Maybe I’m Starting to Catch On
And on the other hand, maybe not.
As we approach the end of Week 3, I was just starting to feel a little bit comfortable – not totally on top of things, but at least less like I’ve got no business being where I am, doing what I’m doing. My first outing in CMJ 103 went well, I’ve got a topic in hand for my second speech in a couple of weeks (and I’m looking forward to doing some research in the process of putting it together), and attending the lecture sessions in MAT 122 was definitely the right call; I feel almost like I might know what I’m doing when I work on that material now.
Even in ECE 101, I was starting to feel like it was coming together for me. Today’s class period was set aside for recitation; it was optional, but I went anyway, and another guy and I ended up scribbling resistive circuits on the blackboard and having a grand old time figuring out whether things were in parallel or series (it’s sometimes hard to tell from the schematic). I’m not going to puff out my chest and say I’m on top of the material, but I’m keeping up; I don’t feel like the class is out ahead of me, as it were. Pilots talk about being “behind the airplane”; that’s the way I’ve been feeling, and this morning that sensation was starting to ebb.
Until I turned up for our ECE 101 lab period this afternoon, and we started getting our introduction to MATLAB.
I should explain at this point that MATLAB is… well, to call it a math program is a bit like saying that the Pacific Ocean is “a body of water”, but it’ll have to suffice for our purposes. In ECE 101 we’re using it primarily for graphing and working out the answers to hideously abstruse simultaneous equations. I first encountered it back in 1991, when, like everything else on WPI’s computers at the time, it was a powerful but hilariously primitive command-line tool. (Nowadays it’s a powerful but hilariously primitive command-line tool wrapped up in some X Window tinsel. But not very much of it.)
And here’s where the wheels started to come off the bus a little bit. The MAT in MATLAB, which is one of those Navy-style partial-word acronyms like COMSUBLANT, doesn’t stand for “math”; it stands for “matrix”. It assumes that any set of variables you feed it represent a mathematical matrix and operates upon them accordingly. Thus, to solve the aforementioned simultaneous equations (which, in the example we were using, were connected with something called the Kirchhoff current law), Andy explained, you have to use said equations to construct a set of matrices and then goad MATLAB into solving them for you.
Several of my classmates, at the workstations around me, had “oh yeah” moments, and a lively discussion of the ins and outs of pitting matrices against each other ensued. I sat among them having one of those Hitchcock dolly zoom moments, and when a decent conversational lull occurred, I hesitantly interjected,
“I have no idea what you guys are talking about now.”
Andy gave me a blank look. “Matrix algebra.”
“Which is… ?”
“High school stuff. Algebra II, probably.”
And here’s the thing. I know Algebra II was a long time ago for me. I took it in my sophomore year of high school, which was several years before most of my classmates were even born. But even so, I don’t remember a single thing about the topic of “matrix algebra”. I sincerely don’t believe we covered it. Maybe it was one of those things that was near the end of the book and we just didn’t get to it before the end of the school year; that happened a lot at Stearns High. Maybe it hadn’t been invented yet. Maybe we just didn’t cover it. I don’t know. But I’m fairly sure that I was never exposed to it. If I was, I’ve managed to forget it so completely that I didn’t even remember the term.
Either way, it may not matter, because in the context of ECE 101 it appears I don’t actually have to know how it works, just how to plug it into MATLAB, which I’m now reasonably confident I can do. But that was the first moment in which I’ve run up against an actual hole – not just a fuzzy spot but a genuine void – in the foreknowledge the curriculum assumes I have. This doesn’t interact well with that growing sense of belonging-there I was talking about at the beginning…