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Da Weekend, continued

OK, so trains are more comfortable and more environmentally friendly and more scenic and almost as fast and all that... but I didn't come home by train. I was to be in a committee meeting until 4 PM and needed to catch a train at 4:35, so on Saturday morning I asked the hotel clerk for the number of a taxi company. I called to arrange the trip, and was told "I'm sorry, we don't run on weekends." <arlo>Now I had never heard of a taxi company closed on weekends, and with tears in my eyes</arlo> I went back to the hotel clerk to ask for another taxi. I called to arrange the trip, and was told "Hi, you've reached XYZ Taxi. I can't answer the phone right now, but if you leave a message...." So I begged a ride from one of the other people at the committee meeting. On the way to his car, I realized I had left my jacket in the hotel room, but decided to abandon it rather than miss the last train of the day. And in fact I got to the train station at about 4:25. Nobody else was in the waiting room, which seemed odd... until the ticket agent explained that the 4:25 train doesn't run on Saturdays, and I had a reservation on the 4:25 train on Sunday. I would have shown them my ticket, but (a) it wouldn't have made the train come any sooner, and (b) my ticket was in my jacket, still in the hotel room, twenty minutes' drive away. So I walked about eight blocks to the bus station, through the sort of neighborhood that bus and train stations are usually in, and lucked into a bus to NYC only 45 minutes later. It wasn't as comfortable, and I got home at 1 AM rather than midnight as planned, and I still don't have my jacket, nor a refund on the unused train ticket, but I'm home.

My talk was scheduled for 8:30 Saturday morning. I had given much the same talk at a previous conference, also at 8:30 AM, to an audience of three... so I wasn't holding out much hope for this talk. But we had 15-20 people in the audience, which I won't complain about. My co-presenter and I hadn't found time to really discuss what we were saying until we got to the conference on Friday and started trying to merge her PowerPoint slides with mine in some kind of coherent way. By Friday night I had 98 slides for a 75-minute talk, a recipe for disaster. I talked through it in my hotel room in 73:51, but assumed that things would take longer in performance. Saturday morning co-presenter suggested I do most of the talking and she would pipe up from time to time with added comments, which sounded OK to me. Except that in practice, all of her added comments were things that would have showed up two slides later anyway, and she went on longer than I would have, and she persuaded me against my better judgment to work through a cool example, and... we got to about slide 70 by the end of the 75 minutes. I fast-forwarded to the final, "For More Information" slide, thanked the audience for listening, and got out. But from comments after the talk, I think people got the essential ideas, and some are interested in learning more.

One of the keynote talks was by a Famous Academic who's been teaching computer science since I was born. The first statement on his first slide said "If you're passionate about what you teach, it doesn't matter how you teach it; the students will get it." To which my immediate reaction was "And if you show enough resolve and confidence in invading Iraq, it doesn't matter how you carry out the invasion or the occupation; the result will be a stable, US-friendly democracy. And when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true." Now, I'll grant that a passionate teacher is more interesting than an uninterested one, and passion is infectious... but I will not grant that it's a sufficient condition for effective learning. I have to believe that in the real world, there are better and worse ways to explain the same subject.

Although I heard a talk a few years ago by a guy from the government agency in charge of research on education. He mentioned something called the What Works Clearinghouse, a collection of educational practices and interventions that have been proven (with statistical significance) to make a difference in learning, and he added "it's a very small database." Apparently in educational research there are so many uncontrollable random variables floating around that it's almost impossible to show (with statistical significance) that anything -- passion, textbook, order of topics, classroom management, homework, teacher expertise, etc. -- reliably makes a difference. Which makes one wonder why we bother putting students through schools of education, why we bother writing new textbooks, why we bother rating professors, ....

Anyway, I got home at 1 AM on Sunday, <arlo>went to bed and didn't get up 'til the same morning</arlo>. shalmestere and I had some chocolate-chip pancakes, went to the Cloisters and saw Ben Bagby's Beowulf performance (for about the sixth time). He had some kind of respiratory infection, so he cut things short, stopping at Grendel's death after "only" 85 minutes of gripping solo performance in Old English, from memory, accompanying himself on a Sutton Hoo lyre. (hlinspjalda will point out some shaky historical grounds of the reconstruction, both of the lyre and of Bagby's performance practice, but it's an incredible show anyway.)


That "if you're passionate" manifesto reminds me of the quote attributed to Einstein, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." To which my response is a ringing "Yes, BUT." Necessary but not sufficient.

My brother the physicist tells me that there's a subculture of people without knowledge of physics who continually submit papers to journals & conferences, full of bright ideas and exciting theories, but inconveniently not grounded in an actual knowledge of the subject. Presumably thinking that they're the next Einstein.

If you ain't got the knowledge, how much good will the imagination do you? If you ain't got the content (or the ability to articulate it), how much good will your passion do your students?

spot the loony

Yes, we have the same thing in math: every month or so my department gets a letter from somebody who's discovered "astonishing new results" in mathematics, or has "found the flaw" in such-and-such famous theorem, but who's been unable to publish because the "old boys' club" looks down on anybody who doesn't have a Ph.D. Invariably they've either said in a long, convoluted way something that would have been obvious if it were said in a shorter, simpler way, or they've made basic student errors. We keep the letters around in a "Freak File".

Travel Travail

I would have shown them my ticket, but (a) it wouldn't have made the train come any sooner, and (b) my ticket was in my jacket, still in the hotel room, twenty minutes' drive away.

Ouch. Amtrak is not cheap. Nor is a suit jacket 8/

Re: Travel Travail

Actually, it's a canvas warm-weather coat (bought on sale, at that), so it isn't as grievous a loss as a suit jacket would be--and the hotel is mailing it back to him, in any case. Maybe then we can see whether Amtrak will refund the ticket :-)