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How the Other Half Lives: Physics and History

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.

Bwog's science correspondent

Bwog’s science correspondent

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.

Capitalism - what keeps this flag a flyin'

Capitalism – what keeps this flag a flyin’

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…”

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  • "thought nothing of" says:

    @"thought nothing of" never have i seen that phrase used more in so short a piece

    1. never have I ever: BWOG EDITION says:

      @never have I ever: BWOG EDITION Never have I ever actually done the “dougie”

    2. lawdeedaw says:

      @lawdeedaw who the fuck says decorum



    1. Robert says:

      @Robert I usually hate people like you.
      But that was on point.

  • SEAS '13 says:

    @SEAS '13 “shouldn’t we have been taking advantage of the wonders of technology—namely, a Powerpoint?”

    “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?”

    NO, a thousand times, NO. Any math/sci/eng student knows this is an awful format to teach technical subjects. Students usually prefer the professor to write things out because it slows down the lecture and allows more time to analyze and absorb the material and to ask questions. Of course, you’re not going to get anywhere if you give up and start playing on your phone, and it’ll seems pointless.

    1. agree says:

      @agree the simultaneous appearance of ten lines of equations you’ve never seen before is no fun

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous Fucking Tony Jebara.

    2. SEAS '15 says:

      @SEAS '15 This a thousand times. A THOUSAND times.

      Saying that writing out the equations is a waste of time is just complete and total ignorance. We have to understand them so that we can DO them. We will be the scientists of the future, paving way for new discoveries about how the world works. History majors, on the other hand, will be studying people more important than them and talking about people more important than them and living in the glory of people more important than them. So please do not knock us for taking the time to completely grasp the material we will be applying to things that give you things like the smartphone you used to remain ignorant.

      Dammit. This article got me so heated. Oh, and by the way, do people SERIOUSLY not know what mechanics is? I don’t even know how to react to that.

      1. Everybody calm down, now. says:

        @Everybody calm down, now. I understand why you’re getting so frustrated, but don’t you think you’re adopting an ignorant view, too? An undergraduate history major can be applied not only to further academic study, but to careers ranging from law to intelligence service, education to writing, and business to politics. I don’t have any concrete numbers, but I can guarantee you that most history majors don’t go on to become historians. There are too few positions, too little money, and too few hopes of recognition.

        Anyway, to suggest that the study of history is just “living in the glory of people more important than [the historians]” is bizarre. Many, many young scientists will ultimately never get mass recognition for their work, but it’s not the recognition that’s important — it’s the “paving the way” that is, right? Historians pave the way for a better understanding of humanity, and of how human civilizations will progress in the short and long terms. (That includes the study of the history of scientific advances, and how they were shaped by their political and cultural environments. )

      2. cc history majors says:

        @cc history majors “and living in the glory of people more important than them”

        I think Obama is more important than you.

        1. Anonymous says:

          @Anonymous Yea totally guys, i mean Barnard isn’t even Columbia right? Please discuss.

  • 1/5 says:

    @1/5 20% of Columbia engineering juniors and seniors were admitted through the Backdoor. Aka the 3-2 program where all you need is a 3.3 from Adelphi, muhlenberg or some other accredited community liberal arts college, and you have guaranteed fucking admission. Fck you money loving Columbia adcoms for allowing this shit. Discover the shit Columbia has been hiding from us at backdoorstocolumbia.wordpress dot com

    1. translated says:

      @translated “legitimate students only come straight from Exeter”

      1. alum says:

        @alum Question: are the students admitted via the 3:2 program getting an undergraduate degree from Columbia? Or, are they getting an undergraduate degree from their original institution and then a masters from Columbia.

        Dartmouth has a similar program. They take kids that did 3 years at various colleges and then the students get a masters, not a Dartmouth BA, from the Thayer Engineering school at Dartmouth. These 3:2 kids at Dartmouth do not get Dartmouth undergraduate housing and are really not part of the whole Dartmouth undergraduate experience.

