead for the teaching year. I did that last summer, and discovered along the way that the best time to fine tune a pacing schedule or fix details in the syllabus is while the previous semester is still fresh in my mind. I can even rough out the plan for Spring.
  • I have yet to cross the threshold of developing a midterm exam for the fall, but I just might make a pass at it this summer.
  • Create more folders than you think you need, and maintain a parallel structure between the main e-mail folders and your computer files. I keep one set devoted to official ExComm business such as tentative minutes and the agenda, and another devoted to communications sent to all faculty on pending issues, budgets, and other detritus of the academic enterprise.
  • I keep one other folder just for electronic discussion related to committee issues or other topics that are work in progress.
  • Sort and toss redundant printed material at the end of the year.
  • If you are the chair, you should put together a draft of the next agenda as soon as the meeting ends, while the unresolved issues are still clear in your mind. Ditto for updating the minutes.

Lest you think that a major committee is the biggest time suck, I have found that faculty search committees are the worst and even some minor committees can be pose a real challenge. The one I am on has regular meetings and the work load is pretty steady and predictable. Others, and search committees in particular, can load a great deal of work into a month or two and tie up 5 or 6 hours (or more) in a week.


Lots of information gets moved around, mostly electronically, but the most important thing to communicate is whatever policy has been adopted. A big chunk of our time this year was wasted because a previous committee had not wrapped up loose ends and fully documented the legislative history and intent of a policy change made about 5 years earlier. Even minutes were vague about crucial details; memories were the primary repository of institutional knowledge! (And it was not just the faculty who were at fault. The administration and the Board adopted it without ever putting it into the official policy documents that were affected by the change.)

  • Only distribute pdf files of ephemera like a draft of the minutes, and clearly label it as a draft.
  • If needed, teach people how to use the Adobe commenting tools to attach corrections for action at the next meeting.
  • Produce the official, corrected minutes after the next meeting, and identify them as such when distributing and archiving them. It is essential that all main motions appear in the minutes or as an attachment that is in the same final pdf file. This is the official record of what was done.
  • Distribute an rtf file for working materials, but keep the master copy clean except for clearly identified changes. All changes from the original (particularly if it is an existing policy) should be done in a fashion similar to that described in Roberts Rules of Order for handling a committee report (section 54 of article IX of the 1915 version that is online): the committee's report should be printed exactly as it was submitted with the amendments printed below; or, still better, all words struck out should be enclosed in brackets and all words inserted should be printed in italics. and a note to that effect inserted at the beginning. The second technique (often using a strikeout for deletions and italics for insertions) is what is used when amending a bill in a legislative body.
  • I think the agenda itself should contain prototype motions on each action item, if possible. That way, people will come to the meeting knowing what they have to think about and act on. The easy way to do this is to have the person proposing an agenda item also provide the motion.

All of this serves both efficiency and the legal requirements. Hold real votes, not just one of those "everyone agrees" decisions, on important items. We had an instance where another committee gave unanimous consent to the final form of a document, but never had a formal vote recorded in the minutes. Under pressure from an interested party, one of the people tried to claim this had not happened. (Yes, that meant implying that several other professors were liars, but wimps who can't be honest with their friends will say anything without thinking of what it means.)

Having clear communication in place will also ensure that everyone knows exactly what they are voting on. That is, in particular, my reason for insisting that a revision of existing policy be presented with all deletions and insertions so everyone can see what has changed. Removal of a single key word might not be obvious just from looking at the entire final version, a trick used regularly in the US Congress to slip something by that otherwise could not stand the light of day.

In closing:

When Profgrrrrl wrote (back on Friday, 18 April) about taking on a leadership role of a faculty governance unit, with the usual concerns about being groomed for management (department chair) and some more detailed questions about how to manage this task, Nels commented: Like you, I'm getting the comments about the administrative ladder, and I ain't climbing it too high! I already feel like I'm leaving teaching too far behind sometimes.

I'll comment that sometimes your teaching skills are needed to 'teach' something up the admin pyramid, and it is often the case that our teaching job is made harder by decisions made above our pay grade by people who are now disconnected from teaching. Faculty who teach and serve an admin role can be the key to a well-run college. If they want your help badly enough, negotiate a way to keep yourself in the classroom on a part-time basis. As I wrote over there, one answer is to say "you mean you'd rather have someone less competent down here in the trenches where it has to get done right?" or "you'd rather have me out of the classroom?"


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Monday, July 14, 2008

Inflated Inflation

There was an excellent article in IHE today by Kevin Carey, Facing up to Debt, about the increasing role of student loans in higher education along with some of the causes and consequences.

I strongly recommend that you read it. My reasons for blogging about it are to (a) bring it to the attention of anyone who did not see it, (b) add my own thoughts about the article, and (c) document the remark about increases in excess of inflation that I posted as CCPhysicist, at 5:35 pm EDT on July 14, 2008.

