Reflections about my experience at UW-Madison
While my last post focused on my time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I'd like to write more about my experience there. It can be incredibly hard to design an institutional system which can process a large number of students, while simultaneously ensuring that they are feeling intellectually and emotionally engaged in the activities they are required to or choose to perform. With over 30,000 students and a budget of $3,000,000,000, the difficulty of the problem only begins with the numbers. Administrators have to deal with a range of priorities which include research, employment, service to the state, collaborations, governmental duties, etc. Education and student experience is one of these priorities, and might not necessarily be at the top of the list. Nor does it need to. As a public university in the United States of America, it's priorities are determined by the stakeholders in the state and the nation. Ideally I would hope that education is the highest priority, because I see no better investment, balancing for opportunity costs and diminishing returns of course.
While the average freshman might exaggerate their 'readiness' for college when they first show up, I think it's a very daunting period of time during which academics might not be a focus. You're in a new place, surrounded by new people, with a new routine, new habits, new educational system, and a new short term goal. If you're an international student like I was, you'll also have to deal with efffective communication, understanding the cultural practices and deciding how much you'll assimilate. While some argue that full assimilation is the goal, I don't think so. There's a sweet spot between retaining existing beliefs and adopting ones from the broader culture of the place.
One aspect of Madison that I loved immediately as soon as I got there was the city, the lake and the weather during the summer. Coming from Abu Dhabi, where it is the norm for buildings to have more than 20 floors, it was cool to live in a city where buildings with 10 floors were considered tall. I could see the gorgeous capitol building from campus! I could see the great blue sky and the stars at night (light pollution is kept relatively low)! I always chose to walk on Observatory Drive to get a breathtaking view of the lake and spent days reading on the lakeshore path. During the warmer months, I feel like I was on the top of the world! In Abu Dhabi, you can't really be outside for more than 10 minutes, so this was refreshing. I had no problems with adjusting to the wonderful fall weather. But winter was coming.
I'm still not completely 'used' to Madison's winter. Or maybe I am and everybody is like this. The cold and darkness combination made leaving the indoors a herculean task. I might have seasonal affective disorder. I wanted to stay indoors, sleep all the time, wasn't very productive, and didn't really feel well. I was eating less food and attenting less classes to avoid the tundra outside. I knew I was going to experience this before I chose to attend this university, but it's impossible to mentally simulate how it would feel. I realized that I was taking sunny Abu Dhabi was granted. After my freshman year, I realized that I needed to force myself to socialize and laugh to counter act winter's embrace. I don't know about this being a 'positive' experience, but something I have learned to deal with. Great summers, and awful winters!
I had no good friends during my freshman year. I had acquaintances that I would talk to at philosophy club meetings, but no dependable individuals who would be concerned if I went missing, for example. The primary reason for this was because I was an extreme introvert with a superiority complex, a pretty bad combination for collaboration and empathy. I almost exclusively talked to people for academic reasons, or to help them out, with something academic. I loved the accessibility of professors, whose fun facts during office hours were greatly appreciated. However, I think there were other reasons for this too. I think the fact that I looked different and was an international student definitely played a role. But I don't think this is racism. How do you even talk to someone you have no common ground with? It was my responsibility to establish that, but I failed. I realized this fact a bit late. Joining clubs and talking to professors was critical for this process. I gained an understanding for what was different about my life and experience (almost everything to be honest) and what was similar. Generally speaking, I'm not a person who makes a lot of friends. I keep a few close friends who are amazing people and spent time and effort to improve the quality of that relationship. Given that tendency of mine, I think it ended up being good. I have my close friends that I had gained, just as my high school years. I think it's unreasonable to expect a university to change this.
My communication skills were greatly improved by talking to people about academic topics. Back in the UAE, there was really nobody who shared my interests to an extend of pursuing a career in them. So I would have to preface every interesting fact and exciting piece of information that I had learned or found with "I know you don't like biology / psychology, but..." Eventually, after experiencing lots of glazed eyeballs and polite reactions, I kept those interests to myself. While obviously there is a self-selection effect here, but the people I had met at Madison really wanted to hear what I cared about, shared some of their own facts, and asked for more. I think this enthusiam was what initially drew me towards pursuing research as a career, as undergraduate RAs, graduate students, and lab managers were the people I connected with.
