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Things I never thought I’d say to my kids September 10, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in gifted, homeschooling, older son, teaching.
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There are a million things I never thought I’d say to my kids.  Truth be told, I’ve avoided a lot of them.  Today, however, I found myself telling the older son something I imagine would have made my 17-year-old self would cringe.  Or even hurl.

The older son is taking some classes through correspondence this year, mostly English, to finish up the classes he needs for college admissions.  We’ve managed to do most other things at home, but English was one thing I never bothered with because he’s an avid reader.  And by avid, I mean he devours books like candy.  He’s also done exceptionally well on any sort of standardized testing in this realm.  I didn’t want to waste his time by pushing stuff on him when he was doing pretty well in his own right.

He got his first homework assignment back from one of the classes and was reading it over while we had some lunch.  He gave me this look…the same one you get when someone tells you a joke that you can see the humor in but don’t particularly think it’s all that funny because it’s just weird.  You know what look I mean.

The comments on a couple of the problems were simply horrible.  As in, the teacher had rewritten his answers so that they were entirely dumbed down.  It’s not that these answers were vague or wrong or anything; he chose words that made the point and his answers were succinct.  The rewritten answers were long and meandering but weren’t any more clear.  I called Mike and read the rewritten answers.

“You’re kidding me.”

Sadly, no.

So I found myself saying something that I know I would have never, ever believed in my own youth: “You just need to get through the class and pass it so you can go to college.  College will be better.”

It makes me really sad that my son, who loves language and literature, is going to have to endure a class where he was hoping to be able to think about and discuss literary works on a really grown-up level.  Sadly, it looks like he’s going to have to keep it light for his teacher.  I could only reiterate that this is why I feel that high school is a waste of his time.

compulsory mis-education December 3, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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One of the first things I learned in college is that it’s never a good idea to skip class.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t do it, but I did so with the realization that I would likely be paying for it later.  This made me try to minimize it as much as possible, and generally I tried to make it unless I was sick or there was some other problem.  (And with kids, there is always some other problem.)

I was a therefore a bit irritated when I received two emails from a student asking if he needed to attend class anymore.  His reasoning is that there are no more assignments due, so there is no longer a compelling reason to attend.  I responded by saying that, unless there is an emergency, it is assumed that the students will be in class.

I didn’t say, “Yes, you have to be there.”  Realistically, I have no way of enforcing this.  However, I wasn’t about to let him off the hook.  The last day of classes are actually reasonably important.  We have evaluations (now is your chance to complain!).  I’m also having a student who has gone through the program give a presentation.  The idea is that they can ask him questions and find out what may be important as they go down the road.

Aside from that, I don’t know how to get across to him that attending class is important.  At least, it was in my experience.  However, I’m wondering if maybe this is just a self-centered point of view.  Maybe there are other things that the student needs to do that will impact their long-term outcome much more than missing my class.  I also don’t want to be the cranky old woman, shaking her cane and yelling at those darn kids.  Should I just trust that they’re better at prioritizing their own schedules?  I’m not sure…

Maybe there would be better incentive if I provided free food.

Are grad classes a waste of time? February 5, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, geophysics, grad school, physics, research, solar physics, teaching.
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I have seen both Gears and Massimo post comments about how grad classes are a waste of time.  Last week, Gears said this in his EngineerBlogs post (which I’d like to address several points, but this will have to suffice for tonight) and Massimo has suggested ‘workshop’ classes. I have to say that I disagree with both of them, but I think it’s because of my weird background.

For review, I did an undergrad in physics with a math minor, my masters in electrical engineering, and my PhD will officially be in geophysics (as was all my coursework) though my project is actually on solar physics.

Honestly, I’m not sure I could have done that without the coursework.  On the other hand, I think my attitude would be different if I’d stayed in one field. In my work in electrical engineering, I use almost every class I took, especially the grad courses.  I use antennas and microwave engineering a lot…so much so, that my circuits classes are probably the most rusty.  (I know, that’s completely backwards for an EE, but that’s how it goes sometimes.)  I find myself often wishing I’d had the opportunity to take some advanced signal processing, as well.  And one of the most useful courses was numerical techniques in electromagnetics.  Not only does it help me with the work I’m doing in EE, it’s also helping with many of the things I’ve run into looking at geo- and solar physics research.

The flip side to this is that if I’d continued on to get a PhD in EE, any further coursework would not have been terribly relevant.  I think there’s an optimum point, and that may have come earlier if my undergrad was in EE.