I can clearly document the hyperinflation of tuition and fees. Jump to the bottom half of this rather long article if that is all you want to see.

But first, a few comments about the article:

I thought it was an extremely perceptive article, particularly the point about grouping LOANS in with scholarships as if they were actually financial AID rather than a financial BURDEN. (There were some examples of those burdens in the comments, but there were also some examples where people made very bad guesses about the correct legal approach to questionable lender behavior rather than listening to someone like Suze Orman or checking the "hardship" provisions in the bankruptcy law.) Loans should be listed as a separate category and the government should stop pretending that it is helping students with this approach. Do students realize they are promising to pay $125 per month for every $10,000 they borrow? For 25 years? The new GI Bill cannot come soon enough, given what I have seen among my Vet students. Forcing them to borrow money is obscene. Forcing them to borrow money under the onerous bankruptcy rules passed by the "Contract for America" Republican Congress in 1998 is even worse.

Michael Bugeja, director of the journalism program at Iowa State University, made a solid point about a possible bubble in the higher ed sector of the economy. I say "possible" because the top 20% of household incomes, those making over $100,000 per year, could (and I should put scare quotes around 'could') live on the median household income of $48,000 and be able to pay cash for a SLAC education. Of course they can't, or won't, but the top 1% of the population contains a lot of people who can afford to send their rich kids to such schools - if they manage their income properly. But if you take loans out of the equation, many SLAC students would end up at state universities and many state university students would end up at a CC. (I know for a fact that many of our CC students turn down admission to a university simply to save money during their first two years.) And quite a few CC students would not attend anywhere if not for loans.

I also agree with most of the sentiments in the sentence I took exception with in Carey's article. He wrote "Traditional colleges and universities, protected from competition by regulatory barriers and buoyed by public subsidies and rising demand, have managed to avoid most of the difficult choices inherent to becoming more efficient and restraining price." [Emphasis added] I assume he meant public colleges and universities.

Although I don't quite view accreditation as a regulatory barrier, it along with reputation do act to limit competition. Institutions that became large mainly because they existed and had fairly open access at the end of WW II, as well as having the intellectual and state financial resources to build a large research (not to mention athletic) enterprise to provide the sort of reputation that attracts students, do have some huge advantages in this market. Many large R1 state universities, and even some large mid-tier ones, can compete academically with much more expensive and highly selective private universities. This makes their (to me) sky-high tuition look cheap compared to $50,000 per year. And rising demand is certainly a factor, as we have seen with fuel costs.

But I do take exception to the claimed role of public subsidies. One of the things that became obvious when I dug up the data needed to include some R1 universities in my look at college budgets was that state contributions were now a tiny fraction (typically less than one third) of the instructional budget at these schools, but still provided a large fraction at our CC.

Inflation corrected data:

I found it interesting that federal student loans started in 1965, since my information concerns the situation soon after that when loans were fairly rare and generally quite small. (Mrs Pion had loans of less than $1000, which is less than $5000 in current dollars.) My comparison of 1970-71 data to comparable 2008-09 data is based on the detailed CPI information (pdf file) available from Robert Sahr at Oregon State. [His massive web page, which also explains how he bridges between periods with different CPI bases, is thick with cool data such as his pdf graphing gasoline prices in current dollars.]

I took the historic numbers from the orientation information I still have, thanks to the excellent collection maintained by my parents and "gifted" to me a few years ago. They have been scaled by the ratio of the CPI factor for 2008-2009 (1.039) to that for 1970-71 (0.191). That ratio is 5.44. Inflation is a rude taskmaster.

All numbers in this table are in current (actually 2008-2009) dollars.

Tuition and Fees320710263x 3.20
Room and Board53207076x 1.33
Total852717339x 2.03

Since I made my "factor of 2" statement in the comments on IHE based on a top-of-the-head WAG of the inflation factor and my freshman year budget, that is pretty close!

However, my reason for taking the time to write all of this up was not to verify the miraculous quality of my WAG, but to point out that the factor of 2 in the total budget hides completely the actual reason for the huge rise in real-dollar costs: Tuition. One can easily attribute the 33% increase above inflation for room and board to some added value. Although the mortgages should have been paid off ages ago, some dorms have been rebuilt from the inside out and all of them have had those new fangled inter-tube thingies added and some even needed upgraded electrical systems to handle computers and microwaves. I've also been told that the food service is even better than it was in my day, and I don't even want to think about the maintenance required to keep students from tearing it apart.

But a factor of more than THREE in tuition even AFTER INFLATION has been accounted for? And that is at a university that has the lowest employee-student ratio among their comparison institutions! Granted, some of it is due to an equally spectacular increase in the cost of health insurance, but can it really be explained by the shift from 1/3 tuition and 2/3 state to almost the reverse over that period of time?

