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.

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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!