kawuli (kawuli) wrote,

Nerdsniped: brainstuff edition

So I was doing my morning "poke around the internet while drinking tea and trying to make my brain start working" and came across [personal profile] staranise's posts about Gifted kids and had a thought or several.

One is an explanation of why "you're so smart" generally does not feel like a compliment. Even on those occasions when it's not preceded by "But" and/or followed by "so why are you having trouble with this?"

The other was the realization that "oh, this is exactly why Caltech, despite being stressful and hard, was so good for me." Because everyone who's there is plenty smart. It's not interesting. Nobody cares. Of course you're smart.

And that can cause problems: I figured I just wasn't good at programming because I wasn't Caltech-good at it. Normal-good and Caltech-good are very different standards. But at the same time, for a bunch of kids who mostly always had "being smart" as a big chunk of their identity, it suddenly made that a given. So for me, and I think for a lot of other people, that makes you ask some questions: "Okay, but who are you, really? What matters to you? What are you interested in besides math and science?"

And at the same time, it is (was, but that's a different and depressing story) a place designed largely for nerds by nerds. There's 7 student houses (yes, kind of like Harry Potter), with a complicated system for putting freshmen in houses that is an attempt to find people places where they will fit. There's built-in networks of support, because you eat dinner together as a house, with freshmen through seniors. People hang out in the lounge or the courtyard, so if you are, say, a shy freshman who wants something to do, you can wander in and sit down and either people are there already or someone will most likely show up, and bingo: social interaction.

And it's the one time I've been in a place where I felt surrounded by people like me. Excitable nerds who mostly don't care that much about your grades or any other typical standards of success. The student culture there is such that it's okay to fail--really! People who'd failed out of school would come back to visit and live illegally in common rooms. 5 or 6 people in my house left and came back. I left for a year so I wouldn't fail out from burnout, and spent a month living on couches and building that year's big party (another good story). Nobody cared about your GPA. Nobody was competing (well, apparently some pre-med students were, but I didn't know any of them). People worked together on homework all the time. Freshmen and sophomores took a lot of the same classes, so you'd usually find a handful of people around a table upstairs at 4AM before physics homework was due.* It was just expected that people worked together. Not least because classes were hard, you couldn't get through on your own.

It was okay to fail, but it was not okay to cheat. Caltech takes its honor code seriously: "No member of the Caltech community shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the community." We had take-home timed finals, usually you could draw a line where you'd gotten to at time and continue for partial credit if you wanted, sometimes you were allowed books or notes, and people took those limits seriously. They were important. You didn't cheat on room picks either, or try to unfairly bias freshmen to join your house. Setting off a dry ice bomb in the pond was okay, so long as you made sure nobody would get hurt, but don't try to bribe freshmen with alcohol during rotation or so help you...

And if there's a better way to train scientists, who need to collaborate, who need to be able to fail and resist the temptation to hack their p-values or slice their data just right or whatever else to make failure look better, I certainly can't think of one.

And as administration by faculty types has shifted to administration by professional administrators, all those things are getting lost, because they are messy, because giving 18-22 year olds the freedom to explore means sometimes they make a mess, because lawsuits and helicopter parents and chasing rankings and H-index and everything else, and it makes me very sad.

(This is also why I get very impatient with most fictional depictions of Caltech/nerd school. The Big Bang Theory makes me crazy. Numb3rs got the spirit of it mostly right. Real Genius, same--obviously exaggerated for plot reasons but the spirit is there.)

Anyway, this has strayed completely off the point, assuming I ever knew what it was, and I have actual work to do, so I'll quit now.

*I'm still mad about the time we were working on quantum mechanics homework (which is part of the required core, because Caltech), doing a problem set that involved pages and pages of integration by parts and I kept fucking up some tiny stupid thing and it was making me CRAZY. And a guy a year ahead of us came over and went "oh, that problem set," flipped through our textbook and said "see here? in a couple weeks you're going to do that same problem and it'll take three lines." ARGH. Never take quantum mechanics.
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