My classes in geophysics were not as useful, and I think there were probably 2.5 classes that had anything at all to do with my research and what I’m doing now.  Realistically, for the stuff I was interested in, I probably should have looked at a PhD in physics or astrophysics…but that may not have been much better if I was taking a bunch of classes on stuff that had no bearing on my research, either (which is likely).  However, the 2.5 classes that were useful have been REALLY useful.

I’ve got a breadth in classes that most students never get.  This is one thing that I think is a bit of a sticking point for some students.  Most places have a ‘breadth requirement’ – i.e. so many classes outside of their department.  I think this is a good thing as it helps people to see what other types of things could be relevant to their research.  I really think this is something that should be required because of all the ideas that come from seeing how different disciplines approach their fundamental problems, and even having some exposure to what those problems are is a benefit to students.

The real problem, in my opinion, is that so many places require a LOT of credits.  It’s fairly common in most good EE programs to require somewhere between 50 and 60 credits of JUST coursework.  I don’t like the idea of no classes, but I really think you could trim them back and just make students take classes that are relevant to their research as well as a couple classes for breadth.  I was very disappointed with my PhD program because once you hit advanced candidacy status, you’re not allowed to take any more classes unless your advisor is willing to foot the bill.  Not likely because most advisors want their students working on their research and getting done (not that I blame them).  The down side is that there are a couple classes that I could have really used but was unable to take because they didn’t fulfill the requirements for my degree.  Most of my classes had to be in the department as I’d already fulfilled my breath requirement, so taking a class here or there outside the department was viewed as a waste of time because they didn’t allow me to tick off some of those boxes in the red tape.  And of course, it becomes obvious that you would really benefit from a course once you’ve hit advanced status and can’t take any more.

It would be nice if there was a system where your advisor could sit down with you and figure out where you’re interested in going research-wise and plot a course through the classwork that makes sense and is flexible.  Wouldn’t it be nice if you discovered you need to learn about a particular topic and could then go take the course on it? It makes more sense to me than filling in boxes to get to a certain number of credits or hedging bets that something will be useful later on.

Let’s face it: research degrees are already very specialized and take a long time, so it would make more sense to cut the classes down to those that are relevant.  This would ideally save time without sacrificing the background required for a research project. Finally, a really good option, which more universities ought to allow, is independent study classes.  During my MS, I took one class as an independent study working on emag stuff.  It was awesome as I got the material I really needed in a more structured way and was able to do a project which (I’m still hoping) would be a foundation for some decent research down the line.  Therefore, I don’t feel grad classes are a waste of time, as long as they make sense, and I wish universities would be more flexible in some of their requirements.

Lessons learned: teachers need organizational skills, too December 19, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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I have now developed a greater understanding of a strange professorial quirk that I observed over the years. I had at least one professor each term who would get visibly annoyed if you tried to give them an assignment at any time other than the first thirty seconds of a class period.

My understanding is due to that fact that I have recently become eligible to join the Super Secret Society of Teachers Who Have Lost a Student’s Assignment.  (I’m suffering from a cold, so I was unable to come up with a snappy acronym.  Please feel free to make an effort on my behalf.)


When I was teaching geology labs, I was usually teaching four sections each week in a different building. I found that the best way to keep track of student work was to have four plastic filing envelopes. Each envelope was a different color, and I always knew which one to grab before each class.  At the beginning of class, I’d hand stuff back.  At the end of class, it would all get filed away in my envelope.  This was straight-forward, and I never lost any homeworks this way.  The labs were done in class and handed in at the end.  If they had to hand something else in, it went into my mailbox, which was in the same building as my office (but different than the labs).

This semester, I had 90 students in four classes, in three buildings.  My mailbox was in a different building than two of my classes, and all of them were in different places than my regular office.  I usually had two of my envelopes with me (two classes were on Tuesday and two were on Thursday).  Students also had the option of submitting homeworks online, as much as I hate grading those.

What I hadn’t anticipated was running into students who would randomly hand me homeworks between classes, leave them at the department with the admin staff, or all sorts of other unexpected things.  And, as it happens, I ended up misplacing some homework.  In fact, I went through and filed everything on my desk, and still never found it.  I believe it has ended up in the same place that unmatched socks end up…except that paper always ends up falling back out and will likely be found in the spring of 2013 or some similarly odd time.

