When will I ever use this?

I’m trying to break myself of a bad habit.

No, not the one about drinking too much coffee! I mean the one that we’re all guilty of at one time or another; the one where we ask ‘When will I ever use this?’

From a certain point of view, it’s a perfectly valid question. You’re asking if the information you are currently learning will ever affect your life in some meaningful way. If you’re paying for your learning, such as in my current case, then you want to know if you’re actually receiving value for your investment. (Actually this is true even if it’s ‘public’ education – your time is certainly worth something, right?) This question can allow for an enlightening discussion of how the current topic relates to a real world application or, unfortunately, it can be a purely tautological answer: “You’re learning this because it will be on the exam.” While this may be true, it’s also the tool of a lazy teacher! Even if a given exercise is unlikely to be used in the ‘real world,’ it should still be applicable to the subject of a given class beyond simply something on which a student will be tested. Most of us are unlikely to ever be paid for being able to explain the theme of a poem, but this is likely to be a core skill in a literature class. You learn this skill because it is part of the basis on which other skills will be learned and not just because you will be tested on it in some way.

Of course the negative side of this question is that we rarely ask this if it’s something we’re enjoying. I think this is what I’m actually trying to break myself of doing — asking this question simply because I’m getting frustrated when learning something which I’m not enjoying. The above example of poetry analysis comes from a current class, and actually one which I am enjoying. I have yet to find myself asking “why am I learning this?” even though this skill is extremely unlikely to ever be a factor in web page development! (It may be hard to believe, but it is rare that you find a client which specifies that the PHP source code must rhyme, even if it is written in lines.) I love to read and actually enjoy poetry, so it really doesn’t occur to me to ask about practical use, even if I’ve never used this skill in my professional life.

On the other hand, I do find myself asking this with my pre-calculus class. This is not a class I particularly enjoy and I’m honestly struggling a bit to keep up with it. Just as with the literary class and analyzing themes, I can’t recall ever being called upon to factor a polynomial equation by hand, so from that point of view, these skills are equally inapplicable to my professional life, yet because it is the one I’m not enjoying, this is the one I’m finding myself questioning. I understand that these math skills are going to be needed in later classes and that complex math skills actually do apply more directly to my profession than most things from the English curriculum, but that doesn’t keep me from grumbling about it!

So when will I ever use this? This may be one of those times when having done this process backwards I can better see the sense in things. The real answer is that it is very unlikely that you will directly use everything you learn in school. There are certainly skills I’m learning as part of my Computer Science classes which I can look at from the view of someone who’s been in IT for more than 20 years and say that I’ve never used … or at least not directly. I can say that I’ve never written a mathematical proof as part of a development project. Yet, I have written many routines which had to follow specific steps and flows of logic. I note that doing proofs are oddly similar to that process! I may never learn to enjoy proofs (or polynomials, or imaginary numbers, etc.), but I think I will be more reluctant to dismiss this as irrelevant to my profession.

Everyone has their reasons

One more odd bit about going to college at my age: I’m much closer in age to the professors than I am to most of the students. (I’ve even been older than a few of them, but that was mostly at my previous school.) This means I’m also much more likely to find teachers and other school employees attractive, although I’m far less likely (as in “won’t do it”) to extend finding someone attractive to a perusing a physical relationship with them. (Never mind the fact that I don’t have time for another partner!)

I bring this up mostly due to a conversation I overheard between two students concerning a friend of theirs who had taken a class purely based on his attraction to the teacher. Now I can say that having a teacher I find attractive can certainly make a class more interesting. I’ve absolutely had classes with instructors that were very much my type, both physically and socially, and under other circumstances I might have at least made some casual inquiries as to their availability. However, I can’t imagine signing up for a class based on nothing more than the physical appearance of the teacher.

So I must create my first poll ever …

Define attractive however you wish – physical appearance, melodic voice, collecting designer bottle caps, whatever floats your boat outside the consideration of class subject! I’m very attracted to geeks, so naturally the person who was waxing poetically about zir Linux system and advocating for strong passwords really caught my attention. If this was the sole factor in a decision to sign up for a computer OS or security class with that person, I think it would be perfectly valid, even if this is a characteristic I find attractive. If I signed up based on the fact that ze was very much within one of my preferred physical categories … well, I think that would be questionable.

A what kind of watch?

