Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Final blog-portfolio

We have now come to the end of another semester, which means that many things, including the class for which this blog exists, are coming to an end. The purpose of this final post is to evaluate my overall blogging experience. Additionally, I have created a portfolio of 4 of what I feel to be my better posts for Professor Arvan.

I will begin with the portfolio. Of the four blogs in the portfolio, one had to be from the first three weeks, and one from the second three weeks so that an accurate assessment of change (and hopefully growth) over the semester can be made.

I wrote this blog on Voting and Handwashing during the second week of the semester. I feel that it was a good post, because I felt that I had something to say, and was able to tie in the concepts discussed in class. A few weeks later, I wrote Intrinsic Motivation. Again, I feel that this was a good blog because I had a worthwhile opinion on the subject. As a general comment, when picking my blogs, I did generally pick out the longer posts, not because wordiness is better, but because the extra length was indicative of my feeling inspired and having more things to say. On the other hand, some of my other blogs were merely “bare minimum” in terms of length, and I usually really struggled to write them.

Let’s now jump forward in the semester. After writing a few posts, I started to settle into a more consistent writing style. One week we were asked to evaluate our view of online writing, which I have done in this post. In it I assessed the benefits and limitations of the blogging format for sharing our ideas. I feel that I was able to achieve an easy, conversational tone in this blog, but still my insight and thoughts on the subject.

Finally, I feel that I exited the blogging world (for now, and obviously excluding this post) with a bang with my post on Freedom and Self-imposed Restraints. This post marked my first time in deviating from the given prompt, and indeed the focus of the blog was to analyze the class’s propensity to stick to the given post to the bloody end, even if it felt restrictive. I would have to say that I think this was my best post, though I guess I am a bit uncertain as to why. Perhaps it was because I finally through aside all assumptions, and wrote a truly reflective and honest piece of writing.

So, as I am nearing the end of the last blog that I will be required to post, what are my thoughts? Overall, I was glad for the experience of blogging, if nothing else because it forced me to do something new. Do I think that I am a better writer because of it? Probably, though I would say that I am just a better blog writer. Thus, my overall writing style didn’t change much, but I have given it more breadth. That is, I have learned how to apply my previous knowledge to a different type of writing.

So, will I continue to blog in the future? I have to be honest and say “probably not, at least in the near future.” However, this at least in part hinges on the fact that outside of this class I really don’t have a blogging audience (except for a select few, who I am sure will be disappointed when I stop blogging!) But, perhaps in the future, when I have a different audience, and something to say, I will take it up again, and at that point I will certainly be glad for the experience that this class has given me.

So, to all of my readers (not that many, I know), "good bye and good luck!"

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Freedom and self-imposed restraints

We are now nearing the end of the semester, which means that for me, this is the penultimate (second to last- thank Prof Arvan for the cool word) reflection that I will be “coerced” :) into writing. The overall nature of the blog has been that every w eek Prof Arvan gives us a suggested topic on which to write, though we were also told that we were able to choose our own topic. It is that that I want to discuss today, because, per our class discussion on Wednesday, some very interesting points of view arose.

Of particular interest was the disparity between Prof Arvan’s and our view of the blogs, particularly with respect to the prompt. I will try to summarize some of the interesting points of Wednesday’s discussion, which, quite frankly would have been more beneficial if we had had at the beginning semester.

Let me begin by laying out, as best I can, what I perceived to be the student’s and Prof Arvan’s viewpoint on the blog prompt, as they came to light on Wednesday.

From Prof. Arvan’s point of view, the blogs are a means for us to think critically about a subject, and then put our views out in the open in blog form so that other people can read and comment on our writing and thoughts, hence opening discussion which leads to learning. Additionally, to maintain a focus for the class, the blog was to be on some topic related to the class discussion that week. In order to aid those who struggling to think of a good topic, Prof Arvan also posted a prompt.

