Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A Recent Discussion

I recently got to see my very good friend D, last seen here, as she flew in to Seattle to see family for Passover. (I showed up the night before the actual dinner, and it turned out to be an excellent strategy, as they had a bunch of beer in the house that they were trying to drink up--no yeast during Passover, you see.)

D and I opened beers and sat on the couch in her father's living room, and talked, and talked, and talked, and two hours later we were still talking and I had to physically tear myself away from the conversation, because it was 11:30 pm and she may be on vacation, but I sure wasn't. D is a doctorate student, you see, at a very famous school that we will call Varhard, and she is working in genomes, doing some fascinating stuff that may get her published well before thirty, if everything goes right, which is quite a feat, not accomplished by many. (I'm very into the commas today.) To say that she is smart would be sort of an understatement. The girl is brilliant.

And, as many brilliant people are, she's not good at the art of compromise, or tolerance, or even compassion for other people's stupidity, and as I am trying to convince myself that compassion is the better part of knowledge but not wholly succeeding, we play off each other well, and we had a grand old time bashing the failing academic standards of this country. I had heard rumors of grade inflation at Varhard and others, but it wasn't made real to me until D confessed that she had to APPLY to give her undergraduates a C, and if you want to give a D, you'd better have the President at your back, and if you want to fail a student--and I wish I was joking--you have to defend your grade in front of a panel of grade reviewers.

Let me say right now that if CMU wanted to fail you, they did so, and often they laughed at you while doing it. I took classes from professors who wrote things down with one hand and erased with the other, professors who brushed off questions with the answer, "Ask me next semester when you repeat this class", professors who prided themselves on failing half of the population. I simply could not believe that a school such as Varhard was handing out As and Bs like they were candy, and the worst part--because, oh, does it get worse--is that D is teaching a biology class, and her students are PRE-MED.

I gaped at her. "Your pre-med students are getting inflated grades in their biology class? What about the rest of the sciences?"

D looked at me with pity. "Ah, there's the rub. The interesting thing is, my class is only a semester long. And it is half of their science requirement."

I took a pull from my beer. "I will hate the answer, but I have to ask: what, exactly, is Varhard's science requirement for a pre-med student?"

"One year of science total," D replied. "The first semester is Chemistry and Physics combined, and the second semester is biology."

"Just out of academic curiousity, what the HELL is the basis for the Varhard pre-med program, then, since it is obviously not science?"

"Being 'well-rounded'," she replied, almost spitting the words.

"Note to self," I said, "do not ever subject yourself to treatment from a doctor who got his pre-med at Varhard.

"No kidding," she replied, "I don't want my doctors to be 'well-rounded'! I want them to know something!"

(Note: D and I are not well-rounded, so perhaps the academic importance of such a quality eludes us.)

Much later on, with most of our beers gone, I was regaling her with tales from the front lines of tutoring (thank GOD that the girls I tutor are all receiving fairly standard educations, or I would be unbearable as a tutor) and she in turn told me about her niece, who had recently told D that she was reading Hamlet in her high school English class. "That's great!" D responded innocently.

"Yes," said her niece, "we're reading the New Version."

D blinked a few times. "What New Version?" (The exact same words that I had interjected at this point in the story.)

"It's the new version," her niece said impatiently, expecting like all teenagers that D could read her mind. "It has the original on one side, and the new version on the other. We're only reading the new version."

D and I stuck our heads in the oven.


C.Oz said...

HC was like CMU, then. I had scary profs. We made fun of Varhard and various other colleges with similar grading standards.

The pre-med program at Varhard (umm, presumably in the Peoples Republic of Cambridge) sounds ridiculous. Thanks for the warning there. Dear Lord. I would've qualified to graduate pre-med. That's scary.

alex said...

Two comments:
1. Commercial beer is pasteurized and filtered so there shouldn't be any yeast left...or does that matter? (consequently, that's why homebrew is so great: yeast is a great source of yummy vitamin B12.)

c. I think you have the facts wrong about the whole pre-med thing. Pre-med isn't a major, but there are general requirements for most medical schools. And while you don't have to be a science major, those include 4 years (8 courses) of sciences...even at, uh, Varhard. As a fellow graduate student, I know it's easy to exaggerate about the dumb undergrads.

C.Oz said...

I think mostly what I wondered about was the bare minimum required. I don't remember our pre-med program allowing that little science to fly, even for the students not majoring in, say, bio or chem.

Either way, it's interesting how different schools work.

All this said, I'm glad I wasn't pre-med in college. I hated studying anything requiring time in a lab. :)

Aarwenn, did you get a look at the "new version" of Hamlet? I'm curious as to what it was like. Prose?

Aarwenn said...

Hi to both of you--yes, alex, I know there's a difference between what an undergraduate program requires for graduation and what a post-undergrad school requires for entrance. It still kills me that any Varhard student would have a much better GPA than any CMU student. It's just not fair.

I assume that "The New Version" of Hamlet is just the story, as in, "Hey, I just saw a ghost! He looked like my father!" "The most important thing in this world is to be yourself." "Yeah, that's the problem." "Oh, go join a church!"

Sara said...

#1, as an H&SS grad I'm probably "well-rounded," however I agree that my doctors had better know their darn science!

#2, the New Version? Is there room in that oven for one more?