Student320710263x 3.20
State64145000x 0.80

No. (Again these are all current dollars and this estimate is much cruder than the one above, which was based on actual predicted costs from the institution.) The cost shift from state to student is only about $1400. (It might actually be $1500 due to state budget cuts this year, but that error is in the noise.) If state appropriations had been maintained at constant dollars, tuition would have "only" needed to be $8863, an increase of a factor of 2.76 above inflation! But if state budget cuts were the only thing going on, keeping the total cost of instruction fixed at about $9620, tuition would only have had to rise from $3207 to about $4620, a factor of 1.44. (Or maybe $4700, with a state appropriation of $4900. As I said, an error of +/- $100 or $200 will not affect these conclusions.) In any case, that would have meant the state would be supplying just over 50% of the cost of instruction. Nothing like what we actually see.

[Question: So what would that university look like? I think it would look a lot like our CC, only with no adjunct instructors and slightly higher faculty pay but still lots of research. I can say this because their state appropriation alone is greater than our total cost of instruction. Double that and you have enough money to make up for getting rid of all adjuncts plus some for salaries and research support. However, if our CC tried to operate without adjuncts and didn't get university-level appropriations, our tuition would have to make up 2/3 or our budget just as it currently does at that R1. Interesting.]

Clearly, most of the real-dollar tuition increase is to provide added value in the form of the salaries and other expenses needed to maintain a world class faculty and research enterprise, not compensate for a decrease in state appropriations.

Further, as you can see from this analysis, the state subsidy is no longer a huge factor as it was in the past. The difference between a total educational cost of about $22,000 ($15,000 in tuition and fees and about $7000 in room and board) and what is charged at private universities (and some public ones!) is still significant. Even without the state subsidy, that education would look like a bargain.

I think it is more correct to say that the universities have used relatively modest cuts in the real value of state appropriations to justify much larger increases in tuition. Part of that game is using graphs of the fraction supplied by the state rather than constant dollars for each component. It would appear that only a small part of the change is due to cuts in appropriations. This is not to deny, however, that universities cannot make use of the same economies that other industries do, but look no further than the cost of computers to see where they have benefited.

Closing Note:

While researching the current costs at Ye Olde Alma Mater, I discovered that they have their own problem with the credit crisis. They have lost the ability to sell loans to a state agency, because that agency is unable to finance those loans. No comment here on that since I don't have time to look up the older references or check the situation on my own campus.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Bus v Car, rescaled

This is the image referred to in my second comment on Chad's blog

about a manipulative picture. He attributed it to incompetent work with Photoshop, but I propose that it is a classic example of framing. The second picture makes the street look emptier and the bus look smaller. Original photo is below the fold.

Someone commented that the picture was from a 90s promotion, which means it would be more likely done in a darkroom off of film than with a digital camera. That increases the chance that the photographer did not remember or care what zoom had been used, and framed each picture independently to achieve a specific photojournalism goal. Here is that original.

As describe in the comment in Chad's blog, I estimated the scale change at about 1.73 to 1.74 and resized the bus accordingly.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Who would have predicted this?

Hamas has arrested three members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades for firing rockets into Israel, in violation of the latest truce. (BBC story) Granted, it is quite likely a power play by Hamas against its weaker rival, but what if Israel pretends to take them seriously and doesn't retaliate by closing the border?

Almost a sign of the end times, like Jesse Jackson getting a smack down by both Obama and his own son. (My comment to the commentariat is that the young black women I know at my CC, some quite poor, would not mind a little responsibility on the part of the men in their lives. They need to get out more.) By the way, the detail missing in all of the stories is, "what was the other guy thinking?". He was smiling at the "talk down" line (which was Jesse calling Obama "uppity"), but seemed to recoil after the famous remark with an "mmm mmm mmm" and was biting his lip after whatever Fox snipped out.

Elsewhere, the BBC wins the Juxtaposition Award for stacking "Bush approves surveillance bill" right before "US seeks to calm investor fears" in its RSS feed.

And when you are on this side of the pond, a topic like "Georgia recalls Moscow ambassador" forces you to think twice. Russia has an ambassador in Atlanta?

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Monday, July 7, 2008

Some Research University Budgets

Following up on my article proposing a meme about College Finances, I thought I would post a comparison table of the main budget contributions for four state-supported major "research intensive" (R1) research universities.

Since I am using publicly available resources which do not all contain breakdowns of such details as the division of teaching resources between faculty, support, etc, I will only present the basic income picture here. In retrospect, this is probably good enough because the amount of research money that sneaks into the regular budget in the form of "overhead" (operational expenses beyond those required to meet the retirement, health, and other fringe benefits that go along with paying a salary) is fairly similar for the places that post the relevant information.

Background information:

These four institutions are listed based on the national ranking of their physics departments. Why? Because I have that information. Three are in the top quartile and all are in the top 1/3 of "R1" departments. This top 1/3 is responsible for producing about 2/3 of all physics PhD degrees (see one my jobs articles for the table and references), which makes them, as a group, fairly typical of where you might have earned your PhD degree. School A is in the top 10 for physics, producing over 30 PhDs per year during the period circa 1990 covered by the National Academy study - about as many as the other three combined.

