Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Research and Teaching

A main topics in today's issue of the Frankfurter Rundschau (one of the major German newspapers) is dedicated to the quality of teaching at universities. Page 3 features an interview with Thomas Metschke who founded the page www.meinprof.de where students can rate their prof's teaching skills (it's all in German I'm afraid.)

Maybe I was particularly unlucky with my lecturers, but the classes I had to take were in the best case useless, in the worst case demotivating, if not debilitating. The quality considerably improved in the cases a prof was spending other people's travel grants to go in vacation and his class was held by one of his students instead. I do well learning from books, so to me it wasn't a huge problem, but still one had to appear and sit through all these hours while somebody was mumbling to the blackboard or got confused about his own notes.

Either way, ever since then I've been wondering why people are forced to teach who apparently have neither the skill nor any desire to, while people who would like to teach first place have a hard time getting a professorship. The idea that those who teach about research should be researchers themselves has a long history in Germany, and I think this is a necessary requirement. But do they have to be active in research while teaching? In practice it seems to me that teaching is often seen as a timeconsuming duty while research is the 'real' thing - it is what brings the colleagues' appreciation, possibly invitations to cool places or journalist's requests. On the other hand, people whose interest clearly is in teaching, and who have experience in research but possibly are not in the top-group have a hard time making it onto a position were they would teach.

Does that make any sense? It raises for me the following two questions

A) Why aren't there more pure research positions at universities? Face it, there are people in the academic system who can be great researchers but are a complete failure with students. There is the kind of people who are complete hermits or just totally nerdy, and who efficiently radiate an aura of get-out-of-my-office. Nothing of which necessarily makes them bad researchers, but where is the place for them?

B) Would it be possible to diversify research jobs by additional training in possibly different secondary disciplines like e.g. in teaching, public outreach, or group management? These are all skills besides the research activities that today are expected of researchers to acquire them just somehow. The advantage of that would be that it could be better documented, tasks could be assigned better, and if you were hiring somebody you'd know better what you are at.

In fact I think this is where the trend will be going. Researchers today are expected to be all-rounders, to do everything with less and less time, under increasingly high pressure. It just doesn't work well. Universities and institutes, as well as private companies, offer an increasing amount of training seminars to improve such secondary skills. I think this is a natural development into a division of labor that the academic system will have to incorporate at some point in order to stay functional.

50 comments:

Zach said...

In academia, the way it was done when the senior professors were grad students is the way it should be done now.

Bee said...

Hi Zach,

That's not an option, we can't turn back time. Things have changed, and we have to make sure change doesn't negatively affect progress in science. There is today much more competition, much more pressure. The communities are much larger, which requires people to keep an eye on way more information. People travel more frequently. With the advent of the internet, we have all gotten closer together, and also science has gotten closer to the public. Most importantly it seems the world is turning faster every year, and people are constantly busy, short on time and overworked. There are more and more people obtaining PhDs every year. All these are developments that have taken place, whether we like that or not, and have change the way science is done. We need to make sure they are addressed appropriately. We can not just assume the procedures that have worked half a century ago will still work optimally today. That's why our systems and institutions need to be readjusted occasionally.

Best,

B.

Bryan said...

Thanks for drawing attention to this, Bee. Several people seem to be pointing to the "teaching problem" lately. Joel Corbo's guest post on Cosmic Variance has some great suggestions, but there must be more that can be done.

The heart of the problem, I think, is that there's very little built into the rewards and advancement structure of academics that encourages good teaching. Apathy towards teaching often develops naturally right out of graduate school, as Joel's post suggests. So a solution to the problem should start there.

However, I don't know if there's an easy panacea. I'm especially unsure that a division of labor into researchers and teachers is the right answer. We all know examples of great researchers who were also great teachers, so this is not an impossible feat.

The problem is that, unfortunately, most people don't do it automatically

Bee said...

Hi Bryan,

Thanks for pointing out the post at CV, I must have missed it and will have a look.

