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Week of 19 March 2007

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Monday, 19 March 2007
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08:26 - I joined North Carolinians for Home Education. Barbara mentioned that there is to be a home schooling expo in Winston-Salem in late May, and suggested that I attend. When I visited the web site, I learned that it costs $20 for non-members to attend the expo versus $0 for members, and that membership costs $20. So why not join? Particularly since one membership covers Barbara and me, and she wants to attend the expo as well.

Actually joining was a bit harder than I expected. I filled out the web form on the site and then clicked on the button to pay by credit card via Paypal. Paypal really, really wanted me to pay from my own Paypal account rather than by a credit card, but I eventually convinced it to take my credit card.

The real problem was the moron who created the web form on the Paypal site. It simply refused to accept the street address I was entering. I'd entered  the city as "winston-salem", used the drop-down list to select NC, and typed in "27106" for the zip code. It kept telling me that the city, state, and zip field were invalid. My first thought was that it was case-sensitive, so I tried "Winston-Salem", but without success. Okay, some forms choke on the hyphen and want a solid string of letters, so I tried "Winstonsalem" and then "WinstonSalem", again without success. I finally struck paydirt with "Winston Salem". What kind of idiot created this form? Any reasonable form would have been satisfied with just the zipcode.

So now I guess I'm officially a supporter of home schooling. I've always supported home schooling, of course. In fact, I'd like to see it go further. There's no good reason why home schooling should be limited to K-12. I can easily envision university level schooling at home, particularly with resources like MITOPENCOURSEWARE now available on the web.

For anything other than the hard sciences and engineering, there's no reason why anyone should have to attend a physical university, or at least not for a full four-year program. (Of course, other than mathematics, I believe the hard sciences and engineering are the only valid curricula for a university anyway.) For non-rigorous disciplines, which encompass nearly everything that doesn't require laboratories or hands-on access to equipment, there's just no reason to have physical universities at all. Tele-learning could handle it all, and would be much more efficient in terms of resources required and probably more effective as well.

That raises the issue of credentialing, of course. Right now, universities serve as aggregators and credentialing services, and little else. Parents cough up unbelievably large amounts of money (IIRC, undergrads at Duke Univerisity now pay about $50,000/year, for example) and get little in return. A degree in chemistry or physics or biology or engineering from Duke still means something, certainly, but how much is a Duke diploma in, say, sociology or English literature really worth? Next to nothing, I'd say.

What we really need is a nationally recognized standardized testing agency for university-level subjects, something like the College Board but for university-level students rather than high-school students. If I'm hiring a chemist and an applicant shows me that he got very high scores on the standardized tests for general chemistry, organic chemistry, physical chemistry, biochemistry, calculus and different equations, and so on, that really tells me something. I don't care how he came by that competence, whether by studying at home or by attending a physical university, because his test scores tell me he knows the subject. Right now, if he comes to me with a degree from MIT or CalTech or Duke, I also have some confidence that he knows his stuff. But what if his degree is from Podunk U? That tells me next to nothing.

Of course, the colleges and universities would fight such a system tooth and nail. They're in business to make money, not to educate students. That's why they'll happily accept tuition from students who have no business being in college and who are "majoring" in non-rigorous non-subjects like Women's Studies or Sociology. The ultimate effect of the system I propose would be to eliminate most colleges and universities, and to downsize the survivors to a fraction of their current size. Wake Forest University, for example, would probably be among the survivors, but would have only hard science and engineering undergraduate and graduate students. So long, English department. Bye-bye Sociology department.

And that would, I think, be a very good thing.


Tuesday, 20 March 2007
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08:49 - I received a fair amount of mail about my post yesterday. Interestingly, most of those who commented asked me not to publish their comments. Here's one exception.

From: Ronald McCarty
  To: Thompson Robert
Date: Yesterday 16:31:06
  Re: Interesting Post


Interesting post on "home university".  I agree that the resources are available and quite good to allow one to get a degree from home. In fact, I received my masters' degree from Capella (http:// www.capella.edu). The quality was as good as that I received from the University of Maryland for my undergraduate.

