Grinnell, Revisited

August 23, 2006

Once again, I am in Grinnell. The heat is incredibly oppressive to those of us accustomed to air conditioning, slowly eating at our souls. In actuality, I quite enjoyed the first few days here. I arrived early to help ITS set up the network and help the new students become acquainted with Grinnell’s computers systems. This, as you can consider, I greatly enjoyed. When else would I have to fix a five-year old computer that uses the Japanese edition of Windows XP Home? Never!

Unfortunately, now all students are coming back. It was wonderful to see my friends (though most have been here since before I arrived), but still. Something about returning to classes, eating ramen, and falling back in to a monotonous schedule just doesn’t appeal right now. I so greatly enjoyed my work with Linux, Windows GUI programming, A+ certification, and website redesign; it feels like that will all go away as soon as I begin this semester.

There are some shining lights, however. I should be able to take two computer science courses along with a million TC shifts. In fact, of this whole week, I’m most looking forward to tommarrow’s scheduling meeting. The helpdesk, mathlan, av center, etc. all excite me, though I’m not sure why. I’ll post my schedule afterwards.

Sigh. Grinnell, it’s…  well I’m back, Grinnell. Brace yourself.

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.

Oh Grinnell… Part 1

August 3, 2006

My feelings towards Grinnell have become quite polarized. Sketching out the traditional pros and cons sheet, I find the same listing under both headings. In other words, a large number of Grinnell’s selling points also serve as its largest detractors, with only a few exceptions.

Consider, Grinnell is a perfect example of “pure” liberal arts. I love this; I love learning about history, theory, communications, mythology, and basically every other subject that falls under this label. I’ll adamantly oppose anyone who questions the value of such an education, but such an education does not train. True, you may become a sociologist, English teacher, or historian, but even in these situations, the training isn’t formal by any means. We are given knowledge, but rarely the ability to put such knowledge in to practice.

Yes, we can form “clubs” to gather and do whatever you want. You can join work organizations such as the newspaper, ITS, or catering to gain work experience. Unfortunately, each of these organizations operates in a little bubble, separate from the rest of the world. Most clubs fail miserably because their founders can’t find enough support among the student body, who largely attend meeting to eat free food. The student jobs are simply a joke (though this isn’t a Grinnell-specific attribute) as none require significant training or, in several cases, time commitment. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love ITS. Working as a tech head is the highlight at Grinnell, but watching other ITS students sleep on the job and fail at basic applications saddens me. They’ve actually lied to users to get out of solving problems.

Mine you, several of these problems stem from Grinnell’s attempt to be larger than it really is. During any given year, less than 1,500 students attend the university with a hundred or so off on leave. Assuming the school will somehow expand exponentially (though nothing in our history would suggest this), Grinnell has created dozens of completely useless services to model their significantly larger counterparts. We have a “Technology Discovery Center” which, as far as I am aware, has never been used. We have a small kindergarten to be observed by the few dozen education seniors. Of course the town of Grinnell has similar institutions, as do nearby cities, but let’s not use those. Grinnell has a very lovely gymnasium, pool, track, etc. to cater to our excuse for sport teams. I understand our “peer” institutions are doing the same. I understand why we would want to “keep up” with similar institutions to attract more students, but does that mean we should shoot ourselves in the foot if they do?

This argument was the largest (actually the only) made in favor of increasing Grinnell’s tuition. We must increase our price to represent the “true value” of a Grinnell education. We must attract students to our institution by equating our tuition with that of our peers. …Right? No, you stupid, stupid idiots. Upping the price-tag does not attract the same type of students originally promoted at our college. Upping the price-tag manages to bring more rich students. Notice how I didn’t say more intelligent students, more compassionate students, or more productive members of society. Further, though I’m sure the administration would argue this for hours, Grinnell is not equivalent to its “peers.” We are in the middle of nowhere. I don’t mean Fort Wayne, Montgomery, or Juno; I mean absolutely nowhere. Spin this all you want, you can’t take away the fact that this sucks. Grinnell is not any one of its peers. We don’t have the interships of Macalester, the cozy Olde England feel of Carelton, or even the business majors of Davidson. We aren’t necessarily better; we are simply different. Our goals, students, and methods are different. Accept it and accept that prospective students would much rather see a large financial aid packet than attend the first (or second) college to be wind powered.