Yes, I am sure there are great researchers who are also great teachers. And that's great! I was just saying, this is not generally the case, and one can't even expect it to be. I was not suggesting a division of labor into researchers and teachers. I was saying that researchers should have an option do pure research, or to also teach, or to chose one of the other options I mentioned that are needed skills in scientific research - possibly with appropriate job descriptions and salary etc. This doesn't even have to be a permanent choice, just one that is appropriately documented and appreciated. The problem is that otherwise there can arise the situation where somebody has to be afraid one looks at his CV, asking "but what has he done in these three years?". So therefore I think, make it a concrete extra training for additional qualifications that can go into the CV. Best,

B.

Robert said...

I would still maintain that there is a strong positive correlation between the abilities to do great research and to teach. Yes, there are counter examples. but still, I cannot think of a great teacher who at the same time is not a good researcher. Bad researchers usually are awful teachers.

Zach said...

Bee,

I was being sarcastic in my earlier comment. There is a lot that needs to be fixed in the current academic system. For instance, I know I can be both a good researcher and a good teacher, but my unwillingness to repeatedly relocate my family will prevent me from ever having an academic job. Even for people willing and able to relocate, good academic jobs are harder and harder to come by. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of 'momentum' in academia. There really are a lot of professors who believe things should be done exactly the way they were done when they were grad students.

-Zach

Uncle Al said...

Young faculty have new ideas untainted by knowledge of their own mortality. They are consumed by garbage tasks, are unfundable for having no track record of accomplishment, and are vigorously turned away for proposing "high risk" ideas.

Mud-slogging crap like this (4 MB PDF, axion detection review) swims in oceans of money while innovative crap like this (PDF) is "silly." It's only silly if it fails. Somebody should look.

20 years of intense theory - massless Standard Model, Higgs, SUSY, string theory - is leaking at the seams. That does not require more, that requires different. Politically correct physics is obsessed with symmetries. Reality is obsessed with symmetry breakings. Let divorce proceedings commence.

Perhaps teaching should be the domain of tenured faculty. They are skilled in the art, they succeeded, and as a class they aren't useful for much else.

Uncle Al said...

The ohno!second strikes again. Make that second "this" this, this time the PDF.

Bee said...

Hi Robert,

Nobody was ever talking about dumping 'bad researchers' in teaching. We have a lack of profs with good teaching skills - in almost every field there are way too many students per prof - what I am saying is why not raise teaching skills to more importance, even if these do not match with top-researchers, while simultaneously allowing top-researchers who are unwilling to teach to focus on what they do best.

I don't deny there is a correlation between good research and good teaching, but one also has to distinguish between teaching about the own research and teaching general introductionary courses. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Zach,

Sorry, I didn't realize you were being sarcastic! Indeed in your comment I heard exactly that reasoning I loathe most, that of people saying: we've always done it this way, therefore we'll continue to do it this way. I agree with what you say about the momentum in acedemia. I am also afraid it is true that the present system doesn't pay enough attention to human needs like having a family, and having and maintaining a social network of friends and relatives - all of which is ripped apart through constant relocation. Best,

B.

Andrew Thomas said...

Hi Uncle Al,

I'm presuming that second paper you recommend is yours?

It has that unique "Uncle Al" style! I'd recognise it anywhere ... :)

Riemannzeta said...

Could you say more about the researcher who is a terrible teacher? What makes them a good researcher? Don't researchers have to be able to communicate to be good researchers? Isn't communication a form of teaching?

...and what do you make of the fact that some of the best teachers are famous researchers?

I'm not saying you're wrong, by the way. Just pushing this theory a little.

Arguably, Berkeley's Chemistry Department is what it is because of the influence of Lewis, who insisted that every professor teach introductory chemistry. Like Feynman (and Einstein), Lewis believed that researchers needed to practice articulating their work. Some professors today assume that this was because of some noble love for students. I doubt it. I think it's because they knew that it was good for the teacher.

