Weldon J. Wilson
Professor of Physics & Engineering
University of Central Oklahoma
F21 Class of 1994
Weldon Wilson went into academia with eyes wide shut, when it seemed to him that nothing further that life could inflict was beyond his resilience. In spite of everything he still believes (some would say, naively believes) that teaching and academic research is the last great profession. When confronted once by a local media person with the demand to characterize himself in one sentence, he replied, I am a student of life. Life has done its part by administering frequent tests to him. Academic institutes of note followed life by not hiring him and, after random-walking through a myriad of industrial research centers scattered about a brief sojourn at the University of Central Florida, he landed at UCO to begin his academic life some fifteen years later than optimal.
Between a wide variety of service tasks, Weldon is occasionally able to do a little research and teaching at UCO. He is gnawing at the heart of darkness on both these fronts. His research, which relates in one way or another to computational physics, nonlinear phenomena, and field theory, is undistinguished. It oscillates frenetically between the physics of crack propagation (if he has been able to see further than others in this field, it is only because he was standing amidst dwarfs) and the physics of the population explosion (which no one believes, but everyone wants to hear about), to fundamental physics (whose fundamental significance seems apparent only to him). Feel free to browse through his CV and its list of problems that have captured his research interest of late.
To understand how Weldon arrived at this (his wife says quixotic) stage in his life you can go through his website (http://www.physics.ucoke.edu/wwilson). If nothing else it may give some guidance to others in how to avoid some of his mistakes. Through it all he has managed to produce a few publications (He is, after all, not a total dolt). When cornered, he admits that none of these would meet the Nobel Prize Committee criteria but, he continues, some were pretty interesting, at least to me and some other guy in far eastern Siberia. You can go through the publication list, and follow his research path, trying to see where Weldon came from, where he went astray, and, if you have a good extrapolation code (which he himself unfortunately still has no idea how to write), deduce where he is heading.
In view of UCO's strong support and emphasis nowadays on research it is clear that Weldon has never really learned how to play the research game at UCO. He has recently attended international conferences as an invited speaker and participant, yet wound up paying for a substantial part of his travel and accommodation expense himself. He had to turn down an invitation to speak at a recent Gordon Research Conference because no university approval or support was forthcoming and he was unwilling to inflict more financial burden on his family. And while Weldon is the only proposal writer in the department with a track record of success with the NSF, his time is finite and the department has elected to ask him to point his writing skills and time in other directions. Through it all, his support of local research meetings has been strong. His attendance at the Annual Oklahoma Academy of Science and the regional AOK-American Association of Physics Teachers meetings has been steady and he has never attended without presenting a paper. In many years, his was the only paper submitted to these from UCO.
In the final analysis, Weldon's research lies in the margins of physics and will most likely remain there. While possibly interesting, such marginal physics research is seldom noteworthy. His biggest failing as a researcher is a lack of over-specialization and a mysterious inability to attract graduate students, having only produced seven maste' s students in the last five years at UCO. He has the rather quixotic belief that the primary purpose of research is to advanced the state of knowledge of the discipline rather than the career of the researcher. He should have tended more carefully to the latter during his tenure at UCO.
Weldon's teaching is as quixotic as his research, having taught some nineteen different courses during the last five years at UCO. He feels fortunate when he only teaches one evening course per semester and feels doubly blessed when a night course ending at 10:00 PM is not followed by a class at 8:00 AM the next morning. Any evaluation of him as a teacher must be placed in this context. In spite of all this, his student evaluations at UCO have been passable. This says more on the kindness and tolerance of his students than his talents as a teacher. In the last five years at UCO the overall GPA for the undergraduate courses he has taught (excluding introductory labs) is 2.52; it is 3.21 for the graduate courses he has taught. Such GPA's are perhaps not high in these days of grade inflation, but they are higher than he believes was merited. While his academic honesty in this regard then is somewhat questionable, he has also largely failed to inspire his students to learn as much as he thinks a good teacher would. But, as a colleague of his once pointed out, "The really neat thing about this job is that we get paid the same here whether they learn anything or not."
Weldon's teaching philosophy is simple. Even great teachers cannot teach another person anything, they can only inspire others to learn for themselves. To my knowledge, no one has ever claimed any of his lectures were inspirational. One of his few beliefs is that no answer is any good unless (1) you understand how you got it and (2) you know how inaccurate it is. This belief has annoyed more than a few of his students. Weldon takes learning and teaching seriously, perhaps too seriously, and is generally prepared and organized, perhaps too organized, in teaching his classes. At best, Weldon is little more than a mediocre teacher for the students at UCO.
Weldon is a theoretical physicist by training so it is somewhat ironic that the task of directing the general physics laboratories has fallen upon him the last four years. He views this a service to the department and is willing to do it if it is the department's desire. In spite of this he has done a passable job in this area. He has substantially revised the lab manuals and has incorporated a variety of computerized experiments into the freshman physics labs. The writing and revision of the lab manuals has managed to occupy his free time between semesters. He has initiated a weekly lab instructors meeting to go over the next week's experiment. He has met with adjunct lab instructors who could not attend the regular weekly lab instructors meeting during his free time in the evening.
Weldon is by training and temperament a theoretical physicist. With the current direction of the department toward engineering, it is difficult to see much of a future for him at UCO. While his personal support for the engineering direction of the department has been lukewarm at best, it is ironic that the department has called upon him to play a key role in preparing the paper work associated with new programs and similar proposals. He has done this to the best of his ability in spite of the fact that his heart was not completely in it.
It is ironic that in Weldon's current position the most important area, support, is where he is least comfortable and has few real skills. His support at parties, dedications, salutes, dinners, ceremonies, and the like has been token at best. His greatest support has been his presence around the department for long hours each day both during and between semesters so that he is generally on campus and available to students and colleagues. Unfortunately, for a metropolitan commuter college like UCO this does not seem to be a support area of great necessity or corresponding regard. As to service, he has come to resent the time service at UCO takes from his primary duties of teaching and research.
So in summary, Weldon is barely an average researcher and teacher who wishes he had more time to get better at both. He is less than average in service and support, but has no real desire to extend his efforts in these areas beyond their current limits.
This self-evaluation is an attempt to draw a straight line through what in all probability are random points. Such data on a graph always look more persuasive with a straight line drawn through them. In order not to be misled in these cases one is usually better off considering the raw data as it stands. So consult Weldon's recent accomplishments listed briefly below within the context of his meandering existence.
After Weldon was tenured at UCO in 1996 and then again after he became a full professor in 2000, he sat the following goals for himself which he has by and large accomplished:
- Give UCO students the standard of teaching they deserve.
- Integrate computers and automatic data acquisition experiments into the General Physics Laboratories.
- Present one paper per year at both a physics teaching conference and a research conference.
- Maintain a research program in theoretical physics and remain an active researcher.
He set the following goals for himself, which he has by and large failed to accomplish:
- Assume an active role in shaping the mission and the future of the physics department.
- Develop and strengthen the graduate program.
- Transform the Descriptive Astronomy course into a popular general education alternative.
- Build up the reputation of the physics department at UCO.
What little success that has been met in achieving any of the aforementioned goals was purchased at some would say too high a cost. In the end a man has only his sense of humor and his reputation. I am afraid that Weldon has little of each left after his years at UCO. It has been said that achieving success in higher education is a little like being a successful football coach You have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it's important. In the final analysis, I'm not sure Weldon understood the game. We cannot direct the wind, we can only adjust the sails. He should have spent more time trimming the sails.