Not long ago, I had a meeting with the Dean, who is a chemist. One of the things I talked about was my plan for distributing teaching assignments in the next few years, which ran into an interesting cultural difference. I explained how I was trying to make the distribution of assignments a little more regular and uniform, getting everybody to teach both intro and upper-level courses, and he said (paraphrased), “That’s funny. We never have a problem with that in chemistry– the organic chemists teach Orgo, and the rest of us teach general chemistry, and that’s that.”
It took me a minute to put my finger on what the difference was, but eventually I got it. The problem is that while introductory organic chemistry is pretty directly related to research in organic chemistry, the same isn’t true for physics. We all have to know classical physics, but basically nobody studies it for their research (with a partial exception for people doing physics education research, but they’re mostly researching more effective ways to teach intro mechanics). The physics that we use in research is qualitatively different than what we teach in class– there are a few places where you can construct relevant examples, such as using magnetic fields to distinguish charges of subatomic particles, but most actual physics research is way beyond the intro curriculum.
This creates a real difference when it comes to assigning courses. There’s no obvious reason to assign anybody in particular to do intro classical mechanics every year, or intro E&M, because they’re both more or less equally distant from everybody’s research topic. The stuff that’s actually relevant to our research doesn’t start until sophomore level modern physics, but we only offer one section of that a year. And the really research-relevant material doesn’t make it into the classroom until the “Special Topics” courses at the 300 level, which we rotate through on a three-year cycle.
This is basically just another problem caused by the need to teach “old stuff” in physics classes. And as with all the other issues there, it’s hard to see what can be done to improve the situation. For a variety of reasons, we’re constrained to teach introductory classes that don’t connect all that well to our research, mostly in service of students in other majors who need to know old physics for one reason or another. That makes it harder to find a “fit” for introductory teaching, and increases the demand for teaching the very small set of upper-level courses that are more relevant to research, which thus requires more of a plan for assigning those courses. I suspect that Physics is more like Math than Chemistry, in this respect: the mathematicians have a similar need to rotate everyone through the intro courses, because nobody does research on introductory calculus.
I don’t have any really deep point here, it just struck me as an interesting bit of academic culture. Though if anybody has any brilliant ideas on how to tie introductory Newtonian mechanics to current research in a more direct way, I’d love to hear them.