Tag Archives: Comprehension

Know Your Strengths

My dear friend and writer extraordinaire, Gordon Bonnet, and I share a brain. Where our thought processes and levels of comprehension differ, we end up being complimentary. Academically, we both studied physics but gravitated (no pun intended) to different things. We both share levels of anxiety but manage it in different ways. He likes to run. I only run if I’m being chased, and even then I’d have to think long and hard about it depending on who was doing the chasing. He likes going shirtless where as I am self-conscious of my upper body and shun pants at every opportunity.

Gordon recently wrote a thing over at his award-winning (okay, it’s not, but it should be) blog, Skeptophilia. In it, he describes hitting a brick wall when it comes to understanding Classical Mechanics. This was actually one of the few subjects I understood when studying applied physics at the University of Waterloo back in the mid-90s. My Achilles heel came in the form of Electricity and Magnetism 2.

I scraped by Calculus 3 by some miracle (or administrative error, we’ll never know) even though it was near incomprehensible gibberish to my eyes and ears. I did pretty well in Thermodynamics. Classical Mechanics was a lot of fun. I was even staring down the barrel of a degree in Astrophysics before life intervened in the form of an actual paying job and boss that didn’t give a rat’s ass if I majored in anything so long as I had a general bachelor of science. I had enough credits for one of those, but that dang Electricity & Magnetism 2 class almost screwed up everything.

Thirty percent of my grade was comprised of assignments and labs. Another thirty percent was given to the midterm exam, which you could throw away if you weren’t pleased with your mark, leaving a final exam worth either 40% or 70% of your total grade depending on your situation. I was scraping by with my assignments and labs and tanked the midterm in glorious fashion setting up a showdown at the end of the term.

Important Note: if you neglected to write a final exam it was an automatic fail regardless of your grade going into it. You could have a perfect 60% heading into the final, but but if you didn’t write it, you’d fail. In these cases, the school would assign you a grade of 32% for averaging purposes.

Anyway, I wrote my final exam, was sure I’d failed it, and waited to see how bad it was when they released the grades. I got a 30% in the class. I’d have been better off not studying at all and going to the pub for a drink. Anyway, as a physics major I needed that class so I had to take it again. The results were only marginally improved. When it was all said and done I secured a grade of 42 (sadly, only the answer to Life, The Universe, And Everything and not how to get a physics degree).

Now, I wasn’t ready to give up on a physics major yet (that would come a year later), but if you failed a core class twice they’d kick you out of your program, so I had a problem. I went to the prof’s office as soon as I got my grade and begged him to pass me. I brought in all my assignments, all my study notes, and assured him I went to every lecture and every study period. He pulled my exam from a file cabinet and proceeded to grill me on every mistake I made. “Why did you use this formula? What was your thought process on this step?” Etc.

When we finished he put his pen down. “If I give you a pass will you promise me to never take another one of my classes ever again?”

“Sir, that is a promise I can keep.”

He looked me dead in the eyes. “Congratulations, you just passed E&M 2. Please don’t ever darken my doorway again.”

All this to say, not knowing something isn’t the end of the world. With very few exceptions, not being able to know something isn’t the end of the world either. It’s okay, you know other stuff. Not a single one of us can go it alone and I can guarantee that if you ask you won’t have to wait very long for a yin to compliment your yang, or lend you a pair of pants.