For years, I’ve told students that in the grand scheme thing grades don’t matter. I firmly believe that traditional grades are no more an indication of what someone knows than is eye color. Yet, we’ve all been judged as people by these letters on our transcripts. They’ve kept us from being permitted to accomplish certain objectives, all the while with the judges knowing, but not admitting, that grades are in no way standardized and essentially mean nothing. They act as a filter from having to dig deeper into our individual competences, strengths, and weaknesses. After twenty-one years of teaching, I still feel this way and until I adopted standards-based grading I always kept the arbitrariness of traditional grades in mind. Professional accreditation agencies insist on having our transcripts on file, which to me merely amplifies the notion that despite the ideal that higher education is the same everywhere, as it should be, it really isn’t. A letter, an A for example, on a community college transcript carries no consideration next to that very same A on a Harvard transcript and we all know this. It’s one of the many dirty little secrets of higher education. Higher education is as much about politics, arbitrary rankings, and aggrandizement as it is about providing a learning environment. Okay, I’m jaded but people who know me already know that. Anyway, I have also threatened over the years to post my own undergraduate and graduate transcripts online and I have finally decided to do just that, right here. I have removed certain personal information but have otherwise not edited anything.
I want students to understand a few things about transcripts.
- Transcripts are a reflection only of the past, and do not represent what you may or may not know (whatever that means) now or in the future. I would also argue that they also probably didn’t accurately reflect what you did or didn’t know then, only how you performed on some arbitrary tasks.
- Just because your transcripts say you may not be competent, they have no way of showing how you’ve changed, grown, or learned since they were recorded.
- Accreditatin agencies and many employers reqire transcripts to be on file and open to inspection by any number of people who are not qualified to evaluate them. Why keep transcripts secret? They’re nothing to be ashamed of.
- When I look at a transcript that shows all As and a perfect 4.0 GPA, I immediately think, “This person didn’t have to work for it.” I know that’s a blanket generalization, but it’s what comes to mind for me. Remember that people are not born knowing anything about physics or anything else. Everything academic is learned, and learning requires struggle, something I have only recently seen publicly admitted among colleagues. I was always told that learning is easy for talented people. What crap!
- As a student now, I would much rather take a course from someone who really struggled to understand the material instead of from someone who whizzed right through it. Only the former instructor can empathize with the learning process as it exists for the vast majority of students who experience it.
- For me peronally, every course on my transcripts is part of the story of my life at that time. I can remember every class I took and every professor (maybe not the name, but definitely how the course was facilitated and how I felt about the course at the time. The “at the time” part is important, because I misjudged a few things back then.
- Certain courses are of personal value to me. My obsession during high school and undergraduate was celestial mechanics. The only, and I emphasize ONLY, reason I chose to attend UNC-CH was that at the time, it was the only college in the state that offered a separate major in astronomy (as opposed to a minor in astronomy) and was the only college that offered a course in celestial mechaincs taught by one of the “celebrities” in the field. Morris Davis had just officially retired when AST131 was finally put on the schedule, and I was determined to ace that course. Dr. Davis was one of the professors I met when I came to UNC-CH to look around early in my senior year of high school. He was also one of the few who took my interests seriously and encouraged them. He even arranged for me to visit the U.S. Naval Observatory during the summer of 1987 so I could meet my (at the time) heroes in the Nautical Almanac Office. As you can see, I met that goal and no one can ever take that away from me. To my knowledge, that was also the last time AST131 was ever offered at UNC-CH. What an honor to have taken my most cherished course from a player in the field for his last class! It almost makes me cry to think about it. Oh, and by the way, one of the reasons I got an A- in the course was that I’d studied much of the material on my own as an obsession. There wasn’t much in the course that I’d not seen before. I’d studied Gaussian and Laplacian orbit determination, elementary celestial mechanics, and the creation of ephemerides for comets and asteroids. This, I suspect, is what many student in physics mistake for learning in the classroom. In other words, I think most of the people who effortlessly breeze through do so because of prior experience with the content. Woe to those who are seeing it for the first time, but those are the students I think we should be targeting because they are the majority.
