Fighting the Same Battles is a Waste of Time, Energy, and Professionalism, and Physicists Can Teach Math

TL;DR The ultimate decider of classroom content must always be the individual instructor, even though they may sometimes make bad decisions. The ultimate decider of what gets learned is always the student and there are no exceptions. The ubiquitous fake debates with administrators on these and similar issues are at best a waste of time (administrators have already made up their minds that they alone are correct) and at worst a degradation of faculty expertise and autonomy. The system is the problem and nothing can or will change until the system is replaced.

When I began teaching in higher ed in 1992, I was hired under the assumption that I was the “expert” (and wow do I not like that word) in my topic area (astronomy and physics) and that I was expected to use my best professional judgement to decide what should happen in the classroom. I could use canned curricula or I could invent my own (I of course did the latter). Administration would support me because, by definition, they were not qualified to do these things. Otherwise they wouldn’t need to hire me or anyone like me in the first place.

My oh my how things have changed, especially here in the North Carolina Community College System. Now, administrators have unilaterally declared themselves to be the “experts” on every academic matter, including all discipline curricula, assessment criteria, and even textbook choices, so as to turn campuses into teaching mills (a term I coined) and success factories (another term I coined) where nebulous “success” has no objective written definition because it gives administrators plausible deniability in dictating to faculty but blaming faculty when things inevitably go wrong and especially when students or parents complain. Now, instead of teaching experience and familiarity with one’s discipline and the teaching thereof, the primary qualification for being hired here in NC seems to be fealty to administrative dictators and willingness to implement every administrative edict regardless of how silly, incorrect, academically harmful, or disrespectful of faculty expertise it may be.

This degradation of faculty autonomy has not happened overnight. It has been slowly implemented over the past two decades or so as administrators have fully adopted the corporate mindset of “running it like a business,” which has never been, is not now, and will never be, compatible with academic endeavors. Administrators have taken advantage of overworked faculty, beaten down by unprofessional and irresponsible teaching loads and trivial administrative drivel, to force them to literally agree to give up their professional autonomy in favor of incompetently thought out administrative decisions that affect the quality of teaching and learning environments on campus. This is why one hundred percent of the full time physics faculty left my former workplace in 2021 after fighting this, in my case to the point of suicidal ideation. We were quite literally not allowed to do our jobs any more so why stay?

This post, and the accompanying thoughts, was spurred by yet another discussion regarding mathematics corequisites for introductory calculus-based physics. And no, I’m not even talking about the problem with engineering schools forcing the renaming of physics to “engineering physics” (how silly!) and using physics courses to gatekeep their own engineering students. This practice needs to be shut down by physics faculty, but that discussion is for another time.

Specifically, the issue at hand is whether or not first semester introductory calculus-based physics should take calculus II as a required corequisite. Defending the requirement brings the usual argument that math is math and physics is physics and there’s not enough time in a physics course to teach math. Of course there isn’t enough time when we let every external actor dictate our course content. This argument also doesn’t make sense with the reasoning du jour that we should “meet students where they are” and bring them along. That philosophy isn’t necessarily bad, but it directly contradicts the enforcement of rigid pre/corequitise policies. We can’t have it both ways.

I used to be firmly in the camp of mathematics and physics being entirely separate entities. Students taking introductory calculus-based physics were expected to have acquired, after only one semester, a Pavlovian response to seeing derivatives and could ostensibly take the derivative of any function they see. In my thirty years of teaching, this was never true across the board. Most (almost all) students in my environment never achieved this level of competency. They simply learned how to do derivatives on a case-by-case basis when necessary and not according to some external party’s ad hoc timetable. Moreover, this never kept them from learning physics. Imagine that.

