Speaking in Tongues

21 Sep 2012

The following piece is a re-post from the Columbia Daily Spectator, where I am an opinion blogger. The original may be found here.

“I thought about using a static framework like Octopress or Jekyll-Bootstrap so that I could write in vim and commit and push from the terminal, but then I realized it would be a pain to blog from the remote so I cloned this repo on GitHub to hack WordPress to run on Heroku for free using PostgreSQL“, I responded casually to my roommate this summer, a fellow hacker/scientist, when she asked me what platform I would be using to start my writing blog.

My sister, a “normal” human being used to answers like “Blogger” or “WordPress”, overhearing our exchange on Skype, laughed and said to me, “You guys are literally speaking another language. It’s like hearing robots talk or something.”

While I don’t think I’m quite on the level of R2D2 (at least not yet), I am aware of how much like gibberish it can sound when you catch me in animated discussion with another CS-er about some software or algorithm. One minute English, the next minute we hit some topic, and boom, off we go rattling off in Nerdspeak.

And although Computer Science is definitely one of the more jargon-y fields, thanks to its highly technical nature and the extreme “in-group” culture, this phenomenon is not limited to the subject.

Catch any of my friends at Columbia, be they budding lawyers, doctors, musicians, physicists, philosophers, or artists talking to a peer in the field, and soon it feels like there’s either cotton in my ears or a metal plate around my brain.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore talking nerdy. But sometimes I worry that too much jargon gets in the way of our ability to learn more and connect with interesting characters. This is especially crucial in our college years—one of the only times in which we will have the opportunity to be surrounded by so many talented, passionate people in other industries. What good is this talent if we cannot comprehend it—or worse yet, fear to ask?

Even within the same field, similar problems arise. Excessive terminology can create an aura of “exclusivity” and turn away those who might not fit the culture bill but possess ample aptitude otherwise. I know firsthand that in Computer Science, women are often deterred from becoming developers due to this sort of “insider’s club” (usually summed up as “pale and male”). In a field that values so much open-source and transparency, and that has traditionally welcomed those with interest and skill without regard to superficial traits, it seems almost sacrilegious to build such barriers.

As undergraduates, and as scholars for life, we are not quite such specialists that our learnings are incomprehensible to our peers, nor should they ever have to be. I have found that the best way for me to learn is by teaching and reiterating what I know, especially to children and to friends in drastically different studies. There’s something exhilarating and addictive about discussing a topic we love in the words we share with other aficionados, and special terms are often of course necessary for special topics.

But something special need not be secret, nor our attitudes towards “special” knowledge childish—or worse yet, elitist.

Sophie Chou is a Junior in SEAS studying Computer Science and Philosophy. When she’s not coding she likes to read Nietzsche, and contrary to popular belief, she doesn’t hate hugs, although it would be in your best interest to refrain from doing so.

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The following piece is a re-post from the Columbia Daily Spectator, where I am an opinion blogger. The original may be found here.

Today I came across an article that I found particularly resonant, especially as the second week of classes rolls to an end with nothing left of home but crumbs in the bottom of mom’s care package, and as we bid adieu to the last comforts of summer and surrender ourselves finally, familiarly, into the ebb and wave of this chaos that we call college.

The piece, titled “On Being Nothing”, details a very personal account of the author’s journey from being a cherished child in a small-town setting to a run-of-the-mill student on a big campus, a transition overwhelmed by anxiety bordering on existential.

It’s a transition that rings familiar with any college student, but especially those at Columbia, where everyone is fiercely talented, fiercely independent, and often submerged in their own ends. Not to mention that the campus plays second fiddle to the background of the biggest, busiest city in the world.

I found the writing insightful and touching, elegantly depicting the difference between school and home with phrases like “Though I made friends, I no longer had an audience.” Although, of course, many commenters felt otherwise, and this being the internet chose to say so, usually along the lines of “Oh grow up already. Get over yourself”.

But that, my dear, would be missing the point. Similarly, yesterday’s Canon questions the degree to which we should separate ourselves from home during our time at Columbia. Junior Jake Goldwasser responded by advocating to “detach ourselves from the familiar”, keeping our families close but also learning to be isolated. On the battle between the collegiate’s identity as a child and as “scholar/party-animal/athlete/rebel/addict/artist”, he states that “[i]f the struggle has a winner, it is the new you”.

It’s a truth that I find obvious, and also understated. There really is no “old” or “new” you, just you, however you choose to define yourself. And an identity built solely on the affirmation of others, whether at home or at school, is no identity at all. Most of us at Columbia are used to applause from teachers and parents and coaches, and perhaps in adolescence chose to spend many hours in solitude in order to hone these lauded skills rather than building webs of cultivating relationships and support.

At the close of “On Being Nothing” the author encourages the reader to undergo “a Copernican revolution of the self”, to ”let go of our vanity and join the swirl of activity”. It may not always be vanity (in fact often the very opposite) that causes us to seek the affirmation of others, but to constantly look up—for the reaction of one’s boss, one’s family, or one’s community—will only cause blindness from the Sun.

Sophie Chou is a Junior in SEAS studying Computer Science and Philosophy. When she’s not coding she likes to read Nietzsche, and contrary to popular belief, she doesn’t hate hugs.

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