Even as I write this (assuming that I got it correct) I marvel that our interpretation of this was so different. Firstly, I believe that I/we would agree that the blogs were to be a way for us to get our ideas on the table. However, despite Prof Arvan telling us repeatedly that we didn’t have to stick to the prompt, most of us tenaciously held on to the prompt, even if it felt constraining, or didn’t interest us. There were probably several reasons for this.

The most important was our misconception of the purpose of the blogging. Given the type of “hard driving, dedicated students” that we are, we view the prompt as “the assignment, to be done whether we liked it or not”. I don’t think that I speak amiss when I say that a lot of us suffer from what I would call “grade perfectionism”. Any class is a thing to be conquered, and the surest way to get a good grade is to just do what the teacher wants. Whereas Prof Arvan wanted the blogs to be a freeing, learning experience, with the prompt being just that, we all viewed it as a mandate. Sure we were given the option to deviate, but to deviate is a dangerous thing- better to just stick with the safety of the prompt, even if we don’t like it.

Clearly, this is an important difference, and one which quite honestly I would have realized much earlier existed. Would my blogging experience have been different if I hadn’t conformed to my self-imposed restraints? Probably, as I would have gotten more of the benefit of the true intent of the blog.

So, while it is a bit late in the semester for this to have a huge effect (though apparently not too late, since the astute reader will realize that I have thrown this week’s prompt to the wind), how can this information be put to good use. Said another way, why was there such a difference in the class’s and Professor’s view on the blogs, and “whose fault was it”. I guess I don’t exactly know the answer, but would have to say that it was probably a shared responsibility. We as students need to get out of the “grade oriented” mindset and focus more on the “learning oriented mindset”. This would make it much easier to try something new, and not worry about failure. I suppose, if we had been paying attention, we could have learned firsthand from the fact that Prof Arvan really didn’t have a clear vision for the class, but still wasn’t afraid to try new things.

That being said, I feel that from the students perspective, the fear came from our lack of vision of where the class was going. Since we didn’t know what was going on, it was easiest to just take it week by week and do exactly as we were told. Finally, as a direct suggestion, even though it was clear in Prof. Arvan’s mind that the prompt was just a springboard, I think that given our preconceptions, he should have made it doubly clear, viz., “This week write about something we talked about in class. If you can’t think of anything, here is a suggestion…….”

Well, that is it. I wrote an entire reflection without the aid/crutch/restraint of a prompt. Thank you. Thank you.

Just kidding. In all seriousness, I wish I had been doing this all along, because I feel that what I have just written is an honest reflection of my thoughts on the subject, and much closer to the overall purpose of this blog. Which means it is now your turn- if you liked/ disliked/agreed with/etc anything I said, let it be known, so that the discussion can begin!

(Disclaimer- I use the collective “we” a lot in the blog to refer to the students in CHP 395/396. However, I realize that not all of the students in the class will agree with what I say, but using the word “we” felt more natural than “I”, especially given the fact that, for the most part, I feel that I am accurately speaking for the class. If that is not the case, I apologize, and please let your opinion be heard!)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Interaction between upper and lower classmen

I have mentioned before in class that I have lived in private certified housing during my entire career here on campus. Additionally, I (and Fred as well) have been an active member in our local church youth group (the same church the people who own Brown House, where I live, go to). My reason for mentioning this is that because of this, I feel that I have been exposed to a unique opportunity with respect to the availability of mentors, specifically the upper classmen being able to help the lower classmen. While I realize that my experience may be somewhat unique, and not applicable in the general sense, I still wish to share and reflect on it.

When I moved in as a freshman, there were three other guys living there. One, who I will call “J”, went to the same local church as me and was a senior. Suffice it to say, it was wonderful living with someone who “knew the ropes” and could help me through freshman year. This was, in my opinion, somewhat of an ideal mentoring situation. The fact that we lived together and got to know each other on a much more personal basis allowed for very free conversation. Instead of an official “mentor” where you meet someone once a week, this was much more informal, and could occur on an “as needed basis”.

