Being rusty on classes

Last week, my classes at the university started again and, boy, what a weird feeling. It has been actually quite a few months since I had my last traditional class, back in April. The following months I spent basically doing research. The biggest consequence is that I feel a bit rusty in my “going to classes” skill, if one can call it that. There is something about traditional classes that really bothers me, but I can’t quite express. Sometimes I feel like I could be doing something else, something more interesting or even more important. Is going to classes a waste of time?

What triggered me to question this is that I enrolled in a course whose teacher apparently likes to make his students waste their time, which led me to question his methods. Besides spending too much time making small talk and gossiping about other academics, this teacher designed his classes to be more useful for students who have already failed in the course before, and not to be welcoming for new students. For instance, he threw at us a bunch of generic exercises (much like “Solve this equation using methods A and B”), with absolutely no context, not even stating clearly what was the objective.

Using an online platform that he asked us to sign up for, I made the following suggestions to help students like me (a newcomer that leans more to practical approaches) to feel more motivated for the course:

  • Instead of making us solve a series of small and generic exercises, we could be working on more interesting ones, inserted in the context of the study, much like small projects. I also mentioned how visualization can be important for the learning process, and to visualize, we would need a context.
  • Instead of limiting us by asking “do this using that”, we could have more freedom to choose whatever way we think more interesting to us. For instance, instead of solving that damn integration with method A, I prefer to do it numerically and elaborate a model. The problem is that we didn’t even have a context to begin with, so a model wouldn’t make much sense.

The teacher replied saying that I jumped the gun, and finally stated that the objective of those exercises were more like a review of previous courses and to identify some of our weaknesses. Which brings me to the next point: the course being designed for previously failed students. I agree that a tutor has the job of helping us to correct our mistakes, but I don’t think that should be the focus of a course, especially in the beginning weeks. The focus is the learning process, and it starts with making the students interested and engaged. The mistakes come after that.

However, one might say that the interest and motivation should come from the students themselves, and not be triggered by an external figure like a teacher. But if that is the case, what is the point of having classes? I’d better stay at home and study by myself then, and seek motivation elsewhere, because it is not coming from the classes, nor the homework.

He (the teacher) also stated that changing such paradigms of teaching to what he called “alternative schemes such as the ones I proposed”, it would require too much time and money, citing MIT, Stanford and Caltech as examples. Apparently, he thinks that more interesting classes and homework is something that only top-notch universities can have. That is it folks, inserting a little bit of context in a generic exercise demands a lot of time and money, according to this teacher.

I do however agree in one point, the one being that I jumped the gun. Indeed, I might have overreacted with my suggestions. But I could not bare anymore second holding up the feeling of being bossed around to do uninteresting stuff without a clear objective. That is why I think the classes are pointless. If not for the knowledge transmission (because let’s be honest, no one learns by sitting in an uncomfortable chair listening to a person babble for 2 hours) nor the interest triggering, what is the use of traditional classes?

When I told my friend I was planning to stop going to this course classes, she told me that I should attend to them, mostly for the exercises that the teacher would solve on class (some of them involving a few tricks that supposedly do not appear in the textbooks), and that even one of the smartest students of the latest years attended to this teacher’s class. Well, good for him. In one of the “classes” (between quotes because it was more like a jibber-jabber session) I attended, one of the students even said that he wanted the teacher to solve more exercises on the board. You see? It is a runaway process of the classes getting more and more pointless. Why not ask the teacher to solve the exams himself? Actually, why not ask him to graduate for us? That would be sweet.

Talking to another one of my friends, he said that one of the institute’s professors uses to say that “not a single student in this department will graduate without having one of my classes.” Such a shame. For a while, I had forgotten that we still have this kind of assholes teaching in our university. They take pride in making us waste our time with pointless classes and making our lives miserable. One of the students taking that same E&M course recently made a joke on Facebook saying that he is “doing a lot of physical exercises, but not actually getting healthy.”

All this reminds me of what Richard Feynman stated about the higher education in Brazil. You can check the full text here. But here is a particular excerpt that catches what I mean:

There are so many kids learning physics in Brazil, beginning much earlier than kids do in the United States, that it’s amazing you don’t find many physicists in Brazil – why is that? So many kids are working so hard, and nothing comes of it.


Being rusty on classes

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