Oberlin Blogs

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.

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