Suffice it to say, I felt that I greatly benefitted from living with an upper classman. The question then becomes “was my situation unique, or could it be reproduced?” The answer is somewhat multifaceted. I know that it isn’t completely unique, because Fred lives in a house set up in a very similar manner (as does Joe, if I am not mistaken). However, these are all private housing, and are associated with a particular church, making the people somewhat more homogenous and better able to get along and relate to each other. Although I have never personally experienced it, my guess would be that trying to implement a “Senior-Freshman” mentoring situation in the dorms would be somewhat difficult. I recall others in our class (Sophia, maybe) saying that they did room with a senior when they were a freshman, but that it didn’t work out so well. Again, since I never lived in a dorm, I really can’t speak to how well it allows freshman and seniors to interact. This is merely speculation, but perhaps putting freshman and seniors on the same floor of the dorm would work (or maybe they already do this- I don’t know).

The second (though somewhat related to the first) means by which I interacted with seniors when I was a freshman was through a local church group. As a simple explanation, we are all members of the same national “Apostolic Christian church”, one local congregation of which is located in Champaign. The group, called the ACYG (Apostolic Christian Young Group) is a means for young believers to have interaction with other Christians on the college campus. We are a tight knit group and there is a wide age range of members. Basically, for me the group was/is a fantastic way for me to find good mentors, as I was/am able to directly and personally interact with people older and wiser than me (some of whom might actually be reading this blog!) It should be noted that mentoring is a byproduct, not an explicit goal of the group. The very fact that we do a lot together and are able to get to know each other more personally allows mentorship and guidance from the older to the younger to happen naturally.

The question follow up question is again “how does this apply to other students on campus?” I guess my suggestion would be to find a group and become an active member in it. The more you get to know people and the more you do with them, the more you can learn from them. Also, try to find a group of people who are interested in the same things you are, as it will make getting to know them and getting along with them easier.

(As a post script, I am now in my third year at Brown House, and suddenly find myself in the role of mentor, not mentee. There are two freshmen in the house, one of whom is my brother. While I don’t explicitly mentor them, it still is a natural byproduct of living together. We are very comfortable with each other, and thus it is very easy to have open conversation about a broad range of topics.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009


I have taken many different classes in my lifetime, from here at the University of Illinois, in high school, even all of the way back to middle and grade school when I was homeschooled. I would also say, for the most part, I have learned a lot from these classes. I have also had many experiences in my life, again, most of which I would say I have learned something from. The topic of this blog pertains to the questions of “how do I know I have learned something” and “how can I convince others I have learned something”.

Probably the simplest way of showing that you learned something is to perform some demonstration to prove that you are capable of doing what you said you learned. In the case of school, this is brought forth in the ubiquitous “final exam”, wherein students are required to prove to the professor that they have learned something by providing the correct answers to the questions on the test. However, I personally think that talking about school learning is somewhat dry, so I will try to focus on type of learning with more non-tangible results.

When I say that I guess I am thinking more along the lines of skills such as patience, love, humility, really all of the Fruit of the Spirit, as put forth in Galatians 5:22-23 or other works of righteousness in Colossians 3:12. How do we know when we have learned these skills, and how do we show that to others? Whereas in school we were given written tests, these skills are “tested” by our daily action. I can say that a certain experience, say getting caught in a traffic jam, taught me patience, but how do I prove it? The manifestation of my having learn patience is my ability to be patient with those around me. Thus, we are constantly being tested on what we have learned.

I am struggling with what to write next, because questions such as “how do you ever truly learn patience?” or “how can I be perfectly humble?” and “if so, have I ever really learned these things?” or “if not, then what am I learning?” are running through my mind. However, even as I am thinking this, I am realizing that the exact same questions could be applied to school. “Can I ever really learn fluid mechanics” or “can I truly master thermodynamics?”

