Graduate student/faculty relations

Sharleen talks about how evil junior faculty can be in their approach with grad students:

(…) in academia, (…), there are limited options, and a poor grad student may have to work with the asshole who has naive, unethical, or objectionable approaches to working with grad students. Now, we could simply say, the ones who survive are the ones who deserve to get jobs/get the PhD. We could point out that the market is much tougher. But if we respond this way, we’re not critiquing the culture of academia (a culture which, if I may point out, is largely responsible for the other problems that we all bitch about); we’re justifying it.

I’m unsure why she points at junior faculty as the source of the problem. She’s probably got some personal experience going.

However, I agree with her criticism of the tough love approach to supervising graduate students. I don’t think it can be justified from a pedagogical point of view, it is not justified from a management point of view, and so, indeed, it might be some kind of power trip.

On the other hand, I disagree with her implication that there are no choices. In most cases, the graduate student can go with another supervisor. It might costly, but it is almost always an option. Or else, you can simply go out there and find a job and be happy.

Repeat after me: the world is big and there are almost always options. Unless you are a slave stranded somewhere, you can almost certainly find another job, another graduate program, another project… it might be costly, it might imply extra work, but it is most often possible.

The reason why these professors are getting away with treating graduate students badly is that graduate students allow it. If they chose not to go with this “evil” supervisor, there wouldn’t be any problems any more.

That’s how the real world works. Evil employers will have trouble finding good employees. The good employees will leave for a better employer. That’s the market at work.

The day when the employees stop leaving, because they are scared or tired, the market stops working and the trouble starts.

Generally speaking, academia doesn’t have so much a culture problem as it has a market problem: too many potential candidates for some positions leading to a general degradation of the working conditions for everyone involved.

The art of supervising students

I had an off-line discussion with a collaborator about student supervision and how frustrating it can be. As a professor, you have, from time to time, to supervise students. It could be a graduate student you are supervising as part of their studies, it could be an undergraduate project, it could an assistant you’ve hired.

You know you have a bad student if the student

  • cannot keep track of tasks assigned to him and be responsible for such tasks;
  • lies to you about what has been done and what hasn’t been done;
  • repeatedly ignores some of your phone calls or emails.

In my experience, a bad student is a drain on your resources and a professor simply has to drop such a student as soon as possible. Even if you have funding or need of a student, you are better off with no student than a bad student.

So, what about my title? The art of supervising students?

My experience has been that there is no need to be tough or strict with the students. There is nothing magical you can do: forcefully organizing many meetings with the student often won’t help. If you have a bad student (see above), cut your losses as early as possible. Otherwise, trust the student.

Here are a few rules based on my experience:

  • Be clear about the tasks you expect the student to perform and the time it should take.
  • Be available to the student in a personalized way: some students benefit from frequent meetings, others do not.
  • Get to know and leverage the student strengths and know his weaknesses: you are better off doing some of the tasks yourself.
  • Trust the student: most students have tremendous potential and will deliver greatness given a chance.

e-Learning or else…

Important post today by Yuhong, on her experience with e-Learning. She recalls a few facts:

  • a decent videoconference setup for a classroom is less than $5000;
  • MIT is setting itself up to become the major competitor in the future education market through e-Learning: webLab and open sourceware;
  • we know of some tremendously succesful endeavours like MusicGrid lead by Martin Brooks.

I think that Yuhong misses the most important example of all: the U.K. Open University. An entire university based on e-Learning and distance education, and yet, it is one of the best schools in U.K.

I think Downes once wrote that while physical classrooms won’t go away, they will increasingly become a lifestyle choice. In the near future, when my son will attend college (if he does so), he will find a very different landscape. There will much high quality learning opportunities outside classrooms, to the extend that he may avoid entirely classrooms and actually get an even better education. On the other hand, the remaining classrooms will be high-tech classrooms with remote instructors, remote laboratories and so on.

You don’t believe me? About a quarter of current students [in U.K.] are now doing all or part of their courses online.

How to Misuse SQL’s FROM Clause

I stumbled on an interesting SQL article on the Misuse of the FROM Clause. The author argues that FROM clauses should refer to only two types of tables:

  • those from which you want values returned
  • those allowing to join two or more tables in the above category

In other words, if your select is on tables A and B, then you can select from tables A and B, and any table that can be joined with A and B, but no others.

The argument he offers is based on performance concerns. It does seem to me that any query not fulfilling this requirement would have to be relatively complex.

If we taught you to memorize, we failed you

Tall, Dark, and Mysterious wrote about this student she has in her class who is actually a fairly typical student:

“I memorized how to do the problem you did in class, but then on the test you put a DIFFERENT problem, and you never showed us how to do THAT one, and it’s not fair! My method of doing math by memorizing formulas and then blindly applying them to problems that are identical to the ones I’ve seen has gotten me A’s until now, so what gives?”