I was pretty familiar with the scheduling and credit system used in Madison, so that in particular didn't surprise me. My high school functioned in a very similar way, and my parents were largely uninvolved in my academics, as they realized that I knew how to manage my own time. While they could not have helped me, I did not know how to manage my time, atleast until my third year here. Initially, professors' claims that a 3 credit class required 9 hours of work fell on deaf years. I barely spent an hour studying outside of each class and did well on all of them. College was easy! Who needed time management? This attitude quickly lead to me downfall during my 3rd semester, which was my worst. I took a lot of classes, failed to work enough for most of them, and received grades that I deserved. While this is my fault, I wonder if the university could have done something to foster a better work ethic among new students. Harder introductory courses needing more work? More projects and essays? I don't know, but I think some guidance would go a long way.
I don't have much to say with my experience as an international student, mostly because I did not feel like one, and don't think I had a representative experience. I did not seek out peers of my same ethnicity or those who spoke a language which I knew, because English is my first language and my cultural identification was ambiguous. I have tried to engage with other Indian students, but their language preferences and cultural references quickly alienated me. I stuck mostly with students who were from Wisconsin. I still think there is a lot of work that needs to be done in this department. I still hate seeing groups of people sitting in large lectures. You can point out the areas of the classroom where students with hijabs sat. Students with Asian and South Asian descent largely seemed to stick with each other. I can't think of a good solution to this problem and understand why these students stick with each other. They find it easier to communicate, share more in common, and face less discrimination when they talk to each other.
For my first semester, I felt like I had too much free time. Classes were too easy. I attended a lot of afterschool clubs. I procastinated a lot. I took a deep dive into my hobby of font and music collection. Academics were not at the forefront of my priorities. Freedom from my parents felt liberating, and I needed to do all the things they didn't let me. I skipped meals when I didn't feel like eating. I skipped classes if they were too easy. I got high grades that I didn't deserve, that would set me up for failure later. The next semester was similar. I felt... rather empty. I had not made any meaningful connections with others. I was not being intellectually challenged. None of what I was learning was new to me. I had already learned the concept either for the subject SAT, from high school, or from watching educational youtube videos in my free time. I lacked a direction or drive, with the exception of psychology.
I've always liked psychology. But I've always liked chemistry, physics, math, psychology, sociology, and computer science too. I like a lot of things. This is one 'issue' that has plagued me ever since I was 5. Until 8th grade, I wanted to become an astronaut. Then I wanted to become a molecular biologist, IT support business operator, doctor, and a therapist. Every class where I'd learned something new would prompt me to envision a different career. This was quite terrifying to me, in a system where deciding early was optimal for future opportunities. I've tried my best to pick a career integrating as many of these interests as possible, but I wonder if there could have been some guidance. My advisors were focused on getting people to declare a major and planning out it's requirements. College of Letters of Sciences or College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, I didn't care, and still don't. What's a major? What's a certificate? What's a college? Categories in order to make bureaucratic processes easier. I wish I could have taken more liberals arts courses, learned a new language, gotten some 'official' recognition for my capabilities in computer science, etc. None of these fit in the framework of a major. I had decided to do a double major in Neurobiology and Psychology, and adding two certificates for computer science and a language with the workload of BIOCORE, an honors biology program was unfeasible. I had to finish school in 4 years, because it was expensive. Although I would be considered someone 'ready' in 6 months, I think I would be more prepared for life if I had more time to utilize those resources. An additional statistics class or a scientific writing workshop. An advanced research methods class or a molecular biology lab. An introduction to machine learning and artificial intelligence. I want to do so many things, but the framework I was supposed to follow seemed limiting to me. I eventually tried to do as much as I could with the time I had, but I sincerely wish for society to change this rigid system. With artificial intelligence coming, and jobs reducing, we need more education of a higher quality. Ideas are what humans will generate. I can't help feeling a bit unprepared for what the future will bring.
If I was allowed to use my time more efficiently, I think I would have been able to do all that I wished in 4 years, with time to spare. I just needed the opportunity to provide a measure of my knowledge on a subject before needing to take a course. PHYSICS 103, PHYSICS 104, CHEM 343, and BIOCHEMISTRY 501 were too easy. I procastinated in class because I was bored. I could have completed the syllabus in a month or two. But I couldn't. I had to finish weekly assignments and complete online quizzes, which needed memorization, not learning, and which took time. I can only hope that the transition to using electronic resources for courses would allow for a student to learn at their own pace, however fast or slow that may be.
My third semester was my worst, and that was due a bunch of environmental and personal factors. The courses were getting a bit more difficult. I recently moved to an apartment, but was assigned a room with no windows. Being at home felt awful. For someone who needs quality alone time to recharge for the next day, this had an impact on my mental health. I stopped caring and started doing the bare minimum. I didn't tell my friends about what was going on, and nobody knew how badly I was doing. My advisors couldn't see my ongoing grades, and assumed that I was doing fine based on my GPA for my first year. Some might consider my GPA for that semester acceptable, but it was a wake up call. I need to deal with weaknesses. So I did.
