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.   


Anonymous said...

Your "learning attitude" sounds a lot like Zen's " beginner's mind".

mark scotch said...

good job, never quits learning, it appears you're learned that which is maybe the biggest lesson of all.

Mitch R. said...

Matt: i have told you before that school is a game in which you compete with your peers and not against a perfect standard. You can beat the smart but lazy one by working harder, but you can't beat the smart ones who bust their ass! I told myself when I went off to the big universoty that it was just a weed out process. I was not disappointed. Anyway, glad to see you went back to school.