I guess I am concluding that any sentence which starts off “I learned …” should probably be reworded “I increased my knowledge…” (or something equivalent, but less dorky) because “learned” is past tense, and indicates that there is nothing else to be learned. I supposed it would be okay to say “I have learned my multiplication tables”, because (hopefully) all of us have perfectly mastered that concept. That being said, however, most of us use the phrase “I learned…” to indicate that there experience helped them to add to their knowledge of a particular topic.

I have muddled around in a lot of topics, so will try to bring some focus to this reflection as I conclude. (I admit that for whatever reason, I really struggled to write this reflection, and realize that even now what I have isn’t that good. However, in his other blog, Prof. Arvan bemoans the fact that students are such perfectionists, so I suppose I will just alleviate his concerns!) Basically, in my mind the answer to the question is somewhat trivial: we demonstrate our having learned something by putting it in action. I can say that I have learned something and may internally believe that I have, but, whether I like it or not, my learning is manifested by the external display of my actions/abilities.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Are general eduation and prerequisite classes important?

Recently our CHP class has been talking about the disengagement pact and student disengagement in general. The idea of the disengagement pact is explained in this article by George Kuh. In a nutshell, the disengagement pact is the idea that students and professors mutually agree to make each other’s lives easier, the professor by not giving the student as much work to do, and hence the student by not giving the professor as much grading to do. In this situation both the professor and student have a role, but even the most dedicated professor cannot (at least for the sake of this argument) force all of their students to be engaged in the class. Said another way, there are some students who are going to be disengaged from the class, either because they dislike school in general, or feel that the particular class they are in is unimportant.

Before I continue, I should give a proper definition of what I am talking about. I would say that all of the students in this CHP class are very good students who care about learning. However, I think I speak for the class when I say that we have all been in classes that we were simply uninterested in, or felt were not applicable to our education. I would venture further and say that for most of us those classes fell into the category of being a gen-ed or prerequisite requirement.

My point for laying this framework is to be able to discuss the question of whether or not it would be beneficial for some of the required courses in a major to be dropped, with students being given the option of taking free electives instead. Although from my introduction you might think I would be in favor of this, I can actually see both sides of the issue, but in general tend to disagree.

The first category of classes would be prerequisite classes for further courses in your major. Since I am in the ME program, I will use it as an example. Mechanical Engineers are required to take a broad range of foundational courses before they ever get into courses specifically in their major. These would be things like physics, calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, statics, dynamics, programming, etc. The argument could be made that since these don’t necessarily relate directly to Mechanical Engineering, they should be optional. Why make students struggle through something they don’t think they will use?

Having played the devil’s advocate, I will now state that I think that this would be a very bad idea. I feel that almost all, if not all of the classes I have mentioned comprise what I would call the multiplication tables of engineering. Even though you might not like them, they really are useful and important down the road, including in your more specific ME classes.

That being said, however, some of you are probably thinking “well yeah- courses in your major, including prereqs are important, but what about general electives?” I am honestly not sure what I think about this for several reasons. First off, due to AP credit, I really haven’t had to take that many gen-ed classes, so don’t have much experience to base this argument off of.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly is the time/experience issue. I can say the engineering prerequisite classes are important because I have seen firsthand that I need them for my specific ME classes. I cannot say the same for the gen-ed classes I have taken, because quite frankly, I don’t have enough experience to know whether or not they were indeed useful. Will Econ 103 benefit me down the road, or would another class have been better? How can I say at this point in my life?

I will try to pull some loose threads together before I continue. In general, the classes that otherwise good students become disengaged in are probably in the category of being pre-reqs or gen-ed requirements. Given this disengagement, especially given that fact that we are talking about very good, motivated students, would it be beneficial to allow more freedom in the class requirements so that students can take classes that they are more engaged in? I feel that this would be a bad idea with respect to the prerequisite courses, but the jury is still out on the gen-ed requirements.

