Sunday, November 27, 2005

Deforestation and its discontents

A rather disturbing trend has started to emerge of late. Professors who teach a course repetitively become so proficient in that subject that they believe that text books would just flow out of them. So, they spend a lot of time (putting research on the back-burner) on their masterpiece. After years of toil they come up with a book, and spring it on their unsuspecting students in class.

Now, here comes the sad part. They work their heart out for their book, they spend a lot of midnight oil and portable hard disks on it. They treat their manuscript like their child. And they refer to it extensively in class. As a matter of fact, once they’ve written the book, they just stop preparing for class and just copy what the book contains onto the board. If you challenge them, they are very likely to say, “Don’t talk to me like that! I wrote the book on Mechanics!”

The sad part with professors who write the books is that

  1. Their exams become very predictable. Problems very similar to those on the last few pages of the book have this uncanny tendency of ending up on the exam question paper. This means that the average student (the unromantic meticulous grade-craving low life that we all associate the term student with) follows the path of least effort: works out only the problems behind the textbook.

  1. In my opinion, course work is all about referring the different textbooks and comparing ideas. But when the teacher imposes his (or her) book on the student, the necessity to research just dies.

  1. Often the books would not have been published. Which means, the students become guinea pigs. The professor just says “Refer to Section 12.3”. And the student has to labour through the section (provided as “lecture notes”) in a .pdf format. Needless to say, it’s filled with typos. And when there’s typos in differential equations, confusion furthers its foray into the life of the unfortunate student.

At IIT, I can cite a couple of potentially decent courses ruined by textbooks. We did a course on Measurements. The professor used to parrot his book in class. The book, though a very decent treatise, assumed biblical status for the course. Which meant, of course, that it was the be all and end all of everything the course had to do with. And as a result, the exams became one of those recital sessions that we tend to associate Hollywood with. Self, taking a principled (a fancy word for lazy?) stand secured self’s only non-drawing D in this course.

And then there’s Fluid Mechanics. Back at IIT, the person in charge of the course wrote a book.



At any rate, it had pages and some printed characters, which made sense to some optimists. Needless to say the course was ruined – the book was mediocre, the class was worse. And the professor would keep harping about work he did half a century ago. A pity, for Fluid Mechanics, when taught appropriately is a spiritual experience.

I have taken a few years to recover from the ill-effects of that Fluid Mechanics course. I think I am fine now. The FM course here at A&M is fantastic, though the professor in charge of this course has also written a book, proving beyond reasonable doubt that there are exceptions to every rule.

Why deforestation? I must clarify here. The title has been inspired by one Mr. Kartik Srivatsa, who is currently confusing his clients as a Business Analyst with McKinsey&Co in India. He used to use the term “deforestation” as a euphemism for “publishing”. (He viewed the tendency to publish with cynicsm). Apparently, the paper you publish on comes from some rain forest, which has been deforested.

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