Kat Huang

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Things I learned in college

December 27, 2022

Or, misusing the term “Hegelian dialectic”

With at least one semester to go (senior spring and a possible MEng), it's premature to use this title, but I'll use it anyway — it's pithy and not false, though also not comprehensive.

I've heard “the Hegelian dialectic” defined approximately once in my life, so my qualifications to use this philosophical term as an analogy are exactly zero. But I liked the gist of the concept — start with a thesis, debate it out with an antithesis, resolve them into a greater synthesis — so I put it as a note in my back pocket, probably smudging all the ink in doing so. Lately, as I've thought about my growth over the past few years, this framework has cropped up as perhaps an apt way to make sense of some of it.

thesis

I began college on what I would say is some extreme, and later spent time at the opposing extreme. At the start, I was keen to defy expectations and made this my whole brand: I was a full-time student at a demanding, prestigious university, but acted like school (derogatory) was a low priority relative to “my life” and the personal and off-campus endeavors I constantly had in action. I dabbled in coding and web development, but avoided the route of becoming a traditional (e.g. big tech) software engineer (so derogatory) like it was the eighth cardinal sin.

I constructed an identity from negative space. It was exciting. I talked to new people all the time, over coffee chats that I scheduled for 8am in my dorm's built-in dining hall. People thought I was doing cool stuff. I thought I was doing cool stuff. But if I could've just taken my eyes off my hourly to-do list, I would've realized that I wasn't doing any stuff.

For too long, I shallowly flitted about. For too long, I didn't recognize the importance of being fully present, whether in meetings or classes, or with myself, emotionally and mentally. I was a chronic brainstormer, a habitual goal-setter, and never made it past step zero or one of execution.

It sounds quite bad when I put it this way. Sometimes, though, you struggle to know how else to see it — this was the case when I swung in the other extreme.

antithesis

I began the second half of college by switching my major to (plain) (for clarity, not derogatory) computer science. Previously, I had been pursuing media studies: I'd been interested in academically studying social media platforms, technology and journalism, Internet culture and sociology, and topics from the field of STS (science, technology, and society). But two things happened around the same time:

  1. I finished the handful of classes that were directly related to those interests and found I didn't have a strong desire to keep going.
  2. I peeled back some of my posturing to find that I, a person who has always enjoyed coding and doing science and math problems (that I had sufficient foundation and structure for), enjoy coding and wanted to learn more computer science. Who would've thought?

With that push and pull as motivation, I switched my major with relatively little logistical angst (shoutout to colleges that make switching majors feasible and easy — few policies evoke in me more patriotism), as well as relatively little emotional angst — it felt right to do.

The hitch? I was real bad at my CS classes. This wasn't ideal before, when I took one CS class per academic year for shits and giggles, and it was certainly not workable now. Now I actually needed to have my foundations down and build depth in various topics.

With help, particularly from my boyfriend, I got clearer and clearer on what I needed to do to do better. Some of the necessary adjustments are embarrassingly obvious. I would watch lecture and not realize I needed to internalize the algorithms, to build the intuition for the concepts through solo, focused brain-stretching and solving problems. I wouldn't allocate enough time to complete practice exams, much less do so under anything resembling test conditions. This learning took, well, embarrassingly long. I'm still learning, continually getting clearer on:

  • “What do I need to do? What changes do I need to make?”
  • “How do I do it at all?” Relatedly: “How do I do it, once and with possibly a lot of effort?”
  • "How do I organize my life so I can do this over and over, by default?"

Along the way, however, I began to feel like I had no choice but to slice my life into two parts: the part where I was not only incompetent but also unaware of my incompetence; and the part where, although I'm incompetent, I'm at least trying reasonably hard to become competent. What I thought was a strength — my insistence on being interdisciplinary — felt irrevocably transformed by hindsight into a Fear of Hard Things, an ugliness to be ashamed of. I had to keep my distance from who I was before.

To finish my degree without delaying my intended graduation date, I needed to take 3-4 CS classes at a time. Unsurprisingly, the thoughts and beliefs I had about this aspect of my life easily became the thoughts that took up the most space in my mind in general.

I found myself looking back, with a mix of confusion, awe, and envy, on works I had made and released into the world in the past, from blog posts to shitposts to this interactive explainer thing about IP addresses. I made it in three days in January 2021 and it contains all dozen facts I know about IP addresses 😌. How did I bring myself to do that? Antithesis-me would never attempt such a thing. Her sole focus is, allegedly, pursuing her lifelong passion of *looks at smudged writing on hand* the pset problem in front of her.

The difficulty of striking a balance was compounded (or at least not helped) by the fact that I don't (happen to) encounter "success stories" to draw from. The most prominent archetypes I witness are: people who already excel at CS, people who are new to CS but have no trouble getting up to speed, and people who struggle a ton and decide that what it takes to master classes is not worth the sacrifice. All valid experiences, but I just don't see anyone who, during college, is highly interested in CS academics and succssfully goes from being a below-average student to an excellent student. I'm sure it happens, but understandably, it's not a hypervisible situation.

synthesis

Writing some of the “antithesis” section in past tense evoked relief, as though the power of conjugation lets me will that arc into completion.

I write this because something — abstract, like my gut, but also literal, like my friends — tells me that it doesn't feel right to have to dismiss everything I was and everything I did in the past. Somehow, there is value from my earlier years (beyond serving as the opening act for a superior performance), even if I worked differently.

Understanding and cherishing that value is the synthesis I want to arrive at, a resolution where I can hold all of me up to the light and not grimace at the sight. I want to figure out how to improve without being overly harsh on myself, and how to embrace a growth mindset and feel good about all the version history.

To thesis-me: There is so much I want to learn about you. I don't blame you, and in particular I don't believe that you were avoiding hard things in a calculated way. The shortcomings I wrote about earlier are lifelong challenges for everyone, currents to fight or learn to sail: being present, especially in the age of smartphones; actually achieving the goals you set for yourself (ask anyone about their new year's resolutions in February); developing expertise in a field.

To antithesis-me: I'm making progress. The pace feels so slow I'm convinced there's something wrong with me, but it's probably what all the progress preceding an “overnight success” feels like.

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