Thanks

by Anand Lal Shimpi on May 26, 2004 4:03 AM EST
Thanks for all of the kind words and congratulations you all have posted; the responses to my blog from earlier this week really helped things start to settle in. I'm finally done.

It's been a long road, I can't even believe it when I say that there hasn't been a year in AT's history where I haven't been in school. I started AnandTech (or Anand's Hardware Tech Page to all you old timers out there) during my freshman year in high school, that was April of 1997. It's been such a big part of my life (i.e. it has been my life) through four years of high school and most recently, four years of college. The past year alone has been a tough one for me, because I've seen so much of what I've worked for be pushed aside in order for me to finish college. There were so many times during the past year at NCSU that I thought about just throwing in the towel, because of how frustrated I had become that I could no longer perform the balancing act that my life had been for the 6 years prior.

I made a conscious decision when AT started to grow to keep it, as well as my education, at the top of my priority list. Through high school, that wasn't much of an issue. I lost out on a lot of sleep, and I wasn't very active in anything after school (AT was my extra curriculur activity), but it wasn't too difficult juggling the workload and school. Then college came around, and although I had the self-discipline thing down (and thus didn't have many adjustment issues to dealing with a structureless learning environment) the workload of my classes had gone up and thus more juggling had to take place. You can only give up so much sleep before you have to cut back on something, and unfortunately, towards the end of my college career - I had to finally cut back on what I was able to commit to AT. What's most frustrating to me personally is that the undergrad experience for me was unfortunately a let down.

I went into college with a significant number of AP credits, effectively making me a first year sophomore. What the AP credits helped me do was cut down on the number of crap-classes that I would other have to take...unfortunately, even with something like 30 - 40 credits, I was still left with a significant number of those very classes that I was trying to avoid. I understand that one of the roles that a college education is supposed to play is to make you well rounded, but frankly it's done very half-assed. While I can't speak for all schools, I can speak for NC State and from what I've seen of other schools - State isn't too far from the norm. The number of total waste-of-time classes I've taken in my college career greatly outnumbers the number of useful classes in college. Let me add some background to that statement: although the majority of the classes I was required to take were within my major (Computer Engineering), the majority of those classes were very poorly taught. I have talked about my issues with professors in the past, and those issues honestly ruined a lot of classes that would otherwise fall into the useful category. I've had the professors who only cared about researching, the professors that were simply bad teachers and the professors that just didn't seem to care one way or another. In some cases it worked to my (and all other students') benefit, since these professors often just reused old assignments, old projects and old exams, so you could simply study last semester's stuff and you would be fine. I guess in that sense, we're just as guilty as the professors for not putting forth the effort to show you care - it's just difficult to when the professor isn't willing to from day 1. I know it's easy to dismiss my issues as the usual complaints from a student, but I honestly believe that although the whining student isn't anything new, these complaints are a bit more serious than a lazy student saying "I hate homework."

At the same time, I've had some very good professors - unfortunately the numbers were far fewer. By the time I graduated, I had over 127 credit hours of classes, and if we say that the average class is 3 - 5 credit hours then basic math dictates that I've taken around 36 classes over the past 4 years. Now assuming that I had around 28 unique professors that taught those 36 classes, I'd say that around 5 - 6 of them were "good" professors. Now it's not just classes that I liked that fall amongst those 5 - 6, in fact, one of the best engineering professors I had at State (and one of the most caring professors) taught one of the classes I hated the most. Dr. Ozturk (the lady, not her husband) taught a junior level analog circuits class that was one of the most difficult classes at State; combined with the fact that I didn't like the material at all made that one of my least favorite classes at State. But the fact that she was a good (but tough) professor was something that I appreciated, even as I was barely scraping by on the exams. So it's not that I had personal issues or biases against certain professors or the material they taught, I honestly just didn't have very many good professors.

Now out of those 5 - 6 good professors, I've talked to around 4 of them about my issues and most of them are very concerned with the problems I've been talking about. Some of them happen to be in the unique position that they have some input into the department, so I made sure to make myself as vocal as possible about my concerns to them. But even those with the most power, in response to many of my concerns, could only say that that's unfortunately the way the bureaucracy works. There are few things that are as sad as that.