...which reminds me of a good joke. A philosophy professor was asked whether he had read Husserl. "Read him? I haven't even taught him!"

Bee said...

Hi Riemannζ

For one, there are different forms to communicate that the researcher can use, most notably writing papers and giving seminars. There are also good researchers who give very bad seminars. But besides this, giving a seminar about the own work is very different from giving a lecture that is supposed to be didactic. It is aimed at a completely different audience, and needs to be prepared in a coherent way. Of course you also prepare a seminar about your own work, but usually you are talking about a topic that's been on your mind for the last months if not years. Communicating to beginners is very different to communicating to people at your own level.

I would guess the dominant reason why some researchers make bad teachers is lacking time for preparation due to other duties, or frequent travel, as well as just a lack of interest, and never having taken any course on how to give a good lecture which I believe can make a difference. It's just an effort that doesn't really pay off if what you are primarily interested in is getting the next paper out. If you're working on something really exciting I guess teaching can be a huge annoyance. (Of course you are not supposed to say that, never ever.) Best,

B.

Riemannzeta said...

Bee,

Unless I'm missing something, I believe you've mostly repeated your original hypothesis. I'll summarize it this way: "Some professors are good at research; some at teaching; the professoriate as a whole would be improved by assinging research duties to the former and teaching to the latter." The fact that teaching colleagues is easier than teaching students is a detail that we shouldn't let distract us. It's fundamentally the same skill; you just get to assume a whole lot more when you're talking to colleauges than you can when you're talking to students. Still, good researcher/teachers will not make unwarranted assumptions about their audiences, no matter who those audiences happen to be.

Now here's why I'm pushing back at this hypothesis: there is plenty of neuroscientific research that supports the theory that the process of articulating ideas is constitutive of our understanding of them. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been empirically verified, at least in some instances.

Although it might seem inefficient, I suspect that a division of labor between research and teaching would be a setback. The best person to perform the task of translation between basic researcher and teachers is the basic researcher -- not the teacher.

And by the way, it's for the same reason that the best translators are the ones who are translating from a second language back into a first.

Riemannzeta said...

I should add that I'm 100% with bryan, who suggests that the problem is one of incentives right now.

Tenured professors care little about what an audience of students who is (at least on a short-time scale) forced to listen to them think of them. But they care very much what other professors think.

Now if you could figure out how to change the social norm so that good teaching was considered as valuable as good research, you'd have a good start at solving the problem.

My guess is that the system of grant funding has exacerbated the problem. But I don't really know how to do better. Maybe make a bonus kicker in each tenured professors salary a function of students' and colleagues' review of the professors' teachings (don't trust students alone; some are idiots).

Bee said...

Hi Riemannζ,

For one, I wasn't merely talking about what people can do, but also what they have an interesting in doing. If it was as you say that people who are good in research also make good teachers then how come there are apparently so many bad profs (that being the reason for the article I mentioned being on page 2+3)? It either means they are all bad researchers and the whole university system is a disaster, or, as I think, they have been selected for their job because they are top researchers, but just are not good at teaching -because they don't have that skill and/or don't make any effort to acquire it.

When you say a division of labor of researchers such that some can focus on teaching and some on other tasks would be a setback, what exactly do you think would it set back? Communicating knowledge to the coming generations is a very important task and I would want it to be done by people who are best suited, and also educated for it. I want it to be done by people who enjoy it, and who pay sufficient attention to it. Likewise, I would wish researchers wouldn't have be coping with too much work and had time for their grad students / collaborators / postdocs, for the group they are head of, for the administrational stuff they have to cope with, for talking to journalists in a sensible way, for organizing workshop / conferences or at least their own travel plans, time for refereeing proposals and papers and so on and so forth. That's why I think a division of labor of such secondary duties would be beneficial to progress in research. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Riemannζ again,

Yes, I do totally agree that the problem presently is one of incentives. But that is only part of the problem. The other problem is that researchers are just required to do too much which has to go on the expenses of something - the day has only 24 hours. Something will always be on the bottom of the list. Right now it might be teaching (though this probably depends on the specific country). If you turn on the incentives enough, maybe research wanders down the list of importance? Or maybe working with the postdocs drops off completely? Likely, writing these referee reports will drop down further, and what are the incentives for that? Also, what I was trying to say is that a division of labor would be beneficial for one would know better what skills people have acquired which can be very useful if one is setting up a group or an institution. Best,

B.

