Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Some Number of Things I Learned in College that I Don’t Remember

One of the dumb listicle formats we see all the time on the Internet is “X Things I Learned from Y” – for example, just from the past week:

  • Five Things I Learned from Wearing Man Pants
  • Four Things I Learned from My Catholic Mother
  • 3 Things I Learned from the Government Shutdown
  • 15 Things I Learned from my Nervous Breakdown
  • 15 Things I Learned from Marathoning Pretty Little Liars

You get the idea. Aside from the fact that “X Things I Learned from Y” is a cliché and contemptible for that reason alone, it’s a silly way to frame your knowledge. Why should I care what you learned about anything? I don’t click on these headlines as a rule because:

a) There’s a good chance I already know what you “learned,” since posts like this tend to be full of common sense, or as my friend Seth used to say, “standard shit,” and

b) I have no reason to believe you learned the right things.

If I’m going to read an article about a Pretty Little Liars marathon or some random person’s opinion on the government shutdown, I want some indication from the start that it’s going to be worth my while, that it’s informative or insightful in some way. Like “I Learned How to Seduce Men from a Pretty Little Liars Marathon” – that sounds semi-interesting! Or "The Government Shutdown Proves that Democracy Sucks." My point being, your job as the writer is to look at the four or eight or fifteen things you learned from whatever and then do something with that knowledge – find a theme, make an argument, something.

And now, I will contradict/prove my own advice by showing you some stuff I “learned” in college. These are sentences pulled from a stack of college papers I found in my filing cabinet. I guess I learned this stuff, but I barely remember the context, and it has little to no application in my life.

From a paper on Gottlob Frege’s “On Sense and Reference”:

[Senses] also explain why a statement of the form a=a has a different “cognitive significance” than one of the form a=b, when both are ostensibly claims of identity. Because every name has an associated sense, simply substituting an “equivalent” term into a sentence does not guarantee that we will interpret it in the same way, or even that the true-value will remain the same.

Interestingly I can follow my objections to the Frege paper even though I have no recollection of ever reading the Frege paper; in fact, if you asked me ten minutes ago who Frege was I would have told you that I’d never heard of him. (This was my final paper in my final philosophy class so I must have spent some time on it … GOT AN A, BY THE WAY.)

The following is from a linguistics paper (LING 402, Syntax and Semantics):

It is important to note that whether or not they have an adjective class, languages associate property concepts with either nouns or verbs (or sometimes both). [Sandra] Thompson’s explanation of this involves discourse, or pragmatic usage. In her study of English and Chinese, she found that adjectives and adjectival verbs function mainly as predicates. Their second function is that of introducing new participants. The predicating function is shared with verbs, and the introducing function is shared with nouns.

I don’t know what this means.

Ooh, here’s something that I just learned afresh, from one of my own papers! I’ve often wondered why the hell we should assume that microwave radiation coming from all directions is evidence of the Big Bang. Because, like, couldn’t it just ... be something else? This helps a little:

At the same time, two other physicists were working with the idea that the early universe was extremely bright and hot. They reasoned that, if the universe is expanding, we should be able to see some of this light, since it would only now be reaching us from the very distant parts of the universe. But it would be so greatly red-shifted as to become microwaves, which are of very high frequency. This microwave radiation is the noise that was registering on the detector.

Turns out I already knew that! Incidentally, this was a popular bumper sticker at Rice:

Now for something I really, really don’t remember: a question and answer from my COMP 210 midterm:

Consider the function insert-sort: List-of-Number -> List-of-Number, which takes its unordered input, and returns the same elements in a sorted (non-decreasing) list. For example, (insert-sort (list 8 6 2 4 10)) = (list 2 4 6 8 10). (A) Give two other examples and (B) write the function. (Be sure to follow the template!) 
(insert-sort (list 2 1)) = (list 1 2)
(insert-sort empty) = empty
(define insert-sort
(lambda (lon)
(cond [empty? lon) empty]
[else (insert (first lon) (insert-sort (rest lon)))])))

I HAVE NO IDEA. Pretty sure it's recursive though.

And finally, here’s a study sheet I made for a neuroscience exam:



  1. I still wonder what my literary interpretation professor had to say about my Big Lebowski paper, or what grade I got. (I'll never know because, like with many of my papers, I threw it away as soon as it was handed back, without looking at it, so allergic was I to criticism.)

    1. Whoa! I never would have been able to do that. My student style was "Pleaser." I got kind of annoyed, in fact, seeing the papers from my first philosophy class, which was something like classical Greek philosophy, lots of Plato and shit. I got a B+, one of only 2 non-A's I got in college I'm pretty sure ... largely because I found the class incredibly boring, but I wonder, also, if there wasn't something else going on. I was the only woman in the class.

    2. Oddly enough, this was a class where I actually did want to be a pleaser, but I was resistant at the same time.

      I did well on the first assignment. We each wrote our "intellectual biography." Basically a history of your intellectual development from childhood on. As it turned out, only two people in the class, according to the professor, understood the assignment...and I was one of them. She wanted to read my and this other person's papers to the class, to show them the kind of thing she had been looking for. (That ended up not happening because on the day she was going to do it she had some kind of pet emergency and couldn't come to class. By the next week we'd moved on.) Anyway, that made me feel pretty good about myself.

