Posts Tagged ‘a beginning is a very delicate time’

Got Those First Two Weeks of the Semester Blues

September 6, 2011 2 comments

Seriously, I hate the first two weeks of the semester.  There are a number of reasons for this.  One is that I’m coming off a prolonged period of inactivity, and moving again is always accompanied by the mental screech of rusty joints.  Another is that I spend the first week, if not two, not quite remembering when or where anything is, in a constant state of feeling like I’ve forgotten something important which is usually – but not always – false.  A third is simply that it’s hard to see the end of the semester from the beginning.  That was one of the things I liked about the seven-week terms at WPI; you could always see the other end of the tunnel.

Anyway.  The fall semester at the University of Maine started a week ago today – well, Monday – and, having made it through the first week, I have a few things to report.

First: This is kind of a strange semester.  I knew it would be in the spring, when I signed up for the classes I’m taking, but now that I’m actually doing them it’s even a little weirder than I thought.  Mainly this is because I’m still in a technical major – still mechanical engineering technology – but I’m not taking any courses directly relating to that program.  It’s almost like being a humanities student again.

This is not just because I didn’t feel like it, of course; it’s because I’ve run into a major bottleneck in the program.  It turns out that almost everything after the really basic freshman stuff, which I took in the spring, has Physics I as a prerequisite.  Seriously, the lot.  If I had a copy of the flow chart my advisor showed me I’d inline it here so you can see.  After the first semester, it pinches down to PHY 107 like a crowd control choke point at an airport.  On the other hand, I still needed to be taking at least 12 credits this fall to maintain my standing as a full-time student…

After a great deal of Pauli Exclusion Principle Bingo with the online catalog, I managed to find a selection of classes that looked interesting, might not be a complete waste of my time, and in one case ticks off the two remaining boxes on the General Education Requirements form.  My advisor will no doubt give me hell about it when we meet up to plan Spring 2012 later on this fall and he sees what I ended up with, because he’s very efficiency-oriented and will be terribly annoyed that I A) took humanities classes that fit GenEd categories I’ve already met and B) didn’t take Chemistry I.  (Two lab sciences in the same semester?  Er, no thanks.)

So what am I taking?  In no particular order:

GER 101.  Yes, this is what you think it is: Introductory German I.  "Why in God’s name would you take German I?" I hear you asking.  (Actually, I hear Professor Crosby asking, because he did, last April, when it appeared on my Wish List.)  I’ll give you the same answers I gave him: One, I’ve always kind of wanted to learn German, and they didn’t offer it at my high school; two, German strikes me as a more-than-usually useful foreign language for an engineer to know; and three, I still might manage to swing a semester abroad next year, and if I do I’ll probably end up in Austria.  Everywhere else the University has overseas consortium agreements with only offers liberal arts stuff.  (This might technically be a corollary to point two rather than a point in its own right.)

HTY 279.  This class is entitled "European Military History" and, as you might expect, has a lot of ROTC kids in it.  They must be slightly puzzled by the presence of the pasty-faced, leviathine civilian in the corner, but the hell with it.  This one Prof. Crosby doesn’t know about, since I discovered and added it after our meeting.  It might come in handy if I decide to declare a history minor, which would also give me something useful to do with all those history credits I have from my previous lives.  If not, well, it’s still more interesting than sitting at home and slipping to part-time enrollment status.

INT 400.  This is an odd one.  I mentioned it in my previous post, back in May.  It’s one Prof. Crosby won’t argue with, because it knocks off my last two GenEd requirements.  This class is a bit puzzling, because it has three catalog numbers, a different title to go with each of them, and is being taught by a veritable Senate subcommittee of professors.  The incarnation I signed up for, INT 400, is entitled "Pop!Tech: Impact of Technology on Society", but in the online course tools it also answers to PAX 398, "Topics in Peace and Reconciliation Studies", and PAX 598, "Independent Graduate Study".  At its heart it’s geared toward an online participation in and analysis of the annual Pop!Tech conference in Camden, which I gather is sort of a northeastern TED Conference, but with such a profusion of instructors (each of whom appears to be taking point on 10 days’ worth of the course), it’s bound to be a bit… chaotic.  I’m still feeling my way through the syllabus, but I’ve gotten the first week’s worth of work done and it does at least look like it’s going to be interesting.  If nothing else, I assure you it was by far the least desperate-looking of all the offerings that clocked the Ethics and Population & The Environment GenEd requirements.  (I have very finite interest in sustainable arboriculture in the Pacific Northwest.)

