Built on Facts

Class Warfare

This is one of those times when being a non-anonymous blogger is a little inconvenient. Nonetheless, I think I can make things a little vague and change a few names and I’ll be ok.

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I’m taking two classes. I thought nothing of it when I signed up for them; they’re the natural next classes I’m supposed to take. One of these classes is taught by a professor who has a reputation of being… well, we’ll just say teaching is not his natural gift. But so what? I’ve had difficult classes with non-ideal professors before.

On the other hand, over the summer I’ve been able to talk to other grad students who have taken this class with this professor. The spectrum of opinions has ranged from “Don’t take that class” to “Don’t [adverb] take that [adjective] class!”

My resolve is wavering. I talked with my friend Carl at the “Meet the new students” dinner, and he said the only reason he was taking the class was because me and our other friend Kevin were taking the class. Really the only reason I’m taking the class was because Carl and Kevin are in it. Kevin wasn’t at the dinner, so on the 1st day of class (today, actually) we’re going to have a bit of a council. Take it, or not? If one of us bails, we probably all will. It’s a required class, but one that can be put off – possibly a different professor will end up teaching it. It has happened before. And it won’t put any of us behind schedule; there’s another required class being offered this semester we can take instead. But then there’s no guarantee anyone else will be teaching the class within the next few years either. Blarg.

In the grand scheme of things it’s not a major problem. Even the actual Feynman lectures themselves were apparently not a great pedagogical success, so really any decent lecture is a blessing. And if nothing else it will show me what to avoid when I teach.


  1. #1 asad
    August 25, 2008

    Sounds like there’s no downside to delaying the class in question. If it ends up at some point in the future that it’s taught by a better professor, great. If not, then there’s no difference. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

  2. #2 Dean
    August 25, 2008

    Tough. I was lucky enough to go through my Ph.D program in stat at a small school, where all of the faculty were pretty good (I would say very good for all save one) teachers, so I never ran up against anything like this. Are you on assistant/fellowship? Will dropping a class change that?
    Good luck.

  3. #3 Anonymous
    August 25, 2008

    Evac! Evac! Get the fuck out of there!

    Seriously, though, if you can get this class or an equivalent with another teacher then just drop and switch. There’s no reason to put yourself through hell for the learning experience. I’m sure you’ll find a professor or two between now and graduation that you’ll regret taking without any warning from your peers.

    I had bad professor in UTexas that I foolishly choose to take twice. The first time I took him, I just assumed I could rough it. I dropped the class mid-semester when I realized I wasn’t learning anything and I really didn’t need a lousy grade for entirely too much work. The second time I took him, I had worked myself up, convinced I just wasn’t trying hard enough, and got a brutal reminder of why all the work in the world wouldn’t save me – we had a two hour after-class argument over a problem no one could solve. Turned out he wrote the problem wrong, but declared that it was still our fault for missing it because we should have fallen back on our Dif Eq knowledge to prove it was unsolvable. I dropped THAT class a week later.

    Only two classes I’ve ever dropped, and it was off the same professor. If people are warning you “Don’t take that [explicative] class”, odds are they know something you don’t and you should just listen to them.

  4. #4 Frederick Ross
    August 25, 2008

    If it were just lukewarm comments about his teaching, you would probably be fine. When the students tell you not to go near it, get out. Seriously. A bad professor can not only teach you nothing, he can actively prevent you from learning the subject and eat all your time.

  5. #5 Waterdog
    August 25, 2008

    I had a class like that, quantum I, which was required to finish my B. Sc. I knew I wasn’t planning on continuing on to grad school, so I just needed to get through the course, not ace it, and I knew I wanted to graduate that year, so I had to get through it on the first try.

    Ultimately, I think it would have been a very good preparatory experience for a graduate program, because at that level, you shouldn’t really count on the professor at all, you should expect to pretty much teach yourself whatever you need to know. I’m somewhat surprised, therefore, that you’re really concerned about getting a good professor.

    If you need to take it eventually, I would say, just get a good textbook and work through the problem sets, any attached lab work there may be, and learn what you need to learn. Really all a professor for a graduate course needs to do is list what you’re supposed to learn, and the rest is up to you, right? If his lectures happen to be interesting and lucid, great, but they’re almost superfluous. Only about 10% of the time you devote to thermodynamics or electromagnetism or whatever will actually be class time, most of it will be done on your own time.

  6. #6 Peter
    August 25, 2008

    Well if it is the Grad E&M course just be sure ANY choice of prof would elict anything OTHER than a “Don’t Take that course” response… (ie is it this prof or the course material that killed those guys advising you to drop it?)

    As I recall grad E&M was a bitch and no prof is going to make it trivial (or fun). If you seriously suspect the prof is a problem, bail-out. The kind of prof you want for a course like that is someone who demands UNDERSTANDING of the concepts and techniques, NOT somebody that wants all the gory detail worked out using Green’s functions or some other advanced Math for Physicists method to handle the intractable integrals that fell out of the science he never really explained….

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