Repeat after me: memorization is not learning. Learning has to be a higher level task.

More on the CS enrollment drop

I’ve written on this blog about the recent drop in enrollment for Computer Science degrees in North America: I gave an estimate of a drop by 25%. Looks like it is worse:

The number of new undergraduate majors in U.S. computer science programs has fallen 28 percent since 2000, reports the Computing Research Association, a group of more than 200 North American computer science, computer engineering and related academic departments.

The explanation would be that students do not want a Dilbertesque life:

One reason, say those in the field, is that technology jobs appear less lucrative than they did during the dot-com boom. Then, students thought a computer science degree would lead to riches and a quick retirement. Many took on the major.

Another reason might be that Business Schools are now competing with Computer Science departments for students:

Colleges have also begun to integrate computer instruction into other majors such as e-commerce programs in business schools. A computer science degree, therefore, can be unnecessary.

Don’t memorize, change your neural pathways!

Some days ago, I stated on this blog that I had a Ph.D. in mathematics (true fact) and that I didn’t know my own phone number nor did I know multiplication tables (also true). My wife knows it is true. She still claim she has superior brain power because not only does she know our phone number, but she even knows our postal code, and she knows many other things. There is not question that my wife is one of the smartest lady in Montreal. Hey! There is a reason why I fell in love with her!

Still, I claim not to be a brain-damaged moron despite these apparent short-comings. You see, I do not memorize on purpose because I think that my time is better used by solving problems and learning new tricks.

From Downes’, I got the following bit of wisdom telling I’m not alone in thinking that memorizing facts is not key to learning…

My own research – reserach that can be extended through the many resources on this site – has already convinced me that neural structures are, as they say, plastic. For me what this means is that learning based on the fostering of habits is more important than learning based on transmission of facts, that, indeed, the facts aren’t that important at all, not nearly as important modelling effective practice, paying attention to environment, immersive, experiential based education.

So, please, do me a favor: if you teach, do not ask your students to memorize. Ask them to change their neural pathways, their thinking patterns… let their PDAs and the Web be a fact storage unit, don’t waste their brains.

Update: A colleague who has a training in history and who holds a Ph.D. says he could never remember dates, and only memorized one: December 25th 800. So, I can say that I’m not alone to think that memorization is only a minor part of learning.

Don’t Be Afraid to Drop the SOAP

Through Downes’, I found another article speaking up against SOAP: Don’t Be Afraid to Drop the SOAP. Here’s a few things it holds against SOAP, all of which are things I can testify to:

  • SOAP is difficult to debug. The SOAP message format is verbose even by XML standards, and decoding it by hand is a great way to waste an afternoon. As a result, development took almost twice as long as anticipated.
  • The fact that all requests happened live over the network further hampered debugging. Unless the user was careful to log debugging output to a file it was difficult to determine what went wrong.
  • SOAP doesn’t handle large amounts of data well. This became immediately apparent as we tried to load a large data import in a single request. Since SOAP requires the entire request to travel in one XML document, SOAP implementations usually load the entire request into memory. This required us to split large jobs into multiple requests, reducing performance and making it impossible to run a complete import inside a transaction.
  • Network problems affected operations that needed to access multiple machines, such as the program responsible for moving templates and elements. Requests would frequently timeout in the middle, sometimes leaving the target system in an inconsistent state.

SOAP leads to strongly coupled, poorly scalable, and bandwidth hungry solutions?

Here’s some comments by Joe Walnes on his experience with SOAP. The scary thing is that he comes to exactly the same conclusions as I did on my own… Any SOAP supporter out there wants to answer these:

On the last system I worked on, we were struggling with SOAP and switched to a simpler REST approach. It had a number of benefits.

Firstly, it simplified things greatly. With REST there was no need for complicated SOAP libraries on either the client or server, just use a plain HTTP call. This reduced coupling and brittleness. We had previously lost hours (possibly days) tracing problems through libraries that were outside of our control.

Secondly, it improved scalability. Though this was not the reason we moved, it was a nice side-effect. The web-server, client HTTP library and any HTTP proxy in-between understood things like the difference between GET and POST and when a resource has not been modified so they can offer effective caching – greatly reducing the amount of traffic. This is why REST is a more scalable solution than XML-RPC or SOAP over HTTP.

Thirdly, it reduced the payload over the wire. No need for SOAP envelope wrappers and it gave us the flexibility to use formats other than XML for the actual resource data. For instance a resource containing the body of an unformatted news headline is simpler to express as plain text and a table of numbers is more concise (and readable) as CSV.

Victor Shoup’s A Computational Introduction to Number Theory and Algebra

Through Didier, I got to Victor Shoup’s Home Page. He has an on-line textbook called A Computational Introduction to Number Theory and Algebra. It is unclear whether he intends the textbook to remain free, but it is pretty cool to post the book on his home page. Shoup’s is an expert in cryptography.