Riemannzeta said...

How come there are so many bad teachers?

Here's my hypothesis:

Our perception of "good" research is radically distorted by the incentives of competition for grants. Too often, grant committees make decisions on the basis of the reputation and recommendation of an advisor and not on an independent judgment of the merits of the work. Thus, the "good" researchers are "good" at social networking with powerful officials and colleagues, but not necessarily at the curious exploration, risk taking, and willingness to be vulnerable that are required of good researchers in a larger sense. In effect, we've created a natural selection process, which has evolved research into professional lobbying rather than wild exploration like it used to be.

In a nutshell, I do think academic research is a disaster right now. Why so many conferences and so much travel? Because attending many conferences in far flung locations requires lots of grant funding, and attending them means hanging out with the other folks with lots of grant funding.

I'm kind of holding your feet to the fire here. But I'm doing it for a very important reason. The teaching of basic science is literally the source of knowledge to the entire world. Every grant insight is drawn from observations of nature. If the folks that are on the cutting edge put off their duty of figuring out how to describe what they've seen, then it slows down the introduction of knowledge to the entire rest of the world.

Fewer conferences, less socializing, more writing and teaching.


the criterion of "good" researcher is

But what does it mean to be a good researcher? If "good" is decided by a federal funding agency, or even a more dispersed group of academics already tenured in the field, then it may not have much to do with how productive the researcher is in a larger sense.

Bee said...

Hi Riemannζ

I actually agree with what you say. The academic system as it is today is a disaster because the incentives lead researchers to adapt strategies that do not lead to an optimal outcome. It rewards social networking, jetting around the globe, and most importantly: it rewards specialization. It rewards specialization in subfields, and that's for a good reason. The community has grown larger and people need to keep their work manageable somehow, so they develop nishes where they are the experts which results in an unfortunate fragmentation of the whole field that hinders progress. So the idea why I am suggesting a structural diversity in labor is to free capacity to counteract specialization in topic (it doesn't say so in the post, but that was my thought behind it). Best,

B.

Riemannzeta said...

Okay now I understand what you're saying, and I'm glad we agree on so much.

I guess if there's any disagreement remaining, it's just about where, at the margin, it makes sense to cutback on time spent. My bias would be toward less lobbying and more teaching, and it sounds like you agree.

In general, I think the way to consider whether a division of labor makes sense is to ask whether the division will result in a more or less efficient transfer of the goods or services (taking all of quality, quantity, and timing into account).

A division of labor between research and teaching may improve the quality, quantity, and speed of research in the short-run, but it will almost certainly lead to a long-term decline both in the quality of teaching and the quality of research. That's because the next generation of researchers has to be taught by someone -- and who better than this generations best?

And that's putting aside the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis argument.

By the way, these dynamics are the main reason why I quit grad school to go into patent law 7 years ago. I haven't regretted it. The rest of the world is equally broken. But at least I don't have people condescending to me when I know all they've really done is suck up to the right people their whole career.

Robert said...

Bee,

I mostly agree with what you are saying. I am only speaking out against the tendency to "reward" good researchers by lifting teaching duties off them. Over time, this creates a negative value of teaching as in "this guy is still teaching so he must be a bad researcher" type arguments. Just the opposite should be the case.

I absolutely agree that the value of being a good teacher has to be increased. Faculty who see teaching just as a duty should be deeply ashamed (I am saying that currently teaching disinterested meteologists electrodynamics).

Uncle Al said...