Some of these schools have a major medical school with a teaching hospital, while others do not. This would mess up comparisons of normalized budgets, so the tables below do not include any of the "auxillary" income and expense associated with running dormitories, a hospital, athletics, or (in the case of the two original Land Grant schools included in the list) their "extension" programs. In one case, the hospital budget alone is bigger than the entire budget for the rest of the university (teaching and research combined)!

Side remark: The smallest athletic department budget at one of these schools is 50 million dollars. That sure puts the budget of a small university or large community college into perspective.


By the way, only two of these schools are anywhere close to 'only' a billion dollar budget even if you look only at their teaching and research budgets. However, after normalizing them all to 1000 million dollars, there are a lot of similarities. For example, research money tends to dwarf the other components of the budget. Research pays for a lot of what you see at these universities, which is why research plays such a huge role in getting tenure.


By the way, the one with the smallest fraction for research is mainly a result of a really high number of tuition-paying students at its main and branch campuses. It actually has more research dollars than C or even A. Further, don't assume those research amounts are exclusively federal dollars. Private (industrial) research, and special state projects, are significant at these universities.

In general, you cannot assume that the sum of State appropriations and Tuition and fees equals the cost of instruction. A significant chunk of that money is devoted to the non-teaching part of the teaching - research - service triad. (Some of these universities actually try to break that out in their budget numbers, but even that is difficult to take seriously because much of graduate education is, in fact, research.) Further, part of the money that comes is as "research" from contracts and grants will go out as general fund money to support the "overhead" (offices, libraries, computing, networks) supplied by the university without a direct charge to each research grant.

One of the things you find on every one of these institutions budget web site is a discussion of the on-going shift of resources from the state to the student. Since, in my judgement, schools A, B, and D would be considered the "flaghship" universities in their respective states, it is interesting to take a rough look at how their states treat them. I'll simply look at the ratio of state support to the sum of state and tuition, keeping in mind that subsidies from the research side that get used for the teaching mission of the university - and the part of a professor's research time that is supported by tuition - muddles this analysis.


This result, however, is not far from what the respective universities report. (One of them includes the "indirect cost recovery" - overhead - number in the total, which has the effect of reducing the fraction supplied by the state - and the students - by a significant amount. That university, B, gets an amount equal to about half of its state budget from 'overhead' on all of its research operations! Guess how important research is for tenure at that school? Right.)

There is also a curious anomaly: The fraction of state support for C is higher than B even though B is a flagship university. The reason appears to be that B has many more out-of-state and graduate students, thus getting a LOT more money from tuition but less in the form of appropriations tied to in-state enrollment numbers.

References Added:

A study reported by IHE back in May compares direct instructional costs to "other" institutional costs for student services and non-instructional costs (mostly research funds) across a range of institutions. I can't tell if they included "auxiliary" operations such as dorms, athletics, and hospitals in their study, but it doesn't seem that they did. That means they give some insight into where the combination of state funds and tuition gets spent, which is mostly not in the classroom. You can also see that in the budget details for my CC just by looking at the salaries: 3.9 million to teachers and 3.8 million to administrators and other staff.

Note added:
See also my article "Inflated Inflation" documenting the change over the last 4 decades of state funding for education at an R1 and the spending by the R1, showing that tuition increases are not replacing lost state dollars in at least one instance that I know of.

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Sunday, July 6, 2008

Not Eisenhower

The return of one of the Swiftboat Prevaricators to the commentariat was marked by the usual attempt to create a misimpression by association: in this case the association of McCain with Eisenhower. Sorry, but McCain is no Eisenhower even if that is the misimpression he has been trying to create as the cornerstone of his campaign.

Two differences stand out: Eisenhower had demonstrated outstanding leadership in an entire theater of combat and Eisenhower ran on the key platform issue that he would go to Korea and end that "war" through negotiation with a government we still do not recognize.

The first of these differences was what Gen. Clark was addressing when he said of McCain: "in the matters of national security policy-making, it's a matter of understanding risk. It's a matter of gauging your opponents, and it's a matter of being held accountable. John McCain's never done any of that in his official positions. I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands of millions of others in the Armed Forces as a prisoner of war. He has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and he has traveled all over the world. But he hasn't held executive responsibility." (Only the sound bite about being shot down made it onto the news thanks to the time limits of journalism and the work of the spinners.)

If you bring Eisenhower into the discussion, as one of the Prevaricators did, that level of executive command decision making would be the relevant measure. McCain has nothing of the sort, nor does he look good on other points of comparison. Eisenhower went to public schools, not a private prep school, and had to work several years before attending West Point. There he put that education to work, graduating in the top half of his class, not wasting it by ending up in the bottom 1% of the Naval Academy as McCain did. Oddly, this attack dog for McCain mentioned Truman's service and Kennedy's service, but left out the honorable service of GHW Bush, Gore, and Kerry as other people who should (if one were consistent) be trusted with better judgement than, say, GW Bush. But that did not stop him from attacking Kerry.

