odds and ends

What did I actually learn in school? Pt.4 after the degree

I graduated from Ithaca College in 1994 with a BFA in Film, Photography, and Visual Arts. At the time I was totally burned out on academics and swore that I’d never go back to school. For a while that held, I got a job in Newport News and then later moved up to Northern Virginia. I continued my reading habit but drifted mostly into non-fiction works. In addition to my copy of Copi’s into to logic textbook, I also started to read things like The Blue Cliff Record, The Flower Ornament Sutra, Godel, Escher and Bach, Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere, Various histories of mathematics, and Mathematic, it’s Form, content and Meaning.

Those last two were instrumental in my later studies. Studying symbolic logic had gotten rid of a lot of the intimidation I felt towards mathematics. I finally actually understood things like the commutative, associative, and distributive laws in Algebra. The history of mathematics books piqued my interest in numbers and when I read the Form, Content and Meaning, I understood (conceptually) all the math I tried to learn in high school. Shortly after, I enrolled in a pre-calculus class in a community college. I aced it, going over the same tired ground of high school but understanding what it was about this time.

That class was mostly about seeing if I could do it, a theme I would return to later. At the time I didn’t think I’d do much with it. Well, my 30th birthday rolled around and I hated where I had gone professionally and decided to go back to school. Looking around at what was out there as a better career, I decided that architecture would be something that I would love to do and could potentially make a good living out of it. Trouble was, a BFA ill prepared me for that degree. I needed a lot more math and I could never draw… Back to school it was!

I re-enrolled in some classes in community college. Most of these were pretty directed towards my goal, but I managed to work in at least one fun class, creative writing. That was both good and terrible at the some time. I liked flexing my writing muscles, even if I was horrified at the prospect of spending the first part of the class on writing poetry. The bad part was that this was community college. There were a fair number of people that were really pushing themselves in community college. For me, it was a stepping stone. I turned in a 20 page short story for the class to read. One of my classmates told me, “I’m sure it’s a good story, but dude, I’m never going to read anything that long…”

My first semester back to school I took Calc 1, creative writing, and intro to drawing. The thought of doing calculus always intimidated me, I imagined that it was a black art. I was disappointed/relieved to find out that it was mostly algebra. I aced the class. I also had one of my “Doh!” moments in that class. The professor (can’t remember his name) finished explaining what an integral was. He stepped back from the diagram of rectangles under a curve and said, “If you ever want to know what genius looks like, that’s it.” It was the first time I got such a complicated concept boiled down into a diagram. The thought that someone had come up with that blew my mind…

The intro to drawing class was really the one that intimidated me the most. I have never been able to draw, I joke that the reason I went into photography was because I couldn’t draw. I read “Drawing on the Right side of the Brain” before the class started and it helped quite a bit. The teacher cajoled me and I sweated bullets. She eventually convinced me to relax a little and little by little I realized that I could indeed draw with enough practice. I was able to tap into the way of seeing I developed in my photography and really concentrate on putting it down on paper. I never did get a handle on shading though…

Anyway, I realized that with enough time I could learn to draw well. Casual sketching was still beyond me. That, and realizing that a carear in architecture would take 10+ years to get off the ground convinced me to change my direction. Looking in the papers, it looked like a public policy degree could take me places, so I went into that.

That was fortuitous. I never did do anything in the policy realm, but to get ready for that I needed to take some economics courses. Intro to macro economics was incredibly dull, it was truly just a class to get through. The micro class had a bit of a spark for me, but it too was painfully dull. It wasn’t until I took some intermediate (undergrad) economics courses at George Mason that my world turned upside down…

The macro class was interesting, but bewildering. There were all sorts of theories and none of them made a lot of sense. We covered the so-called classical economics and Keynesian economics views of the macro economy. It was all pretty abstract stuff. The micro class blew my mind. Larry Ianaconne is a brilliant man. Micro economics, unlike its macro cousin, made all sorts of sense. It fed into the logical framework that I had developed over the years and it all seemed to fit together nicely. What really made me take notice was Larry’s studies on the economics of religion. Not the dollars and cents part, but the decision making that went into people following religions. It opened my eyes to the possibilities that economics offers. I decided to switch my emphasis to economics.

Of course, that meant I would need far more mathematics. I took two more semesters of calculus, a semester of stats, a semester of econometrics (an applied stats class) and a semester of linear algebra just so I could apply to the doctoral program of economics. I also got a research assistant position with professor Ianaconne. That, along with a good recommendation from him got me into the program. I was a grad student! I was looking forward to a good job and 4 or 5 years of studying interesting things. How’d that turn out? I’ll see you in the next section…

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