A novice researching Software Engineering
by Eric Rong
I chose Software Engineering Case Study this semester while doing my master’s degree of coursework. I had a course of Software Engineering when I was in China doing my bachelor’s degree, but I felt that was far from enough. Hoping to further my understanding in this area, I chose Software Engineering Case Study. As time goes by, many problems arise. After a few weeks’ thinking, I want to discuss something which has been in my mind.
For a student who has practical experience about software development in a company might do very good in this course, but it might not be the case for a novice. In fact, it is almost impossible for a novice–someone who has never worked as software developing team member or who only had skin-deep knowledge about Software Engineering–to get a good mark or learn very much from this course. That is my conclusion, and I am eager to know if my conclusion will prove to be true at the end of the semester. I will discuss a few things below.
I enjoy reading very much, especially reading books of philosophy. I also like writing very much, but I pay little attention to citation, maybe just because I have been influencing by top philosophers so much. It is so difficult to imagine Nietzsche citing someone else’s words, I think, except when he was mocking at someone. Besides, I always kept Russell’s word in mind, so I never turn to authority—as if mere authority were a reason to cite— because there will always be the case that one can find another authority on the opposite side. It is not until I enrolled this course did I focus on the problem of citation. After some thoughts, I realized that actually I cited very often, just I didn’t wake up to it.
Is citation useful or necessary? I’ve been thinking this question for quite a long time, and I have answer now. Personally I think citation serves two purposes. One the one hand, the direct use of citation is to share information. Through citations, the readers are able to broaden their sources of information. They may know something happened—probably— in a particular time, or they may realize someone holds a certain ttitude—maybe—toward something, or they may be introduced to some theoretical models in certain areas and so on. But we should always keep it in mind that the information we obtain is simply material, it does not by itself prove anything without analysis. On the other hand, citation has indirect use of making contribution to someone’s knowledge database. With citation, it is possible for us to build a huge web of knowledge that contains many linkages within an area or even between different areas. It provides a chance for the readers to enrich their knowledge.
Moreover, citation is not only useful but also necessary. Proper citation is one of the requirements to write a wonderful article. Let’s imagine there is a scientific article without any citation, I am sure no one can find any convincing evidence for most of the things the author is trying to state. Reading an article with lots of necessary information duly supplied is a kind of enjoyment, unfortunately most of the articles published can not provide that service. I must learn to cite correctly for its usefulness and necessity, I thought to myself, even if only hoping to be able to write something interesting.
Though I finally agreed that citation were both useful and necessary, when I knew that our research paper must contain fixed numbers of citations, I began to panic, since I am only a novice at Software Engineering, unfortunately. Now I am facing a dilemma–to produce a ‘research paper’ full of improper citations in order to meet the course requirement or to write a paper that does not meet the course requirement completely but reflect my true understanding about the topic I am researching. I prefer latter.
Haste makes waste. In academia, improper standards are producing more and more shocking phenomena of academic corruption. For example, in China , there is a growing trend that more and more researchers including some professors plagiarize others’ work. Why? Because they will lose the jobs or chances for promotion if there is no fruit of their works. To set a deadline for a research project or require certain amount of outcome in a fixed time goes against the spirit of research. All research institutes that want to come out with fruitful result only need to concentrate on the construction of excellent research environment, that’s it. John Nash, the 1994 economic Nobel Prize receiver and mathematical professor in Princeton University , for most time in his life suffered schizophrenia and homosexuality, but Princeton University treated him like a normal person and provided him the best research environment all alone, then Game Theory succeeded finally. What Princeton University did to John Nash was the reason why he succeeded and why Princeton University always has been one of the best universities in the world. Remember this example of Nash firmly please. Now let’s leave that out of this for the time being and let me begin my analysis—citation.
Basically I can think of four kinds of citations, facts, theories, viewpoints and conclusions and I will discuss them one by one.
