Sunday, March 12, 2017

On Why Quitting is Terrible Failing

Cooper's Hawk just down the trail. Just using a point-and-shoot camera.
Many failures may precede success, but failing within an institution is just failing.

I am trying to suss out what is an acceptable level of failure. I grew up with the idea that failing at anything was bad: school, piano, that stupid cake-walk back in cub scouts, and many other venues. I’ll just say that I was so upset at the cake-walk they gave me some consolation pie. But back to the point: failure was unacceptable and very upsetting.

School was and is the prime place of failure being unacceptable. In some ways I envy the kids that don’t care when they fail, but in many others I don’t, since I would be very surprised if they are more successful than myself. Though I am certainly not a paragon of success, just very comfortable.

What does failing lead to within school as an institution? Retaking a grade at the worst save dropping out. I never failed in primary or secondary with my worst grade a C. This kept me from having a free ride through UW. The only fear of failure ever was on specific tasks, and really only on public performances. But also the schools were small enough and loose enough that there were definitely ways of working through failure that a teacher would consider equivalent.

College was much tougher for me. Fortunately I had skin in the game, money, debts, but it still was a very tough thing for me to finish. I had failures and retakes and then I graduated. Did I learn more? Yes, but as much as I probably should have? No. I would have done better in that case.

But that brings me to my master’s degree. I really like the computer science program that I can take online very far away from Georgia Tech. I will highly recommend the program to anyone looking at getting a CS MS. However, it should come with a warning: Gatech will punish you for failing.

Wait a second, of course they should, getting a bad grade because you didn’t understand the material or didn’t do the work or didn’t regurgitate the correct answer on a closed book test, directly leads to punishment, right? Sure, I have bad time management, better than before, still bad, but it’s not quite what I mean: Gatech will punish you for doing better a second time. This is much more controversial.

In the startup world there is a saying of “fail fast” that is, try many different things to see what sticks. In a good company failure is celebrated as a learning opportunity. In normal companies failure is grounds for firing. Not showing up to work? Obvious fireable offense, barring reasons. Trying an interesting project that flops? Should never be punished except when the repercussions can’t be absorbed or mitigated.

But in the world of academics it is a whole different animal. If you fail it goes on your record and that is it, always a mark against you. In some cases a permanent mark against you can be a good warning flag for employers or future institutions: “This person has done very poorly in this area.” But more often it is much more of an indicator of environment and what the person is going through at the time they get the grade. For those persistent folks out there who have perfect time management, I applaud you.

In my undergrad degree  the university had a policy of replacing the first grade with the second if it was better. Then after three attempts they started to average the grades. There was room for big improvements, but then it was tempered to make sure someone didn’t just take advantage of the system. I understand Georgia Tech’s system might want the grad students to be able to discern if they are going to pass the class, but this is nearly impossible when the professors don’t have a good idea of how the grades might be “bumped” or curved.

Either way I have dropped both classes. Failure is tough, freeing, but I can’t get over the fact that I spent money and vast amounts of time on these classes. Fortunately for Computer Vision I am pretty sure that I will be able to use/improve the code from the first five assignments that I did. I am not sure I will take databases again. I learned things, but I don’t want to learn it in a formal way, rather just apply what I need to do my job.

I will probably sign up for one summer course, one fall course, and so on. Very annoying, but at least it won’t kill me in the process.

It does free up time: travel, bird class, fencing, bird watching, archery. So many things plus more writing and actually adjusting and using my 3d-printer.

Failing sucks, and quitting is failing, it just feels worse.

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