Yvonne Carts-Powell

Taking classes once for grades, twice for pleasure

In Science on March 9, 2011 at 6:56 pm

I’m revisiting freshman physics. The spring semester is all about electricity and magnetism. On one hand, I’m not actually doing the coursework, and I can feel the lack of rigor in my thinking and the lack of clarity that comes from manipulating the equations. This is exactly why I have problems with “Physics for Poets” courses that try to teach physics without math: once you get beyond the realm of everyday life, there’s no way to gain an intuition about physics without doing the math. (Well, okay, a whole lot of experimentation with appropriate instruments will eventually build intuition, but math plus experimentation is a lot more efficient.)

I also wish everyone had the opportunity to take courses twice. I very much appreciate my instructors back at James Madison University’s Physics Department, but the first time I took freshman physics was rushed and I was as focused on grades as I was on learning. Reading the Feynman lectures for pleasure, or revisiting the material being taught by a different teacher reminds me why I liked the subject in the first place.

I’ve noticed the same thing in liberal arts classes. Dickens is so much more fun to read for pleasure than for coursework. On the other hand, I might never have tackled Joyce or Dante or Homer without the structure and support of a class. I’m sure I would never have tackled thermo without the structure and support of a class.


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