Back to school

Today I stepped foot back in the classroom for the first time in about six years. I got my associates degree at a local community college during a lapse in employment, and later transferred to a local public university to finish out my bachelors. All of my classes have been online, mostly asynchronous, some group work, but for the most part I’ve avoided going to campus as much as possible. During my tenure at this school, I think I had come to campus for one class to take midterms and finals. Now, however, with just four classes left before graduation, my options were a bit limited and I was forced to take a class that would require me to sit in a classroom three times a week.

Of course I feel self-conscious, walking into campus, near twice the age of most of the other students. As I was getting dressed and driving in I thought I might be able to get away with pranking the class into thinking I was a substitute professor. I was probably further primed from this weekend: I was at a local amusement park and a majority of the people walking around with beers in their hands looked like kids to me.

So I walk into class a bit late, since I had forgotten to put the room number in my appointment, and plopped down in the most accessible chair, front row, directly in front of the professor. He was in his late sixties, overweight, with a full head of gray hair and beard. He was mainly riffing off of the Powerpoint summary of the chapter that had been assigned reading from Monday’s class — which I had missed, and was telling war stories.

After about a half hour, though, the class discussion became more and more detached from the subject matter at hand, and became more of a storytelling program. The professor talked about the glory days of the projects that he had worked on; Fortran executables that were actually being called unbeknownst to the users of certain C+ scientific packages; wat; obfuscated and underhanded code contests; at one point, prompted by a mention of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Professor spent 15 minutes discussing mutually assured nuclear destruction and his time in the military. He had served in a unit in West Germany during the 70’s when they were sure that they were going to be overrun by the Russians. Their motto and core directive, was to survive for seven minutes should they be overrun.

In all, I was reminded of several things. One, that I was paying almost two grand for the privilege of listening to this man talk for 50 minutes three times a week, and two, that this was one of the core values of an education that I had been missing during my six years of online classes. Sitting ten feet away, staring directly into his face and having a conversation, I feel like I had more of a meaningful interaction in an hour than I did with any or my other professors to that point.

Of course, this is exactly what Douglas Rushkoff describes as the real value of an education, the demonstration of knowledge and learning by a trusted mentor, not the pursuit of job training or workforce development. I have gotten the sense that my ‘education’ has been a bit of a racket. Most of the classes seem rote, and while the time commitment has been consuming, most of the thinking has not. A degree has always seemed to me to be proof of work more than anything else, a demonstration that one can follow directions. Perhaps that’s why I went away for so long.

Even today I remain unconvinced that I’ll use my degree for what I had originally intended it for: a checkmark item for the resume algorithms which gatekeep recruits for job postings. But those tens of thousands of dollars in student loans won’t pay themselves back so we’ll see how that works out.

For now, I’ll make the hour round trip to campus for a fifty minute talk and see what this man has to say, what lessons he has to impart. Actual quote: ‘when I retire in another few years I’ll be happy to never touch another computer again.’ In the meantime, I’ll see what I can contribute to my fellow students. Maybe I’ll learn more by helping others.

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