If you focus on the sound bite ("I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president."), the relevant comparison is to GHW Bush or JF Kennedy. Neither effort was considered to be a particular qualification to be President at the time, as both men were judged by other times when they showed leadership and their positions during the campaign. [Was military service used as a reason for right wing voters to pick Kennedy over Nixon?] However, it should be noted that both men were less likely to get suckered into a risky conflict (occupying Iraq and attacking Cuba, respectively) by their military and civilian advisers precisely because of what they learned from their experiences in combat. Did McCain learn that torturing prisoners is always wrong, and that one should not trust claims by those running the prison that no torture took place? It seems not, given the pass he gave GW Bush on that issue.

As for Eisenhower's campaign promise, that looks a lot more like Obama's plan than McCain's. McCain has echoed GW Bush in questioning anyone who would negotiate with North Korea or Iran, even as Bush has negotiated a deal with North Korea that is not very different from the one Clinton had negotiated a decade earlier. Personally, I wonder if the sudden change in behavior in Iraq is a result of the possibility of Obama's election. Combined with the Bush administration's self-imposed December 2008 timetable for leaving Iraq (due to the UN mandate he requested), this may have opened their eyes to the need to take charge of their own future.

Certainly McCain's plan to balance the budget by winning the war in Iraq during his first year in office is sounding more like Nixon and Kissinger did when they decided to declare victory and get out of Vietnam than Eisenhower's approach to Korea. But, in his own way, that is also putting pressure on Iraq to get its political house in order.

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Friday, July 4, 2008

R.I.P. Bozo the Clown

This morning's paper carried the news that Larry Harmon, who gave Bozo the Clown his human form, died Thursday, 3 July. I consider it pretty amazing that the news rates coverage by the BBC. Or maybe not, since Bozo got started in audio form in 1946 - the year that defines the start of the Baby Boom.

Bozo the Clown and I go way back. Above is a picture of the cover of a record album in my collection.

Interestingly, the production date for this album appears to be contemporaneous with Larry Harmon being hired to play Bozo on a record promotion tour. The record itself features the voice of Pinto Colvin. The AP story contains a reference to "the last 52 years" that places Harmon's original hiring in 1952, the copyright date on this record album.

I say "gave Bozo his human form" because (according to Wikipedia) Bozo was only played by Colvig (with a different hair style) on a local Los Angeles TV station for a few years starting in 1949. It was Harmon who took the character national and recreated the look of the cartoons you see in this record album as well as earlier ones.

The logo in the upper right corner shows that Bozo was still "The Capitol Clown" at that time. Harmon did not buy the copyright to Bozo until later in the 1950s.

What made this a "Record Reader" is that the two 78-rpm discs inside were synchronized to the text in the book that was inside the album. You turned the page each time Bozo honked his horn.

If you are old enough, you probably remember film strips that worked the same way.

Unlike the Dr. Seuss books and other "early reader" books, the print is small and the words can be big. It was clearly meant to be used with a parent guiding you through the words as you heard Bozo and others tell the story.

A sample:

And on July 4th, what better selection than the Firecracker Song ...

Looking back at this, it seems a bit odd that one of the Three Duck Brothers appears to be female or (less likely) of an unrelated species. An early attempt at inclusive marketing?

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

GM at $10 per share

The media makes a big deal about the value of GM stock being back where it was in 1954, but its not clear to me if they are correcting for inflation as well as stock splits. But that is not what I am writing about.

While posting this observation

Where is the alliance between GM and the U of M and Michigan State physics and engineering departments on cost-effective Lithium-Ion battery production methods? When will those Pointy-Haired Bosses at GM realize that they could build a Chevy Volt with NiMH technology and develop it on the highway with bleeding edge techno types like those of us who bought a Honda Insight in 2000 at a price well below cost? Its not like they couldn't upgrade it later, but they don't think like that even at $10 a share.

at the end of a followup comment on the Quantum Pontiff's blog, I remembered what really pisses me off about the absurdly slow development of products like the Chevy Volt.

The bombing of Hiroshima.

Not the fact that Mazda made my car in that city, despite its having been leveled by an atomic bomb, while it took GM more than a decade to try to make something even comparable to it. No, the fact that NOTHING used to carry out that mission EXISTED just three years earlier. I don't think history books get across the magnitude of what the US managed to accomplish in a few short years during WW II.

In August 1942 there was no atomic bomb, just 20 pages or so of general notes that constitute the Los Alamos Primer. There were no factories to separate uranium and no reactors to produce plutonium. There was a log building at Los Alamos. There were no B-29 Superfortresses, which were being prototyped and designed at about the same time that summer, for a September test flight. Its engines were a joke. Airborne radar in the cm range had been developed just a year or so earlier, but using it to trigger a bomb at a specific altitude had not been tried (or maybe even thought of).

