Academiology VI: Humility

Published on 2024-03-06

This isn't the first time I've talked about my approach to school in the past:

Growing out of your sigma-grindset

There's many stories I could tell, and I'll flush some of them out here. There's themes. Important themes to today's topic.

I was a pretty high achiever in high school. Not because I was inherently good at it; all things considered; I was actually pretty bad at it. I just did it a lot. I made it my thing. It was the only thing I really knew.

Earlier in high school, I had this one class with a very strange teacher. I'm not going to call her "lazy," because being a teacher in public schools is not an easy job, but I will say if she was being deliberate in the way she approached teaching, she held her cards very close to her chest.

Her approach was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. The class was on ancient history (i.e. the ancient history deemed important by white people). Instead of lecturing the material, she decided to have us do research projects and prepare presentations. Then, she would take notes on our presentations, and test us on the material we lectured to each other.

The first unit she did this, we learned about Egypt. When it came time for the test... people didn't do very well. It was hands-down the worse test grade I'd gotten thus far (and by that I mean I got like a C+ so woe was me). She had an explanation that convinced at least herself, so she decided to do the same thing moving into the next unit, which we did on ancient Greece.

It seems a little silly now, but getting that C+ was a wake up call for me, and I decided that on the next unit test she handed us, I'd get a perfect score.

So, I started asking people to give me their USB drives after they presented. I'd take their presentations, compile them into very detailed cliff-notes with 100% coverage, and then I'd make them into Quizlet decks: the late 2010s high school student's choice for flash card management. From the time I got home to the time I went to bed, I spent my free time compiling other people's presentations into HTML documents that I published on my website for my own and my classmate's reference.

The end result was me being two months older and having a near perfect record of every word uttered in that class about the ancient Mediterranean civilization.

My professor then decided to make the test open book. I printed off my website, bound it into a notebook, and brought it to the test. I managed to cross reference every single question on the test with something I had specifically written in my notebook. I was sure I was going to get 100%.

(I did not get 100%)

I didn't do bad. I did pretty incredible, for all intensive purposes, but for whatever reason, that still wasn't enough for me. Despite how hard I tried, I still wasn't the best. I felt pretty bad about it, and clearly, I learned absolutely nothing in the process.

A few years earlier, I would have been in middle school. One thing I remember quite distinctly was this math teacher I had. He was a big guy who had an extremely francophone name and a billowing voice with a Québécois accent. He was a hockey coach on the side and loved to talk about it. I remember, whenever we were misbehaving, or someone forgot to do their homework, or whatever it is he didn't like, he'd yell:

When you get to the high school, they won't see you as a person. You'll just be a number!

(It was important enough that he'd flip to English to make sure we understood)

I'm not sure if I believed him, but I did see his point. The high school was about four times the size of my middle school. Four times as many people. Four times as many stories. None of which mattered to the many bureaucrats keeping the institution running.

But that really wasn't my experience with high school. Teachers in the public education system are often incredibly passionate and caring people who want to see you succeed. I had so many wonderful teachers in high school. I also had a few deeply traumatizing ones, but that's a story for another time. Point is, compassion is not a finite resource. When we learn to love in a way that's respectful of ourselves and our own needs, our capacity to pass it forward grows even stronger.

Things changed when I got to university.

A while back, I was taking a course on multivariable calculus. Multivariable calculus is... uh... kind of hard. It's hard to think about, hard to visualize. My professor always taught multivariable calculus. It was his thing for as long as anyone could remember, and people hated him for it. He was an interesting character. When he noticed someone talking, however softly, wherever they were in the room, he'd continue lecturing as he walked up to them, and when he was right beside them, he'd scream "SHUT UP." Then, he'd just kind of stand there quietly for a few seconds, and then he'd walk away, going back to lecturing. It was awe-inducing, in a horrifying kind of way.

I remember our first midterm was on vectors. Vectors should probably be the easiest part of multivariable calculus; most of the people in the room had taken physics, which goes into vectors way deeper than we ever did. I studied quite a bit, but I wasn't worried about the test at all when I actually sat down to do it. Some of the questions were tough, but by the end of it I felt like I had a good answer for all of them. I turned in my test feeling indifferent.

A week later, it was handed back.

I think I got a 51%. Not exactly a "fail" but pretty damn close.

This, like my much lower stakes crisis in high school history class, was a wake up call. But unlike high school history, I didn't really know what for.

That day, I went on a walk in the woods to think things over. It bothered me a lot; I'd spent so much time studying for that test, and in the end, it didn't pay off. I had poured so much of myself into the university-system and it gave me what felt like such a damning result in turn.

I wasn't the only one to do bad on this test. Quite a few people did. The test got curved a bit in the end, but students were upset, as they tend to be. People tried reaching out to my professor and the TAs. My professor is also infamous for being rude to people who seek his help, importantly. Everyone on his team seemed to feel like we were wasting their time.

This is what I often cite as the moment I started losing faith in university. I didn't feel like I was a person to them; I felt like a number.

That number was 51. Just barely enough.

After my walk, I came to the conclusion that my fear and uncertainty were ultimately rooted in the way I allow myself to be defined by how I relate to the university. I accepted the scores it ascribes to my work as a judgement of my value of a person. But I can't allow the university to judge me, because the university-system has no soul--there is nobody to do the judging. It has inputs and outputs. We can hypothesize as to how those parameters are correlated, but ultimately there is no ghost in the machine.

The black box

In high school, I had the chance to go to this weird academic ego-stroking conference for some reason. It all felt pretty pointless, but there was one workshop that really stood out to me. It was about how to survive grad school: a problem that I found really interesting despite grad school being way, way over the horizon.

In it, the speaker told us about how grad school was designed to burn you to the ground, and to build you back up. They told us horror stories. 80 hour work weeks. Getting laughed off the stage in a lecture hall full of your peers. Humiliation, imposter syndrome... Truly terrible feelings. But supposedly, this is the price you pay to get your master's degree. Grad school demands a sacrifice.

As an undergraduate student, especially in today's world...

Studying computer science at the end of the world

it can be hard to discern what it is exactly that you're getting in exchange, if anything at all. A master's degree has some value, especially in academia. An undergraduate degree is often of much more dubious value on its own.

Previously, I wrote about how the university-ecosystem asks for a very large investment:

Academiology III: Investment

It asks a lot of you. It asks for everything. And ultimately, it's up to us to decide how much we're willing to give.

My conclusion then was that it's okay for the university to ask for so much, provided it gives something in turn. And importantly, it does. It gives you the whole university ecosystem--all that we love and hate.

Similarly, I think it's okay that the university-system can feel indifferent to us. As individuals, we are important but small parts of an unimaginably large system. We are not all individually the centre of the universe, and that's okay. It's good, in fact. It's relieving.

Getting a 51 on that midterm was probably one of the best things that's happened to me during my studies. It taught me one of the few valuable lessons I imagine I'll take with me when I finally leave this place--that is, who cares? Scores like these have very little bearing on who we are. Once I stopped letting the university assess my value, and once I stopped surrounding myself with people who reaffirm it, my grades dropped measurably and I became a much happier person as a result.

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