President's Commentary (Winter 2003)

President's Commentary (Winter 2003)
By Charles H. Holbrow
Announcer, Vol. 33, Iss. 4

Sex, Lies, and Videotape: Essentials of Physics Teaching

Did I get your attention? I want it for an important new report, and I thought that Strategic Programs for Innovations in Under-graduate Physics might not do the job. Also, I think that “sex, lies, and videotape” conveys the report’s message better than its title or its acronym, SPIN-UP.

Sex, lies, and videotape is Steven Soderberg’s 1989 movie with a plot driven by marital and sexual dysfunction. “Surely,” you say, somewhat shocked, “sex, lies and videotape can’t have to do with physics teaching.” I think the SPIN-UP report shows them to be essential. But before I go into that, let’s review what SPIN-UP is about.

In response to the decline in the number of undergraduate physics majors in the United States, AAPT, APS, and AIP helped set up the National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics led by former AAPT president Bob Hilborn. With help from the ExxonMobil Foundation, this group put together project SPIN-UP to visit and assess 21 very different undergraduate physics programs that were flourishing against the general trend. SPIN-UP’s report describes these programs and draws conclusions about why they are successful.

SPIN-UP visiting teams found four essentials for success that are independent of whether you are Harvard University or Reed College or Ball State or Bethel College or the University of Arizona …

Undergraduate physics programs prosper when there is:
• A widespread attitude among the faculty that the department has the primary responsibility for maintaining or improving the undergraduate program. That is, rather than complain about the lack of students, money, space, and administrative support, the department initiated reform efforts in areas that it identified as most in need of change.
• A challenging but supportive and encouraging undergraduate program that includes a well-developed curriculum, advising and mentoring, an undergraduate research participation program, and many opportunities for informal student-faculty interactions, enhanced by a strong sense of community among the students and faculty.
• Strong and sustained leadership within the department and a clear sense of the mission of its undergraduate program.
• A strong disposition toward continuous evaluation and experimentation with the undergraduate program.

What has sex to do with this? The essence of sex is attraction. If you want more students to major in physics, you must draw them in. You need to interact with them. You need to find out what is important in their lives and connect physics to it. You are courting. You and your colleagues must work openly to attract students into physics, and let them know persuasively that you want them. You need to teach physics that interests them — and you. Creating a supportive, inviting social milieu in your department helps. So does involving undergraduates in research. There is nothing wrong with making the physics major sexy. Large parts of AAPT’s national and sectional meetings propose ways to do this.

What about “lies”? Physics teachers tell plenty of lies — many to students, and many to themselves. There are heuristic lies, philosophical lies, and lies of denial. The SPIN-UP report’s assertion that a successful undergraduate program requires a clear sense of mission warns against lies of denial. You need to know who you are, who your students are, and what your institution is trying to do. Do not act as though you are Ball State when you are Reed College. These are hard truths to face, for they impinge directly on personal egos and professional aspirations.

Newtonian physics is both a heuristic and a philosophical lie. Simplifying the complex is the essence of heuristics. But almost always when we say “This is quite simple,” we lie. Often we go further and celebrate the intellectual certainty of Newtonian physics to attract students who savor that kind of certainty. This is a flat-out philosophical deception. Newton was wrong. And not just in small ways. He was profoundly and deeply wrong both about the nature of space and time and the nature of causality. It is usually difficult to find this out in a beginning physics course.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not proposing that we stop telling lies. They have their uses. Lies of denial make it possible to go on teaching physics when otherwise you might sink into depression and become an administrator. Heuristic lies are essential to teaching any subject, let alone physics. I am less certain about the virtues of philosophical lies, but they are so deeply embedded in our pedagogy that I don’t know how to get rid of them. Besides, I don’t know philosophical truths to replace them with. But to improve physics teaching, we should work to identify the lies we use and why we use them.

I leave the interpretation of “video tapes” as a homework exercise. Even if you don’t do that homework, I’ll bet you still can build a thriving undergraduate program using only “sex” and “lies.”

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