(Recently) Software Engineer @ Google Silicon
(Also recently) EE/CS @ The Cooper Union
On 10/1/2021, 10:53:54 PM
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I've had the opportunity to tutor for the various CS-related courses. Unsurprisingly, the tutees overwhelmingly come from the intro-level programming class for non-engineers. This is my primary point of contact with underclassmen, and even if it isn't necessarily a representative group, it is enough to hear secondhand about the drama of freshman year (and, to some degree, relive it in the memory).
At this point in the school year (a month since classes started) the academic existential dread has begun to set in. I've heard multiple accounts of "why did I choose my major," or, more generally, "why did I choose engineering?" And I've heard the horror stories of the uncooperative roommate, the slave-driving professor, the bell-curving professor, the textbook-reading professor, the black-hole-email professor, the confidently-wrong project partner, the constant one-deadline-too-many, and so on. And I will say two things about it:
You will survive these trials. There is a quote1 from the book Middlemarch that goes:
If youth is the season of hope, it is often so only in the sense that our elders are hopeful about us; for no age is so apt as youth to think its emotions, partings, and resolves are the last of their kind. Each crisis seems final, simply because it is new. We are told that the oldest inhabitants in Peru do not cease to be agitated by the earthquakes, but they probably see beyond each shock, and reflect that there are plenty more to come.
And this is true, and we are young people, and the few years over the span of college have distanced me enough from freshman year to realize some larger truths.
I was asked earlier this evening about general advice for a freshman, and I was (embarrassingly) caught off-guard by the question. I have decided to collect my thoughts, stemming from that conversation, into this blog post.
In no particular order, here are a few points that come to mind (at two in the morning, so this list is probably incomplete):
Reading textbooks is a skill. This is a matter of learning to learn on your own. In high school, you are mostly force-fed textbook assignments and packets as readings. The materials are assigned -- you do as you're told, and you can take the test and pass it. But then college comes along, and on the first test you realize that you can't do any of the questions and you panic and then you review it when it's graded and realize all the questions are super easy. What gives?
To me, the difference is that college exams are more about an application of knowledge rather than the repetition of knowledge. The problem is that when you're fed material and that is sufficient enough to succeed, you get into the mindset that all the questions are like the ones you've seen. You become good at information regurgitation. Mimicry.
But what college is really good at forcing you to do is to reach beyond and seek patterns for yourself. Information and relationships and cool little facts about the subject. Read the entire textbook chapter, front-to-back. Do all the questions, or at least skim all of them, or at worst choose a few that the professor didn't assign. Work the worked examples on your own -- this is prime material that is not to be skimmed, enticing as that is. At some point you are able to synthesize information and remember some fine details that are not covered in lecture, as they inevitably aren't. As some wise soul probably said2, "lectures are to readings as anime is to the manga" -- the anime skips many details because it has a different audience and goal. They promote the material, summarize the main points, keep it dramatic (ideally); but they are hardly the entire information.
As you reach mid-college, the classes shift from lecture-based to project-based, and you begin to consume a new form of education: academic research reports. This information source is more difficult to read than textbooks, but as textbooks convey more depth than the handouts texts in high school, these bring you to a new level of informational delight. At this point you're expected to have a background knowledge and the ability to synthesize abstract information; soon, if you participate in academics at the graduate-level, you switch from a consumer of knowledge to a producer of it.
Converse with your professors. There are two ways that this most easily manifests: office hours, and participating in class. Both should be obvious (maybe too obvious) but I'll try to explain why these are so important. Importantly, this should not be done with the goal of becoming a teacher's pet, or becoming otherwise notable to the teacher (e.g., for a recommendation letter or for participation points). I would say this usually happens with students that ask many "charged questions" -- non-meaningful questions that are mindlessly pointless3 except to gain the attention of the teacher.
Office hours may sound like a cliche. I will perpetrate that cliche, but not for poor reason. My impression of professors is that even while they may be scary during lecture, they are without exception kinder and more appreciative during office hours. They may still end up berating you for not understanding, but they will still work with you through the question because you made the effort to seek help (as opposed to mandatory lecture sessions). I also used to be afraid of not putting enough effort into problems before asking them at office hours (for fear of being yelled at), and partly for this reason didn't attend any office hours until sophomore year (when I attended linear algebra office hours out of a near-necessity); but my speculation was much misguided. If you haven't put much thought into a question, or even if you don't know where to start, you will be given a direction.
