Ethics Dunce: Columbia University

A Columbia professor charged with teaching his students the bewildering topic of quantum physics chose to employ performance art to send the message that conventional assumptions would be an impediment to their learning. Using projections, music, and himself as a performer (he stripped to his boxers and ate a banana before curling into a fetal position), Professor Emlyn Hughes got his students’ attention and tried an innovative approach to teaching. Now the university says it is “reviewing” his methods, with a spokesman saying that “Universities should have a climate of academic freedom though classes should stick to the subject matter.”

Translation: “Columbia gives lip service to ‘academic freedom,’ but it is perfectly happy to do what it can to discourage creative and controversial teaching experiments by publicly announcing an investigation whenever that likes of Gawker starts making fun of us, and the university certainly is hyper-sensitive to breaches of political correctness, since Professor Hughes employed gratuitous violence in his performance by having Ninjas impale stuffed animals.”

You see, a few students said they were offended by images of 9/11 and Hitler in the visual presentation, and Gawker concluded its account of Hughes’s art by noting, “Tuition at Columbia is $22,000 a semester.”

Columbia would earn that princely sum more convincingly if it would decline invitations to undermine its own professors.  Thanks to the university announcing its investigation, CNN has been flogging this story every half-hour (I’m in an Atlanta hotel) with giggling news readers rolling their eyes as if any one of them could explain quantum physics if her life depended on it. Meanwhile, another CNN genius just said, and I quote, that the government has “solved the fiscal crisis.” Whew! THAT’s a relief!

Explaining his startling introduction, Prof. Hughes told his students that “In order to learn quantum mechanics you have to strip to your raw, erase the entire garbage in your brain and start over again. Nothing you’ve learned in your life up til now is in any way going to help prepare you for this. . . . I’ve been tasked with the impossible challenge of teaching you quantum mechanics in one hour.”

That was justification enough; now what matters is how well they learn the material.  A professional, responsible university that really honored academic freedom would end its investigation there.


Pointer: CNN, HLN

Facts: Daily News1

Source: Fox, Gawker, Daily News2

18 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Columbia University

  1. One of the comments from the giggling girl students (mostly justifiable since they were a little unnerved), was “how does this relate to anything”? This was during the backdrop of Hitler’s atrocities, and therein lies the Professor’s genius. How seemingly nothing can blow up into one of the nation’s biggest atrocities in history. Columbia should give him a raise for being innovative and daring and capturing the kids attention from the get-go instead of the usual lecture in a dialect so obtuse that the kids come away bleary-eyed. This from my college kid who just woke up in his junior year after a long sleep in the first two years. His fault, yeah, but if the teaching methods were just a little more daring, perhaps, he would have awakened sooner. Some professors by the way barely can speak the English language and I haven’t heard this on the news.

  2. Look, I’m all about finding interesting ways to engage a student, but there are LIMITS.

    Being a bit older than most students, I tend to have a lower level of tolerance for, frankly, bullshit. If nothing else, I would have been pissed off that an entire class period got wasted by this crap – Had I paid money for that class, I likely would have gotten up and walked out, and either switched to another section, or dropped it and made a note of the name of the instructor so as to avoid him in the future.

    I get that in the field of quantum physics, “anything is possible”, but it isn’t anything goes when it comes to proving what you suspect or have observed – there are rules to the game, damnit.

    I don’t get how this guy’s idiocy is being praised here; have someone read the description to you out loud – it sounds like a bad acid trip.

    The teacher might have hoped to “awaken” his students, but I would wager that all he’s done is managed to look like a moron and lose their respect.

    I don’t care if he’s got a Nobel Prize (he doesn’t), if he thought this was a good idea, he shouldn’t be teaching.

    • Lets not forget, the guy has gotten tens of thousands of people to hear his opening line; and probably at least some of the students are therefore reading dialogues like this one, which can only be good. That wouldn’t be happening with a more conventional approach

      • Okay, but do any of the people who’ve heard that line now know anything about quantum mechanics? Their introduction to dialogues like this one might be good, but is it relevant to Hughes’ role as a teacher?

        • An experiment for you.

          Try finding any Quantum Physicist who would say that this method of teaching the subject is inappropriate.

          I’ll wait..

          Meanwhile, there’s a shipload of psychology behind the scenes here. Some students are more visually oriented, others verbally, others learn by reading. In order to provide value-for-money, you have to cater for all – that’s why there are still lectures rather than merely required readings. It’s been found empirically to be the most effective way we have of teaching, given financial and other resource constraints. It’s not just “tradition”.

          There is method to this madness.

          The course I’ll be giving a lecture on in about 3 hours is radically different in nature. It’s one where if my students screw up in their careers, people will die, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people. So I take teaching it rather seriously, and try to get them to take it rather seriously too. I use rather less unconventional methods, but that’s only because the subject matter requires a fairly conventional treatment. Though I do have videos of Bad Stuff(tm) happening to get the message across that PEOPLE’S LIVES DEPEND ON THIS!!!

          The technical stuff is all in the textbook anyway There’s no value-add just parroting it. They can read, annotate etc. outside class. In lectures, I try to add what can’t be gleaned from the text. To add context, emphasise what’s important, based on my experience – 25 years in the real world of industry, and 5 years in the sheltered workshop and ivory towers of academe. What has been empirically shown to work.

    • I’m not entirely sure that I’d go so far as to say that he shouldn’t be teaching, but generally I’m in agreement.

