Monday, May 9, 2011

USU vs GWC... which is harder?

This post rambles on quite a bit but I don't feel its important enough for me to write it correctly.  My apologies if this doesn't make the most sense.

At GWC they always bragged to us about how their freshmen program of study was harder than medical school and that students at their school studied harder than students anywhere else.  And GWC did make you study hard.  I think they wanted us to prepare for life crisis by making our studies one prolonged life crisis.  Very few students even tried to hold down jobs during the semester and those who did often took a lot longer to graduate.  Since you needed several internships to graduate you couldn't devote your summers to earning money without delaying graduation on those internships... say unless you just found ways to excuse your summer job as a learning experience.  But all internships were supposed to be unique and it starts getting harder to find 3 things that make enough money for a whole school year that still count as unique convincing learning experiences.

In any case, my feeling is that being a dad, a husband, a full time employee, and a half time student at USU is actually a lot harder than being a single full time student at GWC.  From the way GWC brags you'd think there was no way that would be possible.  GWC tries to take over your life, but when they overload you with work which is what they know they are doing, there aren't any consequences to simply failing to do the work that is overloaded on you.  I had a professor who by surprise threw a 600 page reading assignment for us to read over a holiday break.  I tried to read some of it but honestly it wasn't a book you could read that quickly unless you weren't paying attention.  I don't think any of the students succeeded.  I gave up and enjoyed my holiday.  There was no consequence except that if I had managed to fit the book in somewhere (remember this was a surprise assignment not on the sylabus which was overflowing with other stuff anyways) I could have gotten more credit hours out of the class.  Or there was the economics semester.  The professor told us up front that he had no intention that we'd actually learn economics but only that we would learn enough about it that some day we would decide we really wanted to learn it.  The readings were difficult and didn't build on eachother in a way that allowed you to grasp them better as you moved on.  Again, I don't think any of the students actually were any where near up to speed on the readings.  We'd get together for study groups and see if anyone knew anything about the readings for the next day and none of us had any idea.  The only students who passed the class with an honors on their oral exam were students who completely ignored the assignments and built their own plan of study.  There was one philosopher whose economic influence the text informed me had disappeared as soon as he died.  I didn't have time to read him so on my final exam I wrote down for his entry that since the assigned reading was about an author who was irrelevant to current economic theory I refused to read him.  I didn't get any points off for doing that and I still passed the class.  This kind of stuff happened all the time.  We would study like crazy, not have time for everything assigned, and not fail the classes when we didn't complete the work assigned.  The main point was for us to study hard, not to complete assignments.

At USU, on the other hand, assignments are given with the intention of being completed.  If you don't have time to complete them it isn't a virtue of an academic system of teaching you to study like a maniac, its your fault for registering for too many classes.  If you don't finish an assignment or give it a half baked effort because you ran out of time, you fail the assignment.  So even though I was only a half time student with a full time job I found myself routinely working absurdly long hours and running my health into the ground trying to get my assignments perfect.  At GWC I would have said, wow I'm sleepy I'm going to bed too bad they didn't give time on the syllabus to complete that absurd assignment and gotten away with it almost every single time.  In my final year we were supposed to be studying a narrow subject to the point of being a world class expert (I think within the top 40 experts in the field was what we were told we would become) and reading through almost all of the "Founder's Constitution" set at the same time.  The sheer amount of study required for what was supposed to be the capstone paper of the entire undergraduate experience was so large that almost all the students in my class were freely admitting they weren't doing the readings for the constitutional law section of the class and we flummoxed the professor my showing up day after day to his lecture having no idea what he was talking about and not being ready to discuss anything he said beyond our prior knowledge.  That capstone paper of mine I took so much effort on that I blew my circuit on it and told the professor that to be able to complete the rest of the studies in the class I couldn't finish it and handed it in as a rough draft that wasn't even coherently structured yet.  I got full credit based on my obvious extensive research on the subject even though by any normal standards I had flunked the paper.  And who would believe I am one of the top 40 experts in the world on UN reform when I can't even write a decent term paper describing it?  The only prominent exceptions to this system of abandoning or only half doing assignments that were beyond possible  were the mid term exams.  A typical mid term exam at GWC wasn't actually supporting the content of our reading or lectures.  We typically were supposed to memorize a large list of information only marginally relevant to our course material and then the teacher would pick a fact out of that list at random and if we knew what it was we had passed if we didn't know we hadn't passed.  It got you to study fairly hard, but I passed those midterms by doing a one day or sometimes several hour crash course memorization spree.  I can absorb a lot of information very quickly when under pressure.  Then as soon as the midterm was done I would promptly forget most of what we studied for that midterm.  Typical content was things like the 50 "principles" of economics that the professor came up with as his study notes for a prominent book, names and locations of every nation-state in the world, meanings of common investment terms, meanings of various mathematical phrases like "trigonometry," etc.  It was somehow suggested that memorizing these lists of information would give us some mastery over them.  About only thing it did was make it so if someone spouted vocabulary at us we wouldn't be embarrassed.

