Opinion | Staff Editorials

A method to madness

Professor Emlyn Hughes’ actions in Monday’s Frontiers of Science lecture surprised us. Yes, we have been in classes where a teacher’s actions surprised or shocked us. And yes, we have seen similar video footage or been asked to erase our minds of all preconceived notions as part of an academic endeavor. However, there is usually a method to such madness.

The reasoning Hughes provided for the more than 500 students in his audience—“In order to learn quantum mechanics, you have strip to your raw”—is not adequate explanation for his actions. Without adequate explanation, his actions are simply bewildering.

There should always be a reciprocal relationship between a professor’s responsibility to teach and students’ efforts to learn. Just as students have certain obligations in the classroom, such as completing work and participating, professors owe students a full explanation of the subject at hand and an environment in which learning is encouraged. It is of this very basic understanding of the classroom and its dynamics that Monday’s performance runs afoul.

Without the appropriate context for his behavior, Hughes’ strategy was counterproductive—he confused, rather than enlightened. However, this may be a consequence of the circumstances: teaching quantum mechanics in under two hours to students who may not have any experience with it. A situation like this necessitates special measures to kindle understanding. Hughes’ actions were the product of this. But the situation does not justify them; shock value for shock value’s sake is not a suitable mechanism with which to teach.

Hughes breached the tacit contract between student and instructor by resorting to such measures. Using shock value as an implement of instruction is neither an effective nor a respectful way to teach. Professors should rise to the occasion and not rely on gimmicks without substance as a substitute to actual instruction just because the material is difficult.

Despite our reservations about the appropriateness of Hughes’ technique, professors must be protected in their right to use what they believe are the most effective teaching methods. Our feelings about the nature and efficacy of Hughes’ lecture should not interfere with this maxim. There is no need to impose regulations on the academic and professional freedom of any instructor. In fact, imposing such regulations would be a breach of students’ trust. Professors’ jobs are to teach to the best of their abilities, and we can only judge these skills if we give them the freedom they need.

The Huffington Post and the New York Daily News may focus on the fact that a well-known physicist stripped in front of undergraduates—but we would focus on the function of Hughes’ performance, rather than the form. We want to learn, and Hughes, just like all other Columbia professors, has a lot to teach us.

Steele Sternberg recused himself from this editorial.

To respond to this staff editorial, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com

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aggus posted on

A quantum mechanics class has been known for years to be taught effectively in a quantum mechanics course. So Columbia wants to compress one semester of course material into two hours of FroSci. Flaky. Even flakier than Brown.

Columbia is overrated. Tell your little siblings that they should never apply here. It will go to hell in just a few years. What with all these stupid stunts. The place is a colossal waste of time.

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Anonymous posted on

Quantum mechanics has been known not to be taught effectively in any setting, and that's compatible with the fact that even most physicists don't understand what it is that doesn't make sense in quantum theory, despite 8 plus decades since its inception. The impression is that you don't make much sense either and I think we can both join forces in praying that it won't take you 8 decades to figure that out.

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aggus posted on

The human body is not fully understood either. I suppose you would advocate that 4 years of med school be compressed into two hours of lecture, with debauchery as prelude.

Law is a subject of constant disagreement and debate. I suppose you would advocate that 3 years of law school be compressed into two hours of lecture, this time probably with some criminal activities as prelude. (After all, because it is debatable, then it is not fully understood either, is it?)

And yeah, fifth oldest school and all that. It is its own worst enemy. But, congratulations, you are there.

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rick131 posted on

You can't get angry at an entire university and ten thousand other courses because you don't understand quantum physics. And for the record, Columbia is the fifth oldest school on the continent, its not going anywhere.

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Anonymous posted on

Americans often forget that the rest of the world exists.

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Anonymous posted on

No. It's that Americans don't know that it exists.

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Anonymous posted on

And that's only in North America. Looking at the same source, If you take the whole continent into account, you'd at least need to consider 10 more. However, few are in the same league.

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Anonymous posted on

9/11 is a crazy thing that happened to the world. So are Hitler, Stalin, and Osama Bin Laden. Undressing, biting into a banana, and getting into a curled-up position prior to a lecture is also crazy. But none of these things are as crazy as quantum mechanics. So next time Professor Hughes will have to go even further. I look forward to it.

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Anonymous posted on

Between this op-ed, the denunciation of student protesting last week, and support for an honor code before that, it seems like the new editorial board has taken a really conservative turn. #teamemlyn

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Anonymous posted on

People need to stop being prudish. Get over it. Whatever. Everyone's looking for a silly excuse to write an editorial. Or, I should add, post a comment.

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Anonymous posted on

Maybe if Hughes had given his version, the shade of the discussion would be different. But he didn't, and it's natural that people keep wondering why did he show such an odd behavior, which was absolutely out of context. Maybe the reaction would have been different if it had been a contemporary art class, where it would be understandable his objective was to shock the spectator (no pun intended :-) ). I've seen teachers shock their students in science classes, but the difference is they were making a point with a demonstration. There was no such thing in this case. It's true you need to get rid of prejudice in order to understand modern physics, but there are far better ways to express this.

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Anonymous posted on

Making a point is not necessarily best made by saying something directly. Think of poetry and art.

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Anonymous posted on

I'm always shocked by how many words the Spec editorial board takes to say so little.

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