Here in North Carolina, the Community College System is the lapdog of two major external entities: the UNC System and ubiquitous charter high schools that have popped on just about every community college campus across the state (okay at least a large number of campuses). The UNC System has unilaterally, with absolutely no resistance from NCCCS, become the entity that decides which courses NC’s community colleges can offer. Though not the intent, NCCCS administrators won’t offer courses that the UNC System won’t bless with gen ed transfer credit, especially if those courses are not likely to fill. Remember, the goal is filling every seat and getting that tuition and FTE count; learning and meeting students’ needs is irrelevant now. Thus even though community colleges can offer course with only elective transfer credit, admins don’t want to pay faculty to teach those courses and the course won’t run. Until recently, second semester introductory astronomy, where students encounter stars, galaxies, and the Universe and all of modern astrophysics) was such a course. One UNC System campus (Western Carolina University) unilaterally decided objected to community colleges teaching this course (which ironically was first imposted upon NCCCS by the UNC System back in 1997 when the statewide Comprehensive Articulation Agreement was legislatively mandated) and it went away for several years with no discussion with, or input from, community college astronomy faculty in the state. The situation with campus charter high schools is similar, and for now I’ll simply say that these schools have far too much say in college matters but attracting them and catering to their uninformed whims has become the primary business model for NCCCS campuses statewide. We were actually told, “They pay the bills and we’re obligated to listen to them.” Nope.

The status quo model puts each discipline into a silo and tries to convince us that only inhabitants of that silo are competent to teach the contents of that silo. This may be true in some cases, but I don’t think it’s true of mathematics. More specifically, I don’t think it’s true for using mathematics in other disciplines. Think introductory calculus, ordinary differential equations, and linear algebra, the traditional baseline courses for STEM students. I do, however, think it’s true for the formality of mathematics as it presents in upper level undergraduate courses in real analysis and anything that emphasizes proofs. These are, generally speaking, beyond what students need to do physics. Over the past decade, I have become convinced that the traditional ODE course isn’t entirely relevant given the ubiquity of symbolic and numerical computation in research, and I believe linear algebra is far better for a foundational course for introductory physics students. Most of my mathematics colleagues wouldn’t hear it. How quickly we forget that calculus was (co)invented by a physicist for doing physics long before it was formalized into what we see of it today. Recall that even Einstein himself lamented the complexity that mathematical formalism brings to physics (https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein):

Since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I do not understand it myself anymore.

Faculty may have been duped by administrators (who aren’t smart enough to know otherwise) and other external actors (think accreditors) into thinking that these silos must be maintained, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s perfectly okay for physics faculty to teach calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, or anything else related to mathematics as long as it relates to the physics. Mathematics as it’s presented in a mathematics textbook doesn’t always look the way the same material looks within in the context of physics. I’ve heard physics faculty say that Matter & Interactions isn’t calculus-based because they don’t see enough explicit analytical derivatives or integrals. WHAT? And yes, that means I must also concede that it’s okay for mathematicians to teach physics even though it may seem distasteful to physicists. On the other hand, I think it’s probably true that the number of people who use mathematics without needing the background of a math major is greater than the number of mathematicians who use physics without needing the background of a physics major. Either way, a mature academic would consult with someone more knowledgeable regardless of the direction of the encounter.

I think these fake debates (taking da bait) about prereqs, coreqs, and such are red herrings and distract from the underlying problem. The underlying problem is that these are decisions that should be made by faculty and no one else. Thirty years of teaching showed me without exception that by the time administrators presented the “suggestions” to faculty they (admins) had already made the relevant decisions and asking for input is theater, and sometimes convincing theater. Not involving faculty or not letting faculty make these decisions shows lack of professional respect (which administrators demand of faculty faculty without justification) toward faculty and represents the erosion of faculty autonomy. The good of the student is irrelevant. The goal is to undermine faculty to the point where qualified faculty are no longer needed in practice. They’re winning, because we are letting them win. Faculty have been conditioned to cede our authority and autonomy. The system is the problem.

As always, I’m open to feedback. Remember that you don’t have to agree with anything I say.

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