Monday, June 27, 2005

College: Freshman, Sophomore

I divide my undergraduate years into two distinct periods. My living environment, course load, and social interactions all changed between my first two years and my last two years of college. I changed, too.

During my freshman and sophomore years, I lived in Denton Hall, one of the massive high-rise dormitories on the UM campus. To be specific, I lived in 6107 Denton Hall. I roomed with Pete, a friend since high school.

Denton was a giant brick of a building, eight stories tall with two wings per story. There was a men's wing, and a women's wing, with one bathroom each. Between the wings was the elevator lobby, which opened onto the floor's common lounge and study area. The common area had blue carpet, the type you might find in an office building, and heavy wooden furniture. The individual rooms had walls made of cinder block, painted in shades of pastel blue, yellow, and green. The floors of the rooms, and indeed of everything save the bathrooms and the lounge, were covered with generic off-white tile. The doors were heavy and, together with the thick walls, provided some shielding from an environment which might otherwise have been unbearably loud. The building was steam-heated, with a radiator in each room, and the upper floors were noticeably warmer than the lower floors. There was no air conditioning, but -- despite the heavy construction -- opening the windows often provided enough breeze to make things bearable during warm days. I think the over-riding design goal for the dorms was to make them student-proof, but they were reasonably comfortable, too.

Our floor was almost entirely populated by students in the University Honors Program. A disproportionate fraction of us were in technical majors, particularly engineering. Denton 6 was a coherent social unit: we had classes together, ate meals together, played games together, listened to music together, watched movies together at the campus theatre. Most of us weren't party animals, which I think contributed to our social cohesiveness. The handful who were interested in general partying spent a lot of time outside; my understanding is that they went to visit fraternities and sororities which were more to their taste.

I got to know people fairly quickly in the first week or two as a freshman. Usually, I might have been more reserved, but I was driven by the pressure to socialize and to find friendly faces in an unfamiliar environment. Wait -- who am I kidding? I was driven, as I so often am, as much by hunger and technical expertise as by anything else. My metabolism then was faster than it is now (not that it seems particularly slow now), and as often as not, I was ravenous by the time a group would be ready to go to dinner. Maryland's dining hall food is not bad as far as such food goes, but others found more room for pickiness than I did. So I ate their leftovers. At least a few people probably remembered me, at least at first, as the guy who kept accumulating other people's plates of leftovers at dinner.

More people might have remembered me as the guy who could get the network to work. I knew how to troubleshoot computer problems, and was happy to do so; enough people got to know this that I was able to help a number of strangers living on different floors, and some in different dorms. It was a great way to meet people, particularly since the hardware and software environment common at the time made it so that even simple troubleshooting often took some time. Many machines had no network cards, so one had to be installed (no sweat, usually, though I came to hate certain types of cases). The available network cards came in a zillion flavors, most of them quirky. Windows 95 wasn't out yet, so installing a network card usually involved installing a device driver, and then figuring out why the driver didn't quite work. Conflicts for interrupt request numbers were common. It usually wasn't difficult, but it was time consuming, and it looked impressive. So I worked, and I talked to people. I think I was hit on once or twice, though I didn't come to that thought until about two years later (and still am not sure). Mostly, though, I just listened, talked, and fiddled.

Do any of us really appreciate how we're seen by others? I know I have personal quirks, probably more than I've consciously catalogued. Every semester while I was an undergraduate, I went to the CS division to get my courses approved, and Gwen Kaye always commented on my green backpack; when, at the end of my junior year, I replied that she'd said this every time I came to see her, she said, I know, but it bears repeating. I had a favorite tree on campus, which I liked to climb, and to nap in at times. I was fond of tea, and -- as now -- I had a special appreciation for those who were willing to take the time to share a cup. Acquaintances could tell when I was tired by the way my left eyelid drooped, when I was doing math by the way my hair stood on end, and when I was thinking about a program by the way I draped my arm over my head. What of these things really goes into a first impression, anyhow? Do any of them? Or are a smile or a tone of voice all the impression that lasts?

