My College Is Trying To Kill Me

Engineering

“Check Ignition”

A Bowiesque start to the day. This is the note I left myself so that when I got up at 7:00 I’d remember to make sure the car battery hadn’t died. It had happened the day before, thanks to a faulty ignition lock on the new old car that allows you to take the key out without fully switching off the electrics. If it had happened again I’d need to start charging immediately to have any hope of making it in on time.

Our team was holding a 9:00 a.m. meeting ahead of a project deadline. Between myself and another member being ill, we hadn’t had a full meeting since the project’s inception. We’d worked through the fever and pretty much got it finished online, but we needed to meet to finalise and sign off on the thing. The battery, to my relief, was fine.

And that was the last thing that went right today.

The first lesson was that even if you arrive at the college at 8:30 you still won’t find a parking place on the campus. I had to go out to the park-and-ride facility again, and so arrived slightly late. However there was only one other member there anyway. Not being quorate and not feeling under any real pressure, we chatted with classmates as we waited. But just as another team member turned up, someone said something that reminded me – in my hurry I’d forgotten to display the student parking permit on my car. To avoid a clamping, I had to rush back out to the facility. By the time I got back it was after ten.

And there was a smell of panic in the air. While I’d been gone, the word had got round that the lecturer had put an ambiguous message on the online noticeboard. Whereas we’d understood that we needed to have a team contract and the briefest description of what our project involved, it now seemed our deadline objectives were:

1 – Project Teams Identified
1 – Project Assignment Outline
2 – Signed Project Team Contract

We’d done the rest, but what exactly was a “project assignment outline”? What examples we could find suggested it was a pretty detailed breakdown of our (imaginary) client’s problems and how we intended to fix them – including crap like time and cost estimates, diagrams, charts. All to be done by 6:00 p.m. the next day. We starting allotting the writing tasks. If we broke it down and did a section each we could probably pull something together in time.

No wait, we’d made a mistake. It wasn’t tomorrow at all. It was 6:00 p.m. today. That… That wasn’t really possible.

So perhaps the lecturer had made a mistake. Why were there two items one on that list? Maybe the second didn’t belong. It was time for our first lecture; we did go in but I spent most if it on my phone, furiously searching documents on the noticeboard for clarification. I decided to email the lecturer about it. We might not get a reply in time, but anything was worth trying.

As luck would have it, we met him after the lecture. But he was cagey, and refused to give us an answer any more enlightening than the one he later sent by email:

As mentioned in class the perspective of this project assignment is as if the project team were working with the Client as consultants.

The project assignment outline should be written to reflect this in terms of depth and scope.

What?

Lunch would have been next but there was an extra lecture we were supposed to attend about plagiarism policy. We couldn’t afford the time, so skipping the thing we were already skipping lunch for (I had also skipped breakfast because of the panic in the morning) we took a room, hooked my computer up to the projection system, and started brainstorming some sort of response to those nebulous criteria. By the start of the next lecture we had something, just not in English. I sat at the back – missing important background to our next assignment – hammering our thoughts into some sort of document.

I should point out incidentally that I am still running a slight temperature here. I’m not entirely over whatever it is that’s kept me mostly asleep the last few days. Adrenalin cleared my head then, but as I write this I’m in bed paying for it.

Then a mad rush to email and print this stuff – he wanted it both ways. It wouldn’t send; it seems I couldn’t make the secure connection my email requires via the college’s network. (Which incidentally would suggest that any communication to the Internet we make on campus has to be open to sniffing by the college – I will have to investigate that further.) By the time we solved the printing the lecture for which this submission was effectively the deadline had already started, so I sat in that figuring out a solution to the email problem. Half way through, it sent.

Here’s your chance to guess the ending.

Yes, there was an extension. Many other people, it seemed, had also been thrown into confusion. We now had until Monday to do this. But that’s not the highpoint. It turned out our instructions had been deliberately ambiguous – to “see how we’d handle it”. A real-world situation.

Right.

Of course you do get difficult customers in the real world, and you do your best to please them. The customer is always right; at least until they’ve paid. But when one customer’s indecisive requirements cause you to let down others, you need to think again. And in this exercise that’s precisely what the other lecturers today were – clients that I didn’t give my full attention to. If this were real reality, I’d have to seriously consider ditching the problem client.

We didn’t take up the extension. Whether by accident or design, this last lecture mentioned Parkinson’s Law – Work expands to fill the time available. It had expanded enough already.

Leaving Us Confused

Histogram of sepal widths for Iris versicolor ...
This distribution of people who nod as if they know what graphs like this actually mean

Today is the day that bad decisions are made.

For it is the day that the results of the School Leaving Certificate Examination (the “Leaving”) come out. Today the students make bad decisions by getting drunk while still mostly underage. And politicians, by making promises.

Ten percent of students failed maths at ordinary level. In a knowledge-based economy that is simply not good enough, etc. Something must be done. Teachers must be fired, students must be fired, schools should be closed, opened or set fire to. Lessons must be made harder, exams easier, students must work more and take more time to rest. Draw your own headless chickens.

But… Isn’t the whole point of exams that some people fail them?

I don’t really think that ninety percent is so terrible a pass rate for an exam that, you know, is actually testing something. And not merely basic numeracy; the Leaving Cert ordinary-level paper is essentially a qualification to enter university, as almost all courses require it. So are we really in trouble if only ninety per cent of the population qualify for third level education? Less than sixty percent actually avail of it.

Could it be that the reason the public panic over standards in mathematics is that they don’t understand some basic mathematics? Because if they don’t… Wait.