I’m going to make this short and sweet because I am techinically in Ethics recitation right now but 8 pm is way too late for any non-nocturnal attention span, in my opnion.

A few months ago I wrote a few thoughts on Coursera and other online learning companies. You can read my critique here and also the thoughts of another writer. In short, I argued that the idea of free knowledge is highly valueable, however virtual learning can never replace the priceless benefits of human-to-human interaction, and points to a serious need to raise the quality of university education.

At the time, I had never taken any online courses before or tried any of the programs. On principle I almost always prefer to speak with and learn from people in the flesh, and tend to be attracted to traditional modes of communication (paperback over e-book, etc.).

Fast forward to midterm season, where I suddenly find myself knee-deep in upcoming tests and no idea whatsoever of what the heck Gaussian-Jordan Elmination or the column space of a matrix is. My Linear Algebra professor, although incredibly well-meaning and intelligent, has a thick accent and ultimately a teaching style I just can’t swallow. In come Kahn Academy and MIT Open Courseware to the rescue– concise, clear lectures (including those by the author of the textbook!) available on re-wind and at my desk. 5 hours of youTube videos later, my problem set no longer looks like a headache in matrix form.

I don’t recant any of the things I previously stated. All the issues that I brought up remain unsolved. However, the potential of virtual education may be greater– and more exciting– than I previously imagined, and neither scary nor robotic. If there’s a topic you need brushing up on or a subject that intruiges you, definitely don’t hesitate to give it a try. This does not mean, however, that we need do away with the concrete classroom environment, only that both areas of education (virtual and traditional) remain endlessly improvable.

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How ironic it is that 2 weeks ago I wrote an article on How Women Can’t Have it All, when I was, in fact, on my way to breaking point.

These past 2 weeks have been hellish to say the least.

The workload at Columbia has always been tough but I never envisioned how brutal it would be taking 2 graduate level courses along with 3 other programming intensive classes. Perhaps there are some who can handle it, but I do not have the build for it…

As a disclaimer, I have never placed too much value in letter and number grades and so the stress was really purely situational and not the blame of perfectionism, etc.

On the other hand, I am am a bit of an academic “purist” and have always loved learning for learning’s sake–thus placing a great emotional investment in what I study, especially towards Computer Science and Philosophy, which are my two main interests and have become part of my identity. And so perhaps that is even more of a burden than the pursuit of numbers, as it pains my soul not to learn what interests me well.

And identity, I realize, is integral to the issue. All my life I have been involved in very artistic and expressive pursuits, and so it has always been a secret fear in the back of my head after I started seriously dedicating my studies to the hard sciences I would lose part of myself. Close-minded stereotypes and assumptions of Engineering students I discovered existed after arriving to college did not help. So I imposed concrete, tangible markers on my self– a minor in Philosophy, Writing for the Spectator– to make sure someone, something else aside from me would be putting checks on my identity and keep it from slipping away to monotony.

On the one hand, dance (ballet classes and student groups), writing (for my blog and for the Spec) and philosophy (the Ethics class which I am taking, which I adore), have been saving graces in overwhelming times.

I remember one morning waking up so exhausted and sleep deprived that I had the terrifying revelation that I could not get myself to feel anything at all. I wandered through my morning in a stupor–unable to empathize with any human being. It was incredibly disorienting. The moment I finally regained my sense of humanity was when I walked into my ethic professor’s office hours. In the sunny room, in the mahogany Philosophy Hall, we had a great conversation on normative ethics and I finally felt myself again.

But on the other side, I realize that I am stretching myself way too thin just to hold on to these societally imposed, arbitrary markers on myself. And so I have withdrawn from my position as a blogger at the Spec*, and have dropped my Philosophy minor, even though it pains me to do so. Health comes first, existence precedes identity (arguably). I can still grow as a writer on my own time, and read great works at my leisure, perhaps auditing courses as life permits.

Dimensionality comes foremost from dimensionality in thought and an open mind– which can barely be achieved when it is overworked and undernourished.

I hope to keep these things in mind, as I learn to worry less about the labels I place on myself. Quality over quantity.

Thank you friends and family for being infinitely valuable.

Take care.

* On a separate, but related note, I have learned a valuable lesson from writing for a web publication– please be insightful but always respectful whenever commenting on the Internet. Anonymity need not make assholes of us all.

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This is a little late in coming, but I really, really like this article published in the nytimes. Without going into too much detail, since I highly encourage you to read it yourself, the piece, titled “Follow a Career Passion? Let it Follow You” debunks the idea that in order to be successful, you have to start chasing after that one and only dream job, something the author, CS professor at Georgetown Cal Newport calls “the Cult of Passion”.

I see a lot of the detrimental effects of this “Cult” at Columbia. I, too, fell victim to its pressures when I was first starting out in Engineering school. I have always been a passionate learner and somewhat an academic “purist”: learning for learning’s sake, never for grades or awards. When I arrived at Columbia, for the first time in my life, I hated all of my classes. It destroyed my morale. The one course that I truly enjoyed– a writing seminar– ironically, caused me even more anxiety, since it had naught to do whatsoever with Engineering.

There is nothing wrong with encouraging young adults to pursue their dreams or find careers that inspire them. This is all very good and ideal. The old adage holds true: if you are doing something that you love, you are successful already.

However, this philosophy can be problematic because it puts unwarranted stress on career decisions, and moreover, really hurts those who have not yet “discovered” their “calling”, which I think is a BS idea anyway. Combine that with the financial and societal pressure that comes with attending an elite school, and you have a lot of Ivy-League tears. It is nearly impossible to know at age 18 or 20 what you want to do for the rest of your life and that’s okay: you can’t know and if you do, you’re probably wrong.

The issue is intensified when very smart, very passionate indivduals have not yet figured out what makes them happy or what exact field they are enthusiastic about. In these situations, and under high pressure, the urge to slap on the passions of others– perhaps a parent or a professor– or subsitute alternate motives (money, power) becomes all too tempting. For those with a high drive to succeed and perfectionist tendencies, the option to quit or reevaluate, even when unhappiness ensues, may never occur. I am, and remain, highly doubtful that a career, or moreover life, driven by any of these motives could ever be truly fulfilling or even healthy.

Newport, now a professor, argues that his love for teaching has “nothing to do with figuring out at an early age that I was meant to be a professor”, or even that there was anything special about his particular career path. The qualities that cause satisfaction in a career can be found in many areas– and most of all, they have to be earned. What matters is not the choice you make– but what you do once you have made the choice.

I could not agree more. I do not often use the word “love”, but I say it without qualms that I truly love Computer Science. It is a fascinating field of study and I am an eager evangelist. In it I see reflections of myself: the connections to Plato and Aristotle through logic and philosophy, the magic of words and drafting something beautiful that I crave in writing. Sure, there is a lot of debugging and frustration in between, but it satisfies, and most of all, challenges me to be a better thinker. None of these traits are apparent to the non-Computer Scientist or even many Computer Scientists. That’s because I took something that piqued my interests, and molded it into a passion.

I don’t know if I want to be a developer 5 years, or even 2 years (after graduation), from now. That’s because there is never only one right way or one right answer– not even in science. I don’t even know if my enthusiasm or GPA will survive this brutal semester of for and while loops. But I do know for sure that when it comes time to reeavaluate, I will try my best not to worry– because I know that where hard work and dedication go, love will follow.

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