If I end up teaching this class again, I think I’m going to make it a policy that homeworks be handed in online.  Sadly, this means that I can’t use the stair distribution when grading:

(Thanks to Concurring Opinions for the image.)

I hate grading in front of a computer screen, but I have to admit that it significantly reduces the organizational demands required to keep track of all the assignments.  Lurking in the back of my mind, however, is the idea of having to teach a very large class where homeworks simply must be dealt with the old fashioned way.  (And no, I’m not talking about burning them.)

You know it’s a bad meeting when… December 6, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching, work.
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I don’t know if it’s the sign of a teacher who enjoys her job or if it’s a sign the meeting is really boring.

I’ve not been able to make a regular meeting at work because it was at the same time as one of my classes this semester.  Last week was the last meeting of that section, so I made it to the work-related meeting for the first time since August.  As it turns out, twenty minutes into it, I wished I was in class instead.

Now I have another reason to miss teaching this spring.

I can haz schedule, pleez? November 18, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching, work.
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I’ve only got three more weeks of classes, and while I’m enjoying the class, I’m looking forward to having a schedule back.

I’ve never been lucky enough to teach a class that meets at the same time multiple times a week.  Instead, it’s usually a situation like I have now: Tuesday morning is hosed because I have class and then office hours, Tuesday afternoon is hosed because I have class in the middle of the afternoon, giving me very little time to accomplish things at either end, and Thursday afternoon is hosed because I have two classes a half hour apart.  Oh yeah, and since I’m at the opposite end of campus, I lose about a half hour riding the shuttle down and back…three times a week.

The only time I felt like I really did have a schedule was the one semester where I had three labs in a row.  It  ate up my entire day and left me devoid of consciousness at the end.  On the other hand, it left me with four other days to be productive.

The other problem is that now I am working at a job, on top of classes, so I have meetings.  Of course, these have to be scheduled for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  So on the days I am at work for a reasonable amount of time, that time gets sucked up with meetings.  And, of course, meetings, like classes, are scheduled mid-morning or mid-afternoon to just perfectly mess things up so that I have no longer than 1 1/2 hours to focus on anything.

I have to say that I’ve managed, this semester, to have the worst of both worlds.

And now we’re heading into the holidays.

Just three more weeks…

Choose your own adventure, pt. 1 March 19, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, grad school, teaching.
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GEARS has an interesting post discussing his experience with both American and European styles of postgraduate education. At the end, he asks:

What do you think? Would you rather have defined your own series of independent studies than taken classes? How many classes during your graduate work have been useful for you and your research?

During my graduate career, I’ve taken classes in electrical engineering, math, geology/geophysics, and even a class on teaching.

I guess having this broad background gives me a different perspective. I understand what he means on being distracted by pretty, shiny things in new classes. However, if I felt interested in the topic matter and class, I never felt like learning about those things was a waste of time. I view it as needing some breadth in my field.

I also have the experience of bouncing around on a LOT of different projects, so it’s amazing the stuff I’ve realized I should have had but did not, as well as the things that I thought I’d never need but have.

Those pretty shiny things usually end up as some sort of idea for a research project later on. This is also the same reason it’s good to know scientists from a lot of different fields: the ideas and input they can provide are very exciting.

In my personal view, the real distinction between a class that useless or not are the ones where I felt like I got a lot out of it. By the time I was done taking classes, I realized that a good half of the classes I’d taken were a waste of time simply because of poor instruction. I would have been better off studying things on my own, perhaps with some guidance, than sitting in a classroom with a professor who views teaching as a distraction from his or her real purpose.

Teachers who are excited about their topic as well as effective communicators make a class worthwhile, even if you never directly utilize the subject they present. Sometimes you can find connections and analogies that help inform the work you’re doing. Or maybe you see something in one field that no one in the other knows about. (I’ve got about 3 or 4 of those I wish I had time to work on.) And then there’s simply the fact that you’re increasing your breadth of knowledge of your own field.

As far as topics directly pertaining to my research, I’d probably say about half of my classes were relevant (keeping in mind that I’m doing things in two subfields of engineering and another area for my dissertation). But those half were very much because the professor made the material accessible and relevant, helping me to realize I could use the information in my research. I know some information is inherently useful, but if the professor doesn’t teach it that way, you’ll never realize it.

I have more thoughts on the topic which are more relevant to homeschooling…so I’ll save those for another post.

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