Well that was a fun way to end this morning’s class. Our school offers students (and staff) the ability to sign up for text alerts to their phones for weather related events, closings, etc. This morning, with about 15 minutes to go in the class, several students’ phones gave out just such an alert stating that we had a “tornado warning” and that everyone should seek shelter immediately. Note that this warning did not come across the PA system, nor was there any kind of other official announcement. We got the professors attention and she decided that perhaps our lives were worth more than the last few minutes of class and dismissed us a bit early, suggesting that we might consider seeking shelter!

Once outside the classroom, I did note how calm everyone seemed to be and how other classes did not seem to be obeying the instruction to “Take shelter immediately!” The view outside seemed to be one of a clear, albeit cold, Wisconsin day. Now this is not to say that we couldn’t have a tornado this time of year – I have been in the position of sitting in the closet under our stairs for several hours one January evening, but the skies didn’t look anything like they did this morning.

After heading over to my help desk job in the lab and talking with some of the people there, we think what happened is either they were testing the system or they meant to send out a winter weather watch. Tonight we are supposed to get hit yet again with a heavy snow storm along with the expected weather problems in the morning. Still, it’s a lot better than a tornado!

Addendum: a guest from the National Weather Service on our local NPR station this morning did confirm that the error was on their part. They were testing their system and the “tornado warning” had a malformed header tag which caused it to be distributed to the outside world instead of remaining in their internal system. The school alerts (and it wasn’t just us) simply passed it along. Oops!

The first few weeks of the Spring Semester

In my last post the new semester had started, but I had not actually made it to class due to having a stomach flu. That first week I made it to class two whole days – Wednesday and Thursday. I at least got to meet most of my professors, but did not meet my professor for Introduction to 2D Design until the following week as she was out due to having, you guessed it, the flu. There seems something rather symmetrical in that, actually. Just to round out the fun of the first week, I ended up going to the emergency room on Friday with gastro-intestinal issues related to the flu with which I though I had finished.

I can recall with clarity my youth when I loved to be home sick instead of at school, especially when I had something as iron-clad as a trip to the ER to back me up on my legitimate absence. Now I find myself somewhat resenting my body for getting sick and I’d really much rather be in even my least favorite class than at home sick. Around the time I arrived in the ER, I was actually supposed to be interviewing for a on-campus job with technical services. I think it’s more than fair to say that I really would rather have been at the interview!

Fast-forward a few weeks and I’m firmly settled into my new routine, including that tech services job. (Yay for Semi-gainful employment!) Monday and Wednesday are my ‘long’ days – starting with my first class at 10:00 with my last class ending at 20:00. The new job has me here a few extra hours, but for some of those hours I was just hanging out in the LGBTQ center chatting with people anyway. (I do still get one day a week which I get to do that. This makes a good balance between being social with other students and getting a little income.)

Being here in Wisconsin it should come as no surprise that we’ve had several days of very hard snow. Thus far, I have only had one class canceled due to snow and that was a decision by the professor, not the school. While the school has closed due to snow twice this semester, both closings were for evening classes and neither affected me directly. The one canceled class did allow me time to catch up on some non-school related activities, although to be honest I kind of wish I had not already been dressed when I saw the email about the cancellation — I could probably use the sleep!

I should also post thoughts on individual classes, but I’m not going to do so right now. (I’m writing this during some down time at work and I’m off to do a walk around before I go home for the evening.)

Starting the Spring Semester (2013)

Winter Break for 2012

I haven’t posted anything here since the end of the last semester mostly because very little related to my college experience has happened. The break itself was rather mixed, good and bad.

Included among the good, my erstwhile in-laws took us to Cancun, Mexico for a week to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. I’d never been to Mexico before and quite enjoyed it. The experience helped me solidify my choice for a foreign language requirement (Spanish, obviously) and I’m resolved that the next time I go back I’ll be able to speak the language as more than a mumbled “¡gracias.”

Study Buddy Bella

Bella sleeping on my backpack.

The bad really comes down to the death of my long-time feline companion, Bella. She was my little study buddy kitty and would often hang out on my desk, or even in my lap as I worked at the computer in my office. I included her in some small way in at least one project per quarter since I first started college two years ago. I will miss her greatly, although I console myself as I can with the knowledge that she had a great life. She certainly couldn’t have been any more spoiled and that I did gladly.

