Monthly Archives: February 2015

Portrait of the Artist At Her Studies

I am so behind on my online physics courses I can’t even tell you guys.

The truth is, I’m not in school. I’m not required to take this for work. If I wanted I could click that button that says “unenroll” and remove that source of stress from my life at any time. (And doesn’t that sound better than drop out? It does, which is why I never phrase it like that in my head.) But no, I’m going to persevere and push through and do more every day and hope I finish by the deadline. Which is May, so I should have plenty of time, right? Of course right.

I’ve told you many things about myself; let me tell to you another: I like to learn. And I hate to fail at it. I’ve never been labeled as Gifted or Talented, or Prodigy, or any of those other labels they like to slap on kids that give them endless amounts of mental anguish in their adult lives, but I seem to have gotten a lot of the neuroses without any of the prestige of the names. I haaaaaaate to fail. I stressed out for hours and days over whether or not to do the Immunology exam, despite the fact that I wasn’t caught up on lessons, despite the fact that like the physics class, I had no dogs within miles of this fight. My self-esteem, to put it clinically and with pretension, was negatively impacted in a pervasive and continuous way by my inability to complete online classes in a timely fashion. But I do it the hell anyway, because I like to learn. I like to study. I like to know new things to me, and for another motivation I feel like it makes me a better writer not just to look up the facts when I need them, but to immerse myself in biology or physics for a little while. To know how that feels, what that sounds like, in order to write better scientists or science fiction.

So, I’m studying. In addition to taking online courses on one site in physics and, of all things, US history (why? I don’t know why, it amuses me), I’m constantly on one site or another practicing my languages. The first part of this is describing these sites, I won’t call it a review because I’m not convinced any of these sites are astoundingly good or mind-shatteringly bad, but describing. Descriptions. Different people learn in different ways, so here’s something of what I do.

Duolingo and Memrise are my go-to sites for languages. Memrise provides me with the quick vocab hit I can’t get when I have to look up a word twice in a sentence while reading a book. At that point of comprehension it’s more frustrating for me to pick up vocabulary by reading than it is to simply memorize, so I do it. It’s also good for taking a timed quiz for maybe 2-5 minutes and getting a small buzz because I scored a 98% accuracy on it. There was an article not long ago about studying languages as a tool to fight off depression, and while I don’t suffer from clinical depression I can tell you, for the situational depression that hits when relatives get diagnosed with various forms of cancer, it works wonders to give me strength to keep going. Duolingo is similar in the quiz department. But it doesn’t just give vocabulary or the short bits of information you can find on flash cards, it has a more holistic approach and is geared towards learning at least the basics of a language. It also has the wonderful advantage that it makes you listen to the language being spoke and translate from that, and translate both into and out of the written language. It’s often more difficult to translate into the new language, and Duolingo applies equal time to all directions. If you have a microphone it will even help you with your speaking, although I question how accurate it necessarily is in that specific area. Still. Short quizzes, small bites of learning, easily consumeable and good for quick dopamine hits.

Living Language is another site I’ve come to adore, I’ll be honest, because I decided I wanted to learn Dothraki. Yes, I am that geek. I had the Languages of Tolkien primer as a teen, I had the Klingon Grammar by Okuda, I am still that geek today now that I’m theoretically old enough to know better. (This is a lie. There is no better.) And I haven’t used this site to complete a language study yet, so I can’t tell you how efficiently or to what level it’s taught me, but I’m finding that so far, it’s useful. It’s very useful for helping me learn Dothraki from scratch, and for other languages that have different alphabets (Hindi and Arabic currently) it’s helping me to start learning those languages while I slowly and painstakingly master writing my ABC’s.

That’s the languages, now for everything else and by everything else I mean I look at the course catalogs and go “what am I interested in today,” there’s EdX. At least right now there’s EdX, there are also Coursera and Khan Academy, which friends of mine are currently going through. EdX pleases me at the moment because the lectures are broken up into bite sized sections, I think the longest lecture I’ve had to sit and watch is 20 minutes, and that’s an outlier. Usually they’re 12-15 minutes. You can pay for a certificate or audit the class, as I do, and depending on the teacher there may be more or fewer periodic questions and quizzes (questions are not graded, quizzes are) to make sure you understand the lesson. I have, at this point, never run into a lesson that didn’t have those. It does not give you the same dopamine hits of “I have succeeded at learning a thing!” in measured and predictable chunks as the language sites, but it is a good, bite-sized way of getting information and learning that you otherwise might have to pay many thousands of dollars for, along with variably adequate housing and Ramen for the next five years. Trust me, I’ve had a college education. These are, if not the full experience of being able to badger your teacher about the prostitution subtext in TS Eliot, a very good in-your-home, in-your-pajamas substitute.

Learning! I love to learn. I think even if I didn’t have a writing hobby I would pick up studying things as a hobby, because why the hell not. Here are some benefits to learning: it keeps your brain active, it keeps you thinking critically, which is a good thing both for staving off various age related dementias and for growing socially and as a person. It makes you more marketable as an employee whether or not you’re actively looking. It gives you a chance for a new passion, or a new interest, which leads to maybe meeting new people, which can lead to a richer life. If you’re into that sort of thing.

Here are some drawbacks to learning, especially on your own. It is on you to be disciplined and keep to your structure, which can be detrimental to your mental health if you are not the type of person who does structure independently very well but have the brain twitch I do of I-am-failing-this-course-and-so-behind therefore-I-must-be-a-terrible-person. It is very, very easy to get frustrated and say “fuckit.” You may learn better by interacting with people, at which point you are dependent on their schedules and modern technology. At least with a class you’re still dependent on their schedule, but by prior arrangement their schedule includes taking time out to sit with you and X number of other students and teach you this. Learning on your own, you can’t ask Memrise or Duolingo a question and have a dialogue with it (although on Duolingo you can have a dialogue with other students, for what that’s worth). Learning on your own takes either an ordered mind, not Sherlock Holmes level of ordered but some discipline and neatness in the thinkmeats, or a mind that can tolerate digressions, failures, and other things which are not clear success.

I love it. The last five, no, seven (eek) years have helped me structure my mind to the point that I can do this. I really think if I had tried to do this seven years ago, it wouldn’t have worked. No, I know it, because I tried learning German and Russian on my own more than seven, about ten years ago, and I failed utterly. Now I’m working on my third and fourth languages independently, and I have every expectation of eventually being able to read Al Jazeera in Arabic standard someday. Maybe within the next three years. It all depends on what you want to accomplish by the learning, how you best learn, how well you know yourself to know either of the first two things.

And me, I’m still so far behind in physics. Crap. 😀