Dear CEAS colleagues,
Many of you approached me privately to convey your support for the e-mail sent last week -- I thank all of them for encouraging me as well as provide some valuable insights on how to fix the current weaknesses in the system. To be fair, I did receive one e-mail challenging my position -- I respect the opinion of that colleague as well, but do not fully agree with that point of view. In this present e-mail, I am going to suggest some remedies based on some of your suggestions/opinions as well as my ideas.
1) Dwindling number of professors doing serious theoretical/analytical work:
Some colleagues have remarked that theoretical and analytical work is indeed being done along with the experimental and numerical work while the departments are getting more grants compared to the previous years. I agree that our average grant size is much larger than in the past, as well as we have more shinier and better-looking labs than before, but I respectfully disagree about the quality of theoretical work -- I am convinced that it is going down. Good theoretical/analytical work marked by attention to details and mathematical thoroughness is not that easy to accomplish. (To give some examples of such work, I am attaching some papers of this category from my area of porous media--please take a look.) Too much emphasis on getting research grants creates professors who are constantly focused on writing grant proposals and searching funding opportunities. In that case, where is the time to do some serious study to learn about theoretical/analytical work done, and hence apply to in one's own work?
Surprisingly, this was not the situation in the American engineering schools a few decades -- professors used to produce much higher quality of work, and were paragons of scholarship and learning. Professors writing books and publishing important papers were indeed promoted. But somehow down the line, our focus has changed and we have become more more money minded. Now the system is loaded against people who are doing this type of serious work. In the present situation, the US university is beginning to resemble a car dealership where professors are more like car salesmen -- more money one brings in by having more sales, more commission one gets. Now the professors hardly study any new area deeply enough in order to write some good mathematically or theoretically insightful work. They are mostly doing experimental work; even if some doing some theoretical/numerical analysis along with it, they often use the same old, repetitive ideas to churn out papers in hundreds. Proliferation of engineering journals has helped the situation as well -- one can always find the journals for the work one is doing. (As long as people are reading it and citing the work (i.e., the journal has an impact factor!), the publication in such journals is acceptable.)
Remedy for UWM:
CEAS departments should aim to provide a certain ratio of theoretically and analytically strong professors. For example, one can aspire to have a mix of 30% theoretical professors to 70% 'regular' professors in any department. The idea is that the former will bring in some intellectual gravitas to the department and will help build the intellectual strength of the department by offering theoretically strong courses. But the regular professors manning the departments should be 'deconditioned' -- they should be trained to respect the theoretical strengths of such individuals and paucity/smallness of research grants should be used against them to prevent their tenure and promotion.
2) The problem of poorer graduate courses:
In my last e-mail given below, I had raised the issue of deteriorating graduate level courses. Here is the proposed solution.
Remedy for UWM:
The remedy prescribed in the last point will automatically lead to the mitigation of this issue. The theoretically and analytically strong professors can/will develop strong graduate level courses and help in the better intellectual training of the graduate students. The Dean's office can promote this development by offering full or partial summer supports for developing notes for the first-time teachers of such courses.
3) The problem of 'easy' undergraduate courses and low mathematical/analytical preparedness of UWM undergraduate students:
In my last e-mail given below, I had raised this issue also. Here is the proposed solution.
Remedy for UWM:
(A) In the current scenario, the UWM undergraduates will not get a chance to take in any theoretically rigorous course with significant analytical content. The basic intro-level courses that are offered fail in this requirement. It is important to offer intermediate level courses which can introduce some serious theoretical derivations and thus expose the students to higher-level analyses. I can give the example of what we did at ME department as that is pertinent here. Due to the bottle-neck of having a fixed number of credits permissible for graduation in our department, we could not create any more core courses--we decided to create a set of restricted electives consisting of such intermediate level courses and students were forced to choose a certain number of them. Examples of such courses include intermediate fluid mechanics, elasticity (in intermediate machine design), intermediate heat transfer, etc. At CEAS, each department should identify such courses and then offer them in this form. The Dean's office can promote this development by offering full or partial summer supports for developing notes for the first-time teachers of such courses.
(B) There is a great need to overhaul our teaching-effectiveness evaluation system. The current student feedback system is beset with problems, especially if someone tries to teach some analytically or theoretically demanding material. As discussed in my last e-mail, most of our current set of students (sometimes as high as 75%) are 'analytically-challenged' who find it difficult to do simple mathematical operations. Such students, when they see somebody trying to teach higher-level work which they do not understand, will 'strike back' through student evaluations at the instructor. As suggested by one of my CEAS colleagues, these student evaluations are used by the students to get back at the instructor in case they PERCEIVE that they are going to receive low grades (and such perception will not be hard to come by if the material is 'hard'). I personally have seen some rave reviews from some of my top students who 'get it' but my overall review often plummets to mediocre levels because of this dictatorship of the untrained majority.
To remedy such unfortunate situation, we can develop some other student evaluations that supplement the main evaluation form developed by the UW-system (which by the way are effective in catching examples of extremely bad teaching). How about considering the evaluation of top 25% students in the class who are probably trained enough to understand the 'challenging' material sufficiently? The Dean's office can hold some meetings with the faculty to develop such additional criteria.
(C) Since most of our student body is drawn from the local school districts, it is important for UWM to undertake programs to improve the math instruction in such schools. The Dean's office can take aggressive measures to promote the teaching of proper math courses in local public schools and do it through seeking NSF or other federal funding. CEAS can also develop some 'coaching' programs for the high-school students on its own where some some advanced geometry or pre-calculus courses are offered in the evening time to the local students (which can be brought to UWM by school buses). The dean's office can collect a group of interested faculty to aggressively develop such proposals where some real, hard math is taught to the students (rather that the soppy stuff passed on as math in the best of our local public schools) with the help of federal agencies and private contributions.
These are some of my suggestions. CEAS should seriously consider improving on these fronts if it wants to emerge as a credible engineering school that is truly serving the people of Wisconsin.