What it comes down to is that after comparing the two experiences, GWC was either joking about them being harder than medical school or reporting experiences of students who came to GWC after going to other colleges and were expecting that all those assignments were real, rather than motivational exercises to make us work hard at work loads the professors well knew we weren't going to complete.  Comparing USU and GWC in terms of the normal definition of a school as a place where learning environment are provided and then the learning of the students is certified to have or not to have taken place, GWC is an institution where assignments can be missed, skipped, turned in poorly done, and where mastery of the content advertized may never be achieved.  What GWC really shines as is a institution of motivational speakers who invite you to complete the impossible and don't criticize you when you don't achieve it, just encourage you to make learning a lifelong process so that you'll eventually master all the things you rushed past at the speed of sound.  As a result students at GWC still learn a lot because they spend a lot of time studying.  The school simply can't certify that the learning took place and in some cases organizationally didn't make any attempt to ensure we were actually learning or would be capable of learning the material presented.  I came out of the school knowing much much more than I did before, but there are entire areas that the school supposedly covered for me in a "world class" way producing results that were somehow the best that I know very little about.  The extent to which this was motivation speaking and not real learning is exampled by an assignment to write a business plan that would make I think it as 1-2 million dollars over a 7 year time period.  We were told that if we really felt strongly about our business plans the professor would actually show them to an actual investment banker to see what a real world business man would think about them.  He bragged about how he didn't know of any other institution in the world that provided that kind of real world feedback to business planning.  How good were the business plans presented?  There was one student who brought in a hunting calender his mom had mocked up that integrated information on the laws and regulations for different types of hunting year round.  He told us that this calender if it was taken to market would be purchased at a certain price by something like 90% of the hunting population and therefore would automatically make him a millionaire.  One of the other students pointed out that this was a high rate of market pentetration and the student presenting the plan said he felt that all hunters would want the calender and couldn't think of any reason he wouldn't get 90% of all hunters to buy it from him and suggested the doubting student just didn't know the market of hunters well enough to understand how that would work.  As far as I knew that student passed the class.

My own attempt wasn't necessarily that much better.  I hadn't even attempted to model what the costs of advertising and management would be or how to enforce quality control off of an extremely decentralized network.  Ignoring those issues, I was unable to build a model that would grow that much unless it assumed some sort of explosive growth pattern which I was unable to model in my excel spreadsheet.  Or in other words I had no idea how to make it work.

So about this claim that no other business schools actually got real feedback on assignments?  My roommate who attended SUU for a business degree showed a business plan to a local investment banker as a required part of his class.  Wheras my idea never even got to an investment banker because that was a special privilege for people who were particularly interested, not for everyone.  I knew my idea wasn't yet worth beans so I didn't bother trying to get a banker looking at it.  So either the professor was full of a lot of hot air or was completely ignorant of how business degrees at the mainstream university a couple blocks away actually worked.  Or the simpler answer is that he wasn't a professor, he was a motivational speaker.

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