Oh, The Words We Say!

by David Taylor on May 24, 2018

Physics Faculty and their favorite phrases painted on mementos presented by senior class 2018; from left to right: Dr. Matt Fleenor “Tangent Unavoided“, Dr. Dan Robb “That deserves a Starburst“, Dr. Jarrett Lancaster “Sup“, and Dr. Rama Bala “It’s just algebra

As faculty often do, we not only reflect on the impact we make on students’ learnings but also often wonder about what other things catch students’ attention. It turns out the ‘quirky’ phrases some of us use make a lasting impression more than we think. The 2018 graduating physics class captured some of those phrases in memorable mementos and presented it to us, during graduation reception. We know we are making a lasting impression on our students who not only remember what we teach, but how we teach, unusual phrases included. Now for the story behind how those phrases came to be.

“Tangent Unavoided” by Dr. Matt Fleenor

These shorts rants often entail some important application or some important piece of background information that currently adds to the topic at hand.  While the short, impassioned diatribe may be viewed by students as unimportant, it most certainly is essential.  This is especially true when I notice that one (or more) students have a rather confused (or bored) look on their faces.  Nothing to rescue boredom or confusion like a “tangent unavoided”.

Of course, there must also be a “tangent avoided”, which usually contains more peripheral associations that typically only I would understand (or, it would take a significant amount of time to explain).  Students much prefer these but it has been shown that there are many more tangents “unavoided” than “avoided”.

“That deserves a Starburst” by Dr. Dan Robb

The story behind it is that several years ago (I think while teaching Electrodynamics in Fall ’15) I decided to start rewarding especially good questions or especially insightful answers to questions I asked the class with a Starburst. The class definitely took to the idea, with some students aiming to earn Starbursts and other students actually deciding to turn them down because of a desire to pursue learning for its own sake and not a candy reward. They also came to decide as a group whether a certain question or answer was worthy of a Starburst or not — sometimes there was 30 seconds or so of debate about this! And that’s where the phrase “That deserves a Starburst” (decided by the class as a whole) came from. Overall, it’s made the atmosphere of the upper-level classes more fun, and so I’ve kept up with giving out Starburst over the past several years!

“Sup” by Dr. Jarrett Lancaster

It wasn’t until I talked to April (a 2018 graduate) that my message of “sup” made any sense. Since I didn’t teach the seniors (aside from 310) I’m most remembered for stumbling into the office (physics student lounge) and saying “what’s up?” to anyone unfortunate enough to be sitting around. It was actually really touching that I’m now immortalized with this inquisitive statement.

“It’s just Algebra” – Dr. Rama Bala

This phrase came about in one of the upper level physics courses, specifically in quantum mechanics course.  We were solving several complex wave function problems in that course. With so many mathematical expressions involved, I used the phrase “it is just Algebra” in order to alleviate the exasperation from solving those hard problems. While in the context of quantum mechanics this phrase has a mathematical connotation, it has deeper meaning for me.

To me this quote also represents a logical way to look at everything, not just physics problems or how nature works, but beyond that as well. It gives us the ability to solve problems and understand complex concepts and ideas, if we can break problems into smaller pieces, mathematical or otherwise, and solve them one by one. Then all we have do is to ‘add’ those solutions, until a big picture emerges. This, to me, represents the essence of physics, an ability to construct, deconstruct and reconstruct in order to understand the nature of things or issues, and to find appropriate solutions.

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