First I will discuss the citation of facts. This kind of citation is relatively the easiest one, in my opinion, because history is history and no man can change it. For instance, the fact that _Principles of Economics _was written by Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) and that Karl Marx (1818-1883) died in 1883 can never be modified. But it is very easy to misuse “facts” because of carelessness, credulousness, ignorance or some other reasons. For example, in economics, there were some very careless quoters, and a very famous one was great economist A. C. Pigou （ 1877-1959 ） . Here is a very interesting episode. Economist Steven Chueng said in his book that he once spent a whole week tracing the source of the materials mentioned in Pigou’s book, but couldn’t find the fact that Pigou provided in his book. That might suggest that Pigou made up some data to support his model. And, withal, according to Steven’s observation, even Marshall, one of the most influential economists of his generation even in the history, and John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), the founder of macroeconomics, also were quite careless about citation. Even if great economists in the history didn’t pay enough attentions to citations of facts, let alone normal writers. One very interesting thing is about the critic Steven Cheung himself. In his book Economic explanation which is written in Chinese, I found a mistake. When he mentioned Pigou, the original text was “A.C.Pigou (1873-1959)”, but from what I know, Pigou was born in 1877, not 1873. It might be publishing error, but it is a good example to convince readers not to believe the ‘facts’ they heard or even they saw without validation. Here I am going to describe another problem about citation of facts. In economic papers, many writers would use some examples stated in another writers’ book or article. Though the example is cited exactly the same as it first appeared, the problem is that the example was stated by the author as a hypothetical case but became the fact in the quoter’ s article. Maybe writer A wrote “Let’s suppose that there is a factory keeps draining waste water through neighbor’s garden…”, but writer B cited “A provided a very interesting example in his study of externality, there is a factory…” Notice, the fancy became truth unconsciously. To cite a fact correctly needs a lot of time to validate, and that is the main constraint that prevents writers from making proper citations of this kind.
Finally let’s go back to the case of John Nash above that I asked for attention in order to take a closer look at the complexity about citation of fact, or citation. Read that example again and ask yourself what information was provided? You may write down (1) John Nash received Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994; (2) He suffered from schizophrenia and had a tendency of homosexuality; (3) Princeton University did not abandon him but provided him the best research environment instead; (4) Game Theory succeeded in the economic field; (5) What Princeton University did was the reason why John Nash succeeded and why Princeton University always has been one of the best universities in the world. (1), (2), (3) and (4) can be classified as facts and (5) are both conclusion and viewpoint. We only analyze facts here. Among them, (1), (2) and (4) are easy to validate, but (3) is tricky. In this case, we may choose to believe or to be doubtful, I choose later. I found something on the web, “ … _the staffs at my university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and later all of Boston were behaving strangely towards me…. I started to see crypto-communists everywhere … I started to think I was a man of great religious importance, and to hear voices all the time. I began to hear something like telephone calls in my head, from people opposed to my ideas. …The delirium was like a dream from which I seemed never to awake.” _Maybe fact (3) was true in some sense, but not necessarily the same as most people think. In a word, facts are not as obvious as they appear. The more time we have, the better citation of this kind is able to be used.
Secondly, I would talk about the citation of theories. Usually theories will be misquoted, but seldom fudged. It is quite different from citation of facts, because unlike facts, it is almost impossible to make up theories. So from quotations of this kind, we could identify novices whose understanding about the theory is half-baked, but we are less likely to find a cheater who insist there are a theory not known to the world except him. So whether a theory is cited properly mainly base on the quoter’s familiarity about it.
The third kind of citation is that of viewpoints. This kind is the most difficult one because of the fact that an author’s idea is often misunderstood. When we are reading or hearing something, in fact we are trying to experience the whole process of thought-flow in the author or speaker’s mind. Let’s put that process of recurring on a scale from 0 to100 points. Let’s imagine a group of people of different levels gather together to study an article or to listen to a speech. How many of them will completely understand (100 points) what they saw or heard? And how many of them totally misunderstood (zero point) what they saw or heard? I am not sure if there is anyone who only gets 0 point, but I am sure that nobody gets 100 points. In a stricter sense, nobody fully understands what the others are trying to express. However, we should try to deepen our comprehension about the world and make ourselves more informed members in the universe so that we are able to get the exact meaning of others and make ourselves careful quoters of viewpoints. To study philosophy will help very much in that endeavor, if I am permitted to give a suggestion here.