Oh yes – and after all that, I’m not actually taking PHY 107.

Not exactly.

You see, the School of Engineering Technology at UMaine began in the early ’70s as a two-year associate degree program, designed to create sort of proto-engineers who were expected to complement the tradespeople emerging from the state’s system of Vocational-Technical Institutes, one of which is over in Bangor.  As such, SET has always had a fairly close relationship with those schools, which continues today, even though they’re no longer VTIs.  They’ve changed names twice since then, in fact, first to Technical Colleges and then to Community Colleges.  They even offer some four-year degrees themselves now, and SET morphed into a four-year program long ago (which means the University is in the peculiar business of running two parallel four-year engineering programs).

One of the interesting side effects of this is that the introductory physics courses offered over at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor are accepted credit-for-credit by SET.  Three credits for the lecture and one for the accompanying lab, just like you were staying on campus and taking PHY 107 from the gang in Bennett Hall.

The difference?

Well, there’s an evening division, which means I don’t have to be attempting to operate a physics lab at 9 in the morning, but the really critical difference from my perspective is that PHY 107 at the University costs $1,188.00 plus about $400 worth of books and gadgets (they use a sort of game-show-buzzer class-participation widget called an "i>clicker") and meets five times a week, whereas PHY 121/122 at EMCC – for the exact same credit – costs $400 and meets twice a week.

There are tradeoffs, of course.  EMCC doesn’t have quite the same cachet as the University, and it’s slightly further away; also, studying "away" in this fashion causes the Financial Aid office at the University to get weird and refuse to release the balance of my financial aid until they get a form from EMCC proving I’m really showing up for classes ,which EMCC refuses to send until their add/drop period is over (which isn’t until Wednesday).  This has caused some interesting cash flow problems.  Still.  The entire class costs as much as the books for the UMaine version.  I think I’ll take the win.  And as for cachet, it’s still going to be the University of Maine’s name on my degree, so what the hell?

(I am indebted to my MET 107 teammate Bill Long for this tip, which he gave me as we were leaving the Machine Tool Lab on the last day of the class.)

So that’s the lineup, such as it is.  I dropped Differential Equations after getting nowhere with an attempt at reviewing calculus on my own time over the summer.  Not sure what I’m going to do about that.  I don’t intend to take Calculus I and II over for credit; if nothing else, it would waste eight credits’ worth of my financial aid capacity on stuff I’ve already finished.  It was 20 years ago, though, so I need something.  I should swing by the Math Department office and see what the procedure is for auditing, if that’s even an option any more.  Or change to a program where I don’t need any more math credits than I already have.

I keep thinking maybe I’d like to be an architect.  The only problems there are that the University doesn’t have an architecture program and I can’t draw.  These are not trivial problems.

In future posts, we’ll take a closer look at my classes individually, and I’ll have an update about my workstudy situation.  Right now, bedtime.


Stumbling Toward… Something

January 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Remember how I said last time that I wasn’t ready to go back to school?  Well, the way this week has gone, it appears that school wasn’t ready to go back to school either.

First I swung into the department office on Monday morning to talk with the admin assistant about my waitlisted math class.  She saw my point as to why I wanted to change to MAT 126, but said I had very little chance of getting into it with a waitlist more than 10 deep.  However, she said it’s usually offered in the May term, which is a sort of pre-Summer Term summer term.  As a May/summer course, it happens every day, but only takes three or four weeks, and I think that would be OK if it was the only class I was taking.

The upshot of that was that we dropped TME 152 and 86ed my waitlist slot for MAT 126, and now I’m not taking any math class this semester… which means that, since none of my other classes line up, there is now no day of the week on which I have more than one class (if you don’t count MET 107 lecture and lab as separate classes).  This is… weird.  Hell, two of my classes, MET 107 and COS 120, only happen once a week!  (There is a version of COS 120 that meets on two days, but I didn’t sign up for it initially because it conflicted with TME 152 – and I didn’t switch to it this week because, possibly in a deliberate attempt to be as inefficient as possible, they scheduled the lecture for Monday morning and the lab for Friday afternoon.  I mean, what?)