Nothing except a lot of vaporware.

Yet three years later, the sky was blackened with 400 or more B-29s over a single Japanese city, and we were on track to produce an atomic bomb with a radar trigger every few months. The comparison to the MRAP program for Iraq is not a very favorable one. And just as "shade tree mechanics" produced the first up-armored Humvees out in the field in less time than it took to think we needed to draw one, garage operations have produced working plug-in hybrids while GM looks to market something in another couple of years (current goal is the end of 2010). We built an atom bomb in less time than that! Sell it to me for 20 grand or so and I will test the batteries for you for free! And guess what: since there are probably thousands of people who would do the same thing, that is 50 million dollars GM could have that they don't have today.

It can be done.

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The optimism of Youth

Consider this a reality check. I had a minor flashback when I read a comment from a Caltech sophomore about a very interesting article concerning people leaving physics. The flashback was to a remark by a good friend from HS, who is a manager with a major national corporation with its fingers in both the financial and software pie.

The comment from the student was that he wanted "to challenge JohnQPublic's statements since you don't need to climb the ladder to have fun in the corporate world---being a programmer is great, if you're working on the right project!"

My HS friend (in conversation at a reunion some years ago) refered to those programmers, who occupy some back room (or foreign country) where no business school grad will see them, as "Frito eaters". Slamming code is like turning a wrench on the assembly line to Suits like himself. The only respect goes to software engineers who manage the code slammers and bring structure to the project, and then only on a good day.

That is, the "right project" might be something in a low stress area like an academic research project that can be handed off to a highly talented undergrad, not necessarily a mission-critical piece of software that someone will pay real money for on a sustained enough basis to keep you and your company in business.


Digression into the "jobs" aspect of a few other comments appearing with that article, which was about some blogging physicists who are leaving academia.

Yes, it is true that you might "have a rather visceral gut reaction to the idea of being employed at a liberal arts college, even after only two years here at Caltech as an undergraduate." I would even go so far as to say that this might be because you went to Caltech rather than, say, Harvey Mudd or Williams. I don't think it is an accident that Chad, with a degree from Williams, got hired at Union College. I'm sure my applications to similar small colleges needed to be a whole lot better to sell my otherwise suspect undergrad background at an enourmous R1. My undergrad experience is not at all like that of their students, and it would be a big adjustment to teach them effectively. After all, their entire college might be smaller than my freshman dorm!

We have similar considerations when looking at applicants for a job at a CC. Many applications simply jump off the paper and say "I don't get it!" I still have to write the missing CC part (Part 5) of the job series, but the gist of it, the background info, is in part 3, not to mention yesterday's article. None of the things that matter at an R1 matter to us, just as some of the things that matter at a SLAC matter a great deal to us (the exception being the need for an externally funded research program that can involve undergrads) while others, such as dealing with a highly diverse population of students, only matter at a CC.

I was fortunate that I had learned those lessons before I applied for my present job. My immediate background was not the norm for a CC teaching job, but I had learned how to sell my teaching skills and how to demonstrate my interest in that kind of institution by things I did as a volunteer.

Another comment, by Coriolis, touches on a point of relevance to someone seeking a career at an R1. The cogent observation was that "the biggest problem I see is the overwhelming amount of bullshit that physics professors have to deal with.... It seems to me that professors are forced to spend far too long writing proposals, worrying about getting more grant money and attending useless meetings on non-physics stuff." Yes, but first I have to compliment the writer for noticing this. The life of a grad student or post doc is an easy one. Someone else gets the money to pay them (in physics). If you are lucky, you are exposed to this side of the job, even involved in it by writing part of a progress report or proposal, and mentored on the skills needed to do this (not to mention the mysterious "overhead charges" that keep the lights on). One of my major points in part 4 of the jobs series and a related article about what R1 faculty do, is that you need to know what is involved in being a professor if you want to get such a job and also earn tenure in it rather than being let go at the end of the first or third year reviews.

By the way, back on the topic that started this set of remarks, it's not all that much easier to be in business. In business you have to do all that writing and managing to help sell your product or market your skills as a subcontractor on a project. You might even have to do the billing and keep the books if you have an entrepreneurial spirit. Life in the corporate world can (does?) require just as much (more?) in the way of dirty work, with the added feature that you - rather than your grad students and post docs - will be unemployed if it does not get done effectively.

And the "service" part of the job? Those irrelevant meetings? That would be the subject of the Surviving Academic Committees article I need to write this summer. The problem is that I don't want to think about what it will take to survive it next year so it isn't getting written!

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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

CC Students

The students at my community college are nothing like those that Professor X described in the June issue of "The Atlantic". Although I commented on one aspect of that article earlier (see below for the link), two recent articles (part 1 and part 2) by Female Science Professor took on Prof X's inaccurate view of the differences between CC students and university students, a topic I had ignored. I figured I should elaborate here because it is also relevant to those looking at a CC job. Our students are different, and those differences pose some challenges, but they are not necessarily inferior to those at, say, a large state university.

