In honesty and with the objectivity that hindsight brings, I can say that my college experience was mostly terrible, and that I had made plenty of bad decisions during college. The reasons for my terrible time are complex and I won’t go into them here. But in that long period of darkness were at least a few shining moments of clarity. Those are what this article is about. I don’t know why, but I feel compelled to list them and talk about them. Maybe it’s because I want to squeeze as much value as possible out from what would otherwise have been a big waste of time and money. Maybe I want to celebrate them as victories against an adversary once thought to be too powerful. Maybe it’s because I’m feeling old and want to talk about my younger days. Who knows.
Good Decision 1: Dropping a class that was too difficult at the time
My first year was overwhelming. That’s no surprise to anyone who’s been to college: You’re typically 18 years old and trying to make adult decisions for the first time. In my case, I was both very excited and over-ambitious. I registered for courses in computer science, calculus, Japanese language, and the history of science. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but that was part of the fun: I knew that I could overcome any struggle with sufficient effort and resourcing. That’s a wonderful thought, and it was totally wrong.
See, if you read the words “history of science” above and wondered “Hmm, what kind of course would that be?”, then you’ve already hit upon the root of my problem. Because at no point did I ever have a clue as to what kind of course it was supposed to be.
Was it a science class? A history class? Was it more tech-leaning or more liberal-arts-leaning? What skill set was I supposed to be using here? All I knew was this: I attended every class, read the materials, and did the homework; but for whatever reason, I couldn’t understand the point of it all. I wrote the first assigned paper, and got it returned to me with gut-punchingly bad feedback (along with a snotty attitude from the TA, to add insult to injury). My reaction was quizzical, something like, “Huh. I thought I was doing everything I was supposed to do.”
At this point I realized I was in a real bind. Clearly I’m not succeeding in this class but it’s a required “core component” (ugh) for graduation. I could ask for help, but with the TA’s snotty demeanor towards me I didn’t expect to gain much from that route. I could drop the class but then I’d get a W on my transcript and I’d be wasting my money (it was too late in the semester to get a refund for dropping a class). I could push forward and struggle with it to the end (“Don’t give up, loser!” What great advice to tell people), but then I’d risk failing and having an F on my transcript.
Dropping the class turned out to be the most prudent thing I could have done at the time, and I’m glad I did it.
Sure I got the W and wasted some money. In hindsight, precisely no one ever cared. Nobody looks at your transcripts! I seriously wonder why we even bother with transcripts. They only matter if you’re trying to get into grad school, but then, after grad school my point still applies: No one cares about your transcripts.
But I digress. The fact is, my previous schooling did not even remotely prepare me to handle a complex interdisciplinary subject like the history of science in an academically rigorous way, and I was at least smart enough to recognize this. If I had stuck around to struggle my way through the class, it’s extremely unlikely I would’ve passed.
Dropping the class also got rid of a ton of stress, which freed up time and energy to dedicate to my other difficult classes. There’s a real chance I would not have passed one or more of my other classes if I had spent too much energy focusing on the one.
In my final year (which was 10 years later, but that’s a whole other story), I took a class in history of technology which counted towards the same core theme. At this point I was able to pass it with ease, having acquired skills and maturity. With the whole thing eventually ending in success, I officially certify my decision to drop the history of science class as: A Good Decision.
Good Decision 2: Skipping calculus lectures entirely
As I said earlier, I took calculus in my first year. You could forgive me for believing that I was going to learn calculus in my calculus class, but no, that isn’t how it worked. Instead, a professor with an unintelligible foreign accent wrote numbers and lines onto a whiteboard at 8:00 a.m. sharp two days a week. Thankfully, two other days of the week we met with an English-speaking TA who ran us through the nuts and bolts of performing whatever calculus operation we should’ve learned from the professor. So that was something.
Except it wasn’t. Half way through the semester, I found that my grade in the class was awful. I couldn’t get anything out of the lectures, and learning the nuts and bolts of doing math without knowing the concepts behind it was just not adding up for me. (You might say I just couldn’t derive any value from this process nor integrate it into my…okay, I’ll stop, sorry.) Not only that, but I’ve never been a morning person, and waking up early to drag myself to those lectures was causing major fatigue.