      But later in the semester I kept having trouble doing the assignments. At one point I failed to do one entirely, and I had to try to explain to the professor why I couldn't do it. I was so disappointed in myself for letting her down that I started crying/hyperventilating, which was a throwback to my elementary school years. I tried to explain how I felt unable to grasp difficult concepts and vast amounts of information in my mind, that the prospect of reading a book and then writing a paper about it felt as daunting as climbing a mountain. But mostly I hyperventilated.

      I ended up with some kind of A or B for the class, though, so those papers I threw away must have been decent. My anxiety was probably the result of my classic one-two combination of underestimating myself and blowing things absurdly out of proportion.

      Classical Greek philosophy--yeah, I took that too, for about two weeks. It was one of my freshman fall semester electives. I was like, well, this is what you're supposed to study in college, right? Ancient Greek Philosophy? Of course. Pass me my mortarboard, I'm here to learn, old-school style.

      I never took a philosophy class again.

    3. I think this might have been a prerequisite for all the other philosophy classes, otherwise I can't fathom why I would have taken it. I really liked a few of my philosophy classes, especially Philosophy of Mind, which was one of my favorite classes of the whole college experience. There's definitely a lot of bullshit involved though.

    4. I too threw away papers without looking at the grade or commentary! Not always, just sometimes. I thought I was the only loon who did that. But the strangest thing I did was right before graduation. I wrote a big paper about Plath's poetry. I worked hard on it, but I'd put so much pressure on myself to impress the prof with a brilliant paper--something about that guy, I had to SHOW him--that I was terribly dissatisfied with the result. I stowed it in a desk drawer and never turned it in--never even talked to the prof about it. It was the final assignment, so I expected to fail the class. A nice man, the prof gave me an I despite the trouble I'd given him and other profs. (I'd read about Jim Harrison and Tom McGuane at Michigan State. They took target practice in their dorm room, cut class and went to a coffee shop to discuss literature, and drove the Eng Dept crazy. Consequently, I thought it was cool to be an asshole.) I went into an MFA program with that I on my transcript, and the I remained there until just before I finished the program, when they told me they wouldn't give me my Masters until I poked that I out. So I went to the basement of my parents' house, fished the old Plath paper out of the desk drawer, appended an explanatory and apologetic note, and turned it in to that prof at my alma mater. He accepted the paper and changed my I to a decent grade, and I got my BA and MFA in rapid succession.

    5. Wow! That sounds very Matt Cozart.

    6. My head was in a bad place, had been since around age nineteen. I was weird and withdrawn, always jacking off to morbid rock 'n roll, irritating people with my compulsive punning and word salad. I picked up hos off the street and did drugs with them, over and over until I was broke. It's a wonder I didn't catch something nasty or get shot or something. I probably should have gone to a shrink. My family suggested it, but I told them I was okay. Now, of course, I'm the paragon of well-adjustedness you no doubt take me for.

    7. Makes for great stories at least. I can't ever say I picked up a ho and did drugs with her.

  2. Did you make any interesting discoveries about your writing style/thought process back then? Elisa, have you grown and learned? Does it sound like reading someone else, or do we never change?

    1. I was surprised how not embarrassed I was, like, my writing was fine, even very good, and recognizable ... even though I have no recollection of writing that stuff. It's weird ... like, in what sense did I write those things? Some version of me put those words in that order ... very odd.

  3. you still have papers from college. i am impressed.

    1. Yup. The staples are all rusty from being stored in a damp Boston basement for years.

  4. My scheme is rusty but I don't think your sort function works, I think it just returns the original list.

    1. Oh, wait, insert. Duh. nm.

    2. I got full credit for the answer on the exam. It's possible I mistyped it here though.

  5. I have no idea what that insert - sort - list thing is talking about. Extraterrestrial hieroglyphics to me.

    When I went to college, I made a false start that lasted a few weeks. I was stumped by my first freshman comp assignment, which was to write a 1-2 page paper describing the position one of the political candidates had on one of the current issues. (Fall of 1972, Nixon and McGovern running for president.) "George McGovern intends to end all U.S. military involvement in Vietnam immediately." Couldn't think of anything to add -- impossible to complete the assignment. So I stopped going to class.

    The following year I found an experimental/non-traditional program at the same place (U. of Minnesota) where we pretty much didn't have to write papers for our classes. That worked out better for me.

    Never took a class in Philosophy. Though years later I did enjoy reading Plato's dialogues on the trial and death of Socrates. And from time to time I've read a bit of Marxist-Leninist stuff on dialectical materialism, which I've found useful. And now and then I like to read a little of Nietsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, just for the lyrical beauty of it. But have never studied the stuff formally.

    Never linguistics either, though I found very useful (years later) Frederick Bodmer's book The Loom of Language, which -- in spite of it's limited scope (mostly Latin and Germanic European languages) opened the world of learning languages to me. I found Mario Pei's The Story of Language useful too.

    The sheet full of notes on neuroscience makes me think of the movie A Beautiful Mind. It also looks a little like some of the pages in my poem writing notebooks.

    1. Writing papers always came very naturally to me. I could write a 10-page paper in a couple of hours. Of course this was with double-spacing.

      I find it very visually pleasing. I don't think I could write legibly that small anymore.