geeky

Wrong, Wronger, Wrongest (Adventures in Grading)

In science, a potential answer to a problem is either right or wrong. But when it comes to teaching and learning, and especially grading student exams, there is wrong and then there is WROOONG.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you need to compute a certain distance that has to do with the behavior of electrons in a nanostructure.

Correct answer: 160 nm

Incorrect answers:

Wrong: 300 nm (wrong, but within the order of magnitude)

More wrong: 1.6 μm  or 1.6 nm (wrong order of magnitude, but still meaningful, within the scales of nanostructures)

Nonsensically wrong: 1.6 m (height of an adult woman) or 1.6 fm (size of an atomic nucleus; fm=10^(-15) m). While it may seem that mistaking the 160-nm length for a macroscopic height of a woman is more silly and thus more wrong than the nuclear size, the latter is actually “wronger” because it is 8 orders of magnitude off (versus 7 orders of magnitude for the former).

Two things that we don’t teach our students enough, that we perhaps don’t insist enough on, are minding units and building intuition about orders of magnitude. They are amazing, priceless tools for sanity checking.

Workaholic Geeky Nonsense

The semester is about to start. Which means that the summer is over. Which means that, in order to fully get into all the fall proposal writing around all the undergrad course teaching and insane service, I have to get these last two papers done and submitted, like, yesterday.

So…

Over the past few days, I worked  12-14 hour every day. Really focused, high-productivity, long days. I fuckin’ loved it. I love working non-stop, and if it were possible to somehow forgo sleep, at least temporarily, without loss of sanity of productivity, I would love to be able to just go-go-go.

Man, I love working.

When I don’t waste my time and energy worrying about whether or not I am appropriately recognized and admired, the bottom line is that I love reading papers, looking at data, analyzing data, coming up with mathematical models and appropriate algorithms for their numerical implementation, troubleshooting, making graphs, writing papers, and talking with graduate student about every single one of these aspects of my job.

I love doing science.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I am actually a good role model for inspiring people to leave academia. More than one student has said that seeing me and the insane schedule that I keep has convinced them that mine is a job they don’t want.

I read all the time all around the web about there being a surplus of PhDs who all think they will be professors, who are then all surprised when that proves impossible and are also for some reason oblivious to the fact that there are other things they can do. Apparently, I do my part — without even trying! — to discourage young’uns from pursuing an academic career ; the few who were not discouraged have done very well for themselves!

I don’t know what it is that other professors do that (supposedly) makes all of their students and postdocs think they want the professor’s job and there is nothing else. I bet the professors look really cool while doing their job. Luckily, I never look cool, especially not while doing my job.

How do I achieve this elusive goal of discouraging all but a few? You can do it, too!
Look sleep-deprived and incessantly drink coffee, having mild panic  attacks when a coffee cup approaches empty. Send emails before 7 am and after 11 pm. Respond to their emails immediately no matter what time of day or week. Share with them when the deadlines are and name all the things that depend upon certain grants being renewed (their food, shelter, tuition, and health benefits). Work with them closely on every paper and proposal and let them know how much effort goes really, truly into every piece that is meant to be read and understood by others while bearing your signature. Keep track of all the details of all of their many very different projects in your head and be able to give each of their talks at a moment’s notice with no prep whatsoever. Push them to do better and lift them up and don’t let them give up on themselves or their work. Forward them emails from industrial collaborators about job openings. Encourage them to attend all manner of professional workshops to broaden their soft skill set. Sleep less than any of them and take less vacation than any of them.

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In life, there are various quantifiable aspects that change over time. More often than not, it’s not the value of the function that we care about, as much as the sign of the first derivative. Sometimes a positive first derivative is good, sometimes a negative one.

ComicAug28_2014_Derivative

If anyone tells you that calculus is stupid or useless, you can print this post, crumble it into a ball, and shove said ball into the mouth of the heretic spouting such nonsense. Calculus is an almost absolute goodness, only surpassed by complex calculus... And calculus on spheres, donuts, and other cool objects, also known as differential geometry… *geekgasmic sigh*

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You know how The Oatmeal made me grumpy the other day? It’s all forgiven, as I came across an old classic — The Motherfucking Pterodactyl comic. And there is even a song (below)! It is hilarious,  but view at your own peril.

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Lastly, among the comments to the last post emerged the awesomeness that is this guide to acting like a Minnesotan. It has a very Monty Python feel!

http://www.mnvideovault.org/mvvPlayer/customPlaylist2.php?id=15519&select_index=7&popup=yes#0