When College Works Best

weddingSometimes a self-indulgent reflection is all I really want to post. Here goes.

I love the Computer Science students I’ve had the pleasure to teach since I started at Lewis University in 2001. They don’t fit the stereotype the general public pictures when it thinks about computer scientists. They aren’t nerds who stick to themselves. They are talented, insightful, amiable individuals who love working, talking, dreaming, and playing together. They are a joy to work with. Although I am their teacher, I feel privileged to call them my peers. I learn from them as much as they learn from me. They keep me sane when the other forty hours of my week drive me the opposite direction.

I had the honor of attending a wedding of two graduates from May 2013 on Saturday night. Rob and Lacey met in my Database Systems class in Fall 2012. Lacey started the semester in the opposite corner of the room from where Rob sat. A few weeks later, they were sitting next to each other. Much to my dismay, during one particular lecture in which I did a horrible job explaining how organizing data in B+ trees can greatly accelerate a database search, I heard them talking and laughing about anything but B+ trees and their role in database searches. I yelled at them like a father yells at his misbehaving children. “Dad” had suddenly appeared at the front of the classroom, one of the rare times he makes an appearance. I went back to fumbling my explanation of B+ trees. Rob and Lacey probably took to texting each other instead of trying to hush their conversation in whispers. I was too annoyed with them to pay further attention.

And you know what? Even if Rob and Lacey still don’t understand how B+ trees work because they were too busy romancing and I was too busy messing up the lesson, life took a beautiful turn for them. Both Rob and Lacey are gainfully employed as computer scientists, developing software and managing data systems at two different companies in the Chicago suburbs. Both love what they’re doing. And now they love each other as husband and wife.

Their story convinces me further of something I believe to my core: IT’S ONLY SCHOOL.

There are professors who conduct class as if everything they say is vitally important. They will insist that there is one proper way to approach their discipline, one set of skills students must master, one family of viewpoints they must espouse and proclaim passionately and eloquently.

But it’s only school.

There are students who believe not getting an A is the worst thing that could happen. There are students who believe that they have to say what the textbook says, or that they should look up the answer on Google just so that they can get the problem right and earn a high score. If they don’t get the grade they want,  they feel either they are a failure or the teacher was unfair.

But it’s only school.

The four or five years undergraduates spend with me and my colleagues are meaningful only because this is the most promising time for a person to find what makes them passionate. This is the best time for them to figure out what interests them, what drives them, what puts them in a position to contribute to the good of themselves and of others. As a teacher, I help catalyze that process. I don’t stand before them as a master trickster bent on adding to their work and stress loads, looming over them as their judge and critic. My job is to guide them through this privileged time, this blessing, that they get to experience.  A large part of my role is to help them see that this really is a blessing, not a cross to bear, that this is their time to find a formula for happiness that will sustain them throughout their lives.

Are B+ trees important to database searches? Certainly. I care about that because I care about academic rigor, not as a virtue that defines “The Academy”, but as an enabling force for creating new knowledge. My students need to care about that, too. I think they do, because our faculty set an example for them. There will surely come a day when, if they need to consider a particularly challenging, esoteric topic at a deeper level, they’ll be able to do so, because they are learning to do that now. We’re preparing them to take on those challenges.

In the meantime, faculty and students can’t lose the perspective that this is only school, and its purpose is to cultivate happiness. There are projects to pursue, ideas to share, skills to develop, opportunities to discover, and friends to make. And if one of those friends proves to be the love of your life, I’d say college has certainly helped you cultivate happiness. Mission accomplished by this silly thing we call school.

Ray Klump

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

One thought on “When College Works Best

  1. Mike Cunningham
    March 17, 2014 at 8:21 am

    Thanks Ray…a helpful reminder as to what it’s all about. You’ve defined the role of the teacher perfectly…striking the right balance between discipline authority and personal life-coach.

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