Saturday, September 20, 2008

Elementary Differential Geometry

Was chatting with some college students who are having difficulty with classes -- finding a class to be too difficult, questioning their major (and therefore life plan), and all that stuff.

I been there.

The monster in question was Elementary Differential Geometry.  (Yes, they had the nerve to call it "Elementary."  Like this is the easy Differential Geometry.)  The first day of class, the professor drew some figure on the board and then told us to try to envision it moving in a 4th dimension.  Great.  I have enough trouble seeing a 3-dimensional figure on a 2-dimensional blackboard, and now you want me to what? move it through time?

I went to the Professor during office hours and asked for help.  He gave me some.  Talked with me for some time.  I apparently gave him the right answers because he encouragingly said, "See, you're getting this."  I was not getting this.  He recommended a tutor.  I met with the tutor.  We talked even longer.  Hours later, I got through the first homework assignment.

It was around this time that I realized I could work my butt off for the rest of the term and, if I was lucky, I'd end up with a "C."  This would totally kill my GPA, but at least I'd be able to say I didn't quit.

Screw that.  I dropped the course.  It wasn't a prerequisite for graduation -- just one of three different courses I could take to meet a particular requirement.  I switched to Logic & Set Theory and did much better.  (Fairly easy A; I ended up writing an Honors Thesis in the subject; and I got to spend some time with classmates pondering the problems of navigation when you're travelling faster than the speed of light -- because by the time you see that Interstellar Road Block, you've already hit it.)

In retrospect, I guess I was lucky that this wasn't my first Upper Division Math course.  Had it been, I probably would've considered whether my inability to succeed in Differential Geometry meant that I wasn't cut out for Math.  But, by that time, I already knew that I could kick ass in Math.  This problem was of a rather narrower scope.  It was just this course -- and the issue was whether I stuck with it or admitted failure.

As I explained to the college students I was discussing this with the other day, I'd always been very good academically.  And while I'd experienced failure on a pretty regular basis when it came to athletics, I'd never before hit a brick wall in a class.  And I think it says something about who I was at the time that I neither forced myself to climb over that wall nor walked away from the wall.  I walked around the wall.

And I think the experience was, in its way, good for me.  It's good that I knew what it felt like to hit a brick wall where I wasn't expecting one.  And it's also good that I chose an alternative way to meet my goal with substantially less difficulty.  Because knowing that I didn't have to climb over the wall to get where I was going ended up giving me a sort of safety net for the next time I hit one -- and that gave me the confidence to actually go over the damn thing.

1 comment:

hewasolddog299 said...

Great story; great "life lesson".

Think you could take some time and instruct those in Washington who are perched on the ledge as to how they can sidestep a prolonged economic depression?

Americans would sure appreciate any help they can get...