astra_nomer: (SCIENCE)
[personal profile] astra_nomer
In teaching this graduate class, I'm beginning to become aware of all the skills I picked up in graduate school that weren't just material taught in class. For instance, I've been assigning one computationally oriented problem per problem set. But then I realized that they couldn't figure out how to interpolate between two points, something I see as being so basic and second nature I don't even think about it any more. This has caused some grumbling among students, particularly the ones who don't understand why I'd be trying to get them to learn computational skills and not just focusing on the subject material.

So I've come to the conclusion that I'm training them to shave yaks.

If you don't know the yak-shaving analogy, it goes something like this for astronomer.
You've taken some photometric data at a telescope on some object (star, galaxy, planet, quasar, etc.). You look in the literature, and you see that similar observations have been made on that same object over time, and you get the idea that maybe the source has been varying over time. But the observations have been done at different telescopes, and not all of them have used the same photometric filters you have. But if you know the passbands, you can calibrate the photometry to a standard set of filters. Except for this one set of observations, so you look up their reference for their filters and the transmission functions are indeed published -- tattooed on the side of yak. So there you are shaving a yak so that somewhere down the line you can do real science.

These first year students? They wouldn't be able to get to the first step in this process. It's a matter both of unfamiliarity with the subject matter, but also being unfamiliar with the whole problem-solving process that will get them to an answer. So while I might complain about spending my time yak-shaving, that's only because I already know how to find, herd, and wrangle the yaks already.

Date: 2012-02-23 09:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

This reminds me of the related lesson I learned from grad school, which also has nothing to do with science. I learned that if the first 40 things you try don't work, you get to try the 41st thing! Basically, the value of persistence, which sounds related to yak shaving. The number of steps between me and my incremental progress is sometimes ludicrous.

At first I tended to give up after step 5 since it seemed impossible that it could really be this ludicrous, but now I know it is not.

Date: 2012-02-23 09:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
So... is teaching yak shaving skills a good thing or a bad thing? I can't tell what you think from the comment.

I mean, on the one hand, your students apparently need to learn the first step (I guess about photometric data of stars?) so teaching them how to figure out how to shave a yak to get transmission functions isn't interesting or of high priority, and you can just hand them the transmission functions to begin with... but on the other hand, they will need to learn how to shave yaks eventually, so why not start now?

Date: 2012-02-23 10:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
It just puts all the yak shaving I've done in perspective, is all.

It's really weird changing my perspective from that of a minion to that of the overseer, I have to say.

Date: 2012-02-25 06:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Next step "crawl worms and I might give you your transmission functions... if I am sufficiently amused. CRAWL!"

Date: 2012-02-23 10:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I do not think I learned anything from my grad student classes, it was all during the actual doing of research. So probably that means that none of my assignments delved into yak shaving or acquiring tools.

Of course, I did have undergrad classes that would often not provide values of key constants or other data needed to do problem sets. So maybe I was already used to the idea that one might need to look stuff up outside of the class text book or class notes in order to do the assignments.


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