Participation in every class may really begin to sound like teacher's pet behavior. No, you don't need to answer every question posed. But you should always be alert to the possibility of something new or interesting coming up, and what better way than to regularly participate? Regular participation helps you stay awake and alert, keeps the room more lively (and more devoid of awkward silences), and occasionally goes into interesting tangents. While I argued about the importance of textbooks, this is not to say that lectures aren't important -- in fact, they may be more important because you get the important memos, the quick tricks, the cheat sheets, and the random trivia that may not otherwise stand out to you amidst the rest of the long textbook readings. Of course, this means to avoid skipping lectures if possible. This isn't a hard-and-fast rule and you can clearly judge when one assignment is more dire than attendance to a boring lecture. But systematically skipping lectures (as some students do) just because the class is slow or doesn't take attendance is a recipe for confused cram sessions and requests to the professor to raise their grade.
Several types of professors. There is not a recommendation here, but simply my observations about professors. I have found that I can broadly group professors into three classes: the overeager adjunct, the depressed adjunct, and the full-time faculty. It is true of all groups that they are extremely knowledgeable, but the teaching styles and levels of engagement tend to differ between these groups.
I'll begin with the latter. I've typically had very good experiences with the full-time faculty. They have received full-time appointment by some approval process which hopefully has some merit to it. These are the ones with deliberate teaching styles -- they know not only what they want you to learn, but also how they want you to learn it. This is purely based off of experience. These can largely vary in difficulty, depending on their pedagogy.
The second category is the overeager adjunct. These are almost invariably newly-graduated and usually alumni, working in some fast-paced technology or engineering firm. Most of these were the geniuses of their class and are a little out-of-touch with the average student. A lot of homework, quizzes, and tests are assigned, and the lectures go fast. There is an information cram. If the student can stay afloat of all this work, then it is fine; but falling behind means getting buried in a negative feedback loop of work and stress. The intent and knowledge is there, but the delivery of learning is not precise. Office hours are very useful in these classes as a means of "catching up" when feeling lost.
The latter category is the undereager adjunct. This is usually the middle-aged professor well-seated in an industry position and who can teach about more applied work. My stereotype of these professors are they tend to be family people (which is not a bad thing in itself but may interrupt the rigors of teaching), tend to not check emails as frequently, busy with their full-time work position (usually as a high-level manager), and are somewhat removed from college-level academics in general. They may be good at what they do but get a more lax perspective from industry (whereas academics are extremely fast-paced). This tends to involve many more tangential stories, few homeworks and assignments, slack "big picture" grading schemes, and starting class late. As a result, the student may be tempted to slack off in the class and cram for assignments as they come, which is much less effective than regular learning. Asking plenty of questions during class will keep regular engagement with the material and may lead to very interesting conversations (as these professors have a lot of industry-founded stories that are both humorous and useful).
Social academics. College socioacademic life is a constant commiseration. Everyone feels it, and all the students become each other's support group. Use this. Do not isolate yourself from this. There is a give-and-take of homework collaboration (where allowed), homework checking (almost always allowed), and collaborative studying (always allowed). Members of the dorm are especially integrated into this environment, and commuters may find it more difficult to interact with others. Communal, interdisciplinary spaces and open lab spaces are good places to meet new people. I observe that this socioacademic topology is complex and interesting but I can't go into more detail than that.
This goes without saying, but you do not want to be doing things that would alienate you from this tight network. If you are a bad team partner who doesn't perform work on projects, word may spread about you and it may be increasingly difficult to be able to get support from others.
Sleep, napping, and hobbies. The young love to forsake sleep, thinking that the amount of work done corresponds positively with the amount of (usually contiguous) hours awake spent on it. This is not true, and it is unhealthy.
For those that are familiar with 24-hour or longer hackathons, sleep is strategic. Not sleeping, unless you are able to train prodigiously for this and obtain an exorbitant amount of sleep beforehand, is a losing strategy. Work grinds to a halt as your eyes gloss over and various sorts of sleep-induced behaviors may cause a negative impact on the work: messy and confused work performed while sleepy may be difficult to undo.
I am a big proponent of power napping, mostly on-demand as you become sleepy. This necessitates a convenient sleeping area. For those who live in nearby dorms, this is ideal. But for those who commute or otherwise live further away, it is critical to be able to find places to rest between classes. Resting in breaks during classes is also a recommended skill.
Sleep, of course, is not the only type of rest. Other types of breaks from academics are also important for mental (and possibly physical) health. This issue becomes when too much break time is taken away from schoolwork towards hobbies and sleep, at which point time management becomes a stressor again.
