Saturday, May 17, 2014

Some thoughts on going back to school

I'm two semesters into my return to school. I've managed to achieve my GPA goal (even if those weren't the grades I deserved). I'm off academic probation for the first time since I don't know when. So what have I learned?

I had to start out in community college because I had been kicked out of ISU back in 2000. I honestly didn't know whether or not I could hack it. I kind of figured I was an irresponsible know-it-all who was really not cut out for anything remotely academic. While I can't say for sure that I'm not an irresponsible know-it-all (I can think of one or two people who might describe me that way) I do know that I managed to pull off a 4.0 at DMACC. Honestly it's a little bit disappointing when you want to work on improving your writing and you get a paper back with a perfect score and a “Great job! Loved the Wittgenstein quote.” If anything makes you look like a know-it-all it's a Wittgenstein quote. Worse than perfect scores with banal comments though are A- scores with no comments at all. It's tough to improve if I don't know what to improve upon.

So anyway, I got back into ISU with the help of a few recommendation letters (thank you!). I still wasn't sure I could handle it. After all were my grades at DMACC just a reflection of my peers? It wasn't too hard to set the curve in those classes. Add to that jumping straight into 400 level philosophy classes after taking 100 level survey classes. Whatever one may say it is not true that philosophy is just bullshit. If it is bullshit it is very specific bullshit. You can be wrong, very wrong. I hadn't really bounced serious ideas off of someone else in a very long time and I know how bad it is to work in an echo chamber. What if my ideas were way off, stoner philosophy, or just plain crazy?

It didn't take long to figure out that school is not that hard. It is embarrassingly easy. Do the work, show up for class, ask questions. That's it. Occasionally I felt like I was cheating when I saw more talented students skipping class and turning in assignments late or not at all. Why should I get a better grade than someone who understands the material better just because I followed instructions? What is a grade supposed to reflect anyway?

I did pick up a few other lessons along the way: Don't worry about not understanding something or not doing as well as you'd hoped. This is what I have come to call a "learning attitude”. Why are you in school? To learn. If you already knew it you wouldn't be in school so don't be surprised when you get something wrong. Rather take that as an opportunity to improve. If you do think that you already understand then check your knowledge. I made sure to ask questions and try to restate my understanding of what we were learning. My motto became: Dare to be Stupid. If I said something in class and got it wrong I counted that as a victory. I had learned that I didn't understand. I knew where I stood and could move from there.

I can't say that I've learned these lessons perfectly. There is a (large) part of me that thinks I ought to get everything right and if I don't it's simply because I am not smart enough. I have to constantly remind myself how to succeed. Even though I have now managed a 4.0 at ISU I am still afraid of the echo chamber. Even though a (deeply flawed) first draft won me a scholarship for best paper I know I have a long way to go.   

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Summer Break: Semester's Reading

Sorry it's been so long, but if you're a follower you know that I've been busy. Specifically I've been back in school. Now that I'm free for the summer I can go back to blogging in full force. Actually right now I'm feeling a little eager to blog, but that might just be because for the last semester I've been writing 2+ short essays per week. As I noted on my very first blog post though I started the blog (in part) to work on my writing in the hopes of going back to school. So that happened.

Anyway, hopefully I'll be back at it for the summer. 2-4 posts per month is the plan. I'll start with an easy one: Books read Fall and Spring semesters.

I'm not going to recount the books I read for class, though since I did take a sci-fi lit class in the Fall I certainly could. I'm just going to talk about the books I read for “fun”. (It has been a while though so I may have missed a few.)

-A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
(Almost) Exactly the same as the movie. Extremely well written and a quick read. I had been intimidated by it as it is one of those “classics”. I ought to know better by now. Books do not generally become classics if they are poorly written and unengaging. It isn't as shocking as the movie, I don't see how it could be, but it is worth the read. It's not for everyone and if it's not for you you probably know it. Still, if you read it or watch the movie you must commit. Watch the whole thing and don't dismiss it until you've thought about it a little.

-The first 200 or so pages of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Some books you just feel obliged to read (ironic, no?). I have been trying to read something, anything, by Rand for about 15 years now. This is the most I've managed. Some of you will ask, “Why do you even bother.” Others will ask, “What is wrong with you that you did't get it?” To the first question: I want to take it seriously and get beyond the caricature. Some people whom I really respect cite her as a major positive influence. One thing I don't like doing is simply dismissing someone's opinion without understanding why they hold it. I don't like saying, “You like/believe this because you're stupid.” It is condescending and stifles any meaningful conversation that could have been had. To the second I can only say, I don't get it. I have a basic understanding of the philosophy and I can see ways in which it makes sense. I can also see some problems with it. But really that isn't why I stopped reading it. Her prose is awful. It's like getting hit with a sledgehammer and not in a good way. She could have written a book on any of my favorite things and I still would have hated it.

-A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
A pretty darn good sci-fi novel. There's a lot to think about in this novel, mostly on the subject of what a mind is and how information moves. There is some fun sci-fi alienness, but that doesn't excite me much unless it's tied to an idea. Here just about every alien has a different form of mind and asks the question of what it means to have/be a mind. How does technology form a part of our mind? Is a community a mind? Is a mind a community? How do we get a detailed picture of the world with only the very little information that our senses give us? Good stuff.

-The Theory That Would Not Die by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
I thought I needed a little introduction to Bayes' theorem and this looked like a good way of getting a taste without getting too technical. It's a good story of how, where, and why the theorem works. I would have liked to see a little more discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the competing frequentist view however. One thing that I was grateful for was the appendix that shows (with actual numbers!) what is going on with Bayes. Working (struggling mightily) through the problems made me understand much better than I would have if it had just said: Bayes=Good (the text comes close to being a hagiography). Still, I'm not a committed Bayesian yet. I don't think it solves all the world's problems, but I do think it is a useful tool.

-The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris
Have you heard of utilitarianism? Yes. Then you don't need to read this book. A cogent defense of utilitarianism, but nothing new and fails to solve the old problems (if you consider them problems).