Saturday, August 30, 2014


There was an article in The Atlantic about Minerva, the new high-tech institution of higher education. One of its main points is that conveying information or teaching the basics of many fields is likely to be shifted to online courses. Minerva's faculty makes fun of the lecture, and for good reasons.

BUT, when I lecture I am thinking in front of a class and responding to questions and to implicit questions conveyed by the students' attitudes. I have little to convey in the way of material or techniques, nothing that is well tested by means of examinations. If I can convey to them how to think by my example and if they figure out how to do the projects I assign--that's good. Of course, you have to suspect that your way of thinking in front of a class is authentic and perceived as such by the students and it becomes part of their minds  You have to give them a sense of what it means to think and solve problems and be confused and understand. Since it is the only strength I have, and it seems my students do appreciate it, I am OK. But I am always unsure, for I have no crutch of conventional content.

Perhaps it would be good to conduct the class as a seminar, lots of back and forth, maybe like a law school class with its "Socratic" method.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Why apply for grants and fellowships?

I recently applied for a grant, and did not receive it. My hit rate is maybe 50%, so it is not surprising. 

I wrote:

I appreciated the chance to think about this. Making a proposal has been for me always a way to think ahead. 

I will still do the work, since it is part of my ongoing project, albeit it will have to be fit in with other stuff. But, again, thank you  for the chance and instigation to begin this work. 

I always think of a proposal as a chance for an institution to be attached to work I will do. (Similarly, I think of tenure as a way that an institution keeps its people out of the job market.) This reverses the usual analysis, but I think is helpful."

My point here is that in applying for support, what you are doing is projecting yourself forward, putting your best foot forward. So you are pushed into what comes next.

The problem funders have is finding work they want attached to their brand. From what I have heard, there are many cases of rejected proposals that have led to very significant work, work that would have enhanced the funder. This may be urban legend or academic legend; and it may be that the funded projects are really very well chosen. No one expects funders to make perfect decisions--and there will always be missed opportunities. But to reject a proposal is more of a problem for the funder than for the researcher, who is likely to pursue the work one way or another. 

It's not about sour grapes and the like on the part of the researcher. Rather, it's taking the grant process and viewing it from the funder's perspective. To apply for a grant is to give the funder a chance to participate in the work.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Laying Golden Eggs

J. C. Ward was a distinguished physicist, who had published not very many articles in his career. But the name is ubiquitous because some of the work is essential in quantum field theory, and in other fields. But he felt that he could not lay such golden eggs with any regularity, and he did not see how he could produce regularly however the quality. Ideas he considered worthy were rare for him.

(I should note that few scientists can lay golden eggs with any regularity, and most who are  productive mostly produce just the normal white ones, brittle as they are.)

Ward preferred to be at a third rate place or nth rate place where he did not have such pressure to being at a first-rate place with the pressure and the sense that he was inadequate to the task.

Many of us might say much the same as Ward, but  what we do produce is much less significant than Ward's work. In other words, most of us are not too good to lay regular eggs. And as far as I can tell, Ward himself had no such high opinion of himself, but an acute sense of what he could and could not do.

Your productive colleagues are ordinary hens, maybe once in a while laying a double yolked egg. You very productive colleagues are likely to hit one out of the ballpark (a bad analogy for actual eggs, to be sure) once in a while, and more likely contribute to a subject area.

As I said, almost no one who I have met who disdains producing ordinary eggs has ever laid a golden one or even a double-yolked one.