I wrote yesterday about seeing Brian Knappenberger’s new film about Aaron Swartz, and about the discussions that took place afterwards with a group of other Hacker Schoolers.
Another topic that came up in the discussions after the movie was what sort of paradigm of study is “best” - meaning, in the large, how much of what we do we can plan. I said that Hacker School’s greatest strength — its lack of curriculum — is also its greatest weakness. Lacking a curriculum frees people to explore, but much of that freedom is spent inconclusively and people seem to have a lot of regret about that afterwards. But not everyone agreed with this view of mine.
A further point is that for those of us who don’t have a computer science degree and need or want to accumulate a stable of concrete skills, some sort of curriculum — minimally, a checklist of those skills and a suggested path to attaining them — would be very helpful. Subjects that take a long time to learn and involve rote content are not very good for just muddling through as you like.
People always assume that because I’ve been a professor, I must be a defender of traditional models of education. I sensed that under the surface in yesterday’s discussion. Well, I never was a defender. I have spent my whole teaching career devising fresh ways to foster student proficiency, many of which are distinctly at odds with the way I was schooled. (That reminds me that I should write down some of those strategies, since some of them are very effective.) And I managed to get through high school because I was in a place where there was a lot of free time built into the schedule — which I spent fiddling around in the computer room or lying on the floor in the library alcove where the Loeb Classics were kept, almost untouched. Also, I have never been a very good student — I was always ineffective at studying for exams, and in my first bout of college I cut classes all the time and then did badly when my skills failed to meet my grand expectations for myself. When I went back to college again a few years ago for engineering education, I found myself very weak in the face of the exam and homework pressures — basically, I have neither the gifts nor the discipline to subordinate myself easily to external direction. My first time through school, I didn’t learn to study what I was fed to study until graduate school. I have long recognized in myself the brilliant but lazy student — and in my experience, those are not the people who achieve most highly.
The funniest misperception of my professorial identity is when people say, Oh, since you’re a professor you must be good at learning systematically. Well, that’s getting cause and effect backwards. Professor was my career, not my identity — I committed myself to study and teaching because I enjoy it; it’s not the case that I became good at study and teaching because I “am” a professor — quite the contrary! For another thing, I learn better by muddling through first and then gradually finding (or imposing) system in what I’ve learned. I learn best if I suppress the urge to find or impose system until after the initial stages of the process.
I didn’t learn to write till I got out of school and was able to direct myself. It is still a painful and laborious task, and I doubt I do it efficiently. I closely associate the pain of study and writing with their pleasures, though — I have trouble understanding how anyone can engage in learning or creative work without experiencing both, and intensely.