Yesterday's Nobel Prize is tomorrow's homework. Discovery opposes classroom common wisdom. The fog of authority then returns. Never contradict prior observation. use existing apparatus and validated protocols. Chiral spacetime has strong theoretical roots,

http://www.ift.unesp.br/gcg/tele.pdf
"gravitation becomes a chiral interaction, a property that may eventually have important consequences at the microscopic level."
http://arxiv.org/abs/0801.4148
http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?pid=S0103-97332004000700014&script=sci_arttext
arxiv: 0801.4566, 0806.3082, 0806.2821, 0805.1294

hence my pdf. All Equivalence Principle testing since Stevin in 1685 is failure. They did it wrong.

Assay interactive vacuum contents as the Earth spins about its axis and falls around the sun,

http://www.igf.fuw.edu.pl/KB/HKM/PDF/HKM_027_s.pdf
3.5 MB; pdf pp. 25-27, "calculation of the chiral case"

Two solid spheres of cultured single crystal quartz, one each in space groups P3(2)21 (right-handed) and P2(2)21 (left-handed). Plate with superconductor, Meissner levitate in hard vacuum, and look. If they start spinning in *opposite* directions you have vacuum propellers. Theorists can sweat the rest.

Somebody should look at both. Teach how to think, teach what to think.

Riemannzeta said...

Uncle Al has a point here. I believe the progressive trend in science and economics can be explained by both fields becoming successively more inclusive of the new viewpoints and data that "outsiders" bring.

Endogenous growth is literally the result of increasing cooperation with larger groups over longer time frames.

Bee said...

Hi Robert,

I wasn't thinking of it in terms of rewarding one or the other. I see all these diverse tasks as being different in content, but equal in importance, and I think the way to make clear that they are all equally important is to put them on an equal footing. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Riemannzeta,

Let me be somewhat more precise here. The social networking too is an important task that keeps the scientific community healthy. This too I would have made a skill that people can specialize in. Such divisions of labor do de facto already exist and if a place is lead by a good director / group leader he or she should take these individual differences into consideration. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses and the way to run things most smoothly is to figure out what these are, and to distribute tasks accordingly. Building and maintaining connections is one of these skills. I do agree though that it is a skill that in the present system has risen to too high importance which goes on the expenses of more 'quiet' skills, as there might be e.g. teaching or possibly also refereeing colleagues work or being a good mentor etc.

but it will almost certainly lead to a long-term decline both in the quality of teaching and the quality of research. That's because the next generation of researchers has to be taught by someone -- and who better than this generations best?

That would be the ideal case. But the way the situation looks like in reality this might just not be possible or not sufficient. Also, please note that I never said the best researchers should not teach. Further, it seems to me you are very convinced that the best researchers make good teachers. I would even agree on that on the individual mentor-student level, but this is not what I am talking about here. This is about giving classes which I think is just not for everybody. We should try to make it a system where everybody can find the best place according to his or her strengths and set the incentives such that this is what people aim to achieve, instead of requiring everybody to do everything with mediocre quality. Best,

B.

andy.s said...

I always suspected that teaching UGs was considered something of an unpleasant chore to the faculty, and not particularly creative.

I figured conversations in the faculty lounge went something like:

"Crap. I've got to wet-nurse 27 more boneheads through a 3-hour E&M course."

A friend of mine who went to Carnegie Mellon told me he actually saw a prof dive out a first story window to avoid an undergrad. (That's an American first story window though, not a European one).

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I guess I’ve had it wrong all along, for I always thought the incentive for a brilliant researcher to seek a tenured teaching position at a good university was to assure a captive market for a bad yet overpriced text book :-)

Best,

Phil

Riemannzeta said...

Bee,

We should try to make it a system where everybody can find the best place according to his or her strengths and set the incentives such that this is what people aim to achieve, instead of requiring everybody to do everything with mediocre quality.

How can I disagree? I don't.

All I'll add to this eloquent explanation is that in setting incentives, we have to be thinking always about who the system is meant to serve. On my view, undergraduates have been getting the short-end of the stick at many research universities. But it's a tough question to answer -- who is a university meant to serve. And I expect each university will answer it in different ways, and further that this is a good thing.

