Education (two senses)

Woo! This is post #500!

Recently I had the realization that I don’t want to be a professional programmer. I just made a commitment to program professionally for a while in Belgium, in Haskell, doing FRP (yeah, pretty freaking awesome!), and I’m not about to bail on that. But after that job has run its course, I suspect I won’t be wanting another one.

It’s not because I don’t like programming anymore. Programming is still a wonderful way to keep my mind agile, and I like it very much. Creating or learning a new abstraction requires head-breaking leaps, it’s exciting to master a new concept, and I still feel passionately about the future of programming languages (particularly the completely yet-unrealized potential of dependent types). But such are the pursuits of an academic, not a professional.

When I started college, I wanted to be a professor. It didn’t take long to realize that my work ethic was not insane enough to be a professor. Nevertheless, every semester since my sophomore year I was a TA. I skipped around teaching physics, calculus, and computer science. I was good at it and I loved doing it. It was a delightful sanctuary from the stress of studenthood.

After the fall semester of 2006, I became fed up with school’s bullshit (in fact, an elective voice class of all things was the one to push me over the edge—it’s a long story) and intended to take a year-long hiatus from school to work at NetDevil, a local game studio. That I did, quitting the job seven months later due to the ridiculous “crunch time” (read: mandatory unpaid overtime) policies.

And here we are, mid 2008 and I have not resumed school, and the next year does not expect my return.

It’s unclear what happens next. Maybe I spend a year in Belgium as a programmer, maybe longer. But after that, I don’t know. However, teaching looks to be in my future. And looking back on all my teaching experience in college, there is one thing that will always stand out: physics.

Physics is miraculous to teach. The subject’s depth and beauty has made a zealous atheist like me reconsider God’s nonexistence (converting me, if you will, into an agnostic :-). There is nothing more pleasing than being in the presence of a student who asks question after question as he begins to behold the mathematical masterpiece (except perhaps seeing more of the masterpiece yourself, which students have helped me to do!). I witnessed this with two or three students each semester.

Students come into physics often with a truckload of preconceptions about how the world works. This differs from mathematics and computer science, where the most prominent preconception is that they will not understand (a difficult one to work with). Physics also differs from those two subjects in that the tools to disprove themselves are placed right under the students’ noses. I have experienced the moving, haunting situation where I predicted the outcome of a physical situation and then observed it go down completely unlike I expected. To help a student with a misconception, you don’t tell them they’re wrong, you help them devise an experiment to disprove themselves.

Talking about it excites me, it makes me remember and long for that experience. I can see myself, even with my restless, wandering soul, doing that for the rest of my life. But there is a brief international diversion to explore first, it seems.

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3 thoughts on “Education (two senses)

  1. Man, is that all there is to education? And all along I thought it was about grooming leaders from peasant slaves *whacks forehead*

  2. I think that every sufficiently educated computer science student eventually comes to hate programming.

    More generally, I think people who manage to see the beauty in math, physics, and related fields end up hating bullshit. The world is so full of it. The crunch time of your old job. The bureaucracy of universities. It becomes an eyesore to see how terribly inefficient and inelegant everything in life is.

    I’m only a year after college, and I already feel “burnt out” of programming. I have a few friends who feel the same. It kind of sucks. I just don’t know what else people do to make a living! (At least, I don’t know anything that wouldn’t either pay less or suck more).

  3. You try to escape your destiny as a menial software hack, but you will fail, I assure you. Software is hard work, so you’ll want to reward yourself with shiny new life-ornaments. This virtuous cycle of pain-and-reward I’ve designed especially to spiral dweebs like you deep into a sink hole from which there’s no return. You’ll be assimilated.


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