Also, while I was there, the admin lady looked at my course list and said, "That music class isn’t going to do you any good, you’ve already met the fine art requirement with one of your transfer credits from Worcester."  I’m not sure how any of my transfer credits from WPI could possibly have met the fine art requirement, but the Computer says it’s so.  So she handed me a list of courses and said, "Find something on that which meets at least two of Ethics, Population & the Environment, and Social Context & Institutions."

There aren’t many of those, and most of the ones I found aren’t offered in the spring semester or have prereqs I can’t meet, but upon closer examination of my degree progress report, I found a different combination of requirements that I could hit with a class that a) was being offered and b) I was actually interested in taking, which is how I find myself enrolled in CLA 102, "Latin Literature in English Translation".  (CLA is the University of Maine’s course code for Classical Studies – basically, the kind of thing that used to be all universities did, 150-200 years ago.)

I considered Introduction to Women’s Studies – it would have hit Social Context and Ethics – but the syllabus for the online version, the only one I could fit into my schedule, gave me the Fear.  Understand, I generally approve of women, and I’ve got no problem with their situation in the modern world being viewed as a topic of academic investigation.  That’s perfectly legit with me.  On the other hand, I don’t know that I could meaningfully interact with an instructor who takes the following position on the matter in the syllabus, before the word "go" has even been uttered:

This course takes a feminist theoretical perspective on many of the topics covered and utilizes the extensive feminist theory that has developed over the past thirty years to analyze women’s ongoing oppression in our society.

I mean, call me an unreconstructed cad, but if you’re going to throw down "oppression" in the introductory paragraph, I’m thinking the whole scene is going to be way too adversarial for my liking.  I’m all for barging out of one’s comfort zone.  It’s why I’m taking a class in the operation of machine tools this semester.  But I have to draw the line someplace, and I think there is as good a place to draw it as any.

So, yeah, anyway.  Before I’d even made my first class, I ended up, with the active encouragement of my department office, paring my schedule down to four days, each of which, weirdly, only has one actual course in it.  Then it was off to the first meeting of MET 107, Machine Tool Laboratory – what we would be calling Metal Shop if this weren’t Srs Unvrsty Bsns rather than high school vocational training.  I sound like I’m cutting vocational training down there, but that’s not where I’m coming from.  It’s just that the university will have its academic pretensions about what is, after all, a class about making metal things by hand on big machines.  "Laboratory" indeed.

Regardless, the first session was interesting, if a bit dry – there was a tour of the shop, which gave me mighty flashbacks to the metal shop in the Engineering Resources Department my dad used to run in the local paper mill when I was a kid, and an extensive safety briefing with slides of people who had gotten their Loose, Floppy Clothes and/or Long Hippie Hair caught in lathes.  As Professor Anderson puts it, "I spend the first three weeks scaring you half to death about these machines and then the rest of the semester trying to make you comfortable with them."

I won’t be back in the machine shop for a couple of weeks, because I’m in the lab session that immediately follows the lecture on Monday, and there’s no school next Monday.  That gives me plenty of time to line up safety glasses with side shields, get a pair of steel-toed shoes (ironically, when Dad and I bought the shoes I’ve been wearing back in August, we considered the steel-toed version and then decided I would never need that), and call my neurologists to ask, somewhat belatedly, whether I should actually be taking a class that involves the operation of metalworking machinery, what with me having to get a head MRI every six months until further notice.  I, uh, probably should have thought of that sooner, but I haven’t actually cut any metal yet…

Then yesterday I missed the one class I had, which would have been the first session of an introductory mechanical drawing course, because at the time it was being held, I was at the campus health center trying to find out whether the cold I’d had since the previous Tuesday, and which had prevented me from getting a decent night’s sleep at any point in that week, was in fact some sort of entrenched sinus infection that would require antibiotical intervention to shift.  (I can’t sleep if there’s nasal congestion going on.  It just doesn’t work.)  After a very long wait, I was examined and informed that no, it was just a bad head cold, and if nothing else I had tried had worked, I should go and buy a nasal rinse bottle and take some Benadryl.

"Even if it doesn’t help the congestion," the nurse said pragmatically, "it’ll put you to sleep anyway."