The art of being direct4. This is for the shy ones (myself included). Conflict resolution is a part of daily life, and you are an adult now. If you've worked jobs, you probably already have learned this skill; if not, college is a great place to learn it. When problems come up, the worst thing to do is let it become a long-term issue. Staging an intervention (by literally saying "we have to talk," no matter how corny and awkward it feels to say) is a particularly useful skill. Being "nice" is not always an option when your own mental health is at stake -- nice people cannot infinitely accommodate for others as they might have been able to do in high school. College likes to test mental and physical limits, and you have to prevent yourself from breaking.
Develop a theory of metacognition. Get in the practice of metacognition -- learning how you learn and think. This is not only an issue of introspection and personal interest, but a matter of efficiency. If you find textbooks easier to digest than the professors' scribbling handwriting and rambling words, focus more attention on them. If you realize that a certain pattern of foods will make you gassy or mentally energetic (to the point of hypersensitivity) then you might want to consciously avoid what you eat shortly before an exam. Personally, I find that resting (e.g., a 15-30 minute power nap) right before exams help me avoid being shaky on an exam, while some inevitably are cramming up to the last moment. This may differ by professor, by course, and by semester -- make mental observations and carry it out.
Note that metacognition is a fairly general idea. You can also keep track of the patterns of mistakes and success that you make. At one point in high school I was especially harsh on myself for careless mistakes, because I seemed to be making them far too often. I started keeping track of (on paper) a list of all of the mistakes in outline, and what general fault caused them. I did this for a number of months -- agonizing over moments when the same mistake was repeated -- until the mistakes started fading. It is harsh to keep track of mistakes so materialistically, but somehow it paid off for me.
Another interesting topic is that of pedagogy. Rather than pay attention to how you learn, you pay attention to how teachers teach (and, indirectly, how they think). Some teachers, especially full-time professors and less so for adjuncts, have very deliberate teaching methods, and you can learn a lot from them. In general, you can pick up many patterns between different teachers that will define your idea of what works best and works worst. If you ever join the provider-side of education (e.g., tutoring, becoming an adjunct professor), then this will pay off greatly. But teaching is not limited to college-level academics, and it should be useful in all walks of life.
This blog post is a byproduct of my metacognitive journal -- because I have spent so long churning ideas about teaching and learning over the years, and especially as I've been tutoring, I am able to enunciate these ideas all at once. If I had not been, this blog post would likely be much more incomplete.
In a way, a lot of this may sound like becoming a teacher's pet -- these are things only the "goody-goody" students would do in actuality, and nobody really needs to do in practice. But as much as I felt that some of these were superficial in earlier years, not participating in these activities has bitten me in the butt and I've come to realize how much richer the academic experience is when you engage in an active discussion with peers and professors. Of course, I have not gotten great at practicing these skills (or many others -- notice that time management and prioritization are not on this list, because I am very bad at them and cannot speak to their efficacy). It's a lot easier said than done, and any number of things (traffic making you late to class; loud construction making it hard to sleep; following COVID restrictions and guidelines; contracting COVID; etc.) may throw off your ability to do a number of them.
Notice also that grades do not fall on this list. Grades are important (especially for graduate school) but they should not be the driving factor. You do not want to force yourself into the seat of teacher's pet to entice them to giving you a better grade (or any other form of devious and hopefully-not-illegal means of improving your grade); but following these practices should generally correlate with higher grades and a better relationship with the professor. If you really do care about grades (as they are a great stressor, and good grades would ease your state of mind), then I have two auxiliary recommendations towards this goal:
As a final disclaimer, this advice is mine alone and not backed off of any research and may not be representative of all high schools or colleges. I have not consulted other people's advice on the matter -- this is simply a 2AM blog post off the top of my head, and this may either be redundant or contradictory to the common advice. But I hope that this is good general advice for the engineering college freshmen who is worried about being able to continue in their major, and more generally for all engineering college freshmen.
1. I get most of my quotes from Typeracer.
2. I don't have a reference for this, but I've definitely heard someone say it.
3. I argue that there are stupid questions. But seemingly-stupid questions may lead you to interesting places and not actually be stupid. Here I am referring to questions where you are intentionally not attempting to think about a question before it is asked. In an academic context, it is useful to try to answer questions on one's own before posing openly, both to reduce load on the lecturer but also to improve one's reasoning skills.
4. I hope to write an entire blog post about this, and in particular about my experience as an intern this summer. It is still a post stub at the time of writing.
© Copyright 2023 Jonathan Lam