Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Watching the sausages being made

Posted by Arjendu on January 10, 2008

I am on the Education and Curriculum Committee at Carleton, and today’s meeting had a single agenda item: The proposal for the creation of an <elided> major. (Full disclosure: This committee has its minutes freely available to the Carleton community, but it’s not clear to me that everything is open for consumption outside the campus, so I will be somewhat discreet). ECC has proved a real learning experience, seeing how the ‘sausages are made’ — how rules and systems that we take for granted are created at a place like Carleton. Most of the day-to-day stuff can be a grind and detail focused, but through it all is always running the thread of what it means to educate, to educate within the liberal arts tradition, to educate at Carleton, and, well, given that I got elected onto this committee, I figured that I might as well enjoy thinking about these things.

This is a difficult time to be creating new majors at Carleton, because we are in a transition to a 5-course teaching load. While there are some new hires scheduled, which will ameliorate some of the impact of the reduced number of courses, there will still be fewer courses available for students. The extra workload for a new major (such as the senior integrative exercise within the major required of all students at Carleton) is therefore going to be doubly hard to pull off. But this particular major is going to go through, for sure, it’s something the college has made a commitment to in its previous actions, and it’s a ‘hot’ field.

As with quite a few other such proposals that I’ve seen, the faculty involved are responding pretty creatively to the constraints. There are going to be a lot of cross-listed courses that will count, for example. This lead to a somewhat philosophical issue being brought up, the standard one of conception of disciplines. Physics stands out as a somewhat extreme major, if you think about it: In my quantum class sits the entire junior class who, to an excellent approximation are guaranteed to have taken all the required Math courses through Linear Algebra, and to have taken mechanics, and ‘electricity and magnetism’, and ‘atomic and nuclear’. That is, the major is conceived of as very hierarchical and there’s a common ‘content’ that we can’t really imagine not teaching the kids. At the other end, is this new major, which resembles, say, History, where there are multiple paths through the major, and barely any common experiences except perhaps for a research methods course. This conception allows for tremendously flexibility and freedom of coverage, but at the moment, if physicists tried to implement it, we would land up with what we would think of as a very shallow major. Is this an absolute issue? Can physics be re-imagined? I’ve thought about this on and off for years, mostly because it really bothers me that as a discipline we acquire knowledge (content) ridiculously fast, and so in some sense a content based education will lead to longer and longer ‘basic training’ periods, and more and more distance from the cutting edge. I wish I had an answer to this. But thinking about it has proved useful in the past in deciding what to teach and what not to teach.

One particular approach I have been pondering is to use Tom Moore’s Six Ideas perspective as the starting point, do ‘methods’ as the next layer (where that would include mathematical methods as well as experimental methods) and then have some ‘applied’ courses such as materials science or cold-atoms or equivalent as the finishing layer. Doing less with more is imperative and will be even more so soon — would this help us get there? The odds of Carleton changing its curriculum radically are small, unfortunately, so I’ll probably never find out.

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