I remember drinking tea, playing board games, and waxing philosophical with Pete and Scott. I remember watching endless networked computer games; I usually failed to participate, partly because I would be easily distracted, partly because I was never much good at any game but Tetris. I remember playing combat Tetris with Rob and talking math with Mike. I remember listening to Nils' laugh, and some conversations we had over tea. Pete was popular with the women on the floor, and I remember being amused as I watched his interactions with them. I remember that Cindy and Helen and Scott studied together for some engineering course that they were all taking. I remember answering questions from Elea when she was grading calculus homeworks. I remember Will's visits, and how happy I was to discover that Liz liked tea as much as I did. I remember watching the antics of the squirrels. These were the elements of my day-to-day life.

There was the other side of social life, too. We all got on each others nerves at times, and I'm sure I irritated others as much as I felt irritated. On weekends, the elevators often smelled like vomit. Sometimes the bathrooms did, too, and I remember a weekend evening were we had an unpleasant encounter when I asked a group visiting the seventh floor if they could please stick to smoking and drinking in the seventh floor bathroom, and leave ours alone. I remember being rudely awakened from time to time, when a drunk guy knocked on the door to ask whether we'd thrown something at him (I told him we hadn't, and went back to sleep), or when someone pulled the fire alarm. I tend to bolt awake when startled in my sleep, and I think it made Pete twitchy after the first time he saw it. There were some successful courtships among my peers, and there were many that fell flat and turned bitter. People were always stressed over some thing or the other: overwork, perceived or real slights, and life's little mishaps. Shit happens, after all. My Aunt Eva died at a time when I was already feeling bleak; I tried to talk about it once or twice, failed, gave up, and worked through it myself. Such is life. The good times dominated the bad, at least for me.

I think I felt the most appreciation for these social aspects of life during the times they were absent. In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I lived on campus, and did programming work for the campus Department of Communication Services. Mike worked at the same place, so I talked with him; I talked from time to time with my apartment mates in the summer housing (particularly a cheerful ME named Ecton, who liked to talk about computers); and I sometimes had dinner with Kathy, who I think may have been dubious about my ability to feed myself. I enjoyed eating lunch outside and watching the squirrels, and I enjoyed eating berries off the tree on my way home in the evening (sometimes I would eat nothing but those berries, which I think may have inspired Kathy's doubts). And I took classes, which meant that I had homework to fill the evening hours. I also installed Linux that summer: it was a disaster the first time, but I got things working eventually. Still, it turned out to be a quiet, lonely summer.

However much I may have been affected by the general setting of a big university and the social environment of the dorms, though, I think few of the life experiences of those first two years had nearly the effect on me that my coursework did.

In educating their undergraduate majors, the department of mathematics at Maryland takes an utterly different approach than the department of computer science. Partly because of the sheer number of undergraduates entering the program, the first two years of the computer science program were fairly regimented. The prerequisites were enforced; the paperwork was carefully checked; and we all marched together in lockstep through the same course sequences, with massive attrition over time when people decided that programming a computer might be more trouble than it was worth, and transfered to other majors (most often business, from my observations). Projects were graded semi-automatically: we used an automated submission system to turn in a package containing sources and Makefiles, and the script kept careful track of the time so that your grade could be appropriately docked if you were ten seconds late. The submitted sources were passed through a grading script, which would run our codes on a set of test cases, and then run the results through diff. If the results didn't match, a grader would look at our output, look at a list of mistakes, and take off a specified number of points. Formatting error: five points. Program crash: rather more than five points. Sometimes class attendance was mandatory, and was enforced by quizzes. For those first two years, my computer science coursework was more a matter of patience than anything else.

In mathematics, there was a program set up to lure promising-looking students into becoming mathematicians. Incoming freshman were offered the chance to take a year-long sequence in analysis: honest-to-goodness hard analysis. None of us had any idea what we were getting into, of course, and the class attrition was rapid and severe. Our class started the first semester with about 35 people, I think, and had about twelve at that semester's end. But many of us who made it through the first semester were thoroughly hooked; and I think all of us who made it through the second semester were. After that, the prerequisites -- which were more suggestions than laws in any case -- were a non-issue. If you could hack it, they were happy to have you; and if you couldn't hack it, you'd either figure it out or you'd go and find something else to do with your time. There were plenty of people around the department who were happy to provide course advice, and their advice was rarely conservative. I once asked my analysis professor whether a particular course would be worthwhile, and he responded, Bah! That's okay, but too basic; you should just take the graduate course. Look, here's the book. My guess is that you could probably go through that in a weekend. Maybe two weekends if you decided to go drinking. So I took the graduate course evantually -- I think all of us who went through that analysis sequence took at least one graduate sequence, which was in any event part of the requirement for the departmental honors program -- and it was excellent.