That article in The Atlantic generated a lot of discussion back in May. It first came to my attention in conjunction with a denial of tenure case at Norfolk State that I blogged about in the distant past. At that time my thoughts were mostly about the effectiveness of pre-college skills classes (the old prerequisites issue) as well as the role of the administration in fixing a college culture where attendance is not thought to be important to success in class. I am tempted to attribute all of the differences between Prof X's students and ours to the effectiveness of our pre-college "prep" classes, but I don't know if the CC or "last chance" private college s/he teaches at has such a program.

So how do CC students compare to university students?

By way of background, I taught quite a few classes at a major R1 university as a graduate student a few decades ago, and also taught a few classes at another R1 university while in a research position. I also know the faculty in both physics and engineering at nearby Wannabe Flagship, so the current state of their students is no mystery to me.

Like FSP wrote, our students are not that different. In particular, the engineering students I had in my physics class at a major R1 were no more (and sometimes less) motivated than the ones I have at this CC. I certainly have more students at this CC who have actual hands-on experience with things ... engines, a machine shop, home-built electronics, maintenance of modern weapons systems, operation of a nuclear reactor. The students at my grad R1 were invariably straight out of HS, usually a suburban HS, and had never taken anything apart. Dealing with that really prepared me well for my current job, since there are still plenty of students in my classes who want to be engineers but don't know how things are made or buildings built. Now that I am in control, I have lots of demos that use regular items to illustrate what is going on for those who don't know, say, that a solenoid is inside the "relay" that is one possible point of failure in their car.

And that identifies one major difference. Older "returning" students were very rare at my undergrad and grad universities. If not for CC transfers, they would be quite rare at nearby Wannabe Flagship. They are not rare at my CC. Recent combat veterans were more common, by total numbers, in the early post-Vietnam years, but rare at my undergrad school and essentially unknown in the dorm. Veterans are not rare at my CC. I've had an entire study group in my physics class made up entirely of Marines! The person with experience running a reactor came out of the Navy submarine service, and is pushing 30.

This "re-entry" role that our CC provides can also create unique problems. I will have a student in Physics 2 this fall who took and passed Physics 1 more than 20 years ago. I also encounter more problems with work conflicts, sometimes even work-related travel, when the student has a full-time job.

And work is another difference. Most of my students work a lot, often as much as 20 hours per week (which means full time on the weekend) and sometimes full time or more. You just don't get a student at a university who works all day as an electrician, then comes to college at 5 pm. He will have to change jobs to go to engineering school, but we accommodated him. [He is also a good example of why federal graduation measures just don't work at a CC. He got out about as fast you could for someone who had to take calculus one year and physics the next.]

Comment added: My view here is wildly different from that in an article that views night classes solely as a way of increasing the efficiency of the educational factory by adding a second shift. Most of our students who take classes during the day will be working at night, not playing beer pong.

Then there are children. Very few of your students have children. Some of my students have two or three, and some are pregnant. Some have teenagers. Most of these are single parents. A few have children at our CC. Child care problems and illnesses are not an unusual excuse. Although our CC has a day care center, they can't all afford it.

But there are some similarities, including one that I blog about a lot. Retention of knowledge, or lack thereof, is the big one.

It was at the grad R1 that I got the most eye-opening teaching evaluation form ever. One student wrote on the back, in the free response area, that s/he (but the odds are that it was a "he", particularly given the studious young women that semester) didn't like physics and didn't think he should have to take a physics class because he wanted to be an engineer, not a physicist. [The class in question happens to be the one where we cover the basic mechanics that their first junior-year engineering class will build on.] That stayed on my office wall for years, but now appears lost forever. Again, thinking about that every day went a long way toward developing my approach to teaching with its emphasis on why each topic has to be learned and remembered as a prerequisite for what comes next. Before that note, it had never occurred to me that a student wanting to be an engineer wouldn't know that forces had something to do with whether a building stands or falls.

This is very hard to deal with at an R1, because those students did really well in an environment where they were told what to memorize for the next test and could then forget it and move on. My colleagues at Wannabe Flagship complain regularly about the slippage in critical thinking (mostly critical reading) skills needed to be good problem solvers.

In some respects, my students are better to work with. They are under no illusions that they can cruise easily through each class in college as if it were still 10th grade, even if some of them can do so. I can use the inferiority complex of coming from a CC to advantage, like the coach of an underdog team in a tournament.

