college life

New Quarter, New Priorities

On Friday, I woke up and realized that on that day, I wouldn’t need my hoodie when I rode to class in the morning. The temperature has jumped, and I heard some complaints around the dorm. But for me, it’s just beautiful and comfortable. And a sign that it truly is Spring Quarter.

The quarter started just under two weeks ago, and I’ve enjoyed the ride. I’m continuing Chinese and my religion humanities class, which have both worked out to my satisfaction. I’m taking a required writing class this quarter, and I’ve been fortunately assigned to “The Rhetoric of the Movie Musical.” It goes how it sounds, with weekly screenings of movies, and discussions and essays about rhetorical techniques in the film. It’s fantastic.

I’m taking the intro course to my major, labeled as “Symbolic Systems 100”, and called “Intro to Cognitive Science and Information Science.” The class is almost entirely reading, of the dense and obscure sort, but it’s been very interesting. Centered around thematic concepts, the course explores how various fields approach the same questions. I guess it’s this multi-disciplinary aspect that makes SymSys so interesting. Difficult at times, but interesting.

The biggest addition to my schedule, however, has been CS198. At the recommendation of my good friend RJ, I applied for, and accepted the position of, section leading the introductory Computer Science class here. Taught in Java, it covers, in 10 weeks, the same material as my 36 week high school programming class (we even start with Karel!). Over the past 2 weeks, I’ve been to multiple workshops on how to teach and help students, been rolled-out at 6:30 AM to get doughnuts, played dodgeball in a room of trampolines, and more, all in the purpose of section-leading.

On Friday morning, I led section for the first time, armed only with handouts, a bag of tortilla chips, and Valentine’s candy. Looking at the students before me, I realized I just as easily could be sitting in one of those seats, listening to someone else teach me CS. We went over logistics, did an ice-breaker, and talked over lecture material, which went surprisingly quickly. It was fun. I absolutely enjoyed doing it.

It’s different than tutoring, or private lessons. It’s not as close as that one-on-one interaction, though eight is close. And I think I better understand one reason why some people choose to teach. I always thought that teaching would be boring, especially for people far over-qualified for the material covered. From Stephen Hawking giving a high-level talk on cosmology to Leonard Susskind teaching basic mechanical physics, many people are not teaching at the edge of their knowledge. But that doesn’t really make it boring. When I got into talking and working back-and-forth with ideas, the material seemed somewhat less important than just helping others to take those steps.

I’m sure my optimism about this will be curtailed as grading begins and my schedule fills, but it’s certainly a boom to be doing this so soon. Maybe teaching will stick.

One reply on “New Quarter, New Priorities”

Teaching is absolutely the best way to learn a body of knowledge. In my experience, the interesting part about teaching is the amount of content that gets embodied, that is natural to me, but new to students. It’s possible for a few students to just take a textbook away and learn the content, but there can also be a gap between theory and practice as textbooks are generally written at a point in time, and practice evolves.

In the future career, if you’re looking towards academics, you can eventually decide if you’re primarily a teacher or a primarily a researcher. I’m primarily a researcher who teaches. Since I work in the field, my directions largely get shaped by what is happening in the business and the economy, rather then pure trajectory of university-generated knowledge. This means that I sometimes make abrupt shifts in my thinking, and I find that university researchers sometimes don’t understand or appreciate why I’m looking into specific issues. Students who work in business — and there’s many more of them now, since we’re in a world of lifelong learning — seem to appreciate hands-on experience in market-driven approaches to knowledge generation.

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