Back in LA, and down at the USC campus. Good to be back! Click below for larger view.

campus overhead from google maps Well, it is the first day of the new academic year’s teaching cycle. I’m here in my office at 7:30am (the power of jet-lag) and somehow have to switch my mind back firmly onto teaching and other matters. It’s always tough to do this, since there are always lots of intensely interesting research issues that continue on my mind from the Summer, and I know that some of those will gradually begin to fade (if I am not careful) as my other duties take up so much of my day to day. My first class (part one of the upper level electromagnetism course) is at 10:00am, and I want to plan out the structure for the whole semester, and write a syllabus to hand out and discuss. As well as the first lecture, of course. I’ve not taught this part of the cycle before, and so I’ll have to be writing new lecture notes.

I want to try some new things this year. In particular, I’ve become increasingly concerned that students are not practicing basic mathematical techniques on their own as much as they used to, and this is affecting their ability to do everything efficiently (or at all), from solving homeworks over the course of the week to performing well in classroom exams. I think this is at least in part to there being less and less time in the timetable set aside for this sort of practice, and once it becomes optional, it does not get done. So since I cannot convince my colleagues overnight to re-introduce official guided working sessions on the timetable for this sort of thing (I wish I could – it might not even be possible the way schedules are so packed these days), my plan is to have some time set aside in my classes for what I’m calling “classroom worksheets”, where we’ll do that sort of thing together in lieu of a lecture1. It ought to be useful not just for electromagnetism, but for every other physics class they’ll do. We shall see how it works. It will take time and planning (and willingness to participate on the part of the students to get the most out of it).

usc campus

I’d hoped to get the longer, twice a week (Tue+Thur) class schedule for this semester to try out this new worksheet regime, but instead I got the shorter (50 min), three times a week (Mon+Wed+Fri) instead, which is far from ideal (hard to work through a narrative arc of problems in 50 minutes). That’s life, I suppose – the calendar would not allow this to work across the class scheduling for the department.

usc campusAlso a drag (Even if I was not doing the class worksheets) is three short lectures a week rather than two nice long ones. You can tell the story so much better in the latter format, in my opinion. Of course, another drawback of MWF is that I have three days a week devoted to teaching, which fragments things more with regards immersion into research. Well, rather than whining about my lot I’ll just have to re-organize my routine to work around this, so as to get regular quality research time each week. I’ve done it before, so I can do it again2.

The switching continues…on other non-research matters, I’ve already agreed (in my insanity) to chair a university-wide committee on certain matters to do with undergraduate teaching…. and this is in my newly declared (as of end of last year) regime of saying “no” to more such requests. Not a good start, but this one did seem really interesting and of value. Going to have to be tougher with the next such request, but I’m such a softie.

[Update:] Had the first class. They seem like a good bunch. I think we’re going to have a lot of fun this semester.



  1. I’ve been sneaking these sorts of worksheets into my classes (graduate and undergraduate) for a few years now. This will be the first class where I schedule them ahead of time and properly build them into the syllabus rather than bring them up mid-course as a sort of emergency measure! The idea is that we have a class where I shut up (mostly) and the students get out pen and paper and work on a series of take-you-by-the-hand questions. Every now and again we stop and discuss what’s going on, trade ideas, tips, and so forth. And it’s graded, since they’ll hand it all in at the end of the class. [return]
  2. This also makes it really hard to accept invitations to go off to do things off campus during the semester. Giving research seminars, serving on useful national or international committees, etc. I’m determined to not stop doing those however, as long as the invitations keep coming (and they do). The classes being in the morning is good, since that will allow me to do the occasional mad dash to the airport for at least some medium-distance travel. I think I also can schedule some longer-range journeys around midterms and the midterm post-mortems that I’ve put into the calendar. My hope is I can twist the arm of my TA (assuming I get a good one) to take the reigns in those cases. Shhh! Don’t tell anyone! [return]


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7 Responses to Switching

  1. Chris Tunnell says:

    I understand the desire to have Tuesday/Thursday classes in order to free up one’s schedule, but it’s harder to learn that way. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that an hour and a half is a long time to follow a continuous story. One runs into the same problems that I find at big physics meetings, which is it’s hard to focus on each and every talk, and once you get lost you have to wait for the next talk to “recalibrate”.

    I have always enjoyed having more time in between lectures because it reduces the damage of getting lost (not the type of lost a single question can answer).

    Summary: Tuesday/Thursday lectures sound better for the professor, but not the student.

  2. Clifford says:



    I’ve had other students disagree on this point. i think it depends upon whether it is a long solid class for two hours or whether it is broken up in some way. I think the longer session allows one to run a more interactive class, which ultimately can be more useful. Too much interaction in a 50 minute class leaves one with not much time for introducing material, and so a lot of lecturers can be tempted to end up sprinting too much (and I’ve done it too).

    It’s a delicate balance… It’s good to hear other opinions, so thanks.


  3. Chris Tunnell says:

    Well, if you teach more interactively, then I can see why it would be useful. I think I’m more talking about the case where it’s a painful monotonous lecture and the one thrill of it is that an hour is less than an hour and a half. Though I do thing in hyper-interactive classes where the students are willing to put in a lot of work, the extra class a week allows for the instructor to correct the students three times a week when they get stuck instead of two.

    I can see where you’re coming from though. I guess it’s just a style and preference thing, but personally I find that there is an exponential increase in the amount of effort that’s required to keep my attention for long periods of time (I do fresh-air breaks while working).

  4. Clifford says:

    Usually I give a five minute break to allow everyone to walk around a bit although sometimes I do forget and probably have at times run a not so good 1 hour and 50 minutes…. but at other times I think it has worked very well. It is also an issue of who the lecturer is, and what the material is…. In a more advanced class, trying to show some topics or a development of a proof or argument in depth can suffer from not having enough time to smell the roses all in deep inhale, as opposed to little shallow sniffs three times a week….


  5. Chris Tunnell says:

    So the solution? 5 times a week 🙂

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