The argument for gen-ed classes is that they allow a student to have more rounded education. Even though, as I mentioned before, I don’t have the experience to have a better view point on this, I do think I see the benefit of broadening your education. I took Geog 101 over the summer because it was a class which was available and which fit into my schedule. Was it my favorite class? Not necessarily. Was I ever disengaged during class? Most likely. Am I glad for the alternative perspective it gave me? Yes. While I might not have perfectly learned all of the concepts the professor would have liked me to learn, I still feel that I got a benefit from the class.

My point then, is that I have benefitted from taking both Geog 101 and Econ 103, even though I wouldn’t necessarily have taken them if not “required” to. I think if I had been given the choice of taking a “free elective” instead of a more directed gen-ed, I still would have taken some random, interesting class. My thought is that the intent, even if not the actual “law” of the gen-ed requirements is to give students some direction and guidelines for doing just that- taking classes which are interesting, yet somewhat useful.

Well, I have blogged for longer than usual, only to come to the conclusion that I like things just the way they are! Call me the “anti-change conservative” if you want, but I still think that a lot of thought and planning goes into setting the requirements for a degree, so why argue against those older and wise then us, especially when down the road we may “discover” that they were right. However, I am sure that not all of you who read this blog are of the same opinion, so I would love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Part of this course, in addition to writing our own blogs, involves reading other students blogs. The goal is that we will be able to share further ideas in an online forum setting. While I wish I could say that I regularly read everyone’s blog, I admit that, due to the heavy time constraints on an engineer’s schedule. Thus, when I saw that the prompt this week was to write about other student’s blogs, I was a little nervous, as I generally read the blogs in a fairly passive manner. That is, I don’t usually get terribly caught up and opinionated about the point that the student is making.

That being said, however, the blog by Tiffany last week caught my eye. The topic that the class was to consider that week was the question of how putting our writing online affects our writing. Most of us touched on the fact that putting our blogs online gives us a potentially much larger reading audience then just our professor. I discussed how, even if it is likely that people outside of our classes are not reading our blogs, it at least exposes us to some peer review when our classmates read our blogs.

What I didn’t discuss, and what I feel that Tiffany nicely covered was the global effects of posting things online. We live in a very connected society, with programs like Facebook and Twitter allowing us to communicate instantly with people all over the world. In that sense, then, putting something online is fundamentally different, because now a huge number of people can see it. Those, “other people” can include future employers, and we have all heard of stories of people who didn’t get a job because of something they had posted online about themselves.

In a word, posting anything online requires much more discretion and judgment. I appreciated Tiffany’s viewpoint on her Facebook post concerning her argument with her mom. It can be very easy to write something, and then post it, without considering who exactly will be reading it. I have more than once posted a comment or reply to someone, then an instant later realized how ridiculous it was, or how it could be misconstrued. Fortunately, in many cases it is possible to remove the comment, but, on a different side of things, all of us can probably remember sending an e-mail, which, immediately after we sent it, we wished we wouldn’t have. While I am probably doing a poor job of explaining it, my point is that today’s technology allows us to easily post things which can then be nearly instantly read by many, many people. Therefore, we must be absolutely certain that whatever we did or said is a good reflection of ourselves.

I will close by giving a quick example of how I feel I made the exact error I just discuss on this class blog. A few weeks ago we had to write about the topic of alignment, giving specific examples, if possible. I couldn’t think of any “really good” examples, but did have one situation come to mind, which involved another group that I am a part of. Thinking that “only our class is going to read this blog” I wrote about the story. However, I later found out that other people, in fact people from the group that the blog was about, were indeed reading my blog. Now the situation that I explained in the blog offensive or even negative, but I did feel badly about having used it, given my audience. I ended up removing the post, not because it was particularly problematic, but because I do want to be very careful about what I say online.

