Soapbox: Fear and Loathing In The Student Union

There are two statements that I feel confident in expressing about this website. 1) It is largely focused on topics relating directly or indirectly with gaming, and 2) it is mine. Number 2 should not necessarily be seen as in conflict with the idea that it also belongs to Certis, as I think the two concepts exist in an oddly stable balance that, like Nitroglycerin, maintains quiet constancy when not disturbed. By and large, assumption 1 takes precedence, and we keep our focus on generating content that does not dramatically deviate from readerÂ's expectations, but the very existence of assumption 2 allows for rare deviation into a realm of issues that relate only with our lives beyond digitized fiction, and probably are of interest to a number of people best counted on a single hand.

Today is such a day, and I offer the opportunity to read more only for those with voyeuristic tendencies matched by an equal desire for mundanity.  I really know how to generate enthusiasm for these articles don't I!

What I want to know is: what happened to the University environment? When I was young I imagined that a University would be a place that one attended in the effort to accumulate knowledge from experts paid to distribute knowledge, where one would be then quizzed on the knowledge accumulated, and that an arbitrary letter grade below G and inexplicably excluding the letter E would be assigned for the retention of said knowledge. I imagined the college student’s brain much like a sponge, of varying volumes, which one could choose to saturate with education or beer depending. Occasionally, some might be able to blend the two into some kind of hyper-intelligent drunken state, though when regurgitated (in a variety of ways) said information would not be as pure as when absorbed, and would probably stink a bit. The gist of my point is that I envisioned an environment based on accumulation and regurgitation.

This is not how Universities work in a Liberal Arts track.

I began my college career as a lush. That didn’t pan out so well, and for a long time it looked as though I might become an advanced lush with a minimum wage job loading boxes from a dock into a truck. This was not a particularly substantive life for me, as I can be the sort of person who will suddenly and for no apparent reason consider the properties of time as a structured dimension in the same universal context as space, and formulate a (wrong) theory on the associations of the two. This was different from my coworkers who measured with equal consideration exactly how many beers would be necessary to sleep with Loretta Lynn, many of whom inexplicably answered none. The very possibility that the constituent elements which bonded in frightening quantum ways to form Loretta Lynn had been birthed in distant long-dead stars and ejaculated into the universe through explosions that could wreak havoc across light-years had never, not once, occurred to them.

I guess you should understand that I have a non-traditional inverted inferiority complex, which means that, by and large, I consider a great many people to be far inferior. If I may steal a moment of honest insight, because I have serious doubts that any of you are reading this and will hold me accountable, I am an incredibly judgmental person. It’s a weakness that motivates me nicely, if only for the reason that I never ever want to be compared with most people. If I find myself in the minority on most issues, it is likely because in my opinion the minority probably have a little better insight than those who’ve lumped themselves in with the opinion of Skippy who runs the Mobil Station near 4th street. Of course, there are obvious exceptions, usually moral ones, in which I will agree with the vast majority that, no you can not poke a number 2 pencil through your neighbor’s ear when he leaves his barking dog out overnight, and no you can’t run Driving Instructor vehicles off the road for sport, but that should go without saying. I’m not suggesting I’m a psychopath, only that people are stupid.

Ultimately this blend of forces drove me back to University, where I began to study Computer Science. I’m sure many of you have studied CS in some capacity along the way, and to you I scratch my head and wonder how you trudged through. Granted I studied this field at Auburn University where they helpfully taught us a language that pretty much no one uses anymore, Ada, if in fact anyone ever did. Ada, developed by the Department of Defense to guide missiles and frustrate studennts, is in many ways like C, except that it is much more boring. I pushed on for a considerable amount of time, and learned many important functions that I’ve since happily forgotten. I remember we talked about stacks at one point, and then we did something with searching algorithms, and I think I cried for a while.

When I left Auburn I was very happy. I’m pretty sure I gestured rudely at Auburn several times on the way out. I can say, however, that CS molded itself a lot more closely to the ideas I had about Universities as we accumulated knowledge of a kind, and then implemented that knowledge to create something else entirely. It was a slight deviation, but it made sense. The University of Minnesota, where I’ve since changed to a Humanities track does not make sense.