      My first response to this story was was say, “Gee, that sounds like a really stupid way to conduct a lesson, but still, nobody should have his job placed in peril simply because he tried to think outside of the box in terms of teaching methods.” Then I realized that that’s not what’s happening, and on second glance I’d say that Jack’s “translation” of the Columbia statement is completely unfair. If they really are investigating the instructor simply because his methods are weird that would be wrong, but if what they said is honest – that they encourage academic freedom but just think class content should, you know, be somehow related to the course material – then their response is 100% appropriate.

      I’m like you, Ablativ; I’m easily annoyed by bullshit that gets in the way of actual learning, and always have been. Even back in high school, I was severely frustrated with my advanced placement biology teacher when she made the class draw comic books to illustrate a biological process or principle. If I’d wanted to spend time drawing, I would have taken a goddamn art class. Being as it was a biology class, I wanted to spend the time learning biology. It would have been the same if I’d been in this course on quantum mechanics. I might not have immediately dropped, but I probably would have loudly announced that I was leaving the room and asked the professor to let me know when it was time to learn some physics.

      I’m glad you’re all about finding interesting ways to get students engaged, because I’m not. Not in college. As far as I’m concerned, this malarky is the consequence of a culture in which we pressure skeins of students to enter higher education regardless of whether they’re actually interested in learning. If I enrolled in a quantum physics course, it would be because I was already interested in learning the material. “Strip your mind bare” is a potential useful introductory remark, but the actual words convey that idea in a lot less time. As it is, I’m disappointed that after saying “I’ve been tasked with the impossible challenge of teaching quantum mechanics in one hour,” Hughes didn’t add, “and I just wasted fully ten percent of that time deluging you with the preceding avant garde nightmare.”

      What’s troubling to me is not that Columbia is reviewing the teacher’s methods because of this, nor even that the teacher thought it was a good idea, but the fact that there’s good reason to perceive this kind of absurdity as being necessary at an esteemed university like Columbia. In the article that Jack linked to, one of the students was quoted as saying “I was definitely paying a lot more attention than I usually do.” That is a freaking tragedy.

      I want to teach a college class and start the first lecture by jingling a set of keys and cooing at my audience. Then I’d tell anybody whose attention was effectively captured by my antics to get the hell out of my classroom and not come back until they’ve developed the mentality of at least an eight year-old.

      • “I was definitely paying a lot more attention than I usually do.” That is a freaking tragedy.

        I would have started playing computer games or faffing around on Twitter, anything but paying attention. “Clearly,” I would have thought “I have wasted my time and money coming here today. This teacher is either incompetent and requires attention-grabbing stunts like I have come to expect from the fringe far-left, or he hates the subject and wishes he had gone into acting. Either way, I will gain nothing from this.”

  3. I appreciate the argument because I was fully agreeing with Mr. Marshall’s post that it was ridiculous to harness all this incredulous energy on one teacher’s “brainstorm”. And I did watch the video – but seriously, it makes me quite angered that there are so many more aggravating things that the press can focus on rather than crucify a zany professor and after all, this was the introduction to the course. Now if he keeps stripping and spearing stuffed animals, then you might have a problem to consider. One class, a waste of money? I doubt the kids really minded. Sounds like they had a funny different experience – and if one does not appreciate that, c’est la vie!

  4. Why has education become gimmicky? Why can’t these professors just teach the material? Why does everything have to be schtick. Does this have to do with students today who have to be entertained? Or the professor can’t teach his material without resorting to nonsense.

    • I thought the teaching method was imaginative, and entirely appropriate for the course material.

      Any subject other than quantum physics, no. Inappropriate, counter-productive, worse than nothing.

      But in order to understand the material, yes, you’re going to have to completely abandon common sense (in this narrow context). It doesn’t apply.

      FWIW I too am an adjunct professor, and doing my PhD in meta-genetic algorithms applied to certain knotty problems in Quantum Physics, You have to believe the Math – it accurately describes observed reality. It’s also bizarre, surreal, when you try to interpret what’s happening in terms of everyday experience. Far more so than ninjas attacking plush toys in a classroom.

      • That isn’t true. I have taken a few graduate courses in quantum mechanics and I teach parts of it to both science and nonscience majors. I didn’t see anything in there that will help them understand quantum mechanics. In fact, I am pretty sure they weren’t in any frame of mind to learn ANYTHING after that. If you start with big, nonsensical, sensational, showboating garbage, the students will just talk and think about that for the rest of the class. Also, if you tell them that this is so out there and difficult to understand…you are just giving them the excuse they need not to learn it.

        It is NOT true that anything can happen in quantum mechanics. It is also not true that nothing you have seen before will prepare you for it. You do not have to abandon common sense, either. Quantum mechanics seemed pretty straightforward and made a lot of sense to me as an undergraduate. It made more sense in graduate school. This material isn’t THAT bad at a nonmajors level. It wasn’t even that bad in graduate school (OK, the 40 hour long take-home final was kind of excessive).

        I start my nonmajors quantum mechanics discussion by talking about analog vs. digital. I then segue into quantized energy. I point out how a digital sound file with enough bits becomes virtually indistinguishable from an analog file. Then, I talk about spectroscopy.

        Oh, what requisition form would I have to fill out to hire ninjas?

        • Many people have problems with the Bell Inequalities, counterfactual definiteness, even Bose-Einstein condensates, where two entities can have identical properties – including location.

          Even spin 1/2, where an entity must be rotated not 360′ but 720′ to regain its original orientation. This is counter-intuitive to most people.

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