Science courses can be kind of a mind-fuck

Reflections on post-secondary education and the cost of your undergrad soul

When I interviewed Denis Rancourt back in August, the school year was so young that the Internet in my apartment hadn’t even been set up yet. I chatted with Rancourt over Skype from my friend Anne’s place, my Boréale buzz from that morning’s Lower Field Frosh festivities barely worn off. I was incredibly excited to start my second year at McGill – my first as a physics major – and I told Rancourt so at the start of the interview. I didn’t realize that the feeling would soon wear off.

In the fall of 2008, Rancourt, a then-tenured physics professor at the University of Ottawa, gave each of his fourth-year physics students an A+. Rancourt believed that rank-ordering his students with letter grades would prevent them from doing what they were at university to do: learn physics. On March 31, 2009, Rancourt was fired.

Rancourt views the current GPA-centric pedagogy of post-secondary science education as a nightmare – an ineffective nightmare. Rancourt discussed his mistakes in bringing students into his lab based on their high marks. “It was gut-wrenching to realize that they had never made [the learning process] on their own…. It had always been just regurgitation.”

While talking to Rancourt, I found myself sounding more surprised than one hopes to when conducting an interview. I was aware that, as Russell Crowe’s John Forbes Nash Jr. said in A Beautiful Mind, “classes will dull your mind.” But saying that undergrad physics is a “mind-fuck,” involving metaphorical “bashing on the head” and making “deals with the devil?” Accusing the teaching system of shaping students to a standardized professional-scientist mold and leaving their minds malleable enough to work for different employers? That GPAs merely represent a student’s level of obedience? Wasn’t Rancourt being a bit dramatic?
The interview lasted 48 minutes, and was printed in The Daily on September 14 – edited for lack of space. I emailed the piece to my parents, urged my friends to take a look at it, and then, for just a few weeks, forgot about it.

Among my course load for the semester was Experimental Methods 1, a class to which I had been particularly looking forward. Three hours a week of physics lab time? Sign me up. But it became clear the moment that I got my first lab mark back – a 40 per cent on what I had considered a solid effort for a lab requiring the sole skill of reading an oscilloscope display – that this year was not going to be the utopia of tinkering with Kater’s pendulums that I had envisioned.

Yes, I had expected to spend late nights working on lab reports, but ones that involved tricky MATLAB code or intricate diagrams. Not reports that made me cower in fear thinking I had missed so much as a single page number. I had unwittingly stumbled into a university-level arts and crafts class, and was being, as Rancourt said, rank-ordered on a set of arbitrary technical requirements. Getting a good mark means setting aside creativity and just trying to read the professor’s mind.

After a particularly large number of hours spent on a lab that earned a particularly low mark, and faced with the immediate task of surviving another Monday afternoon lab period in the windowless basement of Rutherford, I forked over the 50 cents that it costs to send an international text message to a friend from high school: “I don’t care about grades anymore, I want to make it out of here with my soul.” I spent the evening searching the course catalogue: would it be too late to switch to computer science? Arts? A different school? My friend replied later via iChat, and after the requisite display of sympathy, commented, “Aren’t you being a bit dramatic?”

There was a problem set due last Tuesday for PHYS232, Heat and Waves. Heat and Waves is a course in which the midterm average was 46 per cent with no promise of a curve, a course in which the material has been concentrated into lecture slides to be read by the professor verbatim during class, a course which I do not like. I took one look at the problem set, and decided that the hours that it would take to complete it did not exist between that moment and the due date.

I would be better off trying to understand the material – actually learn the material – for the final. I spent most of the 25-degree-and-sunny Easter weekend holed up in my bedroom watching the MIT OpenCourseWare lectures for a Vibrations and Waves course similar to the McGill one. I was infected by MIT professor Walter Lewin’s affection for demonstrations, for “seeing through the equations.” I found myself waving my arms in prediction of how a coupled oscillator might swing, pausing the video to draw little graphs and diagrams in my notes. On Monday morning, I unearthed the problem set from the corner of the desk that I had exiled it to, and started working. Just for fun, I promised myself. I won’t even hand it in. The rest of the morning, and then the whole afternoon, disappeared as I chipped away at the differential equations.

By 10 p.m., the better half was complete. I put on a light sweater and headed to Starbucks, where my classmate and friend Victoria was finishing up her shift. Music blasted over the speakers, the windows were open, and the fresh air, the glow of Crescent poured in. I munched on a stack of raisin cookies, my textbook open on my lap. After Victoria finished closing the store, we went back to her dining room table and continued through the chapter on Fourier transforms, debating equation structure, and picturing the motions of masses and springs. It hit me that there was a reason why I chose to be a physics major: I like physics.

“When I look at the things that I’ve achieved, it wasn’t in a classroom because I had to do an assignment…. It was because I was able to create a space for myself where I could think about these things, where I could find solutions and invent,” Rancourt had explained to me back in August.

This too resonates with me more now than it did then. I’ve spent the past semester on pieces of mindless lab work, on impossible problem sets – but out of all those bad things have come study groups, solidarity and camaraderie, and rushing home after a long day at school to forget about homework for a little and console myself with old recordings of Feynman lectures. I know I’m not in my chosen major for the good grades or the good teachers, because those things just aren’t there anymore.

Back in August, I didn’t entirely share Rancourt’s view that the current post-secondary science pedagogy is a mind-fuck. I do now. But I also didn’t share his positive outlook, that in spite of the fact that the pedagogy is this way and isn’t getting any better: “It’s not depressing; it’s reality.” I agree now – not completely, not entirely. Not yet.

In the meantime, I’m not letting my grades tell me how intelligent I am, not letting exams rob me of having fun sitting around with a pile of scrap paper and a copy of something from the MIT introductory series open to the back-of-the-chapter problems. I’m getting there.

Click here to read the original interview with Rancourt. And write to Shannon Palus – it’s your last chance!