home : writeups : Why I Hated Advanced Electromagnetic Theory

This scathing writeup--some might say not scathing enough--was written at a time when I was highly disillusioned with the way physics was taught at my alma mater, more than three years ago (unfortunately this state of affairs is not specific to Brown, as this commentary by Neal Stephenson reveals). Things may very well have changed, but given the "inertia" of a conservative mass of tip-toeing researchers and an even more sloth-like community of teachers who steadfastly refuse to accept that modern physics itself is in crisis, I doubt that very much. In a split world of relativity versus quantum mechanics, I was taught to fall in love with the intricate mathematics of each, at the expense of truth and meaning.

Advanced Electromagnetic Theory made me think in old ways. I re-learned that Maxwell derived some equations after having learned this previously in PH47--Electricity and Magnetism--and that differential equations can be used to solve these for an even greater quantity of more complex yet highly idealized cases of the sort we had encountered before.

I learned how the traditional method of teaching science involves a reiteration of simple principles in a highly convoluted, repetitious and tedious way--using as many differential equations as possible--and that PH151 is at the pinnacle of this tried-and-true paradigm of discouraging students.

This course was the antithesis of what this university strives to encourage--debate, imagination, and productive learning. There is no room for originality of thought in this class; after all, a moment wasted on creative thinking equates with a moment of time lost on integrating another Fourier integral.

The professor embodies the very ideal which this class expends so much effort in in relaying to its students. His primary method of lecture is an oral paraphrasing of the bad textbook, with little contribution or insight from himself. His one exam was written carefully to maximize the confusion function, clouded in a thick mist of incomprehensibility. Clarifying questions directed towards him during the exam were deftly deflected, with the claim that he would be giving away the answer. Finally, he scoffs at the very idea that space could be made of membranes, dismissing it without qualification as the fodder of crackpots.

However, these are just minor artifacts of an archaic teaching method that must be forgiven for its lack of maturity. If we are learning Advanced Electromagnetic Theory as they taught it in the 1960's, then surely we must understand that they could not have gotten it all right back then. After all, teaching, like any intellectual pursuit, is a process that is necessarily refined over time.

But there is another, more important problem with the class. Its nine o'clock meeting time is somewhat early, and the problem is exacerbated by the length of the class--one-and-a-half hours, a full fifty percent longer than a typical class. By assuming that increasing the length of class will increase the chances for a student to absorb a fragment of information, the professor has fallen into a trap. Instead, the increased length of class, has led to an increase in the chance, of falling asleep.