Regular reader Johan Larson sends in a good question about academic physics:
You have written about teaching various courses in modern physics, a subject that has a fearsome reputation among students for skull-busting difficulty. That suggests a broader question: what is the most difficult course at your university? Or even more broadly, how would one determine what course is the most difficult?
This is a good question, but hard to give a single answer to. The most difficult course at the college as a whole would be nearly impossible to determine, because different students find different things difficult. Lots of students who would cower in fear at the mathematics in our sophomore modern physics course will thrive in upper-level literature seminars on critical theory, the very idea of which gives some physics majors cold sweats. And, of course, any given student only takes a tiny fraction of the courses offered, thus most of them will avoid the courses that would be most difficult for them.
So, I don’t think there’s any useful way to define the “most difficult” course for the institution as a whole. The only sensible way to talk about “most difficult” courses is to look at what courses are most difficult for the subset of students who are required to take them. In other words, the question we can actually answer is “What is the most difficult course required for physics majors?”
In which case, there are two courses from the Physics major at Union that are generally regarded as the most difficult, for different reasons. At least as far as I know– I know there are some Union physics grads reading this, who can correct me if I say anything wrong.
The most difficult “ordinary” course is almost certainly Physics 270, “Intermediate Electromagnetism.” This won’t come as a surprise to anybody who’s studied physics, because this is basically the undergrad equivalent of classical electromagnetism out of Jackson’s book, a course which haunts many a physics grad student, often for years after they get their Ph.D..
This course is generally taught out of Griffiths’s book, which is the shiny, friendly version of Jackson. It’s basically a semester course in Maxwell’s Equations (packed into a ten-week trimester, no less), and is highly mathematical. It’s the first time students really have to grapple with the gory details of vector calculus and differential equations– divergence, curl, surface integrals, special functions, Fourier series, etc. We mention Gauss’s Law and the rest in our introductory electromagnetism class, but don’t do a whole lot with it– we use the integral form, and restrict the discussion to systems with a whole lot of symmetry such that the integrals can be done trivially. In Physics 270, the gloves come off a bit, and it’s a real struggle for a lot of students.
The equivalent course is probably right up there on the “most difficult” list for most physics departments. I know that when I took the equivalent at Williams, it was almost certainly the hardest course I took there. (I took it as a tutorial, too– each week, two of us met with the professor for an hour, and took turns working problems from the homework on the board while he made comments and suggestions. Then he assigned another chapter to read, and we went off and beat our heads against the book for a week. Brutal, but effective.)
The other course with a fearsome reputation is Physics 300, Methods of Modern Experimental Physics. This is our required upper-level lab course, and also carries “Writing Across the Curriculum” (WAC) credit, meaning it’s supposed to be a writing-intensive course. Standards for what counts as a WAC vary far more than they really ought to, but historically, at least, this has meant a ton of writing: six full formal lab reports in the course of the ten-week term, each on an advanced experiment that takes a week to do.
That sort of workload and pace is pretty grueling from the faculty side, so it’s no surprise that the students regard it with some fear. It’s also, in my opinion, sub-optimal as a course, because it’s trying to do too many things at once. At some point in the next few years, we’re going to need to substantially rework it. I have some vague thoughts on how to re-work it, but I haven’t had the time or energy to develop them very far yet.
So, those are the two courses that, as far as I know, are regarded as the most difficult of the courses required for the physics major. For a few years, we were perversely offering them in the same term, meaning that some students were enrolled in both of the department’s most difficult courses at the same time. This pushed even some exceptional students very close to the breaking point, so we shuffled the schedule around to put them in different terms (which forced one class of students to take Physics 300 in the spring term of their senior year, which was also not a hugely popular move…).
Again, I suspect that the equivalent course is probably widely regarded as among the most difficult at those departments requiring an advanced lab course. It’s the sort of thing that can easily become a crushing workload for students, particularly when it’s coupled with a significant writing component.
So, that’s my take on the most difficult courses we offer. If you’re in academia (as either student or faculty), what’s the most difficult course at your institution?