So, technology is a wonderful tool for communication, but it must be used with discretion. Programs like Facebook are nice because they allow us to stay connected with people. Our blogs are useful because they allow our classmates to read our writing. However, we must remember, that our post on Facebook can be seen by everybody, not just the friend it was intended for. And anyone can read our blogs, so we need to be careful what we write about.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Online Writing

Although I have written reflections (and numerous other pieces of writing) before, this class is unique in that we are required to post our work on the internet in a blog format. This is vastly different compared to my other assignments, because now, instead of only the professor being able to read my work, anyone in the world can. By nature, a blog is a very open and accessible piece of writing, since anyone who has internet access can read it. In theory, because anyone can read and comment on the reflection, this format should lead to open and free discussion of the topics covered.

I believe that this particular format was chosen because, ideally, it very nicely parallels what I perceive to be the nature of the class “Designing for Effective Change”. By that I mean I feel that the purpose of the class is to bring a wide variety of ideas into the discussion, and hear multiple view points on how they all fit together. In class we are encouraged to not only bring our own thoughts and ideas to the table, but to also respond to/comment on/expand upon the ideas of others. In a similar way, putting our reflections online accomplished the same goal, in that we are able to respond to and comment on other peoples reflections.

The question then, is how well have we been able to mimic the class setting online? I feel that there are two important aspects to discuss for that question. The first relates to the fact that, since our writing is posted online, people outside of our class are also able to read our reflections. In that regard, then, the openness of the internet could potentially be used to really share and spread ideas from quite a large group of people. But, while that may be a possibility, that is certainly not how I have observed things play out, in that, to my observation, very few people outside of our class, if any, have commented critically on our writing. This really doesn’t come as a surprise to me. I admit that if I stumbled across the blog of someone writing for a class I 1.) would feel like an outsider, and probably wouldn’t comment and 2.) probably would feel that I didn’t have the time to get involved anyways. My point then is that if we are trying to get feedback and discussion from people outside of our class, I don’t think it is happening.

Due to the conclusion I reached in my previous paragraph, I don’t feel that I am using the blog format to its fullest potential. I write with the expectation that other people in the class will be reading what I say (which is still a marked difference from writing “directly to” the professor), but don’t really expect people outside of our class (other than a few key exceptions, namely friends of mine) to take much interest.

I mentioned that there are two aspects to whether or not the blog mimics the class setting. The first was how people outside of our class responded to the blogs. The second, then, is how well the people in the class carry on the intent of the class outside of class on the internet. By this I mean, do we read each other’s blogs, comment on them, and have open discussion? I am going to be brutally honest and say that I don’t think we (or at least I) do a very good job. While I would love to be able to thoroughly read, think about and comment on everyone’s blog, the truth is that is simply doesn’t happen, due to time constraints. Then again, maybe I don’t want it to happen, because then the class would have no real boundaries. I guess what I am trying to say is, perhaps it is best that only a few people comment on any one blog. Really, an 18 person free for all in the online forum setting would be a mess anyways.

I have shared some fairly scattered and random thoughts just now, and will try to bring them cohesively together. I think that the purpose of putting our writing online is so that others can read it and provide feedback on it. By in large, only people within our class have commented, and in general only a few people comment on any one blog. I was debating whether it would be more beneficial if more people read and commented, and, while I think that it would be marginally better, it don’t feel that the lack thereof means that the blogs are a failure.

The obvious question, then, is how is my writing different if I know that my at least a few of my peers will be reading it? My answer, at least at this point is: not much. The style of writing is different, in that I use a much more conversational tone, but I don’t feel that the content of my papers is any different. I basically view the blog as being my way of expressing my ideas to the class, but I have more time to fully develop and present my whole idea.

Overall then, I would say that writing online has been a new experience for me and learning one, in that my peers are now reading and criticizing my work. However, whereas initially I wondered what it would be like to have random people reading my writing, I feel that that has worn off, because I don’t perceive that random people are reading my blog. So, if anyone is, please comment, so that I know you are there!