I suspect that if I had gone to a liberal arts college as an undergrad, I might have a much different view.

X said...

Hi Bee,

“Maybe I was particularly unlucky with my lecturers, but the classes I had to take were in the best case useless, in the worst case demotivating, if not debilitating.”

And again you run into the perimeter application dependent examples. IMO the roots of the problem are that the majority of the modern teachers ignore the ancient ethical traditions of the scholars: the rules of the academy game which should be self-evident Principal Postulates of the education and research system. As usual the violation of the fundamental rules should remove the specific individual from the system (you pass to the next class but not in our school). In addition, I believe that then the slides advertising women's bikini will disappear from string/M/LQG presentations.

“but still one had to appear and sit through all these hours while somebody was mumbling to the blackboard or got confused about his own notes.”

When I was a student, the Physics Faculty of the Leningrad University implemented the education approach of CalTech: after the first semester the naturally selected students got the suggestion to choose voluntarily one of the following paths:
1)conventional;
2)conventional education program with obligations free attendance of lectures and exercise sessions (Communist Party history/philosophy etc not included, but nobody insisted to check either);
3)individual student defined education program (indeed subject to authority approval).
However, in that specific application example it was hard not to attend the lectures/seminars since most profs/assistants were “children” of V.A.Fock.

Regards, Dany.

Andrew Thomas said...

From what I seem to remember from when I was in university, a lecture involves the lecturer basically writing on a board or reading from notes - there isn't much "teaching" required as regards interaction with students. The information is just presented to the students, and it is up to the student to learn it. I don't really see how you can have "good" and "bad" lecturers (the only "bad" ones we had we had were the boring ones who spoke in a monotone and sent you to sleep).

Anyway, I think in university you've really got to be able to learn from a book. If you can't do that - if you require someone to read to you - then you're going to be lost when it comes to later research anyway, doing a PhD or similar.

University learning is tough, and you've got to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff somehow. I always think it's preparation for life - a student won't be nursemaided there. You've got to learn to stand on your own two feet.

X said...

Hi Andrew,

“University learning is tough, and you've got to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff somehow. I always think it's preparation for life - a student won't be nursemaided there. You've got to learn to stand on your own two feet.”

You are right, but it is only one side of the coin. The teachers must help to stand on your own feeds and must help start to go alone. Now look at this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PkLLXhONvQ

I have nothing against fun but read carefully the text. Both “teachers” have no idea what SR and GR are.

Regards, Dany.

Plato said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bee said...

I'm allergic to ism's, you should know that. To fix recent comments, download this file, place it in a public folder, set rights properly. In your template replace presently linked javascript with downloaded file, recall that hotlinking is evil. Should work. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Dany,

“I have nothing against fun but read carefully the text. Both “teachers” have no idea what SR and GR are.”

“I’m sorry there will be no encores as Albert has left the building.”

Dany, I agree that this has little to do with SR or GR as I didn’t see the guitarist once rush towards or away from those attending to alter the pitch instead of using the frets and he never bent a string:-) One thing that it did have going for it is that I didn’t notice any of the students nodding off.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

for I always thought the incentive for a brilliant researcher to seek a tenured teaching position at a good university was to assure a captive market for a bad yet overpriced text book

Many textbooks go back to lecture notes. Few of them are really bad, at least in my impression. Many less introductionary textbooks have a really small target group and are essentially useless if you don't belong into that target group. There is a very small market and that's why I guess they are so overpriced. Stefan could probably tell us more about the problem. And I am afraid in some instances it is a problem indeed. If scientific publishers aim to make money and libraries aim to save money books with small numbers of potential buyers will have an increasinlgy hard time, despite the fact they they are necessary. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“And I am afraid in some instances it is a problem indeed. If scientific publishers aim to make money and libraries aim to save money books with small numbers of potential buyers will have an increasinlgy hard time, despite the fact they they are necessary.”

