THE WEEKLY BLAB
Volume 10, Issue 05–August 25, 2015
It’s Monday as I’m writing this and the new semester has officially started. As I pulled into the campus this morning, the parking lots were satisfyingly full and the sun was shining. Classes have begun, and the campus is buzzing with students, faculty, and staff. What more can anyone ask than that?
Last week was full of orientation sessions for new faculty (Monday and Tuesday full time, Thursday part time), new employees (Thursday), and new students (Tuesday and Friday). The new faculty look like a great bunch—interesting, engaged, and from a variety of backgrounds. A lot have roots in the North Country, but we also have new faculty from as far away as Colorado, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Given the cold winters in those locations, they should be fine here, but the new faculty from Florida and Virginia are probably in for a bit of a surprise.
The new student orientations all went very well. In them, I tell the students the 10 things they can count on the college to provide to them (excellent instruction, strong advising, etc.) and let them know the 5 things that we count on them for (to be engaged in their learning, to get help when they need it, etc.). I always end with the story of the philosophy professor who fills up a jar with rocks. If you’ve never heard it, it’s worth coming to a future orientation session for that alone—it makes several important points, is funny, and is uplifting. Over the years, many students have come up to me at graduation and said they still remembered that story from their orientation, and that it made a big difference in their thinking. In fact, three of our new students already told me that on Friday, a few hours after I gave the talk.
As I have for many years, I gave the new students my cell phone number, telling them to call me if they ever have a problem they can’t solve any other way. As has happened the last several times, some students in the audience immediately tested it out to see if my phone actually rang, and were happy to see that it did. Students never abuse this—I get maybe 6-10 calls a semester, and its pretty much always about something important. Something new is that students will now text me as well, and I’ve gotten some fun texts as well as serious ones.
On Friday, we had a campus picnic and it was nice to see all the returning faculty and the staff enjoying themselves, as well as students who were moving into their residence halls. Like many campuses, we have lots of volunteers to help them with their belongings, and its always much appreciated. I also got a chance to meet some of our new international students from Cameroon, Bangladesh and Brazil. They were all friendly and happy to be here, ready for classes and new experiences. And yes, they all said they have heavy coats for when winter comes.
I feel kind of stupid talking about winter so much since it’s been quite warm up here lately. Warm in the North Country means in the upper 80’s, though a day or two it did cross 90. We’ve been enjoying going to the various river towns and driving around the small villages that dot the county—they’re all stunningly beautiful this time of year. Yesterday, Jill felt like going to Ogdensburg to sit by the waterfront and watch the boats go by, so that’s what we did.
Mark was happy because this gave him a chance to hit the local GameStop and get the newest Skylanders game. While sitting on the waterfront and reading the newspaper, I noticed that there was a horse show that day in Ogdensburg, sponsored by the St. Lawrence County Equestrian Society, so we drove a few miles there and enjoyed watching it for a while.
This time of year and basically into November, there’s a ton of outdoor events up here taking advantage of the nice weather and beautiful scenery. The only problem is deciding which one to go to—not a bad problem to have.
For the Uninitiated
For new faculty and staff who don’t know what the Weekly Blab is, it’s a newsletter I send out on a more or less weekly basis, talking about events on campus, higher education in general, goings on in the North Country, and anything else that happens to cross my mind. I’ve been doing this for 10 years now as a means of casual communication to let campus, family, and friends know what’s going on. There’s even a trivia contest for you to test your mettle with, and you can win a prize! I hope you like it and find it to be informative. If not, you can always hit the delete key.
Paying It Forward
On Thursday evening, I attended the 2015 new member induction ceremony for the Payson-Martin and the Grasse River Leadership Societies down at the Alumni House. These are two groups for friends and significant donors—you become a member when your lifetime gifts to the College exceed $50,000. Now that I’ve been at the College for a year, I’m recognizing more and more people and this gathering was no exception—I knew by sight (and by name) more than half the people there—not bad, since I hadn’t met some of the attendees before. I gave a small speech about how their donations impact our students and faculty, and then got to pose with each inductee for a photograph. It was a wonderful night and I enjoyed seeing everyone. As always, the food was delicious. I also got to enjoy the new patio behind the Alumni House—it really looks nice.