Of course I loved math. How could I not? It was beautiful stuff, concise and deep and powerful. I remember problems from my differential equations class which took two or three sentences to describe, perhaps a page or two to analyze, and two weeks of thought to finally get. And much of that thought ultimately turned up ideas which I thought were interesting and beautiful in their own right -- which was good, because often they were dead ends for the problem I was thinking about. The way one learns mathematics is to do mathematics, and if you manage to crunch through from problem statement to problem solution without taking a few side trips and admiring the scenery on the way, you've ultimately missed the opportunity to do mathematics. Three quarters of the time, the exploration I did had no immediately obvious connection to the solution (which as often as not came to me on falling asleep or on waking up). But if I didn't do the explorations, I didn't figure out anything: not the problem, not the interesting side roads, not any interesting corollaries.

As far as computing went, I still found the computer fascinating, and spent time exploring the things it could do -- but those explorations weren't usually inspired by my coursework. The big exception was my algorithms class, which I took in my second year, and which (not so coincidentally) was as much a math course as anything. Fortunately, the CS courses got much more interesting later on, but that's a story for another time.

And then there was the breadth coursework, what UM referred to as the Core requirements. I took an honors section of psychology, which was great fun (a giant lecture would likely have been much less entertaining). I took linguistics, which I thought was fascinating, and which some of my classmates found sufficiently intriguing that they took double majors: CS/linguistics or math/linguistics, mostly. And over the summer, I took the required tech writing course.

I remember tech writing not so much for what I learned about how to write as what I learned about how other people write. Slipshod grammar and punctuation and questionable spelling is irksome, of course, but some of what I saw in that class was appalling. One classmate submitted ten pages of typeset drivel in response to an assignment to write a hundred word technical abstract; another fellow, though he seemed sharp and articulate when he spoke, submitted some papers which -- had I not seen the title -- I might easily have mistaken for bad translations of a Chinese typewriter repair manual. We had to read each other's papers, and write comments; I gave the author of the ten page abstract a copy of the directions, with the first two sentences underlined, but I wasn't sure what advice to give the other guy, except that he should read what he had written aloud, first to himself and then to a friend. He told me, with surprising good humor, that he would do exactly that; but I never had to read any of his other work, so I don't know whether the advice helped him or not.

And then there was the Honors coursework. There were three types of course offerings that were unique to the University Honors Program: Honors versions of standard courses, such as the psychology class I took; the Honors colloquium, a one semester peer-led class which was required in the first semester; and the Honors seminars. The introductory psych class was the only honors section of a regular course that I ever took, and I enjoyed it. The colloquium and the seminar were more interesting.

The idea of the colloquium seemed reasonable enough -- to help ease students into the university environment -- but I have mixed feelings about how it was implemented. I suffered through my section, and was glad to be done with it. For the most part I tried to be a civil, thoughtful participant in the discussion; but the discussions didn't always stay at all civil or thoughtful. I remember once getting so upset that I stormed out in the middle of class. In the same situation, I would do it again, now, though I might be more quietly. What bothered me most was the identification of individuals not by their own varied actions, but by their relation to one big idea or action. The same thing bothers me about much organized religion. Doesn't the idea of visiting the sins of the father even unto the seventh generation sound a bit ludicrous? And yet I met people -- very intelligent people, even -- who could, with a straight face, claim that I (apparently personally) had been busy raping, torturing, plundering, and generally being unpleasant for the past few centuries. I could utter no argument to convince them otherwise, at least not that day; they knew the Truth. What would be the point in making a stand? I'm sure I could amuse myself by stringing together bad metaphors, something about the combination of it being easier for faith to move mountains when exaggeration has made a mountain out of a molehill. But really, I'd rather be thinking about math.

