Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Olin students are slackers.

Jon tells me I should post this to a wider audience, so here goes (about 4 weeks later). I wrote this letter to Jon and Debbie (two of our profs at Olin) the day after a meeting for the Task Force on Pedagogical Innovation (TFPI) where Jon mentioned that some people say that Olin students are slackers.

Dear Jon and Debbie,

I was sitting in anthro thinking about what Jon mentioned at TFPI (because as an Olin student I of course am lazy and never pay attention to classwork, especially when I'm studying unimportant topics outside of engineering), and was struck with the sudden realization that - well, they were right. We're completely unprepared, terrible engineers with bad attitudes, and it's going to cause a lot of trouble later on.

Olin students are slackers.
We only do work when we absolutely have to, and even then we don't necessarily do it at all. Instead of studying for a bio exam, we take off early on Friday afternoons and drive to Hyde Park to coach a high school robotics team. Sometimes we'll stumble into math class bleary-eyed after staying up late the night before arguing about topology or something else that wasn't even taught in class and won't ever be on the test (what a waste of time). We start renewable energy businesses instead of turning in our papers free from typos. We have the nerve to walk into our professor's office even after we've failed a physics exam in order to talk - not about the exam, but about life and random topics we're interested in, for no good reason whatsoever.

Clearly we have no sense of priority - if we did, we'd be preparing for our futures by turning in clearly written, well-done assignments for assessment so that we can be certified as initiative-taking, independent-spirited engineers who will lead big changes in the future. How else will people know we can start wonderful things if we don't get certified to do so?

Olin students don't know what the outside world looks like. We live in a bubble and only leave campus to work, go to classes, dance, socialize, present at conferences, attend meetings, negotiate with investors, volunteer, and sometimes just for fun (we're slackers, you see). At the start of our projects, we spend a lot of time quietly watching and learning from people who are able to do things we don't understand, wasting valuable time we could be using to start solving the problem. We astonish customers by conversing articulately with them about their situation - this isn't what engineers are supposed to do, that's not what they hire us for. We've obviously been trained to do the wrong things.

In fact, we're ruined for life. We've lost the ability to lock ourselves up in a windowless room and produce technology unconstrained by the many contradictory needs of the people in this world. We even have the nerve to claim that not all problems are best solved through technology. We're engineers! Why are we proposing curricula, documentary films, business plans, and even the removal of technology from locations that are clearly spending a large amount of time and effort (and money) using them?

This can be traced back to the terrible idea of giving teenagers the freedom to design their own learning experiences; kids have no idea what they want to do or what they need to learn. Without proper guidance as to what real engineers do, we've steered ourselves down the wrong paths.

We insist on being able to make our own mistakes and pursue our own interests regardless of whether the syllabus covers it or not. Such blatant disrespect for authority will cause tremendous upheaval in the organizations we enter after graduation (assuming any of them will even want to hire us at all).

Olin students don't have solid engineering backgrounds. We're unable to rattle off the wave equation from memory and don't know the the mass of a silicon atom or the date the steam engine was invented, vital information that all engineers must know. Ask us what our area of focus is, and you'll often get disclaimers that we're interested in other things as well. Ask us if we know how to read a spectrogram, wire a power supply, or code in C, and you'll get the disturbingly noncommittal answer of "we can learn" instead of the course number where that topic was on the syllabus; we can't possibly have learned it unless we've taken a class. Because we spend our days engaged in intense play, we have done too few problem sets and listened to too few lectures to truly learn anything the correct way.

Raise this reasonable concern to students, and they'll dismiss it with an "Oh, but we can look that up!" We plunge irresponsibly into things without taking the time to amass the necessary background training first, cockily assuming we can handle whatever comes up. We can't! We fail at a tremendous percentage of the things we try, but even with that, we don't realize this is an indication we should change - instead, we call them "learning experiences," pick ourselves up, and launch into the next overambitious plan.

Olin students are coddled. We enjoy posh dormitories, excellent food, and an overly permissive community that allows us to monitor and discipline ourselves when we step out of line. We encourage wild projects and thoughts that have no hope of converging upon the correct answers. We support nonacademic pursuits such as fire juggling and voice lessons at the expense of more vital pursuits such as the study of thermodynamics and signal processing (although students will, with typical impudence and disciplinary inappropriateness, claim that fire juggling is thermodynamics and that singing into a microphone constitutes a signal processing system).

It's no wonder our faculty are burnt out; they are in the terrible position of having to deal with such students in such an environment and simply cannot teach things the proper way. These students are wasting the time of some of the smartest people in the world. Instead of absorbing in the most efficient manner the factual knowledge these brilliant minds contain and thereby aspiring to imitate their success, students have the arrogance to tell their professors what they want to learn. We are unable to simply accept the authority of those with more experience.

Who would ever want their students to be as lazy, clueless, unschooled, and spoiled as Olin students are?


nikki said...

with a discretized approximation of

I didn't know you did sarcasm...

Boris Dieseldorff said...

Lovely Mel. <3!

Anonymous said...

Although I agree with the basic idea that being free spirited can definitely effect conventional measurements of work ethic, Jon's comments aren't entirely false. Oliners certainly aren't any worse than any other school, just not necessarily better.


Mel said...

To clarify: Jon wasn't the one who said Olin students were lazy. He was relaying sentiments he'd heard expressed by others, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't actually agree with them.

I don't think we can even say that Oliners are any better or worse than students from any other school, since any ranking depends a lot on the metrics you use to determine which is better.

I do think we need to be vocal about the metrics we are using on ourselves and make it clear to others why we value and measure what we do (and, occasionally, why we don't measure what we don't). I also believe - although others will disagree with me on this - that we need to not be afraid to use different metrics than most when there is call to do so.

Kimble said...

I understand that it's satire, but having been in the real world for a (short) while, Olin students really are ruined if you look at them from the very traditional background. Unfortunately, not everyone will find the perfect division of the perfect company that understands how to challenge and engage the unique beast that is an Olin student. I don't necessarily want to change into the "standard" and "expected" engineer just because my company expects it, but it seems a little egotistical to expect a long-established company to change to accomodate me.


Matt said...

Amen Mel.

I used to feel like I was the only one who thought this.

Marco Morales said...

Unbelievable! :) I <3 Mel!!!
There's something to be said, as was mentioned before about "missing out" on the some of the glories/benefits of "traditional engineering" but I sure as hell prefer it this way.
<./biased ramble.>