What always pisses me off amuses me is the use of the adjective “real” to indicate something that the person using it imagines they would prefer over whatever it is that you are trying to make them do instead.

Academia is not the real world and is not preparing the students for the real world.

That means “I don’t want to do class work, and even though I have no idea what I will need in order to get a job, I know it’s not this boring crap that I sooooo don’t want to do now.” Because becoming a corporate cog is infallibly riveting.

I wish academia weren’t the real world. I wish it were this world or that world. Alas, judging by the politics, budget cuts, and rampant corporatization, I am pretty darn sure it’s very much the real world.

We need less math and physics, we need more real-world applications!

This plea for more “real-world applications” really means “How about you hand-wave your explanations, and don’t make me use any math (even though it boggles the mind that someone who hates math would be in this major, but whatever) and don’t make me think deeply why certain phenomena occur or how they can be useful to us. Instead give me a whole bunch of shortcuts and mnemotechnic rules and software packages that I can cram how to apply without thinking why or how. ”

I am very sensitive to the fact that students need to get jobs, and the students in our major do. But I hate it when people are given a chance to think, to learn, to make high-level connections that could make them better at their jobs and give them the tools to appreciate the world around them just go through the motions instead. I know not everyone is suitable for college, and it’s a shame college now seems necessary for even low-level jobs, but still…. What a waste.



  1. Calls for removing all the theory from a subject are really calls for a second rate education. What bothers me most is when these calls are couched in the language of equity concerns, “Something something students from [insert background here] are turned off by classes with lots of theory and math rather than applications.”

  2. Ugh I get this all the time. If “real world” rules were applied to academia, a decent percentage of the undergrads would get kicked out for poor performance. No one really wants to implement that dash of reality.

    When I do use real examples, I get complaints about the problems I choose being too complicated. I agree with you that “real world” means “let me stay innumerate” or “give me an A without doing problem sets”.

  3. Sometimes ‘real-world’ means ‘give me context’. I started as a math major (25 years ago). I loved the classes, I loved solving problems sets and tricky exam questions, but I felt like it was just fancy parlor tricks with numbers. I had no idea why I would want to multiply matrices by one another. It wasn’t until I took physics spring of my senior year that I understood that matrix and vector math was the only way to determine magnetic field strengths, but it was too late. I’d switched to biochemistry as a junior–just a couple of credits shy of a math degree. Biochemistry was more real–I understood why I was purifying an enzyme and what I could do with it.

    If only my math program had required physics in the first two years and related the math to the physics, I’d probably be a higher paid engineer with some free time rather than one more still-pre-tenure-even-after-8-years-independent frazzled female life science prof.

    Of course, I’m sure for some people ‘real-world’ means ‘soft-ball’, but I urge you to think about whether the request might be from someone like 19 year old me at a crossroads with an easier to ‘visualize’ option tempting them from the path of righteousness.

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