Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Harvard Guide to Collegiate Happiness

In my experience Downing's first focus has always been on the student and scholastic excellence. The first reading was "The Harvard Guide to Collegiate Happiness", a gesture of good will and total mess of a paper written by and for students of the humanities. It is wrong on most points by way of a consistent confusion of causation and correlation.

1) Meet the Faculty.
I have drank with my instructors. Some have offered to share their cigarettes with me. I have had engaging discussions with them after class, over Facebook, or by email. These experiences are rewarding and enriching. They aren't something that can be forced; they arise naturally. Often these interactions are simply not appropriate. Some relationships offer no adaptive transactional strokes and are not open to pursuit. Often this is the case when working with research-oriented professors in the natural sciences. Excel in the class and you may get a position on their team but the relationship will still stay strictly professional. The small-group discussion-oriented professors more commonly found in liberal arts are the welcome exception in the natural sciences. This later type of class is normally easier and less rigorous. Take more easy courses of this nature and naturally you will perform better and meet more professors. But your success was not had because you met them.

2) Take a mix of courses.
I agree with this. I thought I was going to be a graphic designer or a linguist coming out of high school. Take a lot of different tangents and you will be rewarded. Many students on more difficult paths are financially or academically constrained from choosing to do this. The reality is that some paths through college are less fun and more work.

3) Studying in groups.
In my experience in groups a small fraction of people do the work, and the rest mooch. Averages go up and the correlation is made, to the detriment of the industrious who come away having expended a lot of energy for an incommensurate reward. (Short aside: I recall an experience in a world literature discussion session in which the TA insisted that Newton had invented science. I argued that no, science is a storied philosophical and methodological tradition pioneered over a long period of time, citing examples from Sextus Empircus to Claude Bernard. Afterward I was drained, little improved, and yet I prevented the others from experiencing an academic travesty. Hopefully I prevented some number of misconceptions.)

4) Write, write, write.
This section argues that courses with fewer, larger writing grades are bad and I agree. Few and large papers are awful, both didactically and for GPAs. Don't do that to your students.

5) Speak another language.
This would have been nice, but many people simply can't justify the huge number of hours on something they have already tested out of. Again, those who can have easier majors and will tend to do better.

6) Consider time.
Long study sessions may be better than multiple short sessions, but can someone change their study habits or are they deeply ingrained in one's personality? Has Light tested his time log idea empirically? The superficial "just keep a log" type of quick-fix suggestion seems naive to me.

7) Hold the drum.
Students who engage in extracurricular activities are more successful. It is pretty easy to see how they have confused causation and correlation here. I feel happier when I have the resources to self-actualize, but I when I don't choose to self-actualize, it is because I don't have the ability to choose otherwise.

Software Engineering

Professor Downing has asked us to keep a blog for the CS373 Software Engineering course. I registered this blog months ago hoping to revive a pleasant old habit and never got around to doing any actual blogging. This course offers a perfect opportunity to start.

The syllabus is promising, brimming with a panoply of shiny modern lightweight tools like Django, Google App Engine, Torvald's baby git, assembla, and epydoc.

Whenever I browse the larcenous Coop bookstore I have eyed the refactoring book with a great deal of interest. I'm glad I own it now. I find the process of refining a big messy project into a fine-tuned and orderly one very rewarding, and this is the only book I have ever seen entirely devoted to the process. I hope we get to spend a good chunk of time on it.