First there is a focus on group work. If I had to pick one thing that I would expunge from the University system as a whole, and perhaps drag into the street and club with an axe handle, it would be the concept of group work, and possibly Philosophy majors. Here we see my superiority flaring, because I’m pretty sure that every group I’ve ever been a part of has been hampered largely by the inclusion of other humans to my important work. I know it’s a bit delusional, but I’m pretty sure that every idea I have is a really good idea, which is why I go around having ideas in the first place. Group work only presents the problem that other people who are not quite so visionary may corrupt or even reject my ideas, which is fine in some respects except that I still have to suffer the graded results.

Second is the idea of subjectivity. Now, don’t get me wrong. The very existence of subjectivity as a valid educational strategy means that I will graduate with a very impressive looking number. The problem, is that so will everyone else. In the subjective environment one can soak up, or not, information from a class, then blend it or even replace it in your porous cerebral material with any number of substances, squeeze out the resultant solution on a piece of paper and present it as a well reasoned argument. The only possible way to fail a class these days is to physically assault your professor during class with a garden rake, and even then you’d have to do it in such a way so not to be interpreted as a physical manifestation of T.S. Eliot’s isolated despair in his Lucretia imagery.

But, finally, and most insidious of all is the focus on "Critical Thinking Strategies". I’m just waiting for the day when the Board of Regents decide to eliminate all Liberal Arts majors for an overreaching Bachelor’s of Critical Thinking. I swear, the next time some Birkenstock wearing teaching assistant tells me to think critically about a subject I’m going to take that black beret out of his hemp backpack and stuff it down his clove cigarette smoking pie-hole! I mean, isn’t thinking critically kind of the whole point of thinking about anything in the first place, do they really need to make it a directive to not think stupidly about a topic.

"Class, would anyone like to discuss the allegorical significance of the whiteness of Melville’s whale in Moby Dick?"

"Richard Simmons!"

"No, think critically. Critically."

"Oh, then you must be referring to the duality of the whale as a force of both God and destruction as a foil to Ahab’s obsessive darkness."

Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited that I’ll be receiving my degree come May, and I’m certainly convinced that a college degree is a practical necessity in today’s world, but I had hoped so very much that I might complete the track with slightly more practical knowledge. It seems to me, considering how liberally high marks are distributed in a University environment that now frowns on competition, that a degree has much less to do with knowledge or enlightenment, and much more to do with endurance. I think the most a degree says to potential employers now is: Look how long I’ll stick with an exhausting project despite its inherent flaws. Hire me!

- Elysium


And only now you see the horrible truth of it.


Hrm. You say that you tend towards feeling superior to those around you, but it never occurred to you that most people need to be taught how to think critically?

I've never been told to "think critically" directly, though. It seems sort ridiculous- like walking up to a kid learning his times table and saying (in a kind, patient voice I'm sure) "learn by rote!" or something. Maybe I just go to a good school or something. The profs here are paid to teach, not to publish, which may be part of it. And I've only had one who gives more or less uniform grades (and we all make fun of him for it, despite the fact that we like the guy). This works to my disadvanatage, because in classes with a fair spread of grades, I tend to either be at the top of the class or near to it. So basically I end up with a B instead of an A/A+ -_-

Glad I got my Bachelor's in a "useful" area, even though hiring is scant.

SO with you on the group work thing. I hate working as part of a team (except in gaming) as I do find the discussions and strategy meeting etc just so... Jeez it makes me want to take some of the people out and ***** slap them into the next decade. At least working in my department there are only 4 of us and we've all known each other for years and we all hate the annual "think-tank" meetings. More like "Inane stupid assinine suggestions mixed with far too much brown nosing and networking and big phrases that mean nothing tank"

That's me not winning the teamworker of the year pennant - what a pity!

Kegboy, I feel your pain!  You know, I really don't actually mind working with someone I know and trust.  For example, when all is said and done I trust Certis enough to make this site with him, because I know he's going to produce smart content and follow the same general goals as I am.  I think what really gets me is the slapdash way groups are organized.  Ok, everyone who's last name is R through Z get in a group and work on a project that will affect all of your grade by 10%!  Hey, hang on a second, I'd like to take responsibility for my own 10% of my grade thank you very much.

The degree as a rule dose not prove what you have learned but rather that you can learn. So when you hire somebody with a degree in a general direction you should have a reasonable good expectation that you can say to them, go find out all about this come back and present to this folks about it, implement it, or file a lawsuit against it :). Now you can go back to box loading at a higher pay because you can say definably in the interview that you have a college which shows you can learn how to be the best box loader possible.