I found a research lab to join at the beginning of my second year at the psychology club. I was curious about how research was actually done. It was a rollercoaster of emotions. Initially I was excited, quickly I was disappointed, then I slowly gained an appreciation and started to love research. I was disappointed because of how monotonous the work assigned to me was. This was an outlook problem, because I wasn't really assigned much work and it was up to me to find my passion and seek to understand the questions the research was answering. I became more engaged at lab meetings, and the discussions about research papers fascinated me. The professor always had valid concerns and critiques about papers, but simulataneously appreciated the efforts of the researchers and seriously considered the implications of findings on his own research. The nuance and cleverness of it all inspired me to do more.
I found it difficult to find a research lab. I dislike the current system where recruitment is all done via email, cause you have no idea which labs need RAs or not. Sure, some savvy labs have updated websites, but those are exceptions. Combined with my distaste for sending generic template based emails, it was not a pleasant experience. A more organized streamlined process would be appreciated. Something like a job listing website, where you can filter by interests, commitment, duties, etc. The School of Medicine and Public Health and the Department of Integrative Biology are especially bad at advertising their need for RA positions, yet they seem to be recruiting RAs all the time.
I think I found my personal flow at around the 4th semester and learned how to manage my time. I got better at estimating the amount of time assignments and studying would take, and scheduled them earlier than they were due. To be honest, that semester, and the entirety of my third year were pretty much a smooth blur. I don't remember much from them because they were so... uneventful. I continued the same clubs, joined an additional lab, did some volunteering, did well in academics, and started accelerating the development of my programming skills.
As the year went by, it seemed that more professors disliked the usage of electronic devices to take notes in classrooms. I dropped out of a class as soon as I became aware that the professor banned the usage of laptops. Other classes, such as Literature of Medicine and Child Development required students to sit at specific locations to allow easy monitoring and to reduce distractions to peers. My feelings about this are conflicted; I feel like this policy treats students like children and carries an attitude of "I'm doing this for your own good, you'll thank me later". On the other hand, I empathize with the professors. I get really angry when I see someone on Amazon (it's always clothes or makeup...) during class. Not only what they are doing is tangential to what's being discussed and is distracting to others in the classroom, I doubt they have mastered the syllabus enough to afford being distracted. The other common culprit is iMessage or Facebook, as the need to respond to a phone vibration or a message has essentially become a reflex. I don't know what an appropriate solution to this problem is, but I want to use my laptop to take notes and want no prohibitions. I use a tagging system and publish my notes online, both of with would be impossible or incredibly cluttered without my laptop. I frequently refer to notes from previous semesters and even high school, which I would not be able to do without access to my laptop. Phones, however, can go. I can't think of a legitmate excuse to using one's phone in class unless they are responding to emergencies, which don't happen very often.
Large lecture halls are also the worst. Nobody in the back concentrates, a small noise distracts everybody in the near vicinity, the professor has to dial down the interactivity, fewer people ask questions, and the questions deal with clarification, not elaboration, and most important, they are booooooring. I just want to skip them all. There's something about the format that brings out the worst in education. I've wanted to sleep in around half of the large lectures I've been in, but none of the small classes. I'd rather just read a textbook than listen to less information being espoused at a slower pace for an hour and half. Also, I felt like most discussion sections weren't helpful, as they were mainly repeats of the lecture, but at an even slower pace. Being optional would help.
One thing I don't understand about university professors is how they use textbooks. Almost every class assigns one and declares it required, and then proceeds to never use it. The ones that do use it have no connection between lecture material and textbook content. I think I have purchased around 5 textbooks over my time here, barely used those, and I've done fine. My ideal course would use the textbook as the primary base, and then have lecture be a discussion and elaboration. I do recognize the flaw in this plan, as lot of students probably don't do readings, but I think that's dependent how the course and the requirement is presented to the students. I've skipped the readings for some, and done all of them for others. It just depends on how much the readings matter for a course.
I realize that I don't many 'positive' things to say about the university, but that's to be expected. I usually view things using a critical lens, and just because I don't explicity mention the good things, it doesn't mean that they didn't exist. I liked my time here. There's room for improvement, but no place is perfect. In a way, this post is a way for me to take notes on what not to do if I teach a course in the future. I'd like to be an engaging instructor, and want to make learning fun. Getting rid of the parts I found boring or useless (and others probably don't find useful) would be a good start.
I actually didn't have a high SAT score (1990 in 2014) in high school. My GPA was okayish, I think was a 3.7. I didn't consider myself good enough for this university. But I'm grateful that UW-Madison accepted me and allowed me to learn from some of the most talented people in the world.