Saturday, March 31, 2007
Things I Learned in College, Part II

Source: Flickr

I don't like tests, I find them useless. So I didn't take tests after my sophomore year of college. Instead, I developed an elaborate, basically insane but wonderfully enriching method of choosing courses. The end result was that I spent an absurd amount of time course shopping each semester, as well as hondling and petitioning with professors to cater to me. Ninety nine percent of the time, the alternative program that I proposed involved me doing more work ("Instead of your test, I'll write a 10 page research report on [insert esoteric topic here]"). In the end, I got my degree on time from my nice school in Philadelphia without bothering to complete my history requirement, life science requirement, or most of my humanities core requirements. And I didn't take a foreign language.

The other day I came across this brief piece I wrote back in the fall of my junior year when I was applying to join a leadership organization at Penn. I believe the question I was responding to had something to do with the type of way in which I show leadership, rather than following. Yes I really wrote this, and yes it's really true:

Each semester, I aim to take at least one class on a topic about which I know absolutely nothing. The course must have a professor who will captivate me, and students who share my desire to learn. To find such classes, I treat course shopping like guerrilla warfare. This semester alone, I've enrolled in and attended 14 different courses so far just to settle with the 4 that I am currently taking. The result is that in my two years here, I've taken seminars on middle eastern gender studies, travel writing, trickery, comparative history of genocide, and, currently, love and death in Japanese drama.

Some friends of mine have asked me over the years to try to write about how I approached this maniacal process. It always varied from semester to semester, but here's a shortlist of what I looked for in my classes:
- Class does not meet before 10:30am
- Class does not meet more than twice a week
- Class does not meet in a building more than 4 blocks from my apartment
- Class does not require gratuitous use of Blackboard
- Classroom has at least two windows, preferably facing south
- Professor must speak English as a first language, or understand enough of the language to know what a 6-4-3 double play is
- Professor must show ability to make jokes
- If professor laughs at own jokes, jokes must be funny
- Class does not require that I take tests
- Class rewards in-class participation
- Class does not contain more than three members of the basketball team

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Friday, March 30, 2007
I like lists

Source: Flickr

I make lots of lists. Probably because I'm really bad at doodling. For example, here's a list of some things that I'm good at:

1. Miniature Sports
2. Spelling
3. Watching TV shows about painting
4. Not being a criminal
5. Making lists of stuff

I am working on a list of things that I want to learn over the summer and will post it here when I have it ready.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007
How to Fix Everything: Blackboard

Source: Flickr
Now that I'm back in school, I'm again using the Blackboard Learning System, an online learning tool designed for students and their professors to be able to share documents and collaborate. Blackboard is used by hundreds of universities, and smartly fills a necessary niche in the world of academia.

Its design and interface is terrible, however, and seven years since I was first introduced to Blackboard as a freshman, I don't see a single upgrade to the core application. The app is using the same horrendously ugly navigational elements, with the same mid-90's-style page refreshes on each click. The discussion tools have not changed at all, and searching to find documents is a nightmare. The nav tools still don't really mean anything. This stuff reminds me why I always hated it when classes used Blackboard for anything (and this is despite being a huge nerd myself).

I genuinely hope that there are better tools than Blackboard out there now to college students, but in lieu of that, here's what I'd do if I redesigned Blackboard:

  1. Build in social networking features. One of the biggest problems with Blackboard as a student is that rather than being something cool, it's an educational tool that feels like one. I'd integrate Blackboard directly into Facebook (something every college student uses constantly now anyway) so that student responses to reading and homework that used to go on Blackboard's communication pages (often a requirement for liberal arts classes) would now be posted on Facebook. For privacy's sake, the material would function like a Facebook wall viewable only to those in the class, and would also appear as a new item in students' news feeds.

  2. Rebuild the entire thing using AJAX technologies. This one's a no-brainer. Blackboard is and has always been hideously slow, owing to the fact that as far as I can tell, it hasn't been recoded since about 2000. I'd rewrite the thing to make each "class site" navigation function without any page refreshes. Use ajax, use flash, whatever. I don't care, just fix it. I'd give noogies to every programmer who insists that each course page needs to spawn its own window. This is an educational tool, not a mid-90's banner ad for a porn site.

  3. Fix the awful navigation and use taggging to make files easy to search and sort. This is sort of a corollary to #2. I remember that as an undergrad, my professors who used Blackboard would invariably post all course files to one nav element, such as "Course Documents" or "Assignments," but almost never filtered appropriately. I could never find any of the course docs, and the subnav elements don't even make sense. Why is the "Announcements" list in the left column nav and then also as an element in the sub nav for "Communications?" I'm not a UI designer, but there's got to be a better way to organize this material.

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007
things i learned in college

I learned many things in college. At the end of my freshman year, my adviser, a kind but rather serious woman sent a blanket email to her 15 or so advisees, asking us to share any advice that we might have for her incoming class of 15 new advisees in the fall. This is what I actually sent her:

Dr. Burnham,
Per your request, here are some of the most valuable things I have learned throughout my first year in college:
1. There is no Mama John.
2. If you try to microwave rice in its original container for more than 26 seconds, it will emit smoke on the 18th second and cause a small fire on the 27th second.
3. Playing with the fire extinguisher may look like fun but in the end your hallway will look like a giant chalkboard.
4. If you sit on the top of the school-issued wooden chairs long enough, the wood will start to rip apart until eventually you fall out of your chair one day in a Saturday Night Live-esque moment.
5. You will always buy too much milk.
6. Do not try to be tongue-in-cheek because no one will get it.

Best to your new students,

It should come as no surprise here that I did not date much as a freshman.

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about me

I'm Blake. I like to learn stuff.

I like to learn about history, art, culture, sports, and politics. I like learning about what happens when you mix Diet Coke and Mentos. I like learning about Britney's latest flameup, Beckham's newest haircut, and how to make little origami gift boxes out a piece of 8.5x11.

I started this blog for me to have a place to write about the things that I've learned. I hope that you enjoy reading.

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I am a partner in The Rock Club, the NYC area's premier rock climbing gym. NYC kiddies - we're double the size of Chelsea Piers and way more fun. Programs and instruction for all skills and levels. Tell them Blake sent you and get a free carabineer. If you buy a membership, I will buy you a cupcake.

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