Saturday, January 24, 2015

Client-Focus: Where Professional Education Seems to Be Going

In most professions, we see the following trends over the last 100 years in professional education once it gets into the universities:

1. Practice
2. Science and social science (with an attempt to avoid (1). You'll learn it later.
3. Design and problem-based with some of (2)

What next?

4. Client-focused: What do they need? How could you and they know better what they need? (This may involve study outside the field.)

Useful Reference Books for Those Who Write

If you plan to have a career as a scholar, likely you will be writing a good deal. The basics might be

American Heritage Dictionary, about $40 from amazon--less permissive than most. (Garner likes this one.)
Chicago Manual of Style, about $40, if you ever plan to publish.
Garner's Modern American Usage, about $26, for a very large and detailed guide to usage. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Albert Wohlstetter on social science, referring to Poincare on sociology.

I also had an uncomfortable suspicion that the devastating remark of the great French mathematician, Henri Poincaré, about sociology ("The most methods, and the least results") might only too accurately describe the way one might dally in the approach to any social science in order to avoid actually going in and getting lost in a very dense jungle. Maps, brochures, the purchase of compasses, machetes, bush jackets and rakish tropical helmets can be used as a substitute for a hot and sweaty journey. In short, I sympathize with Johan Galtung's misgivings about theories about theory in a theory-poor field. (And with the feeling expressed by Burton Marshall since I first wrote these lines: reading the behaviorist literature in international relations seems a bit like sitting through an overture that never ends.[1] But I find that traditionalist critiques of behavioral essays on methodology, with rare exceptions like Marshall's own laconic contributions, have their own longeurs.)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Engineering as Actually Practiced

1.       Actual engineering is done for a client—hence economics, politics, etc are essential. That engineering is value laden is surely not restricted to client concerns, but it is a good start.
2.       “Engineering Science” allows one to teach courses with no actual engineering. (“You’ll get to the good stuff next year.”) Bad idea?
3.       Design and team work are crucial. Very few professions or jobs allow just for individual work, and engineering is fundamentally team or group. It should feel that way from the beginning.
4.       Is it possible for someone who happens to have a BA, in anything, to take a few math and science fundamental courses, and then get a MS in, say, electrical engineering. I assume most masters students nowadays already have an undergraduate engineering degree.
6.       Just what kinds of mathematics are needed for undergraduate engineering education? Some calculus, plus the usual high school studies. More?  Maybe computer algorithms. Maybe some logic. I imagine that one might teach all this in a one semester course—practical and outrageous.
7.       I believe that economics and history might be core here. The economics says something about why and how given resource constraints, the history about why what you see now is what it is. Also, it demythologizes the stories people are told.

8.       I would not push people to read the Federalist Papers, for example. Unless it was attached to particular engineering issues… It should not be hard to have a liberal arts set of subjects that are always attached to engineering, and since engineering has developed historically the reverse is also true. But the trick is not to present it as enhancement. Rather what we call liberal arts is just what is needed to understand engineering as a practice.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

For my Russian and Chinese readers. And for those from Ukraine and France.

I note that some of the readers of this blog are from Russia and China. I do not know the academic system in these countries, just how it works. I do know that in the natural sciences and engineering, there are rather more universal standards for performance, and those countries have very strong traditions in these fields over the last 100+ years.  But I also know that in many countries, there is a long history of bias and preferences that have little to do with the work you do, or that demand adherence to particular thoughtways. In the humanities and social sciences, those biases and preferences often play a much larger role. 

The crucial point is to be able to do work that is good and respected widely. 

(I know very little about doing work that is in accord with the biases and preferences. We know that what was called Jewish Mathematics, and was viewed negatively in Nazi Germany, in fact was the future of mathematics--so destroying one of the strongest mathematical cultures. Deutsche Mathematik and Deutsche Physik were dead-ends.) 

As for the Ukraine, I am pleasantly surprised. Especially given the stress the country is experiencing. I was brought up in Brooklyn, New York, at the end of the subway lines, and in my neighborhood there was a very wide range of immigrant ethnic groups intermixed with each other. Ukrainians were part of that mix. 

As for France, again I am pleasantly surprised. I know a bit about the French academic world, its hierarchical nature, the doctorat d'état or the habilitation, the grandes écoles, and some of the issues of mass higher education.  I hope what I write is useful, but I do not claim to have any particular knowledge of that world.

You are 38 or 40, and you find that you are without direction, financially strapped, no proper job in prospect...

