A Brief History of Timekeeping: Final Notes

Between unpleasant work stuff and the Dread Stomach Bug wiping out the better part of five days, I only got my student evaluation comments for my winter term class last week, and I'm only getting around to writing the post-mortem now. This was, for those who may not have been obsessively following my course reports, a "Scholars Research Seminar" class with the slightly cute title "A Brief History of Timekeeping," which is intended to introduce students to scholarly research and writing. The topic for my SRS was timekeeping, specifically the development of various timekeeping technologies and the science behind them. This ranges from Stonehenge to NIST-F1, so it's a lot of material.

So, how did it go? Pretty good, though there were some things I'll tweak when and if I do this again. I'll go into detail below the fold, but here's something I wasn't able to get together in time to be useful for the course: a time-lapse video of Union's campus, made up of webcam pictures at 3pm every day (4pm after the Daylight Savings switch) from the start of the year until the beginning of April:

The particular camera we had available wasn't really well suited for this-- it didn't have the kind of exposure control that would've been ideal-- but you get the idea of how the Sun changes position as time goes on. Also, you get an idea of our lovely weather...

So, as for the class, the student comments were good but not great, which is about what I expect for a first-time course like this. I was making it up as I went, so it was hard to stay on top of everything or predict what we'd be doing too many classes ahead. Having gone through it once, I have a better idea of the flow, so a second pass will go more smoothly.

The material broke down into roughly five units: Ancient Astronomy (solstices and equinoxes, Stonehenge, Newgrange, the Maya, etc.), Hourglasses (including notes on experimental technique and reading and writing research articles), Pendulum Clocks and Longitude (Sobel's book), Relativity (Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's Maps), and Atomic Clocks/ Quantum Physics. We went through these chronologically, because that seemed easiest. Each of these got a bit more than a week of class time (roughly 4 MWF class meetings apiece).

Most of the negative comments I got I think were at least partly a result of the chronological ordering. The order of the material meant that most of our time was spent on the fairly distant past, and by the time they had to choose their paper topics, we had only just started dealing with relativity. This sort of limited the options for final papers to more historical material, which in turn meant that the lectures on relativity and quantum were essentially cultural. This, in turn, made that material seem irrelevant and boring to students who needed to be researching something else.

It's a little difficult to see how to change that around in any useful way, though. I could cut some material out, I suppose, but the most obvious things to jettison would be either the atomic clock stuff at the end, or the hourglass/ experimental physics stuff earlier on, and those two sections were the most fun parts of the class for me. I think instead I need to think about a way to make those bits more interesting to the students. This is limited by the need for the course to be non-denominational, as it were-- it can't have any prerequisites, or count for anything other than Gen Ed credit, so I can't pitch it just at scientists (the science and engineering majors seemed to appreciate the two sections in question more than the non-science majors).

And while I'm complaining about things I can't change, this is yet another area where our crazy trimester calendar really hurts things. If we were running on a 14-week semester calendar, I would've been able to cover everything I wanted to in detail before assigning paper topics, which would've made things run more smoothly. Of course, I'd also like a million-dollar no-strings-attached grant for my research, and a pony.

The other main complaint was that there wasn't enough graded writing before the final paper. Which is a fair cop-- they only had one short paper due before their first draft. This was, again, a matter of time: I was barely able to get through the stuff I did assign to get them reasonable feedback. On a second pass, I wouldn't need to spend quite so much time making up class notes, so I could probably grade stuff faster, but not by a whole lot, and it would be really hard to assign much more writing.

On the positive side, I was a little worried that I would get complaints about the amount of reading/ writing-- I assigned three books, plus miscellaneous articles and essays, and had several classes for which I expected them to read 50+ pages. Nobody said there was too much work, though, which is good. They liked it when I gave them specific reading questions to think about, so I'll probably do more of that in the future-- especially for the section on Mayan astronomy, where they all decided that it was okay to skim the sections I really wanted them to read, and read the sections I didn't mind if they skimmed.

The final papers ended up being about what I expected: the first drafts were really rough, but out of the ten students in the class, four made dramatic improvements before the final draft (including one who basically ripped the whole thing up and started over), and only two completely ignored my suggestions on the draft. This is probably attributable in part to the fact that these were students from the Scholars program, who are selected from the very best of our applicant pool, and the proportions might well be reversed in the general population. Still, reading and grading the final papers was a much more positive experience than I feared (when I've assigned mandatory drafts for lab reports in some intro classes, I basically end up reading the same terrible reports twice, which is not fun). A couple of the final papers were among the best student work I've read here.

All in all, it was an enjoyable experience, and I'd be happy to do it again, if my teaching schedule allows. And there's a very good chance that it will allow again in the near future, though not next year, so I have that to look forward to...

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Would it make sense to use the Sobel and the Galison as starting points, then ranging back into how the past arrived at those points? You could consider how you can test how much better clocks are than hourglasses or sundials as timekeepers, and explicitly think about what other advantages and disadvantages clocks have. Those are two good books, which would give students scope for choosing one or the other for writing an early term paper.

By Peter Morgan (not verified) on 10 Apr 2012 #permalink