- My calculus grades are interesting. At the time, UNC-CH required four semesters of calculus. I got an A in the first semester because it was nearly a word for word repeat of my high school calculus course, same textbook (Tomas) and all. I got a D in each of the following three semesters, the first of which was taught by a a then graduate student who is now employed by the UNC-CH math department as a course coordinator. The third and fourth semesters were taught by fully tenured professors, but the courses did not contain the material described in the course catalog, at least not to the extent that they were helpful to me as an astronomy major. In one of them, the professor used the languate of differential forms to present the material. Whis is very cool, and something I find personally interesting, but he did to with no discussion of why he was doing it and with no connection whatsoever with other areas like, you know, physics. The fourth semester is a blur now because I can’t remember one single thing I learned from the course or from the professor. Incidentally, we used the same text (Thomas) for the first two semesters and another text (Schenk) for the second two semesters. I still have them of course.
- Flash forward to my first year of graduate school. I’d not taken a course in ordinary differential equations at UNC-CH because it wasn’t required for astronomy majors and my experiences with the math department had soured my desire to interact with them any more. So I registered for MAT390, ODEs, at UNCG. I was the only grad student in the class and of course got no graduate credit for it, but that didn’t matter to me. As you can see, I got an A. It wasn’t just an A to me, it was a sign that I really did have a brain and that I could use it in the proper environment. This was the first time in my life I aced tests in a college math course! There’s no feeling like that. The professor (Jerry Vaughan) provided meaningful explanations of the course content and for the first time, I literally saw where most undergraduate classical physics equations came from. But it also meant that something had probably been amiss while I was at UNC-CH because I had not changed enough myself to make any of this happen.
I have come to believe that the terminology and notation used in introductory physics should be as precise and as descriptive as possible. Music terminology and notation are both of those things and this makes learning to read music easier than learning physics. Play what the notation says, and the notation says what to play. There are ver few, if any, ambiguities. I want to harp on two things that irritate me about the treatment of vectors in introductory physics.
The first thing is a terminology issue. We know that there are, loosely speaking, vector quantities and scalar quantities in introductory physics. We talk about a particle’s momentum vector, and we say “magnitude of the particle’s momentum” when we want to refer to the magnitude of the momentum vector. We usually tell students that we will always otherwise assume that “momentum” means “momentum vector” but then we sometimes proceed to create confusion by using the term to mean a scalar magnitude in, say, a one dimensional problem. Okay, but that’s not my gripe. My point is that we say “magnitude of X” where X is a vector quantity. Well, that is, except for velocity. Velocity is the only quantity I can think of for which we have a separate name for the magnitude. The word “speed” is problematic because it can mean either the magnitude of average velocity, which is the magnitude of a vector comparison of displacement and duration, or it can mean a comparison of actual distance traveled to duration. These quantities are not the same thing, and this really confuses students. I think we should eliminate use of the word “speed” to mean “magnitude of velocity” and simply say “magnitude of velocity” as we do with momentum, force, and angular momentum. Then we could use “speed” to mean only a comparison of distance traveled to duration.
The second thing is a notation issue. In introductory physics we almost always work in Cartesian coordinate systems with directions loosely called x, y, and z. We use these labels as subscripts on the unadorned (no arrow) symbol for a vector to indicate that vector’s coordinate components. Well, that is, except for position vectors. We almost always simply use x, y, and z to denote the actual components, While I’ve never had a student speak out about this, it’s not the convention we use with other vector quantities, and it breaks conventions that we attempt to instill later on in the course.
So I guess my bottom line is that I’d like to see us use the same notation and terminology conventions with position and velocity that we use with other vector quantities. It’s a small, dare I say picky, thing, but I think it would help the music flow.