Suppose I am expressing my opinion, here is an example,” I don’t support autarchy, but under some circumstances, democracy has a higher cost than that of dictatorship, so autarchy might be favorable in that case, especially when the dictator has the personality of Socrates (469-399BC.)” What’s my viewpoint? Am I a supporter of autarchy or democracy? Different people have different understanding and judgment. Some may conclude that I am a backer of tyranny and the others think I am actually a democracy-liker. If I were an authority, my words might be used as citation, but where my word would be used remains an enigma. It is not totally impossible that it appears in both of two person’s articles as their supporting argument while they are on complete opposite position. In the real world, things are much more complex than this simple case and that makes the task of citing others’ viewpoints as difficult as understanding them.
In addition, the sentences being cut out from the context would cut both ways. Let’s use the same example above and break it into some smaller sentences and take out two of them for analysis. (1) I don’t support autarchy and (2) autarchy might be favorable. Is it possible that another two persons take one sentence each and quote? Of course it is. I am sure that my original intension will be lost forever if my original words are missing.
Since understanding others’ opinions is such a difficult job that my suggestion is always try to improve comprehension about the world and be a deep thinker, and cite others’ viewpoint when you truly get what they are saying. Otherwise, don’t quote.
The last one is the citation of conclusions. This kind of citation is relatively harder comparing with the citation of theories. A Conclusion holds when the requirements are met. But it might not still be the case if some conditions are changed. For instance, consider the conclusion that objects drop at the same speed in the air, other things being equal. To cite the conclusion above and then conclude that a feather and an iron ball would drop to the ground at the same speed– other things being equal– is mistaken, because the conclusion stands only when the air friction is neglected. There are always some theories, truths and methodologies underlying a conclusion, they are combined with the conclusion, rather than separated. So a conclusion can never be properly cited without the profound understanding about the underlying elements mentioned above. For instance, let’s go back to the case of John Nash again. This time we will look at information (5) – What Princeton University did to him was the reason why John Nash succeeded and why Princeton University always has been one of the best universities in the world. – described above. It is a conclusion—or viewpoint in some sense. Usually we accept a conclusion only when we accept its reasoning first. The first part of that sentence is problematic from my viewpoint because although it stands from the facts given, it does not agree with the truth. Let me add some facts here into the case of John Nash. (6) In 1949, while studying for his doctorate, he wrote a paper which 45 years later was to win a Nobel Prize for economics and (7) Nash’s mental state became disturbed near the end of 1958. What does that tell us? It tells us that Nash’s research outcome— Non-cooperate games— that made him known to the world had nothing to do with Princeton ‘s attitude toward him about schizophrenia, because it was not until 1958 did his mental state become unstable. So the original conclusion collapsed when more information was mined. It might be true that the Princeton University always tries to provide the best research environment to the researchers and that might be the reason why it has been one of the best universities in the world, but the first part of the information (5) has been proved to be fault. So when we are trying to prove that Princeton University rewarded by providing excellent environment to the researchers, the example of John Nash is not a proper case to cite.
In fact there might be more categories than my simple classification of citations, and statements might fall into more than one category, so the complexity of citation might be much harder than my simple analysis above. When it comes down to it, citations are just information. They might contain true information and fault information. So first we need to identify the authenticity of information, and then consider the question of how to make use of it.