I hope you understood that for the most part what I said was done tongue in cheek, for I am the proud owner and benefactor of great text books written by those like Pebbles and Feynman. However, I would have thought that with the advent of desktop publishing and pdf format that perhaps the middle man would be a little kinder on us all.

Actually this presents a third option as opposed to research or teaching that is in the production of simply first rate learning material.

Best,

Phil

Lex said...

A few comments... there most definitely is a difference between good and bad teachers, as experienced by students. An example from this past semester was a course taught by two professors. One crammed his slides full of information to the point of illegibility, the other kept it concise and understandable. The difference in the student I tutored was huge -- she had a great understanding of what the latter had taught, and knew nothing about the other. Sure, some of it was bias because she preferred the latter style, but that's part of it.
Being a teacher isn't just presenting the material, facilitating learning is part of it as well. You have to twist the subject round several times to make it fit into each student's head, since each one learns differently. If you prefer them learning it from a book, then why have a teacher at all?

Andrew Thomas said...

"If you prefer them learning it from a book, then why have a teacher at all?"

Well, yes indeed. Good point. In my job I'm actually working right now on a Virtual Learning Environment. The big thinking behind these is that learning should not be confined to a particular physical place or time. The wonderful Robert Cringely has similar ideas here.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Yes, I understood your comment as sarcastic, but there is some truth in it. I was recently talking to Stefan about it. There are many very specialized books that appear in small numbers and are bought by only some libraries. You can't make money with these books, but they are necessary nevertheless. I am sometimes afraid that publishers will drop them out of the program entirely to increase their profit and then what? I was thinking that cases like this would need governmental subsidies because it's an area where the free market forces don't work as desired. Best,

B.

Riemannzeta said...

Governmental subsidies come from taxes -- so what you're saying is that we should take money away from one person and give it to another.

I'm not saying you're wrong necessarily; but without knowing what you're taxing, I'm not sure I like the idea.

How about this? Why not design an online forum wherein people can simply tell publishers what books they want to buy? Publishers could pay readers for the privilege of providing that information, which would save the publishers a boat load of money since they lose a ton right now on books that they THINK will sell but that actually don't.

How about that?

Bee said...

Hi Riemannzeta,

There are certainly ways to improve publishing processes in total. I am skeptic though about the idea of pre-asking for which books might be of interest because the value of a book very much depends on the final outcome, the whole picture, and not just whether the topic is of interest. (I.e. I wouldn't buy a book that isn't well written just because I'm interested in the topic.)

Governmental subsidies are necessary in cases where a desired outcome is to the benefit of the society but won't be achieved by the free market. In this case, there are very specialized books that are vital for certain branches of science (e.g. think of material science), that are cumbersome to produce, take a lot of time, and are only bought by few libraries which is why they are extremely pricey. Editing and publishing such books, mostly collections of data and procedures, ranks for me pretty much on the level of a research project itself. If you don't invest the money into such books, a field may lack important sources of information that are not available or only in complicated ways. Best,

B.

Plato said...

AndrewWell, yes indeed. Good point. In my job I'm actually working right now on a Virtual Learning Environment. The big thinking behind these is that learning should not be confined to a particular physical place or time.

Along those same lines Andrew I see the developmental aspect of the web 3.0 moving bloggery development into new stages.

If you think about this blog and it's comments right now, what said that a virtual reality could not be evolved too? I know this bugs bee, but what the heck, even the ancients dream of places where the Gods resided.:)

And who knows how the spirits talk after death? No physical body is needed or is attached, other then our fingers? Neuron entanglement, by "neuron tapping" then becomes the quick witted response as there is no limitation to the speed of the thinking brain and it's expressions?:)

PS.This is also for the "men in gray" and those who like cinnamon twists.:)

X said...

Hi Everybody,

Please suggest sequence of three books (time ordered) best suitable for the beginner to grasp QM (independent or tutored learning).

Regards, Dany.

