Friday, June 14, 2013

The Community College Syllabus

This is a pet peeve of mine and nothing more, but I've seen it a lot in similar contexts. Logging in "at least three to five times a week" makes no sense. We can log in at least 3 times a week. If we happen to log in 5 times a week, then that would still be at least 3 times a week.

You could argue that "at least" only applies to the three, but then he's telling us to log in a minimum of 3 times and a maximum of 5 times per week. Who knows, maybe's that the case. Given how often the website goes down, maybe they're trying to limit bandwidth usage.

Or he could be telling us that we must log in a minimum of 3 times per week, but he'd like to see us logging in between 3 and 5 times per week. Clearly, this is what is actually meant, but it is not what is written. Now, I know that no one is going to be confused by this. So it is what's conveyed, even if it is not what's written. So why am I complaining?

My reasons are three. First, he's an English teacher. He's going to be correcting our grammar for the next five weeks with varying degrees of exactitude, so it'd be nice if he showed the same amount of care in his own writing.

Second, this is a course designed for writing in the workplace. Like, if you wanted to be a tech writer, you might start with a course such as this one. Well, I've been a technical writer before. And you know what? Imprecise language like the phrase used above is not cool. It leads to mistakes, complaints, and lawsuits.


Third, as a professor of English, he should really care about doing right by the language. Yes, language changes. Yes, the point of a language is communication, and if that's achieved, who cares about anything else.

But here's what gets to me. The English language is a gigantic hodgepodge of words and there are an absolute crap-ton of ways to arrange them meaningfully. So we can communicate precisely if we have sufficient mastery over syntax and vocabulary, but we don't because it's hard. Instead we think whatever we're thinking, vomit out the words we most closely associate with said thoughts, and hope the listener has roughly the same associations for those words, thereby getting the gist of the message across. Blech.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

State of the Student

Somehow now that I’m not leaving the house at 7:30 every morning and getting home at 10 every night I feel less inclined to blog. Odd, that. I don’t really have much to write about at the moment, but it’s been two weeks since I’ve posted and I don’t want to chance losing my legions of fans.

So, the semester is over and I’ve successfully completed a full year of schooling for the first time in 10 years. I should probably be more embarrassed about admitting that. Maybe now is a good time to take stock of things.

This time last year I had a cumulative GPA at my community college of 0.5, which was mostly a result of making some very poor choices in the early part of my college “career.” I wasn’t taking and failing classes; I was taking and not showing up to classes. But the end result was the same. Now, after having retaken all but one of my failed courses and taking a whole slew of new ones, my GPA is a 3.38.

Here’s a chart, so that I stay in character:

I’ve calculated that by the time I have my degree, I should have a GPA of 5.51. We’ll see how that works out.

What do I have left to do in community college? There are four more classes I need to take, and then I’ll be off to the big, scary 4-year university. This summer I start off by retaking another English course on writing for business and technology. That might be marginally useful for my future career, but I’m not betting on it being interesting. I consider having to retake classes like these my penance.

Later in the summer there will be a 5-week, whirlwind tour of linear algebra--the study of matrices. I understand that linear algebra is very important in computer graphics and a version of quantum mechanics. I’m not looking forward to learning it all in 5 weeks, but it’s what my schedule demands.

In the fall I’ll be taking differential equations and physics 3. DiffEq, as the cool kids call it, is at the heart of all physics. While calculus by itself is useful in that it allows you to make quantitative statements about change, differential equations are vital when those changes are recursive.

Way back in my second post, I mentioned that modeling air resistance is hard because it involves differential equations. The reason it’s hard is because of this recursive idea. How hard the air pushes on you depends on how fast you’re moving, and how fast you’re moving depends on how hard the air pushes against you. This would seem to be an infinite loop, but differential equations let you quantify that recursive relationship.

Then there’s physics 3, which is called Waves, Optics, and Modern Physics. The third semester of the introductory physics sequence typically gets a bad rap. And I don’t mean at my college, but all across physics departments. The usual complaint is that it tries to jam a whole bunch of not terribly related phenomena into one semester before the students really have the mathematical tools necessary to do these topics justice. Modern physics usually encompasses physics that is a mere century old--relativity, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, and solid-state physics. There’s a lot to be said about all of these topics, and a good case can be made for there not being anything you can say about them in 2-week chunks.

I suspect I won’t mind much. What I’ve discovered so far is that most of my classmates come into the semester having virtually no background knowledge of the relevant material. Because I’ve been reading about science and math for so long, there was almost nothing I encountered this year that was entirely new to me. That’s not to say that I knew how to do the science--just that the concepts weren’t unfamiliar. I suspect the same will be true of modern physics, and I look forward to gaining more than just a surface-level understanding of these topics, even if it’s just below the surface.

And what comes after that? Well, the goal is that by spring 2014, I’ll be transferring to my state university where I will be approximately a junior. So 2 or 3 years from now I should have a bachelor’s degree in physics. I suspect I may get a double major in physics and astronomy because there’s a great deal of overlap between the two majors and astronomy is what I ultimately want to end up doing.

After that, the usual destination is grad school. At this point, that’s so far in the future that I haven’t given it much thought. I’ve heard repeatedly from academic bloggers that you should only go into grad school if you’re absolutely sure you want to go into academia. I can’t say that I’m absolutely sure right now, but we’ll see where I stand in a couple years.