October 8, 2013

Pearls of wisdom

The most peripheral knowledge may be what we want to remember.

It seems traditional for students in their last year of college to reflect on what they’ve learned over the last few years for the sake of sharing their hard-earned wisdom with underclassmen. However, I often think that life is somewhat like The Simpsons, in which the important lessons that the main characters learn during one episode appear to have been entirely forgotten by the next episode. Thus, instead of presenting a list of what I’ve learned so far in college, it may be more accurate to compose a list of some of the things I hope to learn or relearn by the time I leave. My list is not intended to be comprehensive—some omitted ideas may be among the most important lessons taught in college precisely because they’re so difficult to remember.

The weather forecast should be checked dutifully. Despite having lived in Chicago for the vast majority of my life, an unjustifiable amount of optimism leads me to forget every year how fickle the weather can be. On more than one occasion, the rain has started and stopped within the span of my walk between my dorm and another building on campus. Looking out the window is not a good way to gauge what preparations one ought to make for the day’s weather.

Be judicious about what information (or “information”) one repeats. As college students, many of us are happy to pass on tips and facts we’ve picked up over the years. However, just because something is repeated a lot doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily reliable. For example, multiple people majoring in subject X at this school have told me that the average GPA in their department is 2.7. Nobody seems to know the origin of that factoid, given that a specific GPA breakdown by major isn’t published by our school. Curiously enough, one of my classmates recalls first hearing this factoid from me, whereas I recall learning it from him. You’ll notice that I’m not specifying which department I’m referring to, since I don’t want to be responsible for someone quickly scanning this column to come away remembering only the statement that department X has an average GPA of 2.7 (Hint: It’s not my major). This example is relatively innocuous but demonstrates that it can be hard to keep track of the provenance of information.

There may be such things as stupid questions, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be asked. One thing that surprised me about college was the sheer amount of eye-rolling and audible snickering that went on during some classes when somebody asked a question. People are fond of saying that “there are no such things as stupid questions,” but this cliché tends not to be very reassuring when the feedback you’re getting suggests otherwise. Certainly, not all questions are of equal quality. For example, questions that seek to resolve ambiguities or to explain a concept unfamiliar to most people are usually better-received than those that indicate one has neglected to do the reading or that are off-topic. However, sometimes questions that may seem stupid to someone from a given background may not have answers that are obvious to others with different backgrounds. Other times, our minds may blank at highly inconvenient moments. My general view is that if I’m reluctant to ask a question because I think that I already ought to know the answer, then it’s all the more important to ask the question so that I can make sure I really do know the answer. It’s preferable to feel a little foolish now in a relatively low-stakes setting than to make any major errors a few years down the line when handling more responsibilities. That being said, it’s also helpful to make a good-faith effort to work through a question by oneself first if feasible.

Paramagnetic materials have unpaired electrons, whereas diamagnetic materials do not. Every year, I reread the definitions of paramagnetism and diamagnetism and then starting mixing them up again soon after I’ve closed my textbooks. This year, I am committing myself to remembering them properly. I admit that remembering this piece of information might not be helpful for most people in their day-to-day lives, which goes to show that the accumulated wisdom of upperclassmen, including mine, isn’t necessarily applicable to all.

Jane Huang is a fourth-year in the College majoring in chemistry.