Though I am reluctant to be an irresponsible quoter, I will choose to quote the authorities in whatever field if I must believe—or only for the sake of citing – some of them. Why? The reason lies in the effect of name brand. Why do so many companies prefer candidates with higher education while inviting applications for a job? The answer is because of asymmetric information– the candidates know more about their ability than the companies do. For the companies, the cost of evaluating all the candidates’ ability is very high. In this case, other things being equal, companies are more willing to employ those with higher educational degree or graduated from a more famous school. Because by doing that, the companies can filter out less smart and unfit candidates with relatively low cost. It might happen that the outstanding and competent candidates are not selected by the discrimination caused by asymmetric information, but this possibility will not change the companies’ behavior, since they know by imposing discrimination the probability of selecting a better candidate is higher than otherwise would be. Being a novice, and facing the fact that I must cite certain amount of references while I do not have rich knowledge in this field, the best ways I could think of is to spend most of my time to gather information about authorities in the domain of my research topic, and cite their words as much as I can instead of studying the theory seriously and judging their viewpoints, conclusions or whatever using critical thinking. As a matter of fact, critical thinking is just nonsense under this circumstance, which I will discuss later. I can not emphasize enough how useful philosophy is, please firmly keep that in mind if you believe I am giving out pearls here. Since I am not doing lingual analysis, this part stops here.
appreciate the complexity and ambiguity in technical, managerial, social and legal issues in software engineering;
The first time I looked at the above goals that this course is trying to achieve, I felt so excited as if I had seen my brilliant future. As time passes by, I am very depressed. Actually I never think about if I am able to be a researcher or consultant in this field after this course, because I know it is impossible. The only thing I wonder is whether I can be a qualified software engineering participant. Again I want to emphasize that I am analyzing as a novice according to my definition which was given in the first place.
I want to start my analysis from economics with which I am relatively more familiar. First let’s suppose a sophomore attending an economics seminar with presentation of top economists in the world. He might hear many words that he thinks he has known very well, say, demand and supply, production possibilities frontier, marginal analysis, cost, comparative advantage, exchange rate, tradeoff, tariff, market and so on. But is the seminar valuable for him in terms of enriching his economic knowledge or improving his research skill? I am reluctant to conclude that it is impossible, but I am afraid that it is very likely to be the truth.
For an expert, it is very easy to identify whether a person is a novice or an expert. In order to do so, basically five minutes’ chatting is enough. I ever read an article translated into English would be understanding modern economics written by American economist Yingyi Qian. I was enlightened at once after finished reading it. In essence, it is all about framework. The framework of modern economics consists of three parts: Perspective, Reference and Analysis tool. One standard of identifying if someone has received systematic modern economic training is to test if there is an economic framework in his mind. I ever went to a BBS on a website about economics and saw something really interesting that a couple of people argued if the Demand Curve must slope downward. A famous Chinese economist named Dingding Wang wrote some articles announcing that the Demand Curve not necessarily slope downward, but could not convince any weighty economist. It is true that a curve can either slope upward or slope downward, but whenever talking about the Demand Curve in economics, it is a truth that it must slope downward, that’s determined by the framework of economics. It is very clear that Dingding Wang is first a philosopher, then an economist, because he does not have a modern economics framework in his mind. I agree that an economist who at the same time is not a philosopher is unlikely end up to be a significant one, and maybe there are more requirements demanded. In my opinion, Dingding Wang does much better in philosophy than in economics. He might have the ambition to unify economics, which in some sense is something similar to what Albert Einstein(1879-1955) tried to do in his old age in the field of Physics, but I do not think he can make it according his understanding about economics. Maybe he wanted to redraw the boundary for economics, but I am very doubtful if he knew the current boundary clearly. Almost all prominent economists make mistakes, let alone those without systematic and strict economic training. Don’t be surprised when you meet someone who tells you that the Demand Curve in economics can slope upward, for the world abound with untrained but highly vocal amateurs in every domain. Those who have received systematically training in certain field have the same framework. They know where the subject starts and where it ends, they know what a term means, they understand the merits and flaws of a model, they look into problems from same perspective, they analyze events on the same benchmark, and they know when to use an analysis tool is right and when is not…I am very interested to know what will happen to that lucky—or unlucky—sophomore during the seminar. I think many economists would be very interested in him at first and want to talk to him, for they consider him to be a talented and promising young genius in economics.
“Do you think it possible to eliminate the tradeoff between inflation and unemployment?” The first economist asked him.
“I don’t know.”