Give me a day or two to catch my breath; brace for part 2!

Many believe the best form of education is that in which all students are taught the same material at the same rate (thereby allowing everyone to receive the same education). In particular, the Japanese style of education requires all students, whether they have learning disabilities or brilliance, be taught together, at a unified level. To this end, many see that, as a whole, Japanese students are more intelligent than their counterparts in the West. The downside, and one of the largest problems their education system has to face, is that there are relatively few truly exceptional students.

In America, and much of the West, we tend to use a multi-tiered system that allows for more individually-tailored experience. We allow students to take the same basic subjects but at different paces, creating "remedial" classes on one hand and "AP" and "Honors" classes on the other. In theory, by seperating students in to three groups, those who need extra help, those who are progressing at a normal rate, and those who need more challenges, we educate everyone to the best of his/her abilities.

This division creates difficulty in that it creates not only superiority and inferiority complexes, but also instills a sense of mediocrity in those that are progressing at a healthy rate. With divisions so blatant that students refer to classes as "dumb-people calculus" and "Einstein physics", we create another problem. At this point, many are no longer speaking of a student's academic ability, but rather a student as a whole. No one wants to be considered the "dumb-person," but what choice is there when you are enrolled in "dumb-people" classes?

I propose a solution to both dilemmas that lies closer to individualized education. Hopefully, by creating more distinctions between students, we will erase the problems inherent in a hierarchical system. In theory, students will be divided to the point where a division holds at most 10 or so people. This would create a sort of "class rank" system, where divisions should seem rather arbitrary. Think of it, what's the difference between a 73 and a 77 on a 100 point scale? 4%; a twenty-fifth; relatively nothing. Further, if we increased the amount of students in each division, we would cut the "Number One" syndrome, as we'd have several students that all of about the same caliber at this highest level.

The theory I propose moves us towards this ultimate goal by offering students an option in workload. Given any assignment, a student will be able to perform the bare minimum, the full assignment, or an extended assignment. Here's the basic setup:

 Bare Essentials: This will cover the absolute minimum a student should absorb from a class. The highest a student can receive on any assignment in which he/she does only the bare minimum is a C (appxy 70-75%). About 2/3 of the class time should be spent on these essentials, as they are the foundations of all other work.

Full Course load: This is the equivalent of a standard class  taught today. This work builds on the essentials, and allows students to receive full credit on assignments. Most students would fall in this category, as it is the standard workload. Students would be required to work all bare essential problems as well as all full course problems to receive full points. Approximately one third of class time will be devoted to this tier.

Extended Curriculum: When students complete both the minimum and full problems, they may wish to finish some extra problems for a very small amount of extra credit. The amount of extra credit will not be proportional to the work load. In theory, the highest a student can receive on an assignment is 105% while the breakdown may be 10 essential, 4 full, and 3 extended. Almost no class time will be devoted to covering this curriculum, but further resources will be provided (especially websites, etc).

This method of education would be much harder on professors, as they would have to make divisions and be required to find and read further resources as well as create additional problems for the extended curriculum. However, it would offer students more opportunities to do the amount of work they want, especially when learning the extended curriculum. Also, if this system is implemented, students would not be required to perform at the same level for every assignment. Better still, the amount of effort put in to any assignment is strictly the knowledge of the professor and the student, so the complexes mentioned before may not appear within the classroom.

Any thoughts? 

Types of Learning

June 20, 2006

Higher education persists as one of the largest sources of dispute in my mind. There are several methods of attaining such an education, but following any one will likely lead to alienation and regret. Let's consider the options and discuss the pros and cons of each. Keep in mind, many attributes overlap between the different forms of higher education; I'll try to just mention each once.