And yet, my students are not inferior. I once looked up their SAT and ACT scores and discovered that the average (about 1150, for those that have scores on record) is not that far off of what shows up at lots of universities. The ones without those scores have similar skills. My colleagues have done a pretty good job getting them up to speed in math and writing skills, and in their initial exposure to problem solving in chemistry. Of course, its not all wonderful. There is a substantial tail to the distribution (I've seen a total SAT of 700) that varies a lot from year to year, and the intensity of our pre-calculus classes is not high enough to prepare those students for the level of effort required to take both calculus and physics at the same time. Quite a few have to drop physics, but some of these come back when they get their act together.

BUT, you object, those are PHYSICS students. What about the rest?

A valid point, but it also applies at a university. Engineering majors tend to stand out in many ways. My observation is that our remediation and selection process produces juniors who are ready to compete with those who started in engineering at Wannabe Flagship. These students did not, on average, start out in calculus as freshmen. We get those, but we also get ones who started at the very bottom of the curriculum, taking what amounts to middle school math. What I don't see is what Prof X described: students in a freshman class whose skills are still in middle school.

I also teach a general education class that draws students from every major. These students come in with a range of experience and a range of preparation. Some are business majors who have had basic calculus, and some are freshmen or sophomores who have barely completed its minimum math requirement, which is (technically speaking) probably below the level required to know everything on our high school exit exam. The minimum english skill is the same as is required to take Comp 1, although most have passed a composition class (making them like the students in the Comp 2 class Prof X taught). It is rare to find more than one student who struggles to write a decent sentence or paragraph, although they are there. Some of our comp teachers (or our placement tests) clearly let some things slide, but these cases are rare. From where I sit, grading lab reports or a homework essay, students who enter our composition classes have had the most glaring problems fixed ... but they are nothing like the students at a SLAC (selective liberal arts college) or a highly selective university.

So that is one lesson for someone thinking about teaching at a CC. You cannot assume that these students are your peers. Unlike you, they are not hanging out with other people who are going to get a PhD and go on to an academic career. They did not read the New York Times, even on the web. The top students are as good as those found at any big state school, but the average ones need pointers on what to look for, what they need to learn, what they need to retain, what they need to relearn. Every day. (I guess you can say that they need to be taught! Most of my peers really didn't need much in the way of teaching, and could thrive even with the worst professors.) You can't assume that a class you are teaching is quite like the one you took.

That last sentence is particularly true with regard to what they know coming in.

For example, they quite likely have not had any physics (maybe not even a decent physical science class) worth talking about. Some of those that had a physics or physical science class need to un-learn crap they picked up from an under-qualified teacher pushed into service when there were no qualified Science Ed graduates to be found. They know the math we have taught them at the CC, but you can't assume they know anything else. (They score quite low on the Force Concept Inventory, for example.)

Finally, the weakest link for these students is reading. (Hence my great interest in how Dr. Crazy and others teach the skill of critical reading. I need to help them with it for problem solving in my physics class and the more challenging questions in my gen ed class.) Its also not surprising that vocabulary is a weak point, since it just takes a lot of reading to build up that skill. Its not something that can be rushed. And, of course, it is the biggest challenge for foreign students as well.

Sure, some of our students come in thinking that engineering is the career for them because it pays well. They don't know that it also requires hard work. Similarly, there are lots of kids who want to program computers because they like playing games. They haven't written a program, so they don't yet know that these are two very different things. But these problems are not unique to us. Conversations with an engineering prof at Wannabe Flagship indicate that this is a problem for them as well as us. A large fraction of their students change major when they find out how much work engineering is. I'll wager that LOTS of kids drop out of computer science at any university simply because they had no idea what it entails. Certainly I see evidence in some of my favorite blogs to indicate that these are problems at many universities - and even in some grad programs.

We all have to deal with students that don't know what it means to learn on their own. Students who don't follow directions all that well. Students who drink or smoke instead of studying. We may have a few more than you do, but the biggest differences are in age and their original high school preparation. The people who do the most important job at our CC are the ones who deal with remediation and get them ready for my classes. They do a good job. If Prof X taught here, the problem was with expectations, not the preparation of the students.

With one exception. If you get a section that was opened at the last minute, filled with students who just decided to go to college on the first day of the fall semester, look out. Even a good placement test can't measure how much a student wants to get out of bed and come to class. Those classes are usually a disaster. Maybe Prof X got a few of those.

One article by University Diaries related to the Prof X article (mentioned in a comment to my earlier article) should be linked here: KNOWHOW2GO is a program to improve student skills while they are still in high school. This idea is similar to the idea that colleges like mine should push its "are you ready for college math and english" testing into the high schools, so students know they need work before they graduate. This is important because we have excellent evidence that students who pass the HS exit exam will only be guaranteed placement into a middle-school level algebra class, and maybe not even that.

There was an excellent article on an alternative scheme for writing remediation (hat tip to Sherman Dorn). It was based on an approach that does not dumb-down the material being written about, so (as was once pushed in "Cultural Literacy") students build college-level knowledge while working on specific writing skills. That is not unlike the way we continuously repair very basic algebra errors (and I mean basic, going back to 7th grade) while teaching calculus or physics.

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