“Do you know there is a tradeoff between inflation and unemployment in the short run?”
“Yes, I do.”
“OK.” The first economist left.
The second economist talked to him, “Do you think the tax police being implemented now would cause greater deadweight loss than last year?”
“I have no idea.”
“Do you know what deadweight loss is?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I see.” The second economist left too.
The third economist came up to him and said, “I really can not agree with Friedman’s methodology, it is totally unreasonable.”
“Do you know Friedman’s methodology?”
“All right.” The third economists also left.
There are so many things he doesn’t know, and even if he knows them, he is too inexperienced to use them yet. No more economists come to the poor boy, because they saw what happened to him, and they judge from what they saw that the boy is not likely to be a genius since he attracted none of the economists talked to him and they decide to make good use of their time by exchanging research outcome with real economists. Don’t mind them, because, you know, they are economists. The poor sophomore feels very sad knowing that his cost of attending this seminar is much higher than he expected since what he can understand is so little. If I were him, probably I would make myself a “parrot”. Economist Gregory Mankiw said that even a parrot can be an economist simply by learning to say “demand and supply”. If I don’t understand what is going on very well, memorizing the most famous economists’ newest research outcome might be the best solution. That’s kind of the same feeling I have during the course.
The biggest problem for a novice is that he does not have a complete framework in his mind, just like that poor sophomore. Without the framework in mind, you cannot even point out the mistakes or ask meaningful questions. That’s the reason why I have become a very dumb student in class. Someone even cannot use the tool of critical thinking when the framework has not been stably established. Suppose a case of teaching pupils that one plus one equals two. What if someone breaks into the class and claims that one plus one equals two has not yet been proved completely in pure mathematics? He might be a critical thinker, but he can’t be an expert in education, because he doesn’t have a framework of education in his mind. In this case, that “critical thinker” should be kept outside the field of education no matter how good he can use the tool of critical thinking. Critical thinking is simply a tool, not the content. I remembered the first time I heard the word cost in class, the first thing appeared in my mind was what cost meant here. In economics, the cost of something is what you give up to get it. Whenever economists mention cost, they are always referring to opportunity cost, namely the cost defined above. Will you do a business when economists publish a report that says the profit of that business is zero? I will. Since unlike accounts only keep track of money, economists take into account the other elements other than money. So a business yields zero profit in an economist’s eye would actually be profitable in the account book. There are many terms, tools, skills, rules and so on in the field of Software Engineering, to set up a framework is to understand the terminology, to learn to use the tools, to master the skills, to know the rules and so on. I would devote more than 90% of the time and effort in building a student’s framework if I were the teacher. I won’t think too much about how well I can run when I can not even walk freely. Foundation is so important that the top researchers will only emerge from those with solid framework. As I mentioned before that an expert could identify another expert from a group of people easily. For a person who can talk more than two hours about Software Engineering but without a clear framework or practical experience in his mind, he is sure to be excluded by the experts. By the time I am able to be a qualified researcher, I must have set up the framework of Software Engineering completely. The chance of becoming a good researcher exists though slim, but it has not arrived yet. I am not looking forward to be a researcher or consultant, what I wish is that the framework of Software Engineering will arrive in search of me as soon as possible, in other word, I not to be a novice anymore. So I cry out loudly in my mind all the time, “framework, framework, framework…” and I reject those try to teach me how to run with gentle words, “I really appreciate your kindness, but I want to learn to walk first, thank you so much.” Even if famous Italian generalist like Vinci (1452-1519) spent so many years learning how to draw eggs, maybe we should ponder this case thoroughly. Similarly, to produce qualified researcher is unable to achieve simply by assuming they had solid foundations and concentrating on teaching them abstract methodologies. Basic knowledge (framework) is body, and methodology is soul. A body without soul can’t walk far, but soul without a body is nothing.
