Oh Grinnell Part 2

August 7, 2006

This is the second part of a post I began last week dealing with the best and worst of Grinnell life. Without further adieu, let us complete the article.

The largest reason I chose Grinnell dealt with the school’s remarkably small class size. I love small classes; I love knowing the professor knows my face and name; I love to know that, if I wanted, I could learn the name of everyone in my class. Yet, it seems that, though class sizes may grow ridiculously small, the professors don’t change their teaching styles. Last semester, I had one class with 4 students, one with 6, and others ranging from mid teens to low twenties. Sadly, my 4-person course largely consisted of lectures along with most of the other classes; the six-student class involved relatively no interaction (less than most lecture courses, actually). Japanese served as the only course with significant amount of interaction… and I audited that.

The institution often touts itself as offering a very wide variety of courses, majors, and concentrations. Grinnell is quite correct, offering majors varying from Anthropology to Biological Chemistry and concentrations including Environmental Studies and Linguistics. The ever expanding list of studies cannot match the relatively static size of the student body, resulting in a smaller saturation of students per major. This, in turn, implies increasing amounts of specialization; to put it more simply, the kid in your 200 math will be in every math that follows until graduation. For proof, consider that I have three classes with the same person next semester. For further proof, consider that I also have three classes with a different person. Worse yet, we three share at least two classes.

A college experience is composed of much more than academics, mind you; most would consider the life-long friendships that are created in these institutions. I’ve made several good friends at Grinnell, whether they be through class, work, or residence. It hurts very much to discuss, but when I consider very hard these relations, I find that they are not the “life-long” associations between diverse individuals touted in every brochure. Rather, they are select, unwelcoming cliques, which rose as a direct result of Grinnell’s size. There simply are not enough students with similar (or, in most cases related interests) to form groups large enough to break the “clique barrier.” I enjoy being with my friends, I truly do, but at the same time, I wish I’d meet new people rather than complete a small circle.

Though I’ve ranted on multiple topics, complaining about basically every aspect of Grinnell life, I know these are not my largest qualm with the institution. No, this title is held by the understaffed, uninterested, and out-of-date Computer Science program. This isn’t to say the professors aren’t knowledgeable; Mr. Stone’s understanding of Linux-based systems deserves at least “First-rate” status, while Mr. Walker’s unparalleled Scheme comprehension is quite remarkable. The program’s truest faults lie in its structure. The group of four professors simply cannot offer the amount of course diversity required in the CS discipline. For proof, I cite the amount of CS electives offered to majors (5) and a comparison with Macalester College (similar size student body) which allows almost 150% of Grinnell’s course offerings. Further, the program’s distance from practical applications is simply astounding. We spend hours working on the Linux machines, but are taught next to nothing about the operating system. Moreover, Windows has yet to be covered and Mac programming is just a joke to the professors. CS201 seemed more like as a catch-all for the other courses, covering completely random topics such as make files and theoretical language design (an offshoot of symbolic logic). To top it off, I greatly miss programming large-scale projects. I miss making games, applications software, or pretty much anything larger than a hundred lines. How, again, does this prepare us for any real-world applications? Does Google offer work studies for kids who write programs that reverse the letter order of a string? Does Microsoft ask students to use Java to model gambling? Do Linux distro’s consist of reversing a less than sign in the kernel’s code? No.

With that, I believe my rant has come to a close. I hope Grinnell changes its ways, I really do, but I don’t expect anyone there to reconsider. Their goal, to educate students “for the different professions and for the honorable discharge of the duties of life,” simply does not appear in day-to-day life, evident in almost every point listed in these past two entries. I hope my friends realize what they are in for, but more than anything, I hope to get out of this school.

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