Joining the Workforce – During our rather long high school career, we are bombarded with messages warning of the dangers of dropping out or not attending college. We were told we would not make good money and would therefore forever be less happy, living in the lower bracket of society. Okay, at least that's what they said to me…

Pros – More Money in the short-term (sometimes reaching more than $120k saved in loans), Faster Training (most jobs require specific abilities that must be learned on-location), Head-start to "Life" and "Career"

Cons – Less Money in the long-term (despite the bias mentioned above, you are statistically more likely to make more money), Wider Career Options (though this is greatly depending on the type of work you want), Networking Possibilities (these can be exceedingly helpful but may not be worth it if you don't use them)

Community College – For many, community college serves as a sort of midway between high school and the real world. Attending community college may also serve as a stepping stone for further education, such as transferring to a university.

Pros – Easy classes (you'd be surprised how few closed-book tests appear in the working world), Less money than a traditional college with more acclamations than the first option, Part-time options (allowing for a job or industry experience)

Cons – Not as prestigious as the university or other forms of college (the importance of which depends on the type of job you wish to enter), Larger class sizes/ more TAs (this may or may not affect you; I certainly hate it), Less Class Breadth (though, if you just want a degree, this wouldn't be a problem)

Institutes of Art, Technology, or Business – Usually these schools offer both assosciate's degrees and bachelor's and widely range in fame. For example, the Illinois Institute of Technology is a very well recognized college, while ITT Tech doesn't usually turn many heads.

Pros – State of the art (much of academia is a year or two behind the common techniques used in the "real world"), Specific Education (often in areas unattainable to other forms of education), Co-op or similar programs (the equivalent of on-the-job training)

Cons – Breadth of courses (generally no or few history, philosophy, etc), Pigeon-holing (when those hiring you believe you can only perform one task well), Out-dating (if you only learn the latest technology, but very little theory, when the industry changes, you will quickly be left behind)

Liberal Arts College – I currently attend Grinnell College, one of the most liberal arts-y colleges in the world. At these schools, students learn a very broad spectrum of education that is usually considered "well rounded."

Pros – Variety (taking classes in Jewish religion, neuroscience, and the cold war on one campus), lower class restrictions (less credits required to major promote more class testing), expert writing (essential skill in most industries)

Cons – Little specification (jack of all trades, but master of none), Expense (often the most expensive of the options listed), Outdated (most classes focus on theory, which may not be helpful if you aren't familiar with the latest technologies)

Religious Institutions – I won't discuss much about these schools as they tend to fall under all the other categories. These universities tend to have class requirements dealing with religion but may be less costly or feel more safe. They range from small liberal arts schools to huge universities that teach everything from microbiology to theatre.

Public Institutions – Public colleges and universities usually offer a wide variety of classes to a large number of people. This is possible because they are largely funded by the state (or nation or province). Usually, there are heavy fines levied on out-of-state students.

Pros – Cost (though this has been mentioned before, it is really important here), Quality education (to many, there is no real difference between the amount of education received at a private institution and a public institution), Graduate studies (almost all public institutions have a graduate study option, while most private schools do not)

Cons – Class size (tremendous, especially in introductory classes), Lack of Dedication (not to step on toes, but with so many people, it is very easy for both teachers and students to stop caring and for no one to notice), Bureaucracy (unlike a smaller institution, it is very difficult to make special circumstances or accommodations)

Self-Learning – Largely a complement of other forms of education, to teach one's self consists of reading, listening to audio tapes, or watching videos in the hope of learning useful skills.

Pros – Self-paced (including amount of depth), Individualized content (learn only what you want)

Cons – Little or no assistance (no mentor), Little recognition (there are few ways to prove your knowledge)


Hopefully, I'll be attending Grinnell then SFU, which would be a combination of the Liberal Arts school, the Tech school, the public institution, and, by working with CC&C and keeping up to date, self-learning. However, as this post is already quite large, I'll leave more information on that later.