I am sure there are some people who already have profound understanding about Software Engineering consider it tough to imagine the difficulties that a novice faces while doing a so-called research project. To illustrate, just use my personal experience as an example. I am doing a research with three other students and we met in this afternoon. Basically they want to prove that there are biases between software developer and end user and then invent some tools or something to reduce that bias. I find myself asking various questions. Isn’t that obvious and normal that bias always exist between developer and user? (It is always!)Does it matter that there are biases? (I don’t think so) How is it possible to prove it in such a short time when we are not able to generate a lot of data? (Make up some? J ) How do we design a good questionnaire that can prove our conclusion? (Personal I think it is very unlikely) Even if we collect the data, is it possible that it doesn’t support the conclusion? (Very likely) Why do we have to make user understand UML diagram? (Not necessary) Should we focus on the translation between technological language and language that the user can understand instead of how to make them understand something like UML? (I think so) Should we focus on proving biases exist instead of how to eliminate that bias? (I think we should not) Is there any point to prove such a conclusion? (I think it’s quite silly) …I am very confused. Although so, I dare not to say the conceivable research topic is ridiculous. Because the question I asked here might be as silly as the stupid question of “can Demand Curve slope upward?” in economics. Whenever I think of that, I am afraid that the problem might lie in me. If I successfully did something that the so-called researchers never believed, so I will just insist on my viewpoints and keep moving forward. The problem is I have not a clear framework, so maybe I should try to identify what kind of questions are not to be asked first. Look, critical thinking is not helpful but only contributes to my confusion in this case. This is relative to another conclusion of mine about teacher selection for this course which I will discuss in the next part. If some still cannot imagine my puzzle Dom, please forget about the sophomore, just attend an economics seminar yourself, collect all the papers and work on a “researcher project”. Two days later, you’ll get what I was saying. In next part, let’s discuss something about education.
Dreamer or doer?
Software Engineering is a very practical subject and needs a great deal of practice. To learn something has three conditions: attitude, technique and environment. For those teachers who want to teach well must focus on these three conditions. They should inject confidence into students and help them overcome difficulties stand on their way, they should teach students how to do things right and avoid making stupid mistakes, and they should also provide the best learning environment for the students to make them fully understand what they are learning. For this course, only teaching theory is a great obstacle that prevents students from getting the most from it. When I was taking the same course in China , the teacher made students develop software synchronously so as to apply the theory. I find that so useful, because we were not just talking about theory but actually practicing it. Many people may have this experience that not until they really touched and felt something did they know what it was. There were some people who could recite lots of books of tactics very well in ancient china, though they never went through a war. But when they were sent to the battlefield as a commander, almost all of them lost the war. After all theory and practice are different things. For those want to make a living in a research institute, all they need to do is to develop theories and forget about practices completely, but it would be a tragedy for those need to make a living outside the ivory tower to imitate. I am being taught how to build something in our mind, and it may be the most beautiful thing in my head so that I feel so proud and fall into inebriation whenever I close my eye. But when someone asks me, “Can I see it?” My answer must be, “Sorry, I’ve never seen it with my own eyes myself.” All valuable researches should base on practices, and they can not survive alone.
I’ve heard that in Australia a person who has a certificate from TAFE is much easier to find a job than a postgraduate. After taking this course, I see why. I would do so if I were a boss. Other than the financial factor another possible reason is that a postgraduate might be too theoretical to do something practical. It might happen that the postgraduate reply the boss with something like “I don’t know how to do this for I only research, but if you want to know about some theory, I am your man.” When he is saying that, In contrast, the TAFE graduate is already working on it. Only a fool would hire a consultant who does not have practical software engineering experience, if there is one, I am sure his company would close down soon.
In my life, there were a few times that I was attracted by some really good people with rich knowledge and after listened to their speeches I just had a feeling that they blew my mind. Maybe that’s the use of good mentor—to learn the maximum knowledge within the shortest time. “Principles of microeconomics was the most eye-opening course I have ever taken. All subsequent courses in economics have exhibited the property of diminishing returns.” said Gregory Mankiw. I have similar felling when I am doing my master’s degree, because the most eye-opening courses in my life have been taken some years ago. To produce a qualified but not so-called researcher is a very difficult job and needs many strict requirements. On the student side, it is required that they have solid foundations, right way of thinking and doing things, good understanding about the framework, rich knowledge, stamina and scientific spirit and so on. On the teacher side, passion for teaching, the ability of discovering the student’s defeat in the framework, the ability of expressing themselves, the ability of arousing student’s interest, understanding student’s psychology, and abundance in both theory and experience and so on are needed. In a word, to be good learner and good teacher needs their own efforts and cooperation.