The rest of the break was mostly spent working on private projects, trying to secure a campus job (mostly meaning ‘wait until the semester starts back up’), and just relaxing a bit. I spent a few days arranging my class schedule – full time this semester – ordered all my books, took care of financial arrangements and got ready to start back this week.

It can’t be that easy, can it?

So naturally I came down with a rather nasty stomach virus on Sunday, the day before my classes were to start. I had been out over the weekend with one of my sweeties, but she had started showing symptoms of illness on Saturday morning, followed by the conformational vomiting on Saturday evening. (Did I mention this was our anniversary weekend?) We decided to make the best of things and just spend some quiet time together … mostly her sleeping and me playing Civilization, although we did watch a few episodes of Twin Peaks. When I got home on Sunday, I had to make a mad dash for the bathroom as soon as I got in the door for my own “conformation” of the symptoms I’d been trying to ignore on the way home.

It’s now Tuesday afternoon. I slept most of the remainder of Sunday and almost all day Monday, eating very little and aching quite a lot. Today, I had just enough energy to take a shower. I do feel better, but I am drained and thought better of leaving the house. At least I’m eating regularly again, although I haven’t had coffee since Sunday morning … quite a statement when you understand I usually drink a pot a day!

I contacted all of my professors, letting them know the situation and asking for directions on materials I should review. Luckily as it was the first day of class, there was very little I actually missed. (Although I’m still loathe to miss any class!) I’m planning on being in class tomorrow, although I may still be hurting a bit. At least I’m far past the contagious stage!

Classes this semester:

  • ART 102 – Introduction to 2D Design (part of my Web Design minor)
  • CSCI 245 – Assembly Language Programming
  • ENG 167 – Introduction to Literature
  • MATH 112 – College Algebra II (I decided I should probably get a refresher before attempting Calculus!)

More Studying May Be In Order

It’s been a quiet week in Lake George … Wait, no it hasn’t!

My final exam of the semester was on a Friday evening at 17:45 (that’s 5:45 PM for most people) for a class that was usually held on Monday and Wednesday evenings. This in and of itself wouldn’t have been so bad, but we were expecting family to arrive at our house that evening for our annual Yuletide (Winter Solstice) celebration the next morning. Due to various conflicts, we were holding it on Saturday the 15th instead of closer to the actual solstice on the 21st. The upshot of this being that not only was I spending a good portion of my Friday night taking an exam, I was doing so while loved ones were supposed to be arriving in my home, some of them driving a considerable distance to do so. There were several students that didn’t bother to show up for the exam; presumably they either had sufficient grades they didn’t need to do so, or they arranged at alternative test time. Best of luck to them, I guess. I suspect the time and day of the exam had a lot to do with these absences!

Walking around campus afterwards was like walking through a ghost town! The place was utterly deserted and eerily quiet.

So here we are a few weeks later and of course I’ve received my grades and everything …

Well, at least I passed. My final grades for the two classes in my first semester were a C for Discrete Mathematics and a B for Computer Science II. This gives me a current degree GPA of 3.566 … which is a bit of a drop from the 4.000 with which I started. (It also leaves me with just under 100 hours more of credits required for my degree.) While these grades came as a bit of a shock when compared to the tech school where I was getting a 4.00 with every single class, I’m actually more proud of these grades because I felt like I actually had to work for them!

When I transfered into UWP I expected the classes to be harder. I wanted the classes to be more challenging as I felt like I wasn’t really getting full value from my highly-inflated tuition costs from that other school. I think it’s time to speak of that experience a bit. When I first started to pursue my degree, I was just turning 40 years old. Except for the occasional short class for some work-related functions, I had not been in an actual classroom for more than 20 years. My high school grades weren’t really great, particularly my senior year, and I had no recent history of academics to present as an example of my interests for potential admittance. I was desperate to do something, anything really, in order to make my situation better and I didn’t think I had a chance in hell at getting into a traditional college.  In other words, I was perfect prey for a certain type of school with low requirements and high-pressure sales.

Out of a desire to not incur any kind of lawsuit, I will not specify which one, but if you’re in the United States you’ve probably seen their commercials. They’re the ones which had an image of the VLA radio astronomy observatory with voice over about a railway communications system. They are usually identified with three letters and their former parent corporation was involved with telephones and telegraphs. Yes, that one, much to my chagrin.

