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Ernest Takes A Computer Science Class

February 11, 2009

Will Mason ’10

Remember those "Ernest" movies from the late 80's, in which Jim Varney's bumbling janitor plods his way through a variety of seemingly-innocuous situations (Halloween, school, jail) and hilarity (if you're under the age of eight) ensues? Well, I feel a bit like Ernest right now, and not just because we're both adept at operating on a frighteningly low budget. Thanks to Oberlin's course distribution requirements, I've got to leave my comfortable bubble of humanities courses (music degree!) and social science courses (politics degree!) and rack up some natural science credits (be eligible for my degrees!).

Like many people who think majoring in drumming is a boss idea, I am not good at math or science. My pre-calculus teacher in high school once wrote "NO!" in big, red letters next to an answer I wrote on a test. I got a 29% on a geology exam administered by my earth science teacher freshman year. And during one particularly hilarious parent-teacher conference, my algebra teacher began by stating: "So, Will has some issues." (Like they didn't already know.) So as I worked my way through the course catalog, I tried to find a natural science course that I hadn't already blundered my way through.

Oberlin has a ton of cool-sounding courses that fit under the umbrella of natural science, and it was actually hard for me to settle on something. I evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of each major option. Astronomy? Stars are cool, and I could impress/bore my hiking buddies in the summer by pointing out constellations. Physics? If I'm ever on a train headed towards another train, I'd like to be able to calculate how long I have to live. Biology? Dissecting things! (I'm a vegetarian, but clearly it's not because of moral/ethical concerns.) Geology? Volcanoes! Chemistry? Bunsen burners!

But somehow I ended up in an intro to computer science course. Maybe it's because it combines all the above disciplines: I dissect the functional programs my professor writes during lectures; I write my own train-wreck programs; I wish that I could light my computer on fire. Ernest is in over his head.

Actually, the course is a lot of fun, even if I am too stupid to quickly and accurately complete our programming assignments. The professor is as clear as one can be when talking about programming languages, and the feeling of satisfaction that comes from finishing a program after spending an hour staring at "Invalid Syntax" error messages is great. Writing a computer program (and ours are, at this point in the semester, very simple) is like solving a puzzle, only every time you put a piece in the wrong place the puzzle yells at you. Am I going to change my major to computer science? No, though job prospects for computer programmers are much sunnier than those for jazz drummers. But there's a reason Oberlin makes students take courses from all three divisions in the college. Taking nothing but courses relevant to my two degrees gets tiresome, much as I love them both. I don't think anyone expects an intro to computer science course to be a life-changing experience, though that does happen. But it infuses some much-needed variety into an Oberlin student's course load, and makes for a richer college experience.

slam dunk!

This having been said, soon I will have to contend with the fact that my mediocre work in this class will be graded. What's a music student to do? Perhaps I can learn from Ernest's example. In Ernest Goes To School, Ernest learns that he has to retake the 12th grade in order to keep his job as a school janitor. (It's like Billy Madison, except mean-spirited and classist.) Unemployment seems imminent until Ernest participates in a Brain Accelerator experiment, which gives him the requisite smarts for completing high school. And in Ernest Goes To Jail, Ernest gains superhuman powers from a malfunctioning electric chair; he escapes from prison by shooting electricity from his hands, like a back-country Emperor Palpatine. And in Ernest Goes To Camp, Ernest signs away the lease to a summer camp to a group of developers who then "savagely beat" him. (Wikipedia is less clear on how he saves the day in the end, but I promise I'm not making any of this up.)

I think I should just study a bunch.

Responses to this Entry

Phew, Will, I'm relieved at the Wikipedia reference at the end. For a minute there, I thought you'd actually seen all those movies and committed the details to heart. Think of the brain cells wasted...

Seriously, though, there is a solution to your dilemma. It's called Pass/No Pass. Is there some reason you're avoiding it?

Posted by: David on February 14, 2009 9:53 PM

My feelings about pass/no pass are mixed. While I'm not a big fan of grades, I'd be lying if I said they weren't one (of several) motivating forces in my academic life. So on the one hand, it'd be great to take the course pass/no pass and thus spare my GPA (buoyed by almost three years of courses relevant to my strengths) from the harm that this class could no doubt wreak; but on the other hand, I know that I wouldn't give the course the attention that it merits if the standard I had to meet were lowered to simply a passing grade. I wish I could say that my academic integrity were such that my effort in this class would be the same regardless of the grading system, but, alas, that is untrue.

My plan right now is to see how I do on the first few assignments. It may be that I'll find myself in the unfortunate position of having to expend immense effort just to achieve a passing grade, in which case the above paragraph becomes rather moot...

Posted by: Will on February 15, 2009 2:32 AM

Which Intro to CS class are you taking (the Java one or the Python one)? God help you if it is CS150- it is one of the best classes to take, but definitely not one to expect an easy A from. CS is, though, a remarkably social major when done correctly. The stereotype of a CS student sitting and programming alone for hours does exist, but the most successful people tend to be those that gather in groups and bounce ideas off one another.

A pass/fail option is beautiful though. The best decision of my life was waiting until the deadline in Economics and pass/failing. My GPA was saved, but I had already put in a ton of effort before I finally decided to do it. Maybe consider doing four or so labs and then ducking out at the end if you need to.

CS also has a lot of good tutors, and a lot of majors who don't mind talking about things. There's a stigma amongst students in intro classes that tutors are for the weak, but honestly nobody would say that about graduate students doing recitations at a state school.

Posted by: Sean on February 17, 2009 11:25 AM

It's the Python course, which I am positive is the easiest option available. I actually think computer science is cool and I think it's unfairly maligned as a "dorky major"--after all, after you reach a certain level of depth any major becomes dorky. I just wish I were better at it...but we'll see, I actually was able to get my program to work for the first homework assignment. The task? Write a program that simulates the game blackjack. (Adding random numbers together such that the closest to 21 without going over wins.) About as simple a concept as can be but it still took me close to an hour to write.

Posted by: Will on February 17, 2009 8:38 PM

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