This is somewhat of a continuation of the posts I wrote some weeks ago about the teaching methods of a certain professor here at my home university. As a follow up on that, I can say that things have been acceptable, at least with the teacher and his classes. However, this week I noticed a trait that seem to prevail among the students and sometimes even with the staff around here: defeatism. I have to be honest, though, that I consider myself a defeatist in a few points of my life, for instance, when I defected from a career as an engineer and decided to pursue another one as an astrophysicist, the reason being because I felt deluded by the job prospects around here and excluded by companies for being an introvert. Also, you might not know this because I did not write about it here in the blog, but I canceled my enrollment on the Quantum Physics course this term (more on that here), because I quickly got fed up with the classes (more specifically, they were annoying the hell out of me and actually dampening the progress on my research). So there you go, I am not free of the defeatism that permeate the halls of this place.
I realized how bad things were when we got to solve a theoretical problem as a group. On the morning we decided to unite and try to bring that beast to its knees, I was surprised to see that one of my colleagues’ first action was to say “okay, I’ma look if this problem is already solved on one of these books”, while opening dozens of pdf files of books on electromagnetism, both in Portuguese and English. My other colleague tried to understand at least the ideas of the problem and get some kind of hunch on it. But he quickly gave up and started looking for a complete solution on the internet. They were defeated even before starting to write a freaking line of equations. And this is coming from a guy who prefers to write codes than equations!
Now, don’t get me wrong on this. I also look for solutions on the internet and books, for instance when I’m stuck on something I can’t solve or when I have a much farther objective and I’m just trying to skip a thorn on my way. However, on the situation I mentioned, I would assume that the main objective is, specifically, to learn how to solve the problem. They were simply skipping to the end (the problem already completely solved) without putting their necks out to the hardships of mathematical and physical thinking. What kind of physicist do that? Now I understand why some of these students don’t advance on their undergraduate research (a complaint constantly heard around here): it’s because they are trained to look for ready answers instead of building their own. I have to admit though that at some points, when they were looking on some lecture notes, they provided us with some very important insights, so kudos on that, and I wonder how much time it would take us to arrive at these insights by ourselves (probably a few years).
Sometimes I do grimly complain that the teachers usually solve the easiest problems on classes and leave the most treacherous ones for us students to solve, but this is a hollow rant. This is actually a good thing, if the objective is to practice the work as a physicist: the easy problems are already solved and we are way over them, there are new and unsolved things to do, and that’s our job. But I shudder to think how on Earth are these previously mentioned students (soon or late to be physicists) to solve unsolved problems if there is no ready answer, if they quickly throw the towel without at least lifting a finger. Oh well, maybe they have different objectives than mine. I realize that many students there actually fell without parachutes on Physics, and are striving to obtain a diploma without a clue of what they will do with their lives after college. Maybe they are not striving at all, and consider being a student their day jobs.
I know these things, because I’ve been there. Once I was a day-job student who simply carried things on with my belly without a clear prospect of an after-college life. That’s why I was completely helpless when I got my engineering diploma, and ended up throwing my towel a few months later. There was no joy, no wonder, a lot of disappointments and my shattered self image. I felt completely defeated. When I turned to science, I was well-received and found back the wonders once had when I was just a little lad. Now, I fear for these students might be trailing the same path I once threaded a few years ago.
Featured image: a cartoon I found hung on the wall of an art studio at Tromsø, Norway. I don’t know the creator. If you do, please let me know so I can credit the image.