Monday, August 20, 2012

on (math) ed: brief thoughts about writing.

it doesn't seem fair to give alway all five points that the author below, davιd yοungberg, has made about online education .. but here is one of them:
4. Computers can't grade everything. MOOC's are feasible because a program grades all assignments. This works fine for answers that easily translate to machine language, but a machine can't grade an essay or a presentation. Papers are out of the question. But good communication is a valuable skill and one that's difficult to master. Fortunately there is a glut of Ph.D.'s in the liberal arts who can pick up the teaching in this area.
his other four points aren't bad, either, and the viewpoint is .. interesting, in that there is an undercurrent of marketing, of how to distinguish the good from the bad, the stars from the riff-raff.

see reason #2, then #5, and then re-read the first 2-3 sentences of the article.

at any rate, a common complaint about writing and literature .. one i've heard in school, anyway, and espoused for a while .. is the pain of subjectivity.
there is often a consensus as to what constitutes bad writing, given a sample; on the other hand, it is hard to measure the quality of writing. it's not even clear what are the right quantities to measure ..

.. which is exactly the point of the article, i suppose.

it would be interesting if we could really quantify the nature of writing, but only in the sense of academic curiosity. i don't know if i'd be comfortable in a world like that.

speaking as a mathematician, it's easy to dismiss good communication skills. though most of my experience has been positive, i've still run across a lot of badly-written papers and sat through some bad, incomprehensible talks [1].

it's not like we "scientists" [2] really instruct students about good writing style and presentation skills, either; in fact, people often get into this field because they value quantitative principles over writing essays. put that way, i shouldn't be surprised at more bad talks and papers in the future .. \-:

there is also one point of fact that is worth sharing. i've heard some version of this before, but recently it was steνven pressfιeld's post that reminded me of it:
When you understand that nobody wants to read your sh-t, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer, must give him something worthy of his gift to you.

When you, the student writer, understand that nobody wants to read your sh-t, you develop empathy. You acquire that skill which is indispensable to all artists and entrepreneurs: the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your imagined reader/gallery-goer/customer. You learn to ask yourself with every sentence and every phrase: Is this interesting? Is this fun or challenging or inventive?
this notion of advertising or selling seemed entwined with writing, so maybe i judged the other article too harshly.

if anything, this apathy is especially true in mathematics: most mathematicians care only about a small piece of mathematics .. namely, what they do themselves. i'm certainly guilty of this.

take the rιemann hypοthesis, for example: it must be a very hard problem, but i honestly don't care if they solve it or not. knowing whether it were true and for what reason doesn't help me in my everyday life, nor leads me to a better understanding of my preferred topics: analysιs on metrιc spaces and geοmetric measure theοry.

accounting for symmetry, i have this belief that most people don't care about my work. it's a small field and highly technical, but advanced far enough so that it's hard to explain the origins and motivations for some of the standard definitions.

that said, i get a kick even when someone points out a typo or small error in my papers. it means that someone actually read it, or at least part of it!

[1] this is different, of course, from simply not understanding the topic. i can't even name all the things that i don't understand .. but i do demand that the first 10 minutes of a 50 minute talk be accessible, and that the format makes it possible to grasp the basics. as a non-example, a conference from a month or two ago comes to mind.

[2] i don't really consider myself a scientist, by definition. my work is entirely theoretical and you can't run experiments on it, so the scientific method just doesn't apply, at least in the usual sense.

instead, i would call myself a "quantitative philosopher" .. for after all, science used to be called natural philosophy.

1 comment:

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