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the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

sky stegall's picture

Dear BMC Physics Department;            An interesting opportunity has arisen for me to communicate with you collectively about my experiences as a woman in physics, and particularly about the differences I can see between my experiences in this department and the statistical and anecdotal information available about the current, nation-wide experiences of women in physics.  Let me begin by saying that on almost every point I have had the chance to read about and discuss in my Gender and Science class this spring, I find that my tenure in physics has differed from the more unfortunate norm – overall, I have had a wonderful time doing physics with you.  But, as always, there are areas where I would admit room for improvement, and it is on these things that I would like to focus, and perhaps to offer some advice.              First let me explain what prompted me to write this letter.  For my class, we read a book by Sheila Tobias called They’re Not Dumb, They’re Different, Stalking the Second Tier.  The book is essentially a collection of reports, findings and suggestions based on her research into why science (specifically large intro physics and chemistry classes) lose so many potential students, and why so many of those lost are females and minorities.  Tobias recruited several intelligent non-scientists (mostly graduate students in other disciplines) to seriously audit introductory physics and chemistry courses and keep track of their progress, observations and impressions.              What came out of this research was fascinating to me because it was constantly clear to me where these students’ experiences intersected with mine and where they differed enormously.  It occurred to me even as I read that this could be a useful framework through which I could evaluate my experiences with our physics department here and perhaps provide some feedback for you.  I suppose that since I am using this reading as a framework, I should give a very brief explanation of why.            When Tobias speaks of “second-tier” students, she means those who are every bit as intelligent, intellectual and capable as their potential physicist peers, but who have chosen not to do science, for whatever reason.  Her goal was to explore some of those reasons.  This was so potent for me because, even though a lot of my experiences paralleled those which led these and other students not to choose the hard sciences, I did, and continue to do so, despite the fact that I may or may not be as intelligent, intellectual or capable as these people.            So what, according to Tobias, creates the leak in the introductory level classes?  She mentions such things as the perceived “culture of competition,” the concept of “weeding out” students, the lack of an overarching narrative conveyed to the students, and the structure of problem sets and exams.  I would like to speak to these things in terms of the BMC Physics Department and present one perspective on the good, the bad and the ugly (but fixable).            We have read a great deal about this “culture of competition.”  Needless to say this is somewhat diminished all over Bryn Mawr’s campus because of the strong injunction among the students against talking about one’s grades, but in physics there is still a sense of competition in slightly more abstract terms.  I know who, in my classes, can do the homework without help and who cannot (I am, you all know, in that second group), and I know who is left weeping after every exam and who is not.              While I understand that this could easily make some students uncomfortable, as it did to me my freshman year, I realize that this understanding of my classmates has been enormously helpful to me academically.  I know whom to ask for help – an invaluable knowledge in physics.  I have never felt like I am in competition with my peers in our department – indeed, for me the culture of competition is much sharper in my humanities and social science classes, especially in terms of papers (which have never been my strongest point).I feel like there is almost never any boasting within our department, and that seems to me unusual within the larger context of physics.  In fact, the only people I hear touting themselves in a physics department are the more obnoxious Haverford boys.  Maybe that is a big part of the difference – the presence of male students and the culture they bring into the classroom may be what fosters this feeling of painful or unnecessary competition.  Here I think the Bryn Mawr professors, while clearly not ignorant of the situation, could perhaps find ways to be more proactive about discouraging that kind of competition.  I could go on at length on the problems brought into the classroom by HaverBoys, but to be more specific I will say that I would like to see more immediate quashing of things like derisive remarks after a woman asks a question, and perhaps a more anonymous method of turning in homework so we do not have to see each other’s problem sets and exams as they are handed in.It was also interesting to read about the process of weeding out, which I have heard about but never thought I had experienced.  Upon further reflection, I decided that this process at most institution is supposed to divide the students into those who are “naturally capable” of physics and those who are not, but that at Bryn Mawr we try to keep those who are naturally willing to do physics, rather than those who may be very talented but who have little interest in or tenacity for the subject.This, I think, is why I have survived so long.  I am dead-set determined to do physics, despite my problems in mathematics and enormously varied other interests.  I also think I got to skip that step because the first physics class I took at Bryn Mawr was 104, rather than 103 in the first semester.  I took Psychology 102 (a mistake!) and realized that physics really was my academic love.  Therefore I started “ahead” of the weeding out, already on the major track.  On the other hand, I feel that at Bryn Mawr our weeding out is not done so much by the structure of the classes or the nature of the science itself, but by the specific professors.  