At a large school like NCSU, the focus of the school is research, with a secondary focus of educating. You can argue with me on that point, but the fact of the matter is that there are some damn good professors out there that the school won't touch unless they agree to do research in addition to teaching. Research is where the dollars are, it's where the prestige is, but it's not where the students are. For the person who has the money, ability or maybe the apathy to go to a school like State and not care about these types of things, what I'm talking about isn't as big of an issue. It's the students who care, the students who want to learn, the students who are the first in their family to make it to college or the students who are working two jobs just to pay for the opportunity to go to a college like this, it's those students that I'm concerned with. If you walk into a store and buy something to fix your aching back, you expect it to do just that. You don't expect it to do a bad job of fixing your back just so that the manufacturer can fund other endeavors, you expect it to do what you pay for. There are a lot of bad backs out there, and there are a lot of schools doing a bad job of fixing them.

I'm not faulting every professor, I've mentioned in the past that in many cases both parties, the professors and the students, can be at fault. But I am faulting the way that these institutions are run. It's very clear, especially once you get to interact with some of the administration at these schools. For example, at NCSU the Electrical and Computer Engineering departments have a single advisor. She is quite possibly one of the best examples of what I'm talking about here. There has never been a situation in my four years there that I have felt that she was not completely devoid of care for the students. Maybe she is and I just can't see it, but I know quite a few people who share in my opinions...and I'm using the term "quite a few" very lightly. When your departmental advisor echoes the very sentiments that I've been talking about here, it sours your experience significantly.

All this being said, NCSU still offered packets of very well engineered curriculum. While they were surrounded by poor choices in the design of the curriculum (e.g. teaching Computer Engineers Java instead of C), the parts that were done well were done very well. I found that the reason that they were done very well was because they were often times handled directly by one of those 5 - 6 professors that I was talking about above - very interesting how the two go hand in hand. I had some excellent opportunities to learn about computer architecture, how chips are designed and produced and much more over my four years, my only complaint is that there wasn't enough within the undergrad realm. There were lots of options for grad school, and everyone tells me that my complaints are obliterated by going to graduate school, but I don't feel that the solution to a difficiency in the undergraduate program is to just wait it out and enjoy grad school. Maybe it's just me, but I definitely see something wrong with that.

My review of NC State for electrical/computer engineers would conclude something like this: it's a school that has a lot of potential and some very strong points, but still a school that needs some serious improvements. I'd compare State to any number of products that I've reviewed over the past 7 years that were shipped to me with drivers in a horrible state or performance that showed promise, but didn't deliver strongly enough. State has been a Parhelia, a Radeon 8500, and dare I say an NV30 in a lot of ways. Each one of those products showed potential, but its was potential that was overshadowed by a long list of negatives.

So what do I recommend? Unfortunately for the student, the recommendation is that if you want to get more out of your education, you're going to have to really work for it...and I mean really. You're going to have to take a lot more upon yourself to learn, especially in the classes where you're faced with professors who honestly would rather be doing something else. Enjoy and savor the situations that aren't such, but be prepared for ones that are. At the same time, I'd encourage everyone to be as vocal, critical and willing to help change these problems as possible. At the end of the day, these colleges need students to exist (although I'm sure some would be very happy if they could get rid of the students completely and just be a research house) and you do have some power as a student, not much, but enough to make a difference if you try. Rome wasn't built in a day, and higher education isn't going to be changed in the same amount of time, but Rome was built and higher education can change.

Everyone asks me why I went to college. I remember these two girls in my freshman english class that read about me in the paper one day, I remember them asking me why I even bothered going to school (high school at the time, can you believe that?). I remember my english teacher and I both laughing at that comment, but it's a comment I still get today. I went to college to learn, not to get a job, but just to learn. With that as my goal, I can honestly say that I've been disappointed with my college experience. I felt that I've learned some, but definitely not enough, definitely not four years worth. The unfortunate reality is that a lot of people have to go to college in pursuit of a career, thus the goal is to memorize what you're supposed to be tested on so that you can get good grades, forget the material and go to the next class. If that's your approach (and it has been mine at times too), you're told that you aren't there for grades, you are there to learn. But from my experience, the focus on learning isn't always there, creating quite a conundrum.

I've always said that I'd rather teach than retire, and I think more than anything my undergrad experience has reinforced that. I used to only want to teach high school, because that's where I felt you could make the biggest impact on someone's life, helping them choose the right path for their future. I always felt that by the time college rolled around, too much was set in stone but these past four years have opened my eyes. Helping change the students isn't what I'd like to do as a teacher at the college level, but helping change the system from within is.

What's next for me? Grad school is a possibility, but not in the near future. I'm pretty down on the whole higher education realm right now, I don't think I'd be able to go into grad school with a good mindset. At the same time, right now my focus is going to be AT. It's a baby of mine that has grown up a lot, but is still in need of guidance and maturity - both of which I hope to provide more of in the coming months and years.

