How the Other Half Lives: Physics and History
Written by Bwog Staff
How the Other Half Lives, your favorite life-swapping stories outside of Wife Swap, is back for more! This time we sent one of Bwog’s resident scientists (he makes Froscanity look like child’s play) to a history class on the American South and a history major to a class on Mechanics – some sort of science, apparently. Hilarity ensues.
A history major finds a physics lecture pointless…
Going into my first “real” college science class—I’m technically done with my science requirement, but something tells me The Human Species and Science of Psychology don’t count—I had been told to expect the worst. Even my friends who supposedly “like” science regularly come out of tests looking shell-shocked and constantly tell me they “don’t understand anything the professor is saying” or “have no idea what’s going on.” If physics, or bio, or comp sci didn’t click for them, I didn’t stand a chance. So I walked into Mechanics armed with a fully charged smartphone and plenty of blank pages for doodling.
Judging from my sample of one (don’t worry, thanks to Frontiers I know that’s not real science!), however, the problem with science lectures isn’t necessarily that they’re hard to understand: it’s that they’re just not interesting.
Within the first five minutes of lecture, I was struck by just how much time the professor was wasting by writing equations out on the board. In chalk. If we were in a freaking science class, shouldn’t we have been taking advantage of the wonders of technology—namely, a Powerpoint? Whole minutes would go by where the professor wouldn’t say a word, wasting precious lecture minutes scrawling out endless sines and cosines and thetas. At one point, the professor announced that the next problem was “an example of fluid resistance” before turning around and writing EXAMPLE OF FLUID RESISTANCE across the board in all caps, no abbreviations. Maybe that’s why he was still going strong when we left, five minutes after the lecture was supposed to end.
There was also the bizarre absence of meaningful examples to back up the equations written out on the board. It was never clear exactly why the professor was doing what he was doing, which was something to do with polar graphs and r coordinates and velocity. Occasionally, he’d try to explain the forces at work by lamely pushing around a wooden bowl on the table, but coming from a discipline (history) that’s basically all examples, I didn’t get it. If the whole class was just solving problems, couldn’t he just save time by writing out his calculations step-by-step on a handout and walk the class through it in twenty minutes? If he wasn’t going to show why the concepts mattered or do anything but solve out problems, what was the difference between a lecturing professor and a solutions manual?
The concepts and calculations themselves didn’t seem too hard to follow. I caught a few terms that I haven’t given much thought to since senior year AP Calc, like “second derivative” and “chain rule,” but I felt reasonably confident that a two-week refresher course would bring me up to speed on what was going on. I could half-follow the professors’ conversion of coordinates from Cartesian to polar, but ultimately, I just didn’t see why that mattered. So I did what college students do best: I flipped on my smartphone, and took refuge in Facebook for the remaining ten minutes of class.
A physics student transported to the American South…
I thought nothing of unwrapping my croissant from Uris Deli en route to the lecture hall. Entering for my very first time into Fayerweather, I cracked a crisp bottle of lemonade and settled into the second row of the warm wood-paneled room.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I am ‘that guy’ in many of my classes, especially medium-sized lectures, so I thought nothing of sitting toward the front of the sparsely populated room. When the history student arrived, she beckoned to the fifth row. After making the retreat, I thought nothing of positioning my bag of pretzels for discrete access, hoping to continue my midday grazing.
As it was only the third class of the semester, syllabi were distributed to those in need. I took one as they came around, but thought nothing of failing to sign the class roster. Leafing through the lengthy syllabus, I came upon the “Classroom Decorum” section: “There should be no eating during class”, “introduce [..] guests to the instructor before class begins”, “Mobile telephones [..] may not be used during class”. Resigned to respect the “free investigation and exchange of ideas” supposedly made possible by strict accordance with Decorum, I sealed up my pretzel bag, put away my mobile phone and tried to look inconspicuous.
The lecture began with a steady
stream of facts historical narrative, which was later identified as catch-up from the last class. Moving into the proper argument of this lecture, my interest in Colonial America flags around the correlation between slave ownership and estate value. From a discussion of commodity economics, the professor declares “free market capitalism is a jealous God!” That certainly got my attention, and while I recognized the validity of her argument, my habit of reacting critically was stifled by the lecture’s performative style, so my hand never went up.
The rest of the lecture developed the professor’s distinctive theory of race and social structure, and class ended abruptly fifteen minutes early, with the outline unaccomplished.The lecture left me thoughtful, but all my thoughts tasted foreign. The strict decorum and stylized factual dictation gave me the impression that there was some lesson I was supposed to take away, not that I was supposed to think about the historical issues for myself. The form and rhythm of the professor’s eloquent lecture imparted a very specific view of the world, but one that seemed insusceptible to intellectual interrogation.
The history student and I relocated to the decorum-free Cafe 212, and it was only over the ensuing conversation that I really came to appreciate the lecture we had just attended. For me, engaging the ideas of history through conversation is much more interesting than receiving dogma from the front of a room. But I only observed the lecture; apparently the discussion sections are actually important for history classes, as that’s where the intellectual engagement is supposed to happen. My change of pace from mathematical physics to critical history was jarred by the elaborate decorum of the self-serious lecture format, but I can see how the full experience of a history course imparts the formal tools to approach the subject with a trained eye.
“The free investigation and exchange of ideas can occur only in an atmosphere of civility…”
Tags: being "that guy", decorum! decorum!, free market capitalism is a jealous god, how the other half lives, Shouldn't scientists be better at transmitting information?, this class was froscenely boring, Who hangs out at 212?