It would be interesting, I think, to track the students by first-professors and see what percentage of each professor’s own freshmen stay in physics.  I am fairly convinced that some of our professors are much better at recruiting and keeping students than others, and while I understand that it is each teacher’s perogative to prioritize his or her class in his or her own way – is it more important to keep many different students or to keep only the best?  Is the goal to teach as much physics as possible or to train them in as much math as necessary? – I would like to suggest a departmental hard look at those introductory classes.  I would also very much like to know what your priorities really are, so that I (and other students) are not coming into a class expecting one thing and never understanding why we are not getting it.  This leads nicely into my next observation from Tobias; many of her subjects reported feeling lost because they could perceive no overarching narrative or path or connectedness in the class.  This is where, I must confess, I got a little angry at the classes those students were taking.  I have almost always felt, in my BMC physics classes, that I understood why we were learning what we were learning, and when, and how, and how everything fit together, and where we were going.  This is helped by the narrative that some of our professors provide at the start of the semester and update as necessary; however, mostly I think my understanding comes from in-class discussion of both the history of the physics we cover and the mentioning of things-to-come, either in class or in the future.  I have generally always felt that the physics I was doing was in some sense real, a genuine method of looking at the world, if not complete and comprehensive at least partially so, attempting to be without pretending to be.  To be quite honest, I have found more narrative in most of my physics classes than in a couple of my non-science courses.  Spanish, for example, went nowhere for me.  I have even had history classes that lacked narrative and a sense of connection between topics.  The exceptions, in my experience, are the really important thing, however.  I know you all have some knowledge of my immense frustration with our one-year positions and the people we have had fill them in the past four years.  This is one if the biggest complaints I have about those teachers.  If it is BMC physics policy to at least attempt to provide some narrative to the class, some concept of path and purpose, perhaps this should be more strongly communicated to the temporary professors.  And if it is not policy, perhaps it should be.  There are few things more terrifying in academia, I think, than finding yourself (and your entire class) completely adrift in the middle of a 300-level classical mechanics course, with no concept of where you have been or where you are going.  The only thing I know for sure is scarier would be finding oneself completely adrift in an introductory course, as a vast number of my friends and peers have over the years.  They are brilliant women – they know that a 101 class should not be the hardest thing they are doing, but to be lost, to find yourself stuck in a senseless, pierless sea of equations unconnected to concepts is enough to daunt the proudest pre-med.  However, that in itself will be the subject of a very different letter.  Next let us think about the structure of problem sets and exams.  Here my experiences are both parallel and orthogonal to the students in Tobias’ study.  I think everyone hates problem sets – they are tedious, time-consuming and often dull.  But I have never met a physicist who did not consider them absolutely necessary to understanding the science.  I thought this was some vast, cruel conspiracy until fairly recently.  Having some years of experience as a grader in the intro physics lab, I have to admit – the practice, the problems, the math really can be a most useful tool in understanding the physics.  Math is the language of our concepts, and it is sometimes the only way to describe a system.   However, one cannot design problems sets based only on the ideal of doing math consistently and often and for long periods of time.  It is simply incompatible with the liberal arts curriculum here – I cannot spend three to six hours a night on physics because I have other classes, not to mention jobs and sports.  So while, again, for the most part our department is understanding of the demands on a student’s time and energy, problem sets get out of control sometimes.  I think the best answer to this problem is for the professors to keep careful track of what they ask of their students and how the students respond – midterm evaluations are good but not enough.  Every problem set should provide feedback to every professor about whether or not the students are not just understanding the material, but whether or not they can handle it.  This also addresses the issue of pacing.As for exams, my experience is not that of Tobias’ students, and from everything I hear from my friends in the various intro classes, our last problem is exams that are too simple or easy.  Indeed, the physics exams I have taken have always been synthesizing and, to greater or lesser extent, comprehensive evaluations of my understanding and ability to take in a new question and use my (hopefully) already-acquired skills.  If anything, some of our exams are disproportionately difficult after weeks of problem sets on a certain level.  This letter has gotten a lot longer than I meant it to be, so I will wrap up by saying that I hope I have provided a new window for my department to view itself through.  Probably I am pointing out problems that every professor I have has considered before, so it is my goal also to provide some ideas or suggestions on improvements, as well as feedback on what has worked for me and for my friends.  I am an experimentalist at heart – I cannot stand to name a problem and not try out solutions, or at least look into ways to respond.  Maybe I can effect change in the department, maybe I can start some conversations.  I would be proud to know that I had.