Proper publication or a basic blog?

As we end the Grad5104 course I’ve been thinking about the usefulness of this blog. In general, I like the blog, but so far the only people reading it are those that are reading it for class and some spambots. There has been a lot of discussion about using social media to spread knowledge and break down the barriers between higher ed and the general public. The idea is good, but the execution is easier said than done.

I can blog all I want about higher ed, or even my research and expertise, but that doesn’t make it useful or impactful to anyone. To my knowledge, there aren’t any easy (and free) methods to promote yourself and to gather a broader audience. At best I expect this blog to be seen by a few more students at Virginia Tech. I can put it on my business cards and have recruiters look at it, but again, that doesn’t spread a message to the general public.

So while the blogging idea is great it feels like it could easily be a waste of time. I can spend a half hour a day writing a blog post, or I could spend that time working up data for my research. That would get published and people could actually learn from and cite it. It’s not as accessible to the public, but at least it gets seen by someone. Journals have the “machinery” to distribute their materials and to attract attention. Blogs are a lot more limited, especially since they tend to be just one person who can’t afford nearly as much advertising and such. Open access is a fair compromise I suppose, but even then the general public is likely to see a journal article as far less readable than a blog post. Does that matter if they’d never see the blog post?

Furthermore, the article protects my research interests a lot more than a blog post does. I can’t really put individual blog posts on a CV, but a proper publication looks great! As someone who wants to make education accessible, the blog feels better to me, but I can’t continue science if I can’t get a job, or if I get kicked out of my lab for distributing data that isn’t published in a journal yet.

I hope I can continue to find things to blog about, but the truth is I’ll always feel a little guilty that I could be doing something more “useful” with my time. Even if I make the argument that it’s stress-reducing, a hike or a drink with friends would take the same amount of time and be far more stress-reducing.

Building the confidence to learn

Throughout my time in academia, I have met many friends that believe they “just can’t understand [insert subject here].”  They then have tremendous difficulty learning physical chemistry, calculus, thermodynamics, active/passive tense or whatever subject they claim to be unable to learn. This seems to build a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies. I’ve observed these friends zoning out during class, and being unable to describe even the simplest ideas in class. Then one day they actually pay attention in class and feel enlightened…before they zone out in the next class.

From my experience, these people spend so much time assuming they can’t learn certain subjects that they don’t really even try. They’ll attempt to muddle through assignments by guess and check type methods instead of reading up on Wikipedia or something to get a decent understanding of the problem at hand. They then chalk up bad grades to bad teachers or that darned inability to learn the subject. They spend hours trying to “guess” or search for correct answers instead of thinking and learning.

I’ve witnessed one person break this cycle, and break it multiple times because the subjects became relevant to their work. They were forced to learn the topic and as soon as they started to pay attention, most things made sense. Why did they struggle so much before? This friend realized it was because they often don’t take the time to really learn certain things, or that in classes they have zoned out because of boring powerpoint slides, etc.

What I’m trying to get at in a longwinded way is that when people actively try to learn things they do much better. People end up shortchanging themselves because they have the wrong mindset. I think part of higher education should be to build these people up in such a way that they chose to learn when they are struggling, rather than wallow in self-pity. This might be obtainable by making content more accessible, or more engaging. Maybe having smaller classes or connecting everything to relevant topics would help. I would just like to see more people trying harder rather than giving up when they see difficulties.

Do you have any ideas on how to get people to try harder? Or maybe try smarter?

Have you ever talked yourself out of doing well? Have you ever altered your mindset to improve your own learning?

Universities and Civic Duty

The other day I saw a post on the good old Facebook:

My first thought was: “That would be great, more people need to vote.” I liked the post and moved on with my day.

However, I started to think about it more. Universities rely largely on our political systems for financial support, as well as a delivery system for the knowledge learned in the ivory tower. Politics control what knowledge is used, and what information is ignored.  As a result, I think it is important that universities have some part in the political process.

As institutions of education, Universities should teach about all aspects of life. Many high schoolers and complain about “when are we ever going to use this stuff?!” Our voting system is a perfect chance to teach something that every single (US) student should know. To add to that, our voting system is just confusing enough that people do need to be taught. By making students register, they take away a barrier to learning and identify any registration issues before they become important.

Future of the University: Global Communication

What should change in higher education? A lot, but I’ll focus on communication for now. I think all parts of the educational system, universities as well as primary schools, need to emphasize communication between all groups of people. This is how we build stronger communities, how we disseminate knowledge, and how we grow as the global society that we are. Communication can prevent wars, and enable fantastical discoveries, but I don’t think we have nearly enough emphasis on this skill.

The global perspectives program here is an example of universities trying to enhance communication, but I don’t believe it is enough. There are too many types of communication to be encompassed by such a small program. We need to enhance communication between cultures as well as cohorts. Engineers and historians need to communicate just as much as Americans need to communicate with Germans. Freshman in high school should talk to seniors in undergrad as well as 5th year Ph.D. students and Deans.

We need journalists to communicate effectively with scientists and vice versa. We need historians to speak to teachers.
We need businessmen to talk to students.
We need mechanical engineers to understand chemists.

This communication is how we build better ideas, better consumer products, and ultimately a better world. It’s how people find their passions and their creativity. It’s how people learn about the world around them.

HOWEVER, I don’t think this kind of communication is currently supported by most universities. Engineers have a tendency to believe their work is harder and therefore better than say an English or a business major. Physicists and Mathematicians have even been known to argue superiority over other science disciplines as witnessed by Randall Munroe in XKCD:

This type of superiority complex makes it difficult to have an intelligent and reasonable conversation, as one side inherently ignores half the conversation because it is “beneath them”. This kind of thinking needs to be squashed as much as any other kind of bigotry because it doesn’t help anyone.  I think universities still emphasize superiority instead of trying to bring everyone up to the highest level of intelligence.

Universities need to find a way to facilitate more communication between students of every age, ethnicity, and discipline. Have a program to send grad students to high schools. If volunteering doesn’t work, make it a class assignment to explain a course learning objective to a middle school class or something. Have coffee budget for grad students and undergrads to sit down and talk shop. These events appear every now and then for individual departments or clubs, but university wide emphasis on this type of communication is a must.