I knew something drastic had to be done. But what? I couldn’t afford to drop another class; then I would no longer be a full-time student, and that would cause a financial disaster due to the loss of all financial aid. That was no option. I had to find some way to pass the class.
So, after stressing about it for a bit, I decided to stop going to the lectures and to teach myself calculus using only the textbook along with trial-and-error on the practice problems. (I still attended the TA sessions, mainly to hand in my homework and to get the attendance points (ugh), as I didn’t get much else out of those sessions.) Wow. Who knew I would go to college and pay tuition only to teach myself the material out of an overpriced textbook in a dingy dorm room!
But as crazy as it may have been, my plan was working! The textbook itself, while minimal in its presentation, was still more clear than the professor. I began to understand the concepts themselves, not just the nuts and bolts of “write this number here, then that one there”. I was getting stronger in my problem-solving ability throughout the second half of the semester. I wasn’t suffering the fatigue problem anymore.
I am by no means a mathematician. And I did not exactly find enjoyment in what I was doing, nor any “new appreciation for math” or any such nonsense. But that year, in that class, I went from barely passing some tests, failing others, and probably failing the class as a whole, up to acing the final exam. That A on the final exam brought my overall grade up to a passing level. All because I said no to the system that was failing me and took my own initiative.
Many years later, I learned that this math class suffered from the same problems as do most math classes in America, the problems of which are described wonderfully in Paul Lockhart’s A Mathematician’s Lament. This is a fantastic short read and I recommend it for every American. It turns out that by taking it upon myself to teach myself calculus, I was accidentally becoming more like a true mathematician, as Lockhart defines one. I was accidentally rediscovering calculus principles on my own such that I now had a grasp on the concepts, at least in some basic way, enough to pass a class. (Lockhart’s essay is what eventually gave me a real new appreciation for math.)
Not only that, but I also gained much more by doing rote practice on my own than I would have from constantly being lost in the TA sessions. I didn’t know it at the time, but I simply learn better when I teach myself in my own environment, at least for certain subjects.
Because of this amazing and uncanny outcome, I hereby certify my radical decision to stop attending calculus lectures as: A Good Decision.
Good Decision 3: Dropping a class on the last day of the entire semester
Normally at my university, dropping a class past a certain date would result in a failing grade on your transcript. But the university allowed one (and only one) exception to this rule. Every student was given exactly one chance to drop any class for any reason, at any time, even on the last day of the semester. I did this, and I’ll tell you the embarrassing story behind why.
My second year, I was taking another computer science course. (By now, you’ve probably figured out that computer science was not the right major for me, and it was about this time that I had figured that out too.) This class was called Data Abstraction Something-Or-Other and utilized the Java programming language. I remember thinking, “Oh, Java huh? No problem, I can learn that.”
But there was indeed a problem. A hilariously large problem. I was attending the lectures and handing in homework, but I was getting kinda bad grades on all of it. I didn’t really understand why. I was writing programs, and they ran without errors. I didn’t see any reason for there to be a problem with my grade, but there was.
It wasn’t until the final week of the semester that I found out what the problem was. It goes back to the name of the course: “Data Abstraction Something-Or-Other”. Okay, that obviously wasn’t the actual name of the course, but the point is, I didn’t pay attention to the name of the course. I assumed I was taking a course on the Java language. That was not the case. I was actually taking a course on how to do data abstraction using the Java language; i.e. how to organize data sets and write Java classes and methods to cleanly present that data to other programmers who would then presumably be using and manipulating them in their own programs in the workplace.
Oh heck no. I had missed the entire point of the course.
My programs may have worked without errors, but they were almost certainly missing the core concepts of the particular lesson of the particular week. Hence the low grades. And I didn’t figure this out until the final week of the semester.
Out of a sudden realization that there was no possible way to go back and redeem my work in this course, I did the only thing I had left to do: Skipped the final exam, threw up my hands, and went over to the office to have the course dropped.