The Case for Teaching Ignorance
Given all the craziness that appears in the news lately, my eyes were drawn this morning to an Op-Ed in the New York Times by Jamie Holmes called “The Case for Teaching Ignorance”. In it, she talks about how so much we teach is covered in a way that makes it sound like everything is definitively settled, when in reality it isn’t. She quotes Dr. Marlys Witte, a surgery professor at the University of Arizona who said “Textbooks spend 8 to 10 pages on pancreatic cancer without ever telling the student that we just don’t know very much about it.” She wanted her students to know the limits of knowledge in the surgical field, and to understand that the question asked is often as important as the answer. She ultimately persuaded the American Medical Association to fund the offering of a class which her students referred to as ‘Ignorance 101’.
There is now a new field that studies ignorance, called ‘agnotology’. There is even a handbook: the Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies (408 pages, $205), which has the quote “Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge” on its cover. The author of the Op-Ed is the author of an upcoming book “Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing”.
We all know (or should know, anyway) that while the scientific method has proven to be one of the most reliable ways of obtaining new knowledge, there is still a lot we don’t know. In fact, we don’t know what we don’t know. This isn’t the same thing as saying “nothing is certain”—there are some theories that are so strongly supported by experiment and observation that the odds of them being overthrown is miniscule. Other things are only partially understood, while yet others are only barely hinted at. Good scientists know the difference, though there are always some who will claim that things are more settled than they really are in order to gain some benefit.
I’ve always been troubled by how textbooks, especially introductory ones, tell the story of scientific discovery. This is often done to the side of the main information, in a differently colored box with a picture of the scientist in it, and a story that makes it seem like the discovery appeared all at once, full blown, in a sudden bit of inspiration, similar to the mythological story of Athena bursting forth (in full armor yet!) from the head of Zeus.
While its true that a tiny fraction of discoveries happen that way, the majority occur through tedious and meticulous work, based on the tedious and meticulous work of others. In my opinion, the myth of the full blown discovery is actually quite harmful to science. It shuts off curiosity (since the matter is settled, what is there to be curious about?) and it makes many students believe they don’t have what it takes to be scientists (since this all-at-once discovery has never happened to them).
Some of the best questions I have ever asked on exams involve situations where the answer isn’t known. I remember asking an exam question about whether a particular compound had a metal-metal bond, and giving five pieces of data to help the students decide—two that argued that a metal-metal bond was present, one that argued that it wasn’t, and two that were irrelevant to the question. When a student asked me after the exam if there was indeed a bond present, I answered “nobody knows—I gave you the true data, and the data is contradictory”. I pointed out that contradictory situations like this are what research chemists have to handle all the time—you have to analyze each piece of data, point out the contradictions, come to your best conclusion, and understand that you may be disproven at some later point.
My favorite quote on this subject is “It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question” written the Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco—whose work (according to Wikipedia) “often demonstrates a disgust for the tangible world, a distrust of communication, and the subtle sense that a better world lies just beyond our reach.” Just right for engendering lots of questions.
Last Week’s Trivia Contest
Last week’s challenge dealt with musical hits from the ‘70’s. The winner was Greg Kie. Others with all five right included Alan Gabrielli (from SPSU), Patrick Harrington, Janice Robinson, Julie Parkman, and Christopher Sweeney.
Here are the correct answers:
- Bruce Springsteen song about “tramps like us”. Born to Run.
- John Lennon #1 about his version of utopia.
- “Walk on the Wild Side” was his only big solo hit. Lou Reed, who I’m told once appeared at SUNY Canton!
- AC-DC song, but it’s not about Route 11. Highway to Hell.
- Dolly Parton song asking a rival to leave her man alone. Jolene.
This Week’s Trivia Challenge
We continue our move to more recent days in this week’s challenge, which deals with musical hits from the first half of the 1980’s. To celebrate the new academic year, from this point on, all winners win a CD, DVD, or whatever else I come up with from the vast Szafran repository of duplicates or good stuff I want to get rid of. As usual, the first with the most takes the prize. No looking up the answers now! SEND ALL ENTRIES BY EMAIL TO firstname.lastname@example.org since if you put them as a response on the BLOG, everyone will be able to see them.
- Ray Parker Jr. answered “Who’re you gonna call?”
- Pink Floyd song, about why “We don’t need no education.”
- Kim Carnes’ homage to a great ‘40’s movie star that begins: “Her hair is Harlowe gold, Her lips sweet surprise.”
- Song with an amphibian in the title by Culture Club.
- Why Stevie Wonder phoned.