(I’m actually vaguely in awe of the sinus rinse.  I’ve done jala neti for a while, but the gravity feed technique doesn’t work very well vs. impacted sinuses.  The squeeze bottle method, on the other hand, boy howdy.  It feels really weird, but I feel perfectly fine right now, where I spent yesterday afternoon staring into space and wondering why the people around me in the waiting room weren’t visibly reacting to my freakishly swollen forehead, which, I was sure, must have been at least 44 inches in diameter.  Could be just a coincidence – that I was in the last four hours of the cold anyway when I bought the bottle – but damn, yo.)

And then today what would have been the first session of COS 120 was canceled because the University as a whole packed it in at 2 PM on account of the snowstorm.  Which means, assuming there are classes tomorrow (which there should be), and assuming I make it down to the one I have (which I expect I will), I’ll have finished up the first week of the semester having attended two whole classes, and then, thanks to my newly blank Fridays and the holiday Monday, it’s straight into four days off.  Well, apart from homework and whatnot.

All of which adds up to me feeling like the semester hasn’t really started yet, except for a vague sense of time pressure – that feeling I always get when there are deadlines involved, even if, as with MET 107’s project deadline, it’s four months away and I’m not even expected to be checked out on the machines yet.  One thing I can already see is that the way my classes have ended up laid out this semester is going to make it hard to get into a rhythm.  But that’s as may be.  I’ll just have to ride it out and hope next fall comes together more cleanly.  And that the new congressional overlords don’t kill the Pell Grant program.  Which reminds me, I need to get next year’s FAFSA in ASAP, speaking of deadlines.

Semester 2: Non-Electric Boogaloo

January 9, 2011 2 comments

My new groove as a mechanical engineering technology major begins tomorrow, and I think I can say without fear of contradiction that I’m not ready to go back to school.

Oh, I’ve got my books – well, most of them, anyway.  My schedule is straightforward enough, even if it does involve rather more being out in the wilderness after dark than I would really prefer.  I have plenty of lovely woolly socks from Christmas, four new blank single-subject notebooks for my LiveScribe smartpen, a 2011 organizer, fresh ink cartridges, all that jazz.

What I don’t have is much sense of having rested over my vacation, primarily because for the last week or so of it, I haven’t.  I’ve had a cold, or the flu, or pneumonic plague, or some damn thing.  I came down with it while I was visiting my grandparents just after New Year’s and it’s dogged me all week.  In fact, classes start in 11 hours (well, mine don’t, I wasn’t daft enough to schedule an 8 o’clocker, but) and I still have it.  I think it’s starting to taper off a bit, but I’ve thought that before over the course of this week and then been cruelly disabused of the notion a few hours later, when my sinuses slam shut like a book again and I’m up out of bed and pacing the floor (I can’t sleep if I can’t breathe through my nose).

This has been going on since last Monday, and it isn’t conducive to that tanned, rested and ready feeling that’s so essential for going back to school with a smile, or at least without a foot-dragging spectre of dread.

Also, I’m entangled in the usual bureaucratic hassles.  I tried to switch from the somewhat-more-basic math course the department automatically signed me up for this semester back to the main calculus sequence, thinking it would provide more flexibility later on, but the Calculus I section that meets at the same time is full.  The system automatically waitlisted me, but it informed me as it did so that I’m #11 with a bullet, which is not too encouraging – and I’m not sure if it automatically removed me from the other math course at the same time.  If it did, well, that’s not good – I need to be taking something.  So I guess I’ll have to pop into the department office in the morning and see if we can sort that out.  And ask someone if what I heard last month about licensure in other states is true.

Also, I got an email yesterday morning from the instructor of the machine tool lab class I’m taking with a reading assignment for the first class in it (which is tomorrow).  Uh?  Call me a tad bit petulant, but I’m not down with the semester starting before the bit on the calendar that says "semester starts".  Elsewhere in the course materials for that class there’s an offhanded note to bring your steel-toed shoes and safety glasses to the first lab (which is also tomorrow in my case).  If I can work out a diplomatic way to do it, I might point out that they should probably make a note of those things being required in the course’s catalog description, so people know about it before the day before class.  As it happens, I’m not going to be able to comply with that one, as my boot shop isn’t open on Mondays.  So that should be interesting.

Also in tomorrow’s campus chase, I may try once again to get hold of the physics department office and inquire as to how in the name of Zarquon the Redeemer I managed to get a D in AST 110.  I realize I had my disagreements with WebCT (mentioned previously), but was my observation project really that bad?  I thought that half of the class went quite well.

