Wednesday, October 11, 2006

It's Been A Chraizy Week.

So how was the first week of classes? How did it feel to get back to student life after almost a year and a half? How was the transition from an Indian university to an American graduate school?

Truth be told, it’s confusing, and the sheer hard work expected of you was just “chraizy”. As you see, I am slowly picking up bits and pieces of the American accent. Never mind the fact that my facial expressions seem hilarious when I try it out in front of the mirror.

Comparisons do crop up, no matter what. And they said this was just the warm-up week. Well, the warm up was good enough to get my ass on fire. On day 1, we were given handouts for the entire schedule this quarter. Yeah, we run on a quarter basis, which meant a fresh session started every 3 months. I went through my handout to find everything there- the chapters to be taught, the required readings and reference work, additional links, text books, exam schedule, class test and home work schedule, email ids of the professor, every bit of information was there. A careful examination of the schedule confirmed that there would be at least 3 exams, a weekly test, and a couple of homework assignment and readings for each course every week. And I was taking four courses this quarter.

The system is pretty different from the place I came, where there were university exams once a year. This meant that you could sleep and take it easy for the first 11 months, and slog your butt off the last one month. That’s how we were used to, no matter how unscientific it was. And the course combination there was like eating at home. Mom would force you to have every course, starting with the bitter karela and ending with curd/yogurt. Everyone in a particular department throughout the university was studying the same courses, and writing the same exam year after year.

The system here works like a buffet. It was pretty confusing initially, when I was told to pick and choose my courses. Pick and choose? My professors back home would have had a heart attack if I told them that I didn’t take up the biophysics course because I hated physics. Having said that, you just couldn’t randomly pick and choose your courses. It took a lot of careful thinking and foresight to decide what you wanted and what you could leave. Every system has its pros and cons. There, at least you would not have to worry about what courses you took and if you were particularly suited for that. Here, you have to worry. For you don’t really want to spend an entire year taking random courses and realizing at the end that you were perhaps meant to do something different.

Another huge element of surprise was the teaching system here. Classes are held in auditoriums, professors use the mic, every class is video recorded so that if you happened to miss a particular class, you could watch the entire lecture online. The coursework, homework, and everything you needed to know was available online. It might sound pretty naïve of me to find this overwhelming, because I have never seen this before. You remained absent, you got the class notes photocopied, and studied on your own. Simple. I certainly don’t remember the last time I got home assignments in college.

Students went to class in shorts and running shoes. They openly ate and drank in class. They took the class notes on their laptops. They called the professors by the first names. Ask me how uncomfortable it is to call someone grandpa-like by their first name. Ask me how I cringed in embarrassment when the girl next to me kept dangling her legs and showing off thunder thighs, while I was covered almost from head to toe. Nobody cares. As long as you got your assignments done, no one cares.

Home assignments could be typed and printed or simply sent via email. Isn't it amazing? Every out-of-class communication with the professors and the TAs had to be done via email. When you are new to the system, you just can’t help but compare the stark contrasts. Courses here weren’t named, they were numbered. So if someone asked you, “Are you taking the 489 this quarter?”, it would mean he is asking you if you are taking the certain agronomics course that is offered this quarter by a certain Prof. Hogan. And you could easily go up to a 60-something professor and say, “Hi John, I had a quick question about the classes”. There is no concept of good morning sir, excuse me, may I kindly ask you something regarding the classes sir? There are certainly no sirs and madams here.

Perhaps the best part here are the facilities you get, including free printing and scanning and photocopying, library access till late nights, 24 hours of building access, and the library resources. Any graduate student here is allowed a maximum of 2100 books (unless someone makes a request on a particular book), allowed to be kept for the entire quarter. I can’t help but think of my CU days and the way we used to huddle on the two computers in the department, carefully avoiding the irritable woman who used to monitor if we were checking personal emails. And the money we spent on printing and photocopying, I am sure the shop owner would have made enough money to add an entire floor to his home.

The bottom line is- we are entitled to every facility available under the sun. And that includes a handsome graduate assistantship, medical insurance, and other facilities. We wouldn’t really be worrying if the pay check would arrive on time or if it would be possible to find certain reference materials in the library. Worst case if the libraries here don’t have it, they can ship it from any library on this side of the US within a week. You wouldn’t hesitate if you wanted to go to the department post-dinner and study. As long as you had the access codes to the restricted areas right, no one would question, or even notice your presence. You could get as many prints as you needed, and see entire lectures on the web. You needn’t even pay for bus travel provided you paid some $40 at the beginning of every quarter. And in case you were taking the shuttle to the medical college, even that wasn’t necessary. If you didn’t understand particular courses and needed to start afresh, you would always have teaching assistants whose duty was to make sure that you eventually understood things. For as much as they graded your performance, you graded their teaching abilities too. You weren’t expected to worry about anything that would hinder your education and learning here.

The only thing you were expected to do here is study, and study more, and study as much as you could. Laziness and irresponsibility have no excuse. Plagiarism and using unfair means is unacceptable. And underperformers have no place here. If you wanted to hang around in the place, you have to perform. You have to study and do your assignments on time. You have to follow the system. You have to compete with your fellow mates and outperform them. There is no place for mediocrity. You have to be an achiever. You have to run as if your ass was on fire, even if they called it the warm up week.

Having said all this, I better get ready for the assignments tomorrow. Looking forward to yet another “chraizy” week of running.


No comments: