Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Difference between an Academic and a Scholar

Some years ago, after many academic adventures I found myself taking an introductory programming course as a general requirement for graduation. The best part of the course was the computer problems book.  It encapsulated all the uses for a computer up to the undergraduate senior level.  I wanted to get my computer programs out of the way at the beginning of the semester so I could clear the decks for the important courses I was taking in mathematics. Several computer program problems were required, but some were electives; they were ranked in order of difficulty.  In the back of the book, there was a list of how many lines of code each problem took.  Cross referencing each list to get the most credit for the least lines of code lead to the problem called partitions.  Partitions was defined as the number of different ways to sum integers to reach another integer.  For instance 2 is 1 + 1, 3 is 1 +  1 + 1, 2 +  1, 1 + 2 and so on.  The problem was to list the number of partitions for each integer up to twelve.
 After a few minutes struggling with pencil and paper, I was back cross referencing the two lists to find a different problem that would maximize my grade with minimal effort.  Then I remembered. For I had attended Kenwood High School, Shimer College, Oxford University, University of Chicago, and now I was at Illinois Institute of Technology. So I knew that often books