We have two teachers in this course. I don’t know why there are two but that’s the truth. One is enough, I strongly suggest. Teacher A always emphases “critical thinking” and that’s his tag. But the problem is that no material things were transferred into my mind except for the repetition of “critical thinking”. For someone who has never used critical thinking may benefit from a new concept being put into his or her mind. As for me, the information that is valuable received is very little. There are a few times I ended up regretting for the time lost after class and forced myself to think about “sunk cost” then forgot it and continued to do other things. Another thing is that I have a very strong felling that he is not a practical expert because basically all he said was methodologies and very abstract things. The class is becoming an English language class or whatever but Software Engineering. Teacher A may have rich experience of critical thinking and teaching, but that’s not a good reason that he should teach such a practical course. Teacher A is more suitable to be the supervisor of master of research or a doctor, not coursework students.
Teacher B is pretty good. I can see that he has ample experience and he usually goes to the heart of problems that include theoretical, technological and practical ones. Unfortunately his time is too little. In fact, 80% to 90% of the time should be allocated to him. And the rest of the time could be given to Teacher A if he must be involved in this course. Because the goal of this course should focus on the framework, not research skill. I am not saying that research skill is not important, but the truth is framework is the base and research skill is the extension, not reverse. It is attending to trifles and neglecting the essentials if that relationship is overturned.
A teacher has great influences on his students, especially when the teacher is a mentor. How important is a mentor? “…For reasons that are a mystery to me now, Harvey hired me as a research assistant for the summer after my freshman year. I knew very little economics, for I had taken only the two principles courses.… For whatever reason, Harvey did hire me, and the experience proved invaluable. I knew so little that Harvey had to teach me whatever he needed me to know. Spending a summer being tutored by a top teacher and scholar is the best learning experience I can imagine. To this day, I have never learned so much in so short a period of time.” Economist Mankiw Said so in his article “my rules of thumb”. I couldn’t help thinking of my experience. Just this morning, I went to the computer lab for the tutorial of parallel programming and computation. Since I don’t have any programming experience under UNIX, I just asked a guy in the same class who can use UNIX so well to teach me how to setup the PVM running environment and how to compile c file, and he said, “Sorry, I think you have to figure it out by yourself.” Then continue his chat with friends. Almost nobody was willing to spend a little time to offer me some help. Then I met this really good guy name Mevan. He showed me the things I need to know but I don’t and even explained source codes to me patiently. He spent around five minutes to help me, and it saved me probably a few hours that might be wasted in order to get started. Mevan is like a mentor since he has the personality of a mentor. I can imagine from my wonderful five-minute-experience under direction of Mevan that how much Mankiw learned in that summer. I envy him.
The difference between a mentor and a common teacher lies in that a common teacher assumes students know something and teach according to his schedule of teaching and a mentor test what students know and teach according to their schedule of learning. Since I am not familiar with UNIX, I had many troubles when doing the project. I went to the teacher and ask for help, but teacher just told me that he assumed that I knew UNIX and I needed to find some book about UNIX then worked on it. What a vague instruction? I am not hoping that he teach me UNIX all over again, but if I were a teacher, I would tell the student specifically all the things he need to master when doing this project and give him a book list then tell him which chapter to read. A mentor can really teach student a lot and save lots of their time. So I strongly appeal all the teachers not to assume students know something but really find out what they are missing in order to help them on the track and care for them from time to time, and they will move alone the right track healthily. These are absolutely not tiny little things. By doing that, a teacher will discover that his students are all qualified researchers one day. One thing worth to be pointed out is that good teachers can reduce the students’ cost while studying. How much cost students might pay when they did not receive timely point out of mistakes? Supposed a hypothetical example of a teacher assumes his students know conservation of energy and asks them to design something. After some time, the students hand in a blueprint entitled “Perpetual Motion Machine”. Isn’t that a sad story? I am not an educational expert, so I had better end this part now.