And the honors seminars? Ah, they were interesting. There was a very popular one on dinosaurs, taught by a local expert working (if I remember correctly) with the Smithsonian. I saw him lecture once, and it was terrifically interesting; Pete took his seminar, and I gather that it was interesting, too. Another popular seminar was on death and dying; Scott took that one, and spoke highly of it. One of my math professors was passionately interested in opera, and taught a seminar on opera appreciation. I took a seminar on 20th century physics, which was half about the physics (at a high level) and half about the sociology of the physicists; this is where I first read Kuhn. In my first semester, Sandy Mack taught a seminar on Shakespeare; it looked immensely interesting, but it conflicted with the analysis course.

I took five seminars. I already mentioned the course on the evolution of modern physics (From Crisis to Chaos). All the other seminars were chosen to fulfill Core requirements. There was a course on Buddhism. The class met 7-9 in a room that was usually kept at an uncomfortable temperature, and the professor spoke in a soft monotone. I spent most of the lecture hours trying to stay awake, but at least the reading was interesting. I had more luck with the course on Reading the Bible as Literature. I liked that class, which involved a great deal of analysis of who might have written different books (we restricted our attention to the Old Testament), and for what purpose. Did you know that many scholars think the book of Jonah is a satire? Or that the way that Moses is a jackass for half of Exodus and Aaron is for the other half is thought to reflect political divisions between northern and southern Israel? There was one literalist in the class, but he had a sense of humor, and had mastered the trick of keeping two or three mutually contradictory pictures in his mind simultaneously without apparent discomfort. He was entertaining in the class discussions.

Then there was Reading People and Places, which was a course about themes of visual design, from architecture to parks to clothing. One weekend we spent a day walking about DC and examining the architecture of the different buildings; that was a lot of fun, though the professor kept up a brisk clip for the entire day, and I was glad for my long legs. We talked about semiotics and read articles by Roland Barthes. I remember only tidbits about that, probably because I never felt that I had a comfortable grasp of it. Evidently my understanding was good enough to get me through the essays, but the science of signs never seemed to me to be particularly scientific, nor did the language of signs seem to have much in common with language. I remembered enough that I recognized Barthes' name when he died a little while ago, and roughly remembered what I'd read about semiotics. But it has been eight years, and I've forgotten a lot of details.

And then there was Knowledge and Its Human Consequences, which, when I took it, was being offered for the first time as an experimental course. There was some discussion of whether it should be made a mandatory part of the Honors program, though I don't know if it ever was made mandatory. The class isn't easy to describe. There was a lecture part of the class, in which we heard about Gandhi's opinions on modernity; about Dostoevsky's story of the Grand Inquisitor; and about Olmstead's work on the design of Central Park. Each set of lectures was given by a faculty member from a different department. Those same faculty members also led the discussion sections. I was in the section led by the professor who spoke about Dostoevsky, as I recall, as was Pete. I remember finding the discussions alternately interesting, irritating, and upsetting, but I no longer remember the details. I know that part of what irritated by was unbudging Idealism of some of my classmates, but I've forgotten all the specific instances. But I also remember that the discussions were generally lively, which I think reflects well on the professor as well as the class. I was impressed, too, that she read our weekly essays with some care. If she found a point particularly interesting, she would sometimes jot a note in the margin; the only such comment that I remember now, though, is when she told me You write beautifully, but do you always have to be so relentlessly linear? I did not have a good response then, and I still don't.

For two years, I saw the same people in the dorm where I lived, and in the general coursework we all took. Then, in the fourth semester, the coherence of the floor as a social unit dissolved. Some people formed couples and spent their time with each other; others spent time with different groups of friends; and others, inspired by the accumulation of social friction over time, retreated into cliques. We planned our respective moves to different parts of campus where the dorms were nicer, and we planned more concentrated coursework in our major areas. The end of sophomore year was a little ending, and I welcomed it.

Then came two more years, which perhaps I'll talk about some other day.

  • Currently drinking: Lychee-flavored black tea