Oh, yeah, I’ve been meaning to post about that for a while, I don’t think I ever actually shared my grades from last semester.  Apart from AST 110, which was rather worse than I was expecting, the others were all either as expected or pleasant surprises, thus:

  • AST 110 (Intro to Astronomy – Lab): D (?)
  • MAT 122 (Pre-Calculus): A (!)
  • ECE 100 (Intro to Electrical Engineering Seminar): P
  • ECE 101 (Intro to Electrical Engineering w/Lab): A-
  • CMJ 103 (Fundamentals of Public Communication): A

Even with the D in AST 110, that gives me a semester GPA of 3.6mumble (it was only a 1-credit course).  Annoyingly, because of the F I pulled in COS 220 (Intro C Programming) in 1993, my overall cumulative GPA is now 3.22, which is .08 below the threshold for the dean’s list.  But hey.That A in MAT 122 is the main reason why I tried to swap out TME 152 (Technical Mathematics II, half of which would just be a recap of MAT 122 anyway) for MAT 126 (Calculus I) – if I managed to stay ahead of the curve in that class, maybe proceeding into the main calculus cycle isn’t as crazy as it seemed like it was going to be back in November.

My performance in MAT 122 and ECE 101 also brings to light an interesting phenomenon, that being: I apparently have no idea when I’m doing well in a class.  I spent most of the semester thinking that both of those courses were veering between mediocrity and certain doom, only to discover when the smoke cleared that I’d aced one (there must have been a grading curve involved – how else could I possibly have gotten an A in a class where one of my three exam scores was a 76?) and nearly so the other.  I’m not sure if that’s reassuring or makes me nervous, knowing that however I feel like I’m doing, I probably have no real idea.

This semester’s schedule has appeared here already, so I won’t bother with that again, but just to recap, the courses on tap for this time around are (as of the beginning of Add/Drop Week):

  • COS 120 (Introduction to Programming I) – yes, it’s another godforsaken computer programming class.  No matter where you go nowadays, there it is.  This one’s in Visual Basic, of all things.  Also, for no reason I can discern, it meets once a week for two hours starting at 5 PM.  Has the prof got a day job?
  • MET 107 (Machine Tool Laboratory I) – making things out of metal!  Involves more enforced teamwork, oh joy, but at least the teams are preselected, so we won’t have the awkward-milling-around phase on day 1.
  • MET 121 (Technical Drawing) – once again, this is a field that has been consumed by the all-devouring maw of the Computer.  There is unlikely to be any actual drafting with nifty tools and a nice slanty table here; my guess it it’s all CAD stuff, just as they no longer teach you how to work a slide rule in Calculus.  Involves three textbooks, one of which has the slightly dubious title Modern Graphics Communications, and a piece of software called Solid Edge, which sounds like an off-brand fighting game.
  • TME 152 (Technical Mathematics II) or MAT 126 (Calculus I) – we’ve covered this.
  • And possibly MUY 101 (Fundamentals of Music), an introductory music theory course, which satisfies one of the general education requirements and looks like it might be interesting.  Unfortunately, I ended up in the online section, and after my experience with AST 110 I’m not sure I’m eager to repeat that.  It’ll probably get dropped if I do make the switch to MAT 126, because that’s worth one more credit and requires more in-class time than TME 152.

I have to say, this all looked much more stimulating when I was signing up for it.  On the other hand, I’d had a lot more sleep over the previous seven days then.  Hopefully once things get rolling again, a rhythm will develop, as it did last semester, and everything will be fine.  Although I’m still concerned about the winter commute.  I’ve gotten rather deliciously used to not driving 140 miles a day.

Day One: Very Mixed Feelings

August 30, 2010 6 comments

Well.  Um.  That was Day One, then.

Academically, nothing much happens on the first day of the semester.  Syllabuses (the built-in WordPress type-as-you-go spell checker insists that this is correct and syllabi isn’t, though, oddly, it doesn’t recognize “WordPress” either) are handed out, instructors make their preferences known as regards classroom conduct and the like, and… that’s basically all they have time for.  As a student, you get lost a lot, particularly if it’s the beginning of your freshman year.  You bumble around looking for rooms, building entrances, in my case elevators.

In those respects, then, today was entirely typical (with one exception to the bumbling-around which I’ll get to in a moment).  In others, not so much.