However, I am not sure it is such a good idea for most college aged young adults.  Even though there is little discipline required to make mid terms, finals, and in some cases provide home work and tests (Maryland is a strong believer of the tests and homework at the undergrad level), there is discipline required that many barely have to get through the classroom requirements.  I'm not sure that I and most of my classmates had the discipline to attend a home or virtual campus for the undergraduate.  I am unsure of the stats, but I know that Capella was so worried about students staying enrolled with the lack of discipline (in the name of flexibility to allow working folk to attend). Large amounts of effort was spent on ensuring we participated in the degree program.  Although most of my classmates were in the same boat I was (graduate degree while working) many simply admitted to not having the discipline necessary and dropped out of early courses to return to a local university...

I think you might be being a bit hard on sociology.  While I can never imagine myself seeking a major in it, I did take a course in it as part of my undergraduate, and I actually found the course quite practical (except for the 10 minutes per week, where the text book or lecturer was trying to prove Sociology a science since it was using the scientific method...).   Ironically, it helped me more than some of the graduate courses on understanding why people (or actually groups) do certain things under particular circumstances. (Sociologists at the time referred to this action or reaction as social process; whereas business prefers the term culture, change, and power (or influence.)  I, for one, believe that business degrees could replace one of the leadership or management courses with sociology...many of the issues covered in an intro course in sociology are faced by managers continuously...issues such as income disparity within a group our outside, education progression and its effect on the individual and group, and its application of qualitative methods.

For example, taking the education progression, many managers take the approach that if the person that has received a degree since starting work, the employee will need an environment to deal with the improved (on a needs hierarchy basis) higher needs and lower needs (more money) that "goes" with the higher education.  Someone taking a sociology course will realize there are multiple outcomes: loss/loss, loss/win, win/loss, win/win for the individual and the group, and that there is most likely already a social process for this situation based upon what has happened within the group previously.  There was also quite a bit of evidence presented that if there was not a social process for this situation ("chaos"), then individuals and groups will most like force the issue to a loss or win for all.  While good managers manage to the individual, realizing these social processes are in place, can help the manager realize what is at play and where things will tend to want to go if more pressure is not put in the right place....

There are quite a few comments over on the messageboard, including some replies from me.


Wednesday, 21 March 2007
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09:01 - Today is the first day of spring, which means it's time for me to start thinking about doing our income taxes.

I'm working heads-down on the astronomy book, which means I don't have time to post much here. Yesterday, I finished the Coma Berenices constellation chapter, which I'd been working on for a couple of days. I also knocked out the Corona Borealis and Corvus chapters, which were short ones, and got started on Cygnus, which is another long one. I'm making good progress, but these chapters require close attention to detail, which is wearing. I generally start work when Barbara leaves at 8:00 and work pretty much straight through until 5:30 or so. By that time, I'm pretty whipped. But the good news is that I should be finished with this book in the next couple of months and ready to get started full-time on the home chem lab book, which will be fun to do.


Thursday, 22 March 2007
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08:13 - I had a very productive day yesterday. I started and finished the chapter for the constellation Cygnus, which I'd expected to take at least 1.5 days. Today, I'm going to try to knock out Delphinus, Eridanus, and Gemini, which are short chapters. All of the constellation chapters are already templated, which means I've chosen the objects, verified their positions, and produced charts for them. Finishing them up involves downloading and formatting images for each object, inserting those images in the proper places, writing the introductory text for the chapter, and then writing the text that describes how to locate each object and what it looks like.

This afternoon, we have an appointment with a specialist in veterinary surgery. She's going to examine Duncan and look at the x-rays Dr. Taylor took before Duncan's surgery last week. We really, really want to avoid surgery, but if she can excise the tumor entirely it may be the best course of action.


