Dear new faculty,

 

I’ve been reading the bios of new faculty on this site (below). I enjoy learning about their research interests and discovering what they have learned from students. At universities we live a powerful reality that should be central to all of human society: we learn from each other.

 

UNM Provost James Holloway

My own research is in the area of modeling and computational physics – using the tools of mathematics to create understanding and predictions of the behavior of complex physical systems. I had a colleague who once told me all he really wanted students to learn was that mass, momentum, and energy are always conserved. And that from these three apparently trivial statements (themselves fascinating consequences of some simple symmetries of the universe) combined with the logical systems of mathematics, we can describe so much of the world around us, from the behavior of oceans, to ruptures of the earth, to the flow of traffic on a highway, or the flow of humans at a rock concert. I’m fascinated by the powerful utility of simple ideas and the infinite complexity that can arise from simplicity.

 

A few years ago, I taught a class in Ghana on appropriate technology needs assessment. Most of the students were first and second year, from both the US and from various African nations, but I had a senior along with me to help manage the program. As a growth experience for her, I asked her to give a lecture to the class, and she elected to talk about failures in appropriate technology development. She shared that the well-known group Engineers Across Borders publishes an annual report and analysis of its own failures, so that all could learn from their mistakes. The examples my senior student selected and the impact her presentation made on the younger learners in our class was quite striking to me. Of course, I knew about the value of learning from failure, but I’d never thought to teach failures as a way of learning. Her lesson had a profound impact on approach to the Engineering Across Cultures class that I was teaching at my home university in the US. I began much more systematically to incorporate scrutiny of failures and the investigation of poor analyses into my own teaching.

 

When I was associate dean in engineering at the University of Michigan, I also had the chance to work with faculty and students in fine arts, and learn from them something of the power of systematic and intentional critique, a mode of inquiry that is fundamental to their teaching and learning.

 

Through these interactions and many others, I’ve come to believe that the core cultural element of university life is critique. Across our many modes of inquiry, analysis, service, creation, and discovery, this is the common skill that we display. Universities are centers of critique, where creative ideas are born and tempered in the crucible of critical examination.

 

And of course, I must close by acknowledging, as a nuclear engineering professor, that my colleague was wrong. Mass-Energy is conserved, but not mass and energy separately. But that’s a tale for another day.

 

James Paul Holloway
Professor of Nuclear Engineering
Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs

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