My guess is that you will have to find work that may not pay adequately, but will enable you to get benefits, and then your natural skills and character will help you move forward. You need not abandon your artistic career, say, but a day-job will give you the confidence and support you need. 

I have over the years met men and women who are in their late 30s or so who find themselves in your position. Good people who have found themselves without an effective direction in terms of security and work. 

You need to find a wise friend who can help you think through what next. And in the next five years you can rebuild your work-life.

[In effect, I was in that position. At 40, I had published books and articles, done most of the right things, but by my own choices I did not have a regular academic job. It seemed that I had to give up a scholarly life, and thought of journalism or foundation work, etc.  For an academic to be in my position at 40 is not at all good, professionally and financially. What happened in my case, was that out of the blue X University called me up to teach one semester to replace someone. I figured I would then go look outside academia. There was no future at X. Having seen me perform, close up, during that semester they indicated they wanted me to join their department, and eventually it worked out. But, at my 40th birthday party this future was not at all in the cards. (For my 40th, I was given I a Boston Celtics jacket, not much use where I am now.) I was fortunate.]

Saturday, December 20, 2014

How to ask an important scholar to look at your tentative work, when you are just starting out.

How to ask an important scholar to look at your tentative work, when you are just starting out.

1. In effect you are showing your dirty linen in public, but presumably to an interested viewer.

2. The mathematician Robert Langlands (from British Columbia, Yale PhD) was starting out in his career at Princeton and he had spoken briefly to Andre Weil (professor at the Institute of Advanced Study) about some of his work. He followed up with a famous 16 page handwritten letter (good penmanship, by the way) describing what he was up to. Here is what Langlands wrote Weil--

Your opinion of these questions would be appreciated. I have not had a chance to think over these questions seriously and I would not ask them except as the continuation of a casual conversation. I hope you will treat them with the tolerance they require at this stage. 

If you are willing to read it [this letter] as pure speculation I would appreciate that; if not — I am sure you have a waste basket handy. ...

Eventually, Langlands' ideas crystallized in what is called The Langlands Program and The Langlands Conjectures. Some of its results were crucial to Andrew Wiles' work that led to the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem

One way of describing the Program is to say that it connects number facts with function facts, much as the factorials are connected to the sine function. (Recall 

sin x = x -x^3/3! + x^5/5! -x^7/7!

and n! = n(n-1)(n-2)... 1.) Studying the function's properties will tell you about the number facts, studying the number facts will tell you about the function's behavior.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

ICD 203 and ICD 206: Improving analytical practice in arguments and sourcing. 

I am reading T. Fingar, Reducing Uncertainty (Stanford, 2011), where he describes changes in analytical practices post the infamous Iraq WMD National Intelligence Estimate. He describes intelligence analysts as using their training from graduate school, but the agencies wanted to make more rigorous the arguments and sourcing of such estimates and the Presidential Daily Briefing. The links above are to memos on standards and sourcing. Some of you may find them of interest in your own scholarly work, giving quite explicit guidance for making better grounded arguments.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

It's Up to Us, as Faculty Members, to Make Tenure and Promotion Judgments

Originality, Independence, and Publication. Home Run Papers

1. In some fields, it is possible for a graduate student to have their article published in a respectable journal, while in others that is very very rare.

2. Of course, jointly authored articles with their advisor/professor are more common and more likely.

3. As for Independence: While we might expect a junior faculty member coming up for tenure to have developed a research path that somewhat different than their teachers and advisors, it is rare if ever that happens with doctoral students. Doctoral students usually work within the purview of their advisor's field of interest and research program.

4. As for Originality: If you are working at the forefront of a field of research, you cannot help but be original. It's no big deal. If you are replicating earlier work since it was not sufficiently credible, or going over a long-standing problem, in general you will exhibit originality in the quality of your work.

5. While there is a demand for a publication or two by graduate students, in some fields, when they go looking for a job, I find that hard to believe, unless the field is not very deep. (But see #2 above.)

6. Home run papers: The baseball analogy is quite prevalent in economics and business, and perhaps in some other fields. I never hear about them in physics or mathematics, or the humanities, or most of the social sciences. 
          a. Make sure that the home-run paper is actually the responsibility of the candidate, rather than a joint production with more senior authors.
          b. Really significant work that has high impact usually demands some years of maturity and experience beyond the doctorate and the assistant professorship. 
          c. I don't know if the baseball analogy is appropriate for scholarship.