Always hated college, but then I have never been big on jumping through other peoples arbitrary hoops. Yes group work is inherently Evil, if I wanted to talk to others that know nothing about a subject or only have read the same stuff we where assigned I could go stand around socialize at starbucks, I hardly need to pay four hundred bucks a unit for it


Elysium, it can be a curse to be smart, responsible and caring.  The real world isnt like college.  College is a step backwards.  The real world is like highschool.  There are the people that were consumed with acing all their honors classes.  These people either become drug addicts, corporate megalomaniacs or a scientist studying some interesting yet obscure and wholely useless process in the desolate far reaches of the globe.

There are the people that did well in the advanced classes but didnt sweat if they got a B due to wanted to enjoy a little bit of their teenage years.  These are the true achievers.  Especially the ones that werent as pretty or had some other motivating factor.  A lot of people blossom a great deal at college especially if it involves a drastic change of environment.

Then there is everyone else.  In the working world these are 90% of your co-workers.  They coast, deny responsibility for anything, dont care, use up all their accrued vacation time whenever possible, gossip and have to be hand held through any real work.  They constantly have a "case of the mondays" and look forward to getting trashed and one night stands on weekends.

Sad but true.  This may sound elitist.  However, caring about my work, owning up to mistakes and taking corrective measures, maintaining a positive attitude and being alert to possible pitfalls makes you boss think your a superstar.  I used to think this was normal behavior.  In the real world its not.  Adopt some of those ideas and you are a superstar too.

"I swear, the next time some Birkenstock wearing teaching assistant tells me to think critically about a subject I'm going to take that black beret out of his hemp backpack and stuff it down his clove cigarette smoking pie-hole!"

Hey!!! I got the cliched stereotype of a liberal Elysium promised me a couple weeks ago!!

But seriously, I know exactly how you feel. Especially on the issue of not being able to fail anything unless you try, and even then your professor will probably just think that you march to the beat of a different drummer, and shouldn't be judged by or beholden to crypto-Western values of success and achievement. I was actually nerdy (and lucky) enough to get into a CS program, so those days are over for me, but I remember them (not so) fondly. I'm close to my degree too. I should have it after next Fall.

I am sorry y'all had such a dissatisfying experience in college.  I am finishing up my third year and loving it.  I spent my first year and a half struggling through engineering classes taught by introverted middle-aged robots who couldn't relate to anyone.  Not to mention the ultra-dry texts that I spent many a late night pouring over in my dorm room, wondering the whole time how someone could write such a long book without seeming to have any interest in the subject.  Luckily, my university required me to take some general education courses where I discovered some professors who were REAL people.  I jumped ship and never looked back.

"The only possible way to fail a class these days is to physically assault your professor during class with a garden rake"

I taught math full-time at the community college out here (and still do part-time at a different one now). I have had one class where 0 students received a grade other than a W or an F. (Dumb ninnys couldn't / wouldn't even memorize quadratic formula). I am no longer astounded by the idiocy of students (and these are the ones going to school. Math is nice to teach in that it is either right or wrong & the only room for subjectivity is in assigning partial credit.

The biggest problem I (and many other instructors) have is with administrators who have the "customer service" view & support students who feel they paid for the class, so they deserve to pass, regardless of the fact that they don't know how to multiply two numbers without a calculator. Sigh. Administration looks first at money (at many schools) and depending on who they get their money from (grants  = keeping those professors happy (ie not teaching undergrads), students = keeping them happy, even if they don't learn.)

It all comes down to people taking responsibility. Parents don't make their children take responsibility for their actions in grade school (I have a friend who taught AP Calculus and a parent complained to the superintendent that he was being too tough on her daughter - never mind that she wasn't doing the work or coming in for extra help), and in college administrators pass the buck to keep the money flowing at all costs. Some instructors, knowing that their student evaluations are looked at to determine whether they keep their job, cave to pressure and don't fail students - they've got a family to feed. All I can do is promise my students (day 1) that I say what I mean and they they won't pass my class unless they're ready for the next one - and I'm able to live with myself. If a student wants to learn, they'll love having me as a teacher. If they think they're going to be passed to the next class just by showing up, they hate me. I do hope I never have to assign all F's again, but it is the student's responsibility to learn the material. It is my responsibility to present it & be available to explain it in other ways and help them.

And regarding group work, I will occasionally give a quiz where students can work with others and I think working in a group is the best way to learn - BUT I never grade students as a group for exactly the reasons mentioned. The "cooperative learning" educational trend will go away in a decade or so & then we'll have a new fad.