That Was the Week That Was
Well, Week 2 is behind me now. It took me a bit of scrambling around (and a fair bit of pestering people), but I got my class schedule stabilized – and, more or less coincidentally, my work load somewhat reduced – by midweek. I’m carrying 12 credit hours now, which is the minimum for full-time student status but about what I feel comfortable tackling after so long away. I’m taking care of a little unfinished business in the form of the Intro to Astronomy lab I skipped, for reasons I still don’t remember, back in 1993. And I have the time freed up to attend the live lectures for my online math class, which has already started paying off after a single session.
I feel pretty good about the prospects of this little exercise right now. I didn’t when I first started, and I still have moments where I stand on the street corner of life and think, What the hell am I doing here? My last class, CMJ 103 on Friday morning, was one of those moments. We did our first speeches to the class over the second and third lectures of the week, and my number came up during Friday’s session.
Standing behind the lectern at the head of the room, surveying the startlingly young faces of my classmates – and my instructor, who’s a grad student and must be all of 23 – I felt a very powerful but brief wave of utter alienation, the strong sense that I really didn’t belong anywhere near that room. I feel that way when I’m trudging from class to class, too, watching all those young, fit people dashing about the campus – that sense that they’re supposed to be there and I’m not.
Those moments are getting shorter and further apart as I settle into the routine, though. And there are upsides to being such an atypical specimen. It removes a lot of the pressures that “normal” college students experience, leaving me with that many more resources on hand to deal with the pressure of the coursework itself. Time will tell if this is enough.
After CMJ 103 finished, I adjourned to the library, where I found a table way at the back corner of the reference room, set up my stuff, and spent a happy hour or so of diligence on my math homework, which (as I have previously noted) made considerably more sense after just the one live lecture I’d attended. The professor’s a terrifically helpful chap who actually likes it that someone from his online class is coming to the in-person lectures. (He also bears an eerie resemblance to DC Terry Perkins from The Bill, which is a bit odd.) I am now more convinced than ever that dropping Chemistry was the right call.
As I was working, I paused for a moment and surveyed my surroundings, and it struck me suddenly how much stuff I had around me that I hadn’t had the first time I attempted college. Not only didn’t I have most of it, a lot of it didn’t exist, even in primitive form.
– Laptop computer: I didn’t have a laptop when I was at WPI, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have taken it to the library with me. Portable computers were expensive, heavy, fragile, and didn’t work very well. There wouldn’t have been anything to do with it at the library anyway, because a) there was no such thing as wireless networking and b) the Web hadn’t been invented yet, so I would hardly have been doing my math homework online.
– Smartpen: No such thing existed in 1991. Even if someone had thought of it, the technology of the time wouldn’t have supported it.
– iPod: Ditto.
– Calculator: Okay, I did have a similar calculator – it was a TI-82, which, although much less powerful and flexible than today’s TI-89 Titanium, was an easily recognizable ancestor. Calculator technology hasn’t advanced as rapidly as, say, laptop computer tech – though it’s interesting to note that the CPU in my TI-89 is a Motorola 68000, the same microprocessor to be found at the heart of such well-known pieces of equipment as the original Apple Macintosh and the Sega Genesis.
– Smartphone: Well, cell phones did exist in the early ’90s, but they were gigantic, cost a fortune, and didn’t do much of anything. They weren’t even very good telephones. Certainly nothing akin to the Droid had even been envisioned, except possibly by sci-fi writers, much less implemented.
I had all these things that had either not existed or not been within an average student’s reach 20 years ago, and I’m not even particularly well-off. Not poor, by any stretch, but compared to those kids I see out in the motorcycle parking area firing up their brand-new customized Harleys at lunchtime, my means are pretty modest. But there I sat surrounded by all these things, doing my homework on the Internet, listening to music, recording the jotted workings of my math problems with the pen I was using to scribble them, and coordinating a rendezvous with my mother for lunch by SMS. And it occurred to me that Stephen Fry was right. Nostalgia for the style of an earlier age is all well and good, but warts and all, right now is the peak of history’s pyramid so far.