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Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The burden of students

I always enjoyed interacting with Sidney Coleman (sadly, now deceased) when I was a postdoc. I was quite pleased to find this interview, part of the AIP Oral History project.

His views about working with students are not surprising to me, despite the high quality of Harvard PhD students. The gap in brainpower between Sidney and even an exceptional graduate student might be vast. It's worth noting that Sidney had a large number of PhD students who became prominent theorists.

I often make the analogy between teaching (or training PhD students) and pushups or running. Perhaps unpleasant while you are doing it, but (hopefully) it makes you stronger. Certainly I learn a lot from teaching, if only from reviewing the material in preparation for lectures. If the students are exceptionally good, I might even learn things from questions asked in class.
But you do enjoy working with students, or do you?

Coleman: No. I hate it. You do it as part of the job. Well, that's of course false...or maybe more true than false when I say I hate it. Occasionally there's a student who is a joy to work with. But I certainly would be just as happy if I had no graduate students. There are plenty of colleagues around here whom I can work with. There are plenty of research fellows; junior faculty. This is true all through the Cambridge area. There's not only Harvard, there are people to work with at MIT, at Brandeis, and there are some good people at places like Northeastern... places loaded with physicists to collaborate with, to talk about physics ideas with, who are ready and KNOW basically how to do research. You know who's good and who's bad. It's not a question of their being embryonically possibly good or possibly rotten. So certainly if I want physicists to collaborate with I don't have to have graduate students. Occasionally there is a graduate student who is a joy to collaborate with. Both David (Politzer) and Eric (Weinberg) were of this kind, but they were essentially almost mature physicists. They were very bright by the time they came to me. In general, working with a graduate student is like teaching a course. It's tedious, unpleasant work. A pain in the neck. You do it because you're paid to do it. If I weren't paid to do it I certainly would never do it.
Interview with Dr. Sidney Coleman by Katherine Sopka at Harvard Physics Department, Cambridge, Massachusetts January 18, 1977.

14 comments:

Sam H said...

Maybe the students are the real "victims" here because they are being taught by someone who probably does not have the emotional or IQ quotient necessary to communicate with them on the appropriate level?

Rod Carvalho said...

I believe it should be "Erick (Weinberg)" instead of "Eric (Weinberg)". The AIP people wrote Prof. Weinberg's name incorrectly.

RKU1 said...

I remember Coleman used to walk into his 2:30pm course rubbing his eyes and yawning, and always complained about the administration forcing him to get up at such an ungodly hour.

I think he also once explained in an interview somewhere that it was impossible for him to ever teach a 9:00am course, since there was no way he could ever manage to stay up that late...

whatisgoingon whatisgoingon said...

How cam you come to that conclusion from this information? Or, at least that train of thought.

I am SURE you LOVE tutoring people who are stupid compared to you.

David Stern said...

Some PhD students are good and can get work done that you couldn't do yourself given time constraints or knowledge limitations and you are developing future colleagues and it is worthwhile. With others it is just a struggle the whole time and yes it is a job of training them to be just competent researchers. As far as teaching goes it can be useful for getting areas of knowledge clearer in your mind that aren't what you are normally working on as you have to explain them. I suppose some people have everything clear already. It is good when you see students improve their knowledge and end up with skills at the end of the course that they didn't have at the beginning.

Nano Nymous said...

Illustrates a common problem with today's universities: teachers hate teaching. And then some wonder why is it that teaching is so poor and students learn so little.

Jordan Fisher said...

I enjoy it. There's no challenge in conveying information to someone that can readily apprehend it. Teaching people with a different background or different innate skills forces the teacher to approach the subject matter from a different perspective.

Justin Loe said...

At least according to this quote from his obituary, Wheeler was a dedicated teacher: "Wheeler was known not only for his intellectual prowess but also for his dedicated mentoring of eager minds in theoretical physics." http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2008/04/15/20872/

Justin Loe said...

Someone could probably construct a metric based on the mathematical/physics genealogy projects that record the number of grad students (children) and their grad students (grandchildren) of different professors and then do some analysis of those different professors to see what distinguishes the relative teaching productivity of different professors. Provided the time is available...

MtMoru said...

Makes the point very well what utter douche bags professors are.

It's also an example of the general tendency of human beings to confuse social conventions and institutions with nature.

Give me your notes if I need them. I can buy your text if you've written one and I can get your papers from the library. All MUCH cheaper than the totally wasted "tuition" fee.

And, not surprisingly, teaching labs (which are USEFUL) are almost universally shitty.

Would taxpayers pay Coleman to wile away the hours in useless theorizing? Maybe not. So he STEALS.

Politzer, Weinberg, Coleman. What do these names have in common? Hmmm.

MtMoru said...

Very good.

If he had the maturity, moral sense, and intelligence that I assume you have he wouldn't teach at all. He would realize that formal instruction is a hold over from a time when books were written by hand on vellum and chained to library shelves they were so dear, a time before recorded audio and video.

Such is the inertia of social conventions.

MtMoru said...

What is "teaching people"? No one has ever taught me anything.

I was a TA breifly. I found it UTTERLY disgusting and despicable. My obedient charges kept showing up even though I told them it wouldn't do them any good.

I remember I had a high school teacher who won teacher of the year award for my state. He, of all people, said, "No one can teach you anything. Formal education continues as it has only because it is recognized by employers, and there is no alternative means of credentialing."

Sam H said...

Well, I think the students benefit more when the IQ/EQ gap is not so large. If there is teachers get burned out and they loose their passion. Perhaps a 1 SD gap would be ideal. 

Matt297 said...

What do they have in common? Wow, what a standard trope.

You can claim plausable deniability all you want, but I know an antisemite when I see one.

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