        I have no problem with Dartmouth’s 3:2 program. But, how does the 3:2 program work at Columbia. If the 3:2 kids are getting Columbia undergraduate degrees, well that would be a problem. But, I do not think they are.

        1. Anonymous says:

          @Anonymous they get undergraduate degrees. au contraire to your stupid comment, it ends up favoring rich people (exeters) because these students must pay for two undergrad degrees.

          in response to other, irrelevant comments: and for the record, i came from a shitty public high school. and no i dont oppose gay marriage… idk how that has anything to do with anything robert. (guess your digression exemplifies today’s version of godwin’s law)

    2. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous how does one else agree with this… this is completely pathetic…!

      1. Alum says:

        @Alum Hey, anonymous, you are pretty obnoxious. Good luck in life, you are going to need it!

    3. Robert says:

      @Robert You’re the kind of asshole that I assume will oppose gay marriage:
      It doesn’t affect you one bit, but you still want others to be worse off. You fuck.

  • haha says:

    @haha He only needs “a two week refresher course”? What a joke, I’d have a masters in history by the time this kid could get an A in mechanics.

  • Barbara Fields says:

    @Barbara Fields is a boss

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous this is very good piece and it has impressed me but it has not replaced bunsenbwog as my favorite bwog feature. when will we get bunsensbwog!

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Zach, stop it.

    2. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Yeah, some Columbia researchers figured out how to set printers on fire with HAX0RZ

  • SEAS '13 says:

    @SEAS '13 It appears that the physics student here actually wanted to learn the material and think through it himself (hence the writing equations on the board), while the history student wanted it handed to him on a powerpoint for easy digestion without real understanding.

    I’ve found that, as often as liberal arts majors like to tout the quality of a liberal arts education is how it teaches one to think critically, hard sciences or engineering actually teaches one how to think critically. A humanities class makes it very easy to coast without thinking into a nice GPA, while one really can’t pass a technical course without some real understanding, some real expansion of the mind which trains one to critically evaluate the world.

    This fact is rarely stated, but most students in a technical field, at least intuitively, understand this at least a litt.e.

  • Matthew Sheridan says:

    @Matthew Sheridan I don’t think enough people are giving humanities classes credit, perhaps that is because most SEAS students take the easiest global core that they can find instead of taking CC or Lit Hum. As a first year engineering student taking Lit Hum alongside my math/physics course, I can say without a doubt that Lit Hum requires more work than Calc 3 or Phys 1601 to understand the material. The amount of reading is staggering, and to understand the material/write a good essay, takes much hard work AND critical thinking. However, it is easier to get a good grade in a humanities class because the grading isn’t as harsh; you can’t be objective with grading, and while you can identify a better understanding of the material one has versus others, assigning a grade based on subjectivity results in a lot of bitchy students. Most professors feel bad for doing this, and thus are reluctant to fail their students or give Cs on papers. Therefore, passing/ getting a good grade in humanities isn’t very difficult; you can do this without learning the materal.

    In math/science/engineering, it is much easier for a professor to justify a failing grade because the problem has one solution. Multiple ways of solving it, but only one solution. There are clear methods to getting to that solution as well; such methods don’t exist for a lit hum paper. Fellow engineers, don’t fool yourself into thinking that solving a physics problem is the only kind of critical thinking, it is simply a different kind of critical thinking.

  • Hilarity Did Not Ensue says:

    @Hilarity Did Not Ensue Why can’t Bwog pick someone who studies humanities and has intellectual curiosity to go to a science class. We exist! Physics is fucking beautiful! To explain experience, that’s what history and physics are all about! Scholarship is about a genuine love of learning and learning is not bound by some bullshit nonexistent division between what is artistic and what is scientific. And good scholarship is ALWAYS hard, no matter the subject.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous The truth is so difficult for all the artsy fartsy professional liars. That’s why Malcolm Muggeridge said engineering is th enew liberal art.

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