I ignored that initial uneasy feeling for a very long time. I must make it clear that I cannot fault my teachers nor most of the administration staff at the campus which I attended. I think most of them really did have a desire to educate and help others, although I should have taken the hint at how many of them would refuse to directly discuss the negative publicity the school was receiving in the local and national press. (I’ll note that a few did make veiled references to the fact that the school has the highest tuition rate of any school in the industry, but would then change the subject, possibly after noting that it sure didn’t go to the teachers!) I cannot say that I learned nothing there, but the classes were amazingly easy and much of the learning came from my own love of the subjects and not from the required material. Again, the teachers were usually helpful with questions and my desire to go beyond the material — apparently students who were actually actively engaged being somewhat of a rarity there, but the official materials tended to be barely above the high school level at best.

After two years I couldn’t ignore the fact that I’d made a serious mistake in going there and I began to look into traditional schools. I really wish I had done so initially, although I don’t know if I could have gone straight into that without the first experience. As poor as their academic standards are, at least they did get me back into the habit of doing homework, taking tests, attending classes and other school activities that we as adults do sometimes blow off all too easily. (While loudly proclaiming these activities as important for our children, of course!) I think I’m now in a better position to appreciate that I will learn more from a class with harder material and more stringent project requirements: I want an actual education and not just a piece of paper!

It’s still been made clear to me that I’m going to need to make school a higher priority and juggle my work load from other sources around such to accomplish this. That’s certainly going to make it interesting for client projects! I’m looking into other funding sources, including setting up a donation page on gofundme. I’m also seeking a campus job with the thought that they’re far more likely to be understanding of “I need to study for an exam this week” than my clients! (Not to mention that it’ll seriously cut down on my commute time.)

Now may be better than Then

Although going to college now presents many challenges to me, I’ll say that there are absolutely many advantages over going at an age when I traditionally would have gone. If I had entered college straight out of high school, it would have been in the fall of 1988 and most likely would have been a state college in North Carolina. Both of these bring up several issues on a personal level and some relating to my chosen field of study.

As I said in my introductory post, I am majoring in Computer Science and minoring in Web Design. The field of computers and programming has advanced so much in the last twenty-four years that it’s difficult to know where to even being with the changes. There were certainly programming classes back then and even personal computers, but they were pretty different than what’s offered now. My minor absolutely did not exist yet. The Internet did exist in 1988, but Tim Berners-Lee had yet to write his proposal for  HTTP and the first ‘webpage’ wouldn’t be around for another three years or so. The concept that businesses would one day not only actually pay people to code these things, but really wouldn’t even be taken seriously as a business if they didn’t have one, was as incomprehensible as a business routinely advertising by skywriting.

Speaking of things that (mostly) didn’t exist in 1988 …

After my first actual meeting with my UW student advisor, I was wondering around the student service area – taking care of financial arrangements, making sure I was properly registered, that sort of thing. There was a sign pointing to the different student service departments available and one of the listings was for the Student LGBTQ resource center. I happen to be bisexual, and I’m very comfortable with this fact, but I didn’t come out to more than a very few friends until I was 21 … which would have been about  my third year of college if I had gone in 1988. While I know there were some LGBTQ organizations in the NC area in the late 1980′s, mostly they were at private schools (Duke University being a noted example) and were certainly not officially endorsed by the school! Some histories of such organizations talk about how progress was when the school administration moved from a policy of unquestioningly expelling a student for being gay to “only” strongly suggesting counsellings and other cohesiveness to “correcting” their behavior.

OK, make no mistake, I’m going to school to further my education and to get my degree. Assuming I’m not being actively discriminated against, I don’t think I actually need such a center anymore than I need one for any of the many other subcategories which could be used to describe me. Unfortunately my orientation is one such category which has been used to discriminate against people … including myself. Having such an organization – and one recognized and actively condoned by the school – means a great deal to me. Also, although I didn’t exactly enjoy the discrimination I’ve encountered in my life, I’m glad that I can talk to my younger fellow students and tell them about how things really have changed for the better! (This doesn’t mean we should rest comfortably now, but that whole It Gets Better thing isn’t bullshit. It may take time, but it really does get better!)

I may have waited a long time to get started, but I really do think this was a better starting place; “Now” is better than then.