Sunday, August 26, 2012

Pre-Term Week: Wrap-Up

Last week was the "Pre-Term" class session, which is sometimes informally referred to as "Math Camp."  It's a one-week crash course in Economics, Accounting, and Statistics designed to prepare new students for the "Core Curriculum" of required first-semester classes.  It is also, by the way, entirely optional.  Slightly more than half the incoming class takes advantage of the opportunity to brush up on core subjects and get a better feel for the place, and the rest politely decline. 

There are no quizzes, no tests, and no *real* homework.  The Major Paradox associated with Math Camp is that no one is going to get a ton of value from the classes (if you were already a whiz kid in those areas, you wouldn't need the refresher; if you were a complete novice, you wouldn't gain much in that single week; if you were somewhere in the middle, you'd see it all in the first couple weeks of the semester anyway).  However, I thought it was a great experience and would certainly encourage any incoming student to take it. 

Here's why:  It's a great chance to meet a bunch of classmates before the *actual* Orientation begins, it's a great way to start developing habits associated with being back in school, and it's a way to knock out some administrivia ahead of time. 

Thanks to last week, I'm now far more familiar with the consequences of missing the 6:51 and falling back to the 7:18 (a crazy sprint across the bridge, for one), I know more of the ins and outs of moving across the city (the EZ Ride goes right from North Station to Kendall, and no I couldn't have hoped for anything better than that), and have already found a *nook* or two (Portland Street Au Bon Pain isn't a bad place to be stuck waiting for ten past the hour to come around).  Meeting a couple dozen classmates takes some of the edge off of what would otherwise be the Nervous First Day Effect, and the solid lines through checklist items such as "Picture ID" and "COOP Membership" does the same.

Here are a few Week 1 (or Week 0?) takeaways, in no particular order:

Dumb Classrooms: A student vote at some point in the not-too-distant past brought about a program-wide policy regarding technology in the classroom -- it's to be used by the instructor only.  There are no smart phones, laptops, PDAs, or anything else that beeps or squeaks allowed in class.  Notes are to be taken the old-fashioned way -- pen and paper.  Personally, I'm a huge fan of this...and that seems to be the consensus opinion.  I haven't heard any whines about being "treated like children" but instead a tacit acceptance that all that *smart stuff* tends to take away from the learning environment. 

Fascinating Peer Group: During informal discussions between classes, I learned about a guy who decided, on a lark, to write a late 80s/early 90s action flick-style screenplay.  "How did that go for you guys?" I asked, only to learn that it's being made into the movie "Enemies Closer" starring Mr. Van Damme himself.  Another guy was an enlisted Sailor who went to Annapolis before spending five years as a Marine and then another in finance in NYC.  Someone else started a fast-food chain in Latin America and then sold it for a nice sum of money.  And on and on.  The point is that b-school ain't undergrad.  As accomplished as many college-bound 17- or 18-year olds may think they are, what they've done has mostly happened in an environment where most major decisions have already been made and the path is clear (in the sense that 11th grade followed 10th grade, which followed 9th, etc..)  Even the "top" among them have just been very successful in said environment.  B-School is way, way different right off the bat, because people are selected for it based on what they've done in the real world. 

Zoning Out?  Not Allowed:  During a Math Class last week, I got lost in some long formula involving lots of Greek symbols, upper-case letters, and subscripts, when I just consciously decided to drift off to la-la land.  I just sort of said to myself, "I have no idea what's going on right now, but I have all the course materials.  I am going to make the 'easy right now' decision and go on mental auto-pilot.  I'll review it on my own time later and really learn it then."  This would've been okay during most undergrad lectures, and again through most boring, required military training, but not, I learned, here.  At some point I heard the words, "Work through thsi problem and turn to the person next to you to compare."  I scrambled to plug the numbers on the board into the formula, but -- no surprise -- had everything bass ackwards.  I felt like a dope when we did the partner review thing.  It wasn't a cold call in front of a group or anything, but it was enough of a wake-up call to impart a lesson: Class time can't be used for doodling or daydreaming.  It all matters.  Besides, given the daily limitations on time, the decision to 'space' during a 90-minute class is a pretty poor one. 

Easy There, SharpshooterNearly all the classmates I've met so far seem like truly interesting and down-to-earth people, but bear in mind that the group that self-selects to take the pre-term classes may not be a totally representative sample.  Even among that group, though, there always seemed to be one or two people in every class who wanted to "sharpshoot" the instructor (a grad student, sometimes from a Department outside the area in which they were teaching).  They wanted to challenge every chalkboard notation, and even every pre-fabricated slide.  I have no problem with that, but with the all-important caveat that if you're going to sharpshoot the instructor, you had BETTER be right about it.  It's one thing to ask how something was derived, or to frame a question like "I got $370 million for that answer but the slide says $350 million.  Can you show me the steps?"  However, if you say something like, "The slide is wrong.  It's 370," in a bold and even slightly arrogant way, you then look like a real fool when it turns out you're wrong.  (In this case, it was an Expected Net Present Value calculation of a project with a 90% chance of success, a 10% chance of total failure/investment loss, and an NPV of $400 million...and the right answer really was $350 mill). 

All told, last week was a great experience.  I'm honestly pretty surprised that a large group of people doesn't do this, especially considering that most people take a substantial chunk of time off before starting guess is that they just want to extend their summer vacations for one more week. 

One thing I know is that in order to be 'good enough' in the three core areas (Econ, Stats, and Accounting) I'll need to put in some overtime hours.  Books like the one pictured above will be perfect for those 40 quiet minutes each morning on the train. 

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