You’re thinking okay, this sounds like a disaster. How can you call this a good decision? Well, as I said earlier, I was starting to figure out that computer science was the wrong major for me. This was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back and clued me in to that fact. By dropping this course, I saved myself from an F on my transcript and found a good reason to switch to a different major.
(Okay, I need to backpedal a bit on my rant earlier about transcripts: They do kind of matter while you’re still in school. Having too many F’s or low grades can limit your options when it comes to things like switching majors or registering for classes. But this is just more evidence for my belief that transcripts, and ‘permanent records’, are little more than a tool for schools to use to intimidate and subjugate you and mean nothing outside of the school environment.)
Because this saved me from an F on my transcript and became the catalyst for me to shift my focus in college, I hereby certify my decision to late-drop this class as: A Good Decision.
Good Decision 4: Transferring back to the university I transferred away from
Ooh man, the beginning of this one is tough to talk about. When I transferred out of my first university into the second one (which I refer to as “The School That Shan’t Be Named”), I thought I was headed for a better place. I could not have been more wrong. This is where things get murky and complex for a few years and I prefer not to talk about that part of the story. For now, let’s just say that The School That Shan’t Be Named engaged in some false advertising and concealed a deep incompetence in how it handled transfer students. I learned very little there, as the classes were much less challenging than at my first university. And it was a terrible, terrible time for me. That’s all that’s important to know for now.
Anyway, there came a point when I realized it would be impossible to graduate from the school I had transferred into. Okay, maybe not absolutely impossible, but very, very impractical.
The music major was designed around the assumption that you would be taking music courses simultaneously along with your other required courses. The practical problem for me was that since I didn’t need a lot of required courses anymore (having already taken them at my previous university), I was effectively forced to become a part-time student…which meant I would lose all financial aid. This was a just a no-go.
I did not see this as an issue going into it. The school made promises of being much more flexible than the large university that I came from, but in practice this was blatantly false: I was expected to follow the set schedule that the music department ran on, and there was no way to deviate from it, as the classes I needed were only offered at certain precise times and semesters; i.e. some only during fall, others only during spring. Some only at 11:45 on a Thursday, when I had to work at my job. Therefore, stacking music courses in order to reach a full-time credit load was impossible, as there just weren’t enough credits offered during a given semester.
When I saw the problem for what it was, my first decision was to temporarily quit college altogether and get a job while I thought of what to do next. At the time I just wanted to get away and clear my head for a bit, but this turned out to be a fantastic decision. I did not love the electronics assembly job that I got, but it enabled me to pay back some of my student loan debt and build up a small savings as well. This felt like more of an accomplishment than anything I did in college.
A short time later, I was beginning to burn out from my job. It had a very early start time of 6:00 a.m., and as I said before, I’m not a morning person. I could tell that I wouldn’t be able to work there for much longer. I also had a strong desire to finish the college degree that I started. In hindsight, that may have been me falling victim to the sunk cost fallacy. In any case, I looked into the music program at my first university, and what I found was a hopeful discovery: This music department had the flexibility I was longing for at the other school in the first place. I would be able to graduate in a reasonably short time!
Within two months of making this decision, I had left my job and was attending courses again at the university. To be honest, it was not the greatest experience: I was 10 years older than everyone else and very burned out on college courses. Still, I was determined to graduate. I knew that if I just stuck it out for this final year, I would graduate. And I now had advantages that I was previously lacking: Skills and maturity, financial aid as a full-time student, and a personal savings that enabled me to pay out-of-pocket for my final semester instead of going deeper into student debt.
As a bonus, I produced a senior project in my final year that turned out to be my proudest moment in the entirety of my college experience. I created an experiment in electronic music using Nintendo Wii controllers to generate tones. Maybe I will share that project in a separate article.
In June of 2011, I graduated with a degree in music from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Never before have I breathed a bigger sigh of relief. I remember just wanting it to be done and over with, and at last I got my wish.
Because the decision to transfer back to my first university enabled me to graduate, I hereby certify it as:
A Good Decision.