For starters, the temperature here in northern Maine today was somewhere just shy of 100° F, with a humidity that (for whatever reason) felt a lot higher than the indicated 31%.  For those of you who are not materials scientists, 100° F is just barely not hot enough to melt lead.* This meant that I arrived at each and every one of my several destinations on campus today in a full comedy flop sweat, which only abated 10 or 15 minutes after entering the building – except in my first class, where the lecture hall was not air conditioned and the flop sweat abatement never happened at all.

OTOH, parking was not as horrible as I was afraid it would be.  There’s a lot with a nice row of handicapped spaces right near the building where my last class of the morning is, meaning that I can park up there and make a nice big triangle, with the least distance to cover at the end.  Not as good on lab day, I admit, but I can always go to lunch and then snout around for a better parking space when I get back for the afternoon stuff.  On Friday, when I have only morning classes, this will do nicely.

I’ve met all but two of my instructors, and one of them is teaching an online class, so I’m probably not actually expected to meet him in person.  I obtained permission from my chemistry instructor to use my smartpen in the lectures despite the syllabus-specified ban on recording devices, with the understanding that I will not use the recordings for evil.  (She doesn’t want to end up being mocked on YouTube, which I can fully understand.)  I had a quick meeting with my advisor, to let him know that I was in fact in a math class after all and that all appeared to be well.  (WP’s spell checker doesn’t know advisor either.  It thinks I should use adviser.  That is, to use a technical term, wack.)

So I’ve accomplished a few things today.  I made the interesting discovery that the Memorial Union has a food court in it these days.  Last time I was there, there was one of those Taco Bell Express carts and… that was about it.  There’s a smaller one over in the Wells Center, at the other end of the Mall, which is nice because that’s much closer to where I’ll be at the beginning of lunchtime on days when I don’t need to go to the bookstore (which is also in the Union) and get a book that I missed the first time.  And I learned a few important lessons, such as:

1) I don’t care what Mom says, I do too need a canteen.

2) And I probably ought to carry a towel as well, because, damn.

All in all, then, not a bad day.  And yet, in any quiet moment, and on most of the drive home, and since I’ve arrived, my emotions have been very mixed and variable.  I had a massive mood crash an hour or so ago in which I came to the conclusion that this whole thing is an enormous mistake.  There were many points during the day today at which I felt a greater sense of not belonging than I have in a good long time.  And why did I choose a technical discipline again?  I’m like a dog running into a screen door.

I’m really not sure what I feel right now.  A lot of it is just that I spent the day hot and sweaty and arrived home feeling grubby and miserable and tired.  And that I had many moments in which I felt (and probably was) conspicuous and absurd, imagined the people around me wondering what the hell I was doing there, and not having any clear idea myself of the answer.  And I haven’t even done any actual coursework yet.

Maybe that’s the problem.  Maybe it’ll all make more sense when I’m actually working, as opposed to slumping around a roasting-hot campus figuring out where rooms are and wondering every few minutes why the publishers of Burge’s Chemistry, Second Edition felt compelled to make the covers out of (based on the volume’s weight and price) gold.

The high point of the day came when I ran into a group of students looking bewildered in the hall on the third floor of Boardman Hall and realized that they were in my ECE seminar.  The reason I knew that was because I had scouted the room for said seminar the previous week and knew it was in a strange place.  My classmates were standing in the hall between rooms 309 and 311 looking puzzled and bereft.

“You guys are looking for 310, aren’t you?” I asked.

“Yeah, do you know where it is?” asked one of my classmates, who bore a startling resemblance to my friend Eric Reuss.

“Go down to – … follow me, it’s easier,” I said, and led the way down the hall, around a corner that, from the hallway, looks like it just leads to the stairwell, down a semi-hidden side hall, past several rooms not anywhere near 310 in the sequence, and to a pair of double doors marked “310”.

Where we found a sign that said, “ECE 100 MOVED TO ESRB (BARROWS 165)”.

So much for my moment of glory.  It’s a long slog to Barrows 165 (which is also nowhere near where you think it should be based on the numbers you see when you first enter the building) from the third floor of Boardman.  By the time we got there, my younger, fitter classmates had left me far behind (Not Eric Reuss paused at the top of the stairs leading down to the ESRB wing to give me a jaunty “this way, in your own time!” sort of wave) and I was in such an advanced state of sweatiness that Prof. Musavi asked concernedly if I was all right when I flopped into the lecture hall and dragged myself to a seat.  (The seats in Barrows 165 are armless desk chairs of the sort office supply catalogs call “task chairs”.  I think the one I sat in has a permanent sweaty assprint on its cheap fabric upholstery now.)

