Vacation?

Still almost two months before the winter term will commence late in September. Several of my co-students are working for local software firms during this break, though from what I hear so far what they’re doing there is not terribly interesting. One of those students is my programming partner, who would be qualified to start as a professional Java developer any time, but apparently he too is being employed in a temporary/auxiliary lower-term position suited for a typical second-term student.

Personally I have decided I need a break. The job chances in the computer business being what they are, I am convinced I am not missing a chance by not working in the industry the first chance I get. The summer break between the forth and fifth term, one year hence, should be early enough to get some experience. Besides, by then I can hopefully get a slightly more interesting position.

No, I really think I need these couple of months to recover a little from the pressure and exertions of the second term. Or I thought. Because so far I am not doing terribly well, relaxing. For one thing, we are still waiting for the grade for the catastrophic programming exam, so in a certain sense the summer term isn’t really over yet. Now we have been promised this grade for next Monday (tomorrow, that is). Some perspective! (By the way, we did receive our grade for machine-oriented programming two weeks ago. The exam had been graded extremely kindly. The grading ceiling had been set so low that a full 40% of those taking the exam had an A!)

For another thing, I find it difficult to divert my thoughts from the coming winter term, even though it is still eight weeks away. In fact, I have come to feel I should use the vacations to prepare, at a leisurely pace, for those two courses that are certain to turn out the most theoretical, complex and demanding next term, graph theory on the one hand, and algorithms and data structures on the other. Incidentally, two more math subjects–so much, again, for our wishful thinking that math would be over after the first term! I have procured one classic introduction for each and am now spending a few hours each morning trying to come to grips either with the cryptic formulas for algorithm complexity (though often they might as well Chinese for me) or with all those endless things that seem to be awfully interesting to find out about graphs–indegrees and outdegrees, topological sortings, vertex covers, Eulerian paths, Hamiltonian cycles, and so on. Mind you, sometimes it’s almost fun–graphs more so than algorithms. Particularly since graphs mean I have an excuse to program, i.e. implement adjancency lists and adjancency matrices in Java, complete with algorithms for sorting or coloring graphs and so on. Yet then again I may stare helplessly for three hours at the two-page proof for a statement as immediately evident as Vinzing’s theorem, not comprehending even the basic idea of the proof. And wonder why theoretical mathematicians have such problems stating what they intend to do before they set out doing it. At least in a university textbook addressed at undergraduates.

Is this useful? I hope. I do, fervently, hope that this preparation will help me to reduce the mental overload in the winter term and thus make it more bearable. Of course it’s at the expense of getting my distance from the university now. But then just doing nothing for over two months is hardly very satisfactory. In fact, it would seem a waste of time. Besides, in the three weeks coming our kids’ school and daycare will be closed, and two of those weeks we will be on vacation in Denmark (of all places, and that after ten years of going to France!, but that’s how it is with kids in school), so these three weeks I won’t be able to do any studying anyway. On average, it should work out–get some R & R while still doing something useful in preparation for the winter term.

But the long and short of this past term’s experience is that I have to watch my commitments if the next term is to be bearable for myself and my family. Sometimes that realization hurts. For instance, our first term math professor had asked my back then whether I would be interested in teaching the tutorial course when she would be doing Math 101 again, probably a year hence. I love teaching, and I have–as you know by now–at least an intensive love/hate relationship with math, so I said, of course, yes. How foolish! I had no idea, in the first term, how demanding our study program would become from the second term onwards.

Now a week or so ago she contacted me again, said she would be teaching Math 101 for the business informatics program this coming winter term, and would I want to be the tutor for the course? Would I want to? Of course! Only my wife reminded me of the demands five courses had made on me and our family life in the summer term. Could I in good conscience add another commitment of about four hours each week for an entire term? And what for? Fact is, I couldn’t offer my wife even a single good reason for doing this, except my love for teaching. Other than that, it’s poorly paid, it won’t give me any experience relevant for a job outside of university, or in fact any experience I don’t already have (I have been a university teacher myself for over ten years), and in the end there simply isn’t any time for doing it.

Still, what a pity! I knew my wife was right, but I wanted to say yes so desperately. The tutorial courses in our first term were such a great help, and somebody has to do them, and I would love to give something back. Besides, I think I would be good at it. I mulled over this decision for 48 hours, wanting to find a way to do it, but couldn’t, so I finally said no. Fortunately the math professor (she will be the one teaching us graph theory this coming winter term btw) doesn’t seem to hold it against me that I withdrew from my earlier commitment. She simply said she would ask again next term. And since by all accounts the second and third term are by far the worst in terms of time commitment, I do hope that she will indeed do that, and I will then be able to accept.

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