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Stealing Knowledge: LousyNick Goes Back To College (Kinda)

"Learning. It helps sometimes. And you never really know how much you miss it until it’s gone."
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This week, I attended one university lecture a day. I took notes, tried to learn things, played the part of the good student.

Only I’m not a good student. In fact, I’m not a student at all. I’m just a guy who’s stealing knowledge – and I’m loving it.

Let me start at the beginning.

See, I have a problem: I’m not all that smart, and I’m getting dumber every day.

Now, I know a few things about a few things…but there’s just so much to know that it’s fair to say I pretty much know nothing at all. Worse, there are thousands upon thousands of new things being discovered every day, and most of it just goes right over my head. So I’m actually getting a little more ignorant, relatively speaking, with every sunrise (and sunset, for that matter).

And then there’s the way we forget the things we used to know. I have basically no idea what high school was all about, for example. I know I must have learned something there…but what that was, I can’t even begin to guess.

Combine that with all those things that I think I know, that just ain’t so, and those things that used to be so, but ain’t so anymore, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m drowning in a vast sea of un-knowing.

To help address that, I’ve tried a range of strategies – I’ve read thousands upon thousands of books (some of them weren’t even about flying models in spandex punching each other!), I’ve done dozens of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses, for those who ain’t tried it), and I’ve even talked to people (bleh).

But one thing I’ve never tried – just wandering into university classrooms, sitting down and attending lectures, like a regular student.

Now this option isn’t available to everyone. Most people aren’t situated close enough to a university campus to just wander over there for an hour or so. Many people don’t have the flexibility in their work day to accommodate that anyway (even for classes that run after close of regular business). And some universities strongly object to students attending classes they’re not registered for, let alone random walk-ins off the street doing so.

But I don’t have those problems. So nothing stopped me from hitting campus and stealing all the knowledge I could get in one lecture.

Here’s a bit of what I learned this week…

Advanced Business Communications
Year Level: 3 (final year for undergrad in most courses in South Africa; 4th year is a research-focused Honours year for the cream of the crop)

Lecture Topic:
Genre Theory (lecture 2 on the topic, to be precise)

The Situation: My very first class! Got there early enough to get a seat in the Sweet Spot – close enough to the lecturer to hear everything, far enough to be able to avoid her attention and attempted audience participation, at the end of a row in case I had to run away for any reason (it happens – but that’s a story for another day). Laptop’s on the blink, so I took notes the old-fashioned way…but hardly anybody else of the approximately 70 real students in the class (about 60% female, btw, for what it’s worth) took notes at all. Partly, that’s cos they got handouts, I guess.

So what I learned: There are a whole bunch of different definitions for genre theory as pertains to business communications, but most of them boil down to this: genre refers to a recognizable type of communicative event, which is structured, goal-oriented and purposeful. That’s why you can identify a letter of complaint by its form before you even consider its content. Experts can blend and mix and ignore genre conventions…but do that too much and you break it all apart and confusion reigns. Apparently people put way more thought into their business comms than I do – and probably that’s why they get to wear ties to work. Lucky schlubs.

Well, that was...interesting, maybe? On to the next one...

Environmental and Sustainability Studies
Year Level: 2

Lecture Topic: Carbon Footprint (kind of – it was really more freeform world-building with the lecturer wandering about offering guidance, both ecological and technical)

The Situation: This was one of the weirder classes I attended – but in a good way. See, this is one of those newfangled avant garde style teaching classes, where lecturers employ fancy new technology…new, in this case, meaning circa 2006, because the students were using Second Life to build their own controlled ecosystems/environments, and then visiting each other’s homes with their avatars. They had to stick to sustainability purposes and include explanations of how and why everything fit together, and much fun was had by all 40 (half male) of the economics and conservation biology students there (and yes, I know that mix is kind of like the lion lying with the lamb – the Good Book may have been on to something there).

What I learned:
Ecological collapse has been a local problem throughout human history, from Rome to Easter Island, and probably in prehistory as well. When humans became a more interconnected, global force, local collapse became a bit less of a problem, since the system could shift resources around…but that just means that when a real collapse happens, it’s catastrophic, because it affects everyone somehow (think Credit Crunch). Students love building things – they were genuinely delighted every time they added something or when their friends pulled off something interesting. In Second Life, your avatar can fly, and it actually looks pretty awesome.

Good clean family fun. So what's next?

Computer Science 101: Intro To Comp Sci
Year Level: 1

Lecture Topic: The logic behind ordering 3 or more variables

The Story:
A first-thing-in-the-morning lecture…and it was packed, and in a large-ish lecture hall to boot! Silly freshmen clearly haven’t learned to skip the early classes and hit the tuts hard yet…but then, varsity only opened like a month ago (we Southern Hemisphere folks work with the calendar year, but we’re running a bit late thanks to FeesMustFall protests disrupting last year’s academic activities – a long and important story…as ever, for some other time). Anyhoo, the “men” in “freshmen” is pretty apt – of the approximately 110 students there (134 signed into the sign-in sheet, but that was clearly friends doing folks a solid), about 85% of them were male.

What I learned: You can hold comp sci lectures without computers – the lecturer was pretty much the only one who had one out (his laptop, which he had to run out to get a power cord for at one point). Temporary variables are your friend. At least some forms of programming can be thought of as taking an idea in natural language, expressing it in mathematical/formal logic terms, and then expressing that in some other language. Ordering variables is easily achieved by comparing them one at a time, but obviously there are mathematical shortcuts. Coffee does not prevent students from falling asleep in early morning lectures.

Naturally, that’s all just the tip of the iceberg (I took about 8 pages of notes for each class, which some of my fellow students seemed to find ridiculous, especially since there were course handouts and information available online), but those things up there are what I really learned – the “facts” and figures really are less important than you might think (yes, it helps to know them – but a broad understanding is easier to achieve and useful for sideways thinking - #LousyNickWisdom, y’all).

And that brings us to today…where, alas, it looks like I’m not going to have time to go to class (I’ve got to be one of the only students for whom bunking means actually attending classes).

So I guess today I’m learning that the best-laid plans of mice and men are equally vulnerable to the all-powerful, inevitable force that runs the world: deadlines.

But I’m sure there’s a class that will help with that somewhere out there…

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