Riemannzeta said...

Bee,

Totally agree that just because people are asking for it doesn't mean that they'll want what gets produced in response.

But publishers have two questions to answer now: (1) what do people want? and (2) will this book fulfill that want?

If the book buyers are more involved, at least (1) will be easier.

(2) Still requires discretion. But whose discretion? A government agent or a private agent? Although it depends on many factors, In general, I would think that most government agents would be worse that private ones at assessing the quality of an author and/or manuscript. That's because although we always imagine the smartest scientists as being in charge of these kinds of government agencies, in practice those scientists are often busy with other (perhaps more) important duties -- like research and teaching! So giving government the job just makes the person who decides what gets published less beholden to the people who want to buy the books because now their job doesn't depend on whether the books sell or not (at least not as directly).

Robert said...

The government already heavily subsidises these books: It pays the author's salaries as they usually hold positions at universities while writing these books. The authors do not get any money from the publishers (at least not much compared to the time it takes to write a book).

The amazing prices you have to pay are just for the publisher's input: Maybe editing, maybe proofreading, possibly typesetting (rare), printing, and distributing.

This of course suggests a simple solution: If the publishers' contribution is not worth the high prices then leave them out of the game. Just as the author provides the publisher with a TeX manuscript free of charge she could as well provide the public with a pdf free of charge...

Plato said...

Bee:recall that hotlinking is evil

Deep Linking is another topic that provides for opportunities to rehash what might not of been understood, by those better qualified?:)

Riemannzeta said...

@robert

I think you've got the best idea so far. If the point is to try to put the knowledge in as many hands as possible, then at this point it makes sense to just put the darn thing up on the internet and let each reader pay to print it out if they want. It's not quite as nice as holding a book in your hands, but it's more convenient in some ways too. (More portable, &c.)

I know some of my old professors used to do just this.

Bee said...

Robert, Riemannzeta,

You are missing my point. I am not talking about the work of the authors but the work of the editors that does not pay off profitwise but it necessary nevertheless. Best,

B.

X said...

Hi Phil,

I continue our discussion in your “Odds and Sods”. I asked above simple direct question but apparently nobody wants to answer. It reminds me the definition given by Strugatsky brothers in the similar situation in “Monday begins on Saturday”: they call the certain community of “researchers” – “край непуганных идиотов”. However, in our case I would say: запуганных.

Regards, Dany.

P.S. I highly recommend reading this book. It contains even the discussion of the intelligent Cat introduced by A.S.Pushkin.

Sylvain Poirier said...

I also think the teaching system involves a big waste of work, both for many researchers and for many students. Years ago I happened to read the article
"Dead lectures",
arguing about the obsolescence of the institution of "live lectures" as being morally a dead (non-interactive) way of learning, while physically "dead" methods such as reading books or watching videos at home (that can develop further with educational software), would be morally more lively (interactive).

I find it amazing that a category of people that should be among the most innovative of the world, are assigned a task that is so repetitive: making a one-man show at a precise day and time, conforming to the same requirement (trying to explain the same well-known concept to a standardized class of students) each year and the same as done by peers in each of the many other institutions all over the world.

But another dimension of the problem, is that another possible task should be distinguished between research and teaching. I only saw it described by another author as "the role of the professor".

This is the work to integrate existing knowledge from different research subjects, to find out links between them and see if some hints from somewhere can be useful for something else; and to find out new ways of understanding or expressing old concepts, to make them appear clearer.
This is what my inspiration focuses on, where I found that much more could be done than is usually assumed, but for which I could hardly find any peers to exchange ideas with, nor institutions seemingly interested for such a work. Or maybe I did not seek well ?
I have such ideas for subjects that are or could be brought to the undergraduate level in maths and physics, especially: relativity, foundations of mathematics, algebra, a clean presentation tensors to be used for classical physics, entropy and introduction to quantum physics...
(For now I mostly wrote in French, sorry).
You can see some headlines of my ideas on the foundations of maths at settheory.net