I apologize for the long winded nature of this blog, and I also apologize if it's difficult to follow/make sense of at times. I have this horrible issue with not being able to re-read over anything I've written after I've written it, which unfortunately gets me into trouble every now and then (e.g. I typed overcocking in an article once instead of overclocking way back when, that was fun).

More site related stuff later today, thanks for listening and thanks again for all the kind words.

Take care :)
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  • Xenio - Sunday, July 10, 2005 - link

    I felt the same way after graduating from Drexel U. in June of 05. Everything you said in your blog i could relate to. I went from a Mechanical Engineer to a Information Science then finally settled on Management of Information Systems, basically the business form of IST. Good webblog even if it is a year or so old.... Reply
  • sachin - Saturday, July 02, 2005 - link

    Well , sadly the experiences described here also apply to the grad education( undergrad in USA system ) in so called "Top rated" engineering schools in India. I hope to have better experiences as I prepare myself to attend grad school in USA this fall.

    Reply
  • Cain - Friday, May 27, 2005 - link

    Very insightful, well articulated, and extremely accurate commentary.

    However, although your criticisms were deadly accurate, you offer no solutions. The polite future of becoming a teacher and trying to change the system from the inside sounds nice but ineffective. That would be just like the thousands of other teachers who have gotten into teaching with the exact same idea. I'm not dismissing the contributions of great teachers, which are good deeds, but they aren't going to remedy the problems with university learning that you've illustrated.

    The more promising avenues that I've seen for higher education include private sector training and continuing education.
    Reply
  • Rob - Friday, May 20, 2005 - link

    add University of Illinois, Champaign/Urbana to the list. It is consistently ranked in the top 5 engineering schools in the country, yet the level of disinterest and disdain shown by the professors and other levels of faculty are astounding. I often wonder if it has always been this way with large state schools, or if this is a new phenomenon. I chuckle when I get letters from the alumni association. I hope that 5-10 years from now when their alumni funds dry up that the message finally gets through: students still matter. Reply
  • Dan - Thursday, July 15, 2004 - link

    maybe you are looking at it the wrong way.

    you clearly state that you went to college to learn, not to prepare for a job, yet you seem to be concerned about the vocational aspects/ practical applications of your subject.

    state is rearing you to be a scientific researcher in the field of computer engineering, not a computer engineer. college isn't vocational school.

    maybe you can then understand some choices in the curriculum
    Reply
  • AC - Wednesday, July 07, 2004 - link

    Anand, I feel the same way having recently graduated from UC Berkeley. High school was full of faculty and staff that wanted to help. College was full of faculty and staff that didn't care one way or another. At 18 and having just left home - and having to be self-reliant in so many new arenas: making college friends, greek system, living options, part-time jobs, etc. - it would make a world of difference if our schools could actually provide some guidance and decent education, rather than forming another obstacle to self-fulfillment. Reply
  • Cliff - Monday, May 31, 2004 - link

    I also have graduated from a (too) similar institution in Texas...but i am headed to graduate school immediately. I'll let yall know of my impression, as i am going for the Masters of Engineering, non-thesis option. It will be a Computer Engineering degree, as was my undergrad.

    Congrats Anand, and thanks for all the work (as well as the work to come).

    Cliff
    Reply
  • me - Friday, May 28, 2004 - link

    Keep in mind that by attending grad school you will get sucked into the very system of research and underqualified disinterested TA teachers that you profess to disdain. Kinda ironic actually ;-) You might come out even MORE jaded if thats possible...Haha! Reply
  • Gino - Friday, May 28, 2004 - link

    Grad school is much different from undergrad. It's nowhere near perfect, but its a better experience. Reply
  • me - Friday, May 28, 2004 - link

    I afree with drjaymez wholeheartedly. I suspect yor choice of school is at the root of the problem. It's nice to think that every school exists to serve the same purpose, but as you said in your article, this is not the case. Small focused colleges that do care about students do exist. It just so happens that most high school students don't even know about these colleges until after the fact. Just one example of the top of my head (if you are interested in engineering of any type) is Rose Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, IN. Most people hae never heard of it but it is one of the best engineering schools in the country. I suspect your experience would have been vastly different at a small school like that. Another is Oberlin College for Liberal Arts (also in Ohio) or Thunderbird in Phoenix AZ for International Business. Options exist besides the massive state run school..it's just unfortunate that more students don't take advantage of these options. Reply

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