Content and Format
I ever asked the teacher a question in class, “What if an article is wonderfully written but the content is so ridiculous from your viewpoint?” Basically his answer was that it didn’t matter too much. But is that true? I am very doubtful. It’s so perfect that there is an article with brilliant format and wonderful content, but that seldom happens. There are lots of articles with barren content and bad format, some articles with good format but empty content, and few articles with fad format but excellent content. Outside the field of literature, content is the most important element that determines its value in its area. Even in the field of literature, content is more important than format is some sense. So can a novice write a valuable article in his area? It is almost impossible. He may write an article with a wonderful format, but the constraints he faces have determined the outcome.
Economics and philosophy are wonderful subjects to learn and they can be used to analyze so many things and predict the result. “People face tradeoff” is one of the economic rules summarized by Gregory Mankiw in his popular economics textbook Principles of Economics. That is a very good rule for analysis of many things. If I spend more time in reading books, I will have less time to watch TV or do other things. If I spend more money on entertainment, I will have less money to spend on food or other things. Everyone faces constraints such as money, energy, time and so on. For this course, the main constraints are knowledge and time. It is a very short course that last only a little bit longer than 10 weeks, that constraint determines the room for improvement is very small, unless we have a really good mentor here. Furthermore, if a student has a firm framework basically has already determined his mark to be good or bad. For a novice, under these constraints, a tradeoff arises– Content or format. It would be good that a novice can provide a paper not only full of excellent viewpoints but also in a good format. But facing the constraints I am afraid that is very unlikely to happen. A research paper not so well written but full of excellent ideas and good content is much better than that is excellent written but with nothing valuable. Knowledge never been digested can not be used properly, and digest needs time and comprehension. So no matter a novice focuses on the content or the format of a paper, he can’t come out with valuable result, for the ending is already determined at the start. Personal endeavor might change the bad result a little bit, but cannot be very much.
Back to the research project we are doing here. Though everyone faces constraints, every student faces different constraints. Some students know more about Software Engineering than others, some students have more working experience than others, and some students have better partners than others and so on. There are still elements outside the course itself. Some students have more courses than others so they have less time to work on the project. Once enough information of the students is obtained, the outcome of the research project is known already. For a novice, facing the fact that he has fuzzy framework about the course, he must cite a certain amount of words, he has surface understanding about Software Engineering, he has little or even no working experience, and he can’t be beneficial very much from the teacher according to my analysis above and so on, it is almost impossible for him to write a decent research paper. And if he happens to have less time to work on the research project, it is very possible that he might fail in this course finally.
According to my analysis above, I make a few predictions below.
1. At the end of semester, novice will have lower mark than experienced students.
2. At the end of semester, the best research paper will come from experienced students, and the excellent citation only appears in experienced students’ paper.
3. At the end of semester, averagely those only choose three subjects in this semester would have a better grade than those choose four, for they have more time and better energy to work on the research project.
4. At the end of semester, no novice will be qualified to be a researcher or consultant.
I must stop here for my own constraints. I need to finish my programming using PVM before next Friday and I still have not started yet. Furthermore, I need to read many paper about requirements and something about XML. Above is some brief analysis about some problems that a novice like me might have when doing this course, though the result is rather depressed according to my judgment, I will do my best. This is not a research paper, just some personal views, or maybe prose would be a better word to describe it. I hope my predictions to be wrong, so I might need to improve my analytic approach and ability. I spent some extra hours working on this, it might not be right and objective, however, all I hope is this course will be improved gradually.
One last thing, which is the most beneficial course for me so far? LaTeX! Good stuff, just something new and appealing to me. I have never used it, unfortunately, maybe next time.
September 7, 2003