Tomorrow’s not going to be much better on the not-much-work-to-do front or the alienation one; I have only one class, but it’s the chemistry lab, and we’re going to spend the semester’s first lab period taking something called the Toledo Chemistry Placement Exam.  I would have thought that after the class begins was the wrong time to be giving placement exams, but that’s why I don’t run a university, I suppose.  Either way, it’s another opportunity to feel utterly unprepared and out of my depth, and I’m not looking forward to it.

On the plus side, I did get to read through the lab manual this evening, and it had many satisfying references to the safety showers and what to do if you set yourself on fire.  Nothing like a whiff of potential disaster to spice up an academic experience, I always say!

(* For values of “just barely” that include “531.43° F”.)

Deep Background, or, The Story So Far

August 29, 2010 1 comment

In 1991, I graduated from high school with what I like to think of as “undistinguished honors”.  I don’t want to seem like I’m bragging, but high school wasn’t very hard.  Most of the time I didn’t have to try – so I didn’t.  I skated out of old Stearns High School with a GPA in the high 3s and early-decision acceptance to Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, where I’d spent a couple of interesting weeks as part of a summer program the year before, and when I arrived in Worcester that fall I figured it wouldn’t give me much trouble.  I wasn’t quite so full of myself as to assume it’d be a walkover, but still, I wasn’t expecting significant difficulties.

Of course, I found them anyway.  I was not in any way prepared for the college environment, much less the demands of performing to a sufficient standard in coursework of that level.  Plus, I had gone ahead and declared my major (not actually required until sophomore year in those days) in computer science.  I realized fairly early on that this had been a mistake, as CS meant programming and programming didn’t interest me.  Computers did, networks and systems did, but WPI didn’t have an information technology degree program (it would launch one the following year, something which still annoys me slightly to this day), and I had no fallback plan – had no plan of any kind, really.

I had some good times at WPI, make no mistake; I made (and, in one surprising case, renewed) friendships that still endure today and began, in a real sense, the never-really-ending process of finding my voice as a writer.  I still think fondly of the campus, the city, and even the school’s rather endearingly crazy administration.  What I did not do – not even a little bit – was succeed academically there.  I simply wasn’t prepared for the pressure or the need to maintain some kind of academic rigor.  I must have, because I did manage to pass several fairly challenging classes (like Calculus I and II), but I cannot now remember ever actually working or studying while at WPI.  I never really knew how to do it.  After two undistinguished terms, one mostly disastrous one, and one that I more or less wrote off entirely in week 3, the university pulled my financial aid in the spring of 1992 for poor academic performance, and that was the end of me as a WPI student.

Interestingly, I managed this academic flameout without ever once falling prey to the usual causes of freshman failure.  I didn’t drink at all, never so much as experimented with drugs (and believe me, they were all around me if I’d cared to give it a go), didn’t even have a serious girlfriend (not that avoiding that was any great challenge at WPI in the early ’90s).  I came by my academic probation the old-fashioned way: by just plain being a lousy student.

I returned to college the following year, having spent the 1992-1993 school year doing everything from construction to power loafing.  This time, I figured, I’d stay away from the technical disciplines, figuring that it was the heavy math and general science-y-ness of WPI that had tripped me up; so I entered the University of Maine in the fall of 1993 as a history major.  Not for me the private sector of technological arcana.  I would happily spend the rest of my life safely ensconced within the cocoon of academia.

That lasted until March, when a friend from my WPI days called me up and told me that the computer manufacturer he worked for, a PC-clone company headquartered out in Westborough, was hiring technical support people.  This was at the very beginning of the great high-tech boom, and the money they were offering was startlingly good considering how not-picky they were about qualifications; so I withdrew from UMaine (properly this time, the one thing I did right in those days) and headed south, chasing the paycheck.