Friday, 23 March 2007
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07:57 - We took Duncan in for a consultation yesterday with Dr. Gayle Jaeger, a specialist in canine surgery. She's confident that she can excise the entire oral tumor, although she would have to remove part of Duncan's jaw and two teeth. We're waiting for her to consult with a veterinary oncologist who's currently out of town, but from what Dr. Jaeger says we could expect a complete cure.

I finished up the constellation chapters for Delphinus and Draco yesterday, and got some work done on Eridanus and Gemini. I plan to finish those today, and get started on Hercules.

There was an editorial in the morning paper about UNC taking steps to address the problem of high textbook prices. Apparently, it's not unusual for students to pay as much as $1,200 for textbooks for a semester, and some individual books cost as much as $200. Many professors require that students buy textbooks that the professor has written himself, and to which he makes very minor changes each year to prevent students from using last year's book.

It seems to me that there's an obvious answer here. Forbid any professor to require or even recommend any book for which he is the author or in which he has any other financial interest. In fact, to prevent "sweetheart" arrangements, perhaps it should be forbidden university-wide to require or recommend any book in which anyone associated with that university has any financial interest. Allowing professors to require students to buy books in which that professor has any financial interest is an obvious conflict of interest.

Professors could still write textbooks, but it would no longer be acceptable for those books to be required by the university with which the professor was associated. That seems fair to me.

10:38 - From my friend Paul Jones, who's a professor of organic chemistry.

From: Paul Jones
  To: Robert Bruce Thompson
Date: Today 10:17:56
  Re: textbooks

Hi Bob,

Glad to see the book is coming along.  I didn't see the editorial, but either you or the writer may have misunderstood. At least a little.  It may well happen that profs write books and then require its use in their class.  And that they make minor changes year to year to prevent used books from being used.  But, much more often it isn't their students they screw, it is the students elsewhere.  Small sample caveat, but the only prof I know who has written a textbook gives his students a copy when they enroll, so they benefit financially from having their prof use that book (though I like students to have a book that provides a different POV than mine).

Anyway, my point is that this has little to do with one's own students.  It is business as usual for a textbook writer to make very, very minor changes that are entirely superficial from one edition to the next.  The schools then require the newest edition, which takes away the market in used books.  Even when used books are still current, the schools royally screw their students by giving pennies on the dollar if a student sells the book back to the school.  They then turn around and sell the used book for 80-90% of its price new.  Everyone but the student wins.

If any of your readers either are or have college students DO NOT SELL USED TEXTS BACK TO THE SCHOOL.  (For that matter, if you're a science major, don't ever sell any science book back - you'll just end up needing it again someday).  Also, very rarely is it impossible to use an old edition.  If, for example, their organic prof uses McMurray's 7th edition and you can come by the 6th for half the cost, buy it.  Hell, if you can get a 4th or 5th edition, those would work too (I routinely tell my students this and haven't had any troubles so far).  It may make the student work a little harder to figure out which questions are assigned (this is an easy thing to switch around edition to edition) or, occasionally, which section of a chapter the prof is working in but it also gives the student a chance to explore the book a bit.  And they should be working all the damned problems anyway.  And reading all the sections.  Finally, Amazon often has better deals than university bookstores and they rarely run out.  Plus, the lines are shorter.

I'm not sure who drives this business model, the profs, the schools or the publishers (likely all are conspiring) but it is a system that really sticks it to the student.  I've heard that a prof who writes a successful textbook likely can't pay the taxes on the book profits with his academic salary.  With that much money floating around, one would think altruists such as university professors could ease up on the kiddies a bit.

However, in my experience, albeit limited, profs look out for the kids sitting in their classroom.  Whether this is because they're nice or because it's tougher to screw a guy face to face, I don't know.


Paul Jones
Associate Professor
Department of Chemistry
Wake Forest University


Saturday, 24 March 2007
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Sunday, 25 March 2007
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