I'm having trouble in my classical mechanics course. I'm doing homework My Own Way, and I'm getting marked off for it. Call it pride . I strongly feel that I've got the correct way of doing a problem, and that way usually earns about 60% or worse in scoring. It's annoying that, also, when I ask the prof what I'm doing wrong, he tells me that I should stop typing up assignments on the computer, be short and simple and to the point, etc.

I tried being short and simple, and the professor then marked me off for skipping steps. Then, one day, he shows us a short way of doing a proof, and says, offhandedly: "Better than the brute-force-way of doing things". I decided, then, on my next homework assignment, to do things short and sweet, and not brute-force. E.g., there was a step of the proof that required you to notice the cosine and sine series from an infinite sum. I decided to use mathematical induction and show that the n[th] and n+1[th] terms were those of the sine and cosine series. I got a 60%. Some other guy wrote out the first few terms of the cosine and sine series (not even the nth, etc.), said "Oh, that's the sine and cosine series" without even considering the "in general" n[th] and n+1[th] steps, and got a 100%.

I don't want to compromise my future. However, I feel like this professor would be right to mark me off if I simply caved and did things his way. Aren't I supposed to be thinking independently? I'm getting hammered, pointwise, for being a non-conformist! I can't find a way to personally/morally justify just regurgitating what this prof seems to want! However, I know that one should get out of a pissing-contest with a skunk!

I suspect this has to do with the prof's own brand of "I'm-gonna-do-it-my-way" attitude: he wrote his own notes for classical mechanics, and isn't using any conventional textbooks (just his own journal-articles). (On that note, I have to give him props: his strictly-generalized-coordinates and Poisson-brackets approach to classical mechanics sure is a great preparation for not only quantum mechanics, but also relativity).

Okay....sorry about that diatribe: onto my question! What do I do to 1) get an A in this guy's class but 2) do so without simply regurgitating what I *think* this guy *wants* to see, and therefore not honing my ability to think independently and originally, as I believe a physicist should?

I know I might seem to be making myself out to be a martyr, but don't humour me: I need to know what to do in order to not compromise my future as a theoretical physicist.

Staff Emeritus

You mentioned pride. I think you are going to have to decide how important that is to you.

Your message makes it sound like you are convinced that the way you are doing the problems is so superior to what the professor is trying to teach you that you don't have to learn how to do it that way.

This might be true, but it might also be the case that the techniques that he is teaching you will be useful down the road, even though for these particular problems, there may be some clever alternative.

Do you want to risk it?

symbolipoint
Homework Helper
Gold Member

Which kind of Classical Mechanics is your course? Is this the beginning level rigorous course in the series of courses for engineering students, or is this an upper level one for physics students?

If you understand the material and want a good grade why not just do it the professors way. You'll have plenty of time to come up with creative problem solving strategies in upper level courses. And heck, you can even still do it in this course just make sure you know the standard method too. It is probably standard for a reason.

Not really sure why you are asking such a question, do you really think forcing yourself to do something this guys way in this one class is going to really sacrifice your chance a being a physicist in the future? Have some perspective man.

when my professor asked me to detail out my solutions more i did this...

Step 1: Do it your way. Save it to yourself.

Step 2: Rewrite outcome of Step 1 in the way he wants it.

BENEFIT:

1) you get to work it out the way you like it.

2) he gets what he wants - a detailed out solution that he likes.

3) you get what you want - good grade.

4) most importantly, somewhere down the road, you'll compare/contrast those two different ways and might see what was lacking in yours or perhaps find a different way which might be better than both. If not anything, you'll understand two different approaches to a problem ;)

lisab
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member

I understand that you want to think outside of the box.

The classes you're taking now will teach you where the box is. Learn that first; then you can think outside the box.

Just do it the way the professor/TA wants. They decide what they want to see and what they give for marks. If they ask for answers on blue construction paper with silver ink, hit the arts and crafts store.

What really gets irritating is when the professor doesn't even bother to follow traditional or standard material for the course. When that happens, you get to develop a split persona almost... the B.S. you lay on to hide your contempt (and get good grades) and the weary 3 AM you that stumbles into bed after studying the proper material for future courses.

Feel lucky if all he/she wants is a different answer format.

Staff Emeritus

I can't find a way to personally/morally justify just regurgitating what this prof seems to want! However, I know that one should get out of a pissing-contest with a skunk!.

I probably should keep my mouth shut but...

"Morally justify"? Isn't that a little dramatic?

And don't you think maybe your professor deserves a teeny bit more respect? (And if the answer is "no", my next question will then be "so why are you wasting your time there?")

Aren't I supposed to be thinking independently?

Not really. That comes much, *much* later. Like after you have tenure.

Staff Emeritus

Not really. That comes much, *much* later. Like after you have tenure.

I don't quite buy that. It's OK to think independently as a student. What's not OK is deciding as a student you are such an independent thinker that you don't need to learn the conventional way.

Well, I added the last sentence as a joke, but I'm serious about the first two. As another poster said, first you learn where the box is and *then* you think outside of it.

Different people need different ways for them to learn. I think that many who teach mechanics despise independent thinking and instead wants you to follow their guidelines that any trained monkey can do.

I however hate that. Learning in that way do not give you any understanding and it feels like they have structured the course just to get as many through the exam as possible. Good exams should challenge what you have learned and thus you will be penalized if you do not think outside the box.

Like exam questions with way too much information, such questions will make most students fail just because they haven't learned anything properly, just how to utilize formulas. Forcing them to do exactly the way you told them and then just giving them problems that can be solved in those ways is taking the easy way out for both the students and the instructor.