I would, though I didn’t know it then, be at it for seven years, jumping from company to company like a rat having a very bad day during a major naval battle, scrambling constantly from ship to sinking ship.  I made what, in retrospect, were really shocking quantities of money for a double college dropout, and I didn’t really have to do a whole lot to earn it, either.  I managed to spend even more money than that, ruining my credit and making myself a lifelong object of scorn to the tax services of two states and the federal government, and generally conducting myself with the sort of cheerful abandon that characterized that interesting period in our nation’s history; and then the tech bubble burst in early 2001 and the ride was over.  The last high-tech company I worked for went under so quickly and quietly that I found out I’d been laid off over the phone.

Marooned on the shores of a sea of bad life decisions, I moved back to my hometown in Maine and, through a series of curious incidents not all of my own making, found myself a reporter at the local newspaper.  Eventually I found myself editor of the local newspaper, in which capacity I had the interesting experience of working much, much harder for considerably longer hours than I’d ever clocked in high-tech, for about a quarter the pay.  I still miss that job.  The paper closed up shop in 2005, a victim of the usual sort of shady-but-legal small-business cutthroatery that you get in places like this.  For the next few years I explored the equally interesting, but not particularly lucrative, field of the freelance copywriter who doesn’t get much business.  Things seemed set to go on in like vein pretty much forever.

Then one day, back in the middle of July, I was sitting here in my fortress of solitude and thinking about all the points in my life where I’d made the wrong call, and it suddenly burst upon me what I should have done when, long ago at WPI, it dawned on me that computer science was not going to work for me as a course of study or a lifepath:

Switch to the Electrical Engineering Department.

In retrospect it seems blindingly obvious, but from the late winter of 1991-92 to that day in July 2010, it never once crossed my mind that that’s what I should have done.  Let some other schmuck program the damned things; I could be one of the guys who builds them.  Or makes the electricity they use.  Or gets it to the house.  Or any number of other things that have to do with technology and matters electric, but don’t have to do with algorithms, or syntax, or making sure all the parentheses are closed (one of the programming courses I bombed at WPI was in Scheme, a dialect of LISP(so there was a lot of stuff like this(which gets old (pretty fast)))).

Things started happening pretty fast after that little epiphany.  I applied for readmission to the University of Maine and filed a financial aid application in the middle of July, figuring, what the hell, the worst they could do was say no.  At best I expected them to say something like, “Do you have any idea how much you’ve missed the deadlines by?  Call us back in the spring semester.”

Instead, they said*, “Hey, great!  Welcome back!  You’ve missed the deadlines by a fair bit, but we can offer you enough financial aid to pay for your classes, anyway.  And you’ll have to take whatever class divisions we can shoehorn you into, so your schedule is probably going to be pretty wacky.  But we can handle it if you can!”

Which is how, after six weeks of really quite startlingly rapid bureaucratic processes, I find myself beginning classes tomorrow.  I’m a slightly odd case, neither fish nor fowl: I’m beginning right at the start of the EE curriculum, a member of the class of 2014, which technically makes me a freshman; except I’ve been there before, so I’m not subject to the various weird and arbitrary rules to which freshmen are subject.  I don’t have to live on campus the first year, for example, which all normal freshmen who live more than 30 miles from Orono are required to do.  (I actually kind of wanted to – it’s a long drive – but the money didn’t come together, so I had to cancel my room assignment.)

So in the morning, I’ll rise at what for me is a truly absurd hour, drive for a bit longer than I’d really care to drive, find a place to park in one of the University’s gargantuan commuter lots (which are roughly as far from the useful parts of campus as is, say, Denver), hike down to Aubert Hall on the campus mall, and report for the first lecture of the school year – CHY 121 (General Chemistry I), with Dr. Rowe.  I don’t know why first-year electrical engineering students have to take Chemistry I either, but they do.

I’m 37 years old.  My classmates will, I realized after a quick mental calculation the other day, have been born right about the same time I was dropping out of WPI.  Most of them will never have seen a Walkman, used a computer with a monochrome display, or known their parents to have a car that didn’t have air conditioning or electric windows.  Bill Clinton will have been the president at their earliest awareness of the office (mine was Jimmy Carter).  I’m not quite old enough to be their father unless I’d been much more, er, enterprising in high school than I was, but it’s close; when my dad was my age, I was in high school.  They will have only the vaguest recollection of the world before the World Wide Web or having to take your shoes off at the airport.

This should be interesting.

At least I hope it will be.  It’d be a bit silly starting a blog about it otherwise.

(* They didn’t actually say this.  It was just implied in the results of those applications I filed.)