Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Froderick On Staying Up Late, Nose-Wiping, And Lack of Initiative.

Although my RYS character "Froderick" wears a white lab coat, my field is in fact observational astronomy. It's lots of fun, literally a childhood dream come true. It wasn't easy to get here, since many other people want to become astronomers too. This worries me: the highly competitive nature of astronomy and modern students' attitudes don't go together.

I was an undergraduate in the '70s. Many of my professors were abusing their tenure, by coasting. They no longer did research, and they taught us lots that was out of date, badly. I resolved never to be like this, and despite having tenure now, I think I've succeeded. Life loves to spring ironies on us, of course: now, I have no shortage of students who squander the opportunities that I knock myself out to make for them.

I've had several students ask me to do research projects, and then, when I tell them what to do, immediately say, "Oh, I didn't know you had to stay up past midnight to do that!" For heavens' sake, this is observational astronomy: what exactly do they think it was that we -do- here? The killer is that, when I was an undergraduate, we had no problems at all with staying up past midnight. What do these people -want- from me?

I know that the transition from student to researcher can be difficult. The rules change, and they change so much. Still, the modern hooked-on-handholding approach in education is anathema to scientific research. Science is about doing -new- things, kids: if I have to supervise your every step, and wipe your nose every time you don't notice the snot running down your chin, we're not going to achieve much that's new, are we? I might, and perhaps I'll give you a share of the credit that you don't really deserve, but -you- certainly won't.

I'm also distressed by how difficult it is to get even physics majors to read anything, particularly scientific papers, never mind read them carefully enough to understand them. What on Earth do you expect me to do, wave a magic wand and turn you into an astronomer? Why don't you view what we're doing as fun? If you don't think it's fun, why even do this? Just about every other way of making a living will give you more money, for less effort. The lack of initiative engendered by an overscheduled, overstimulated upbringing obsessed with feelings at the expense of actual achievement is inimical to the curiosity so basic to science. How do I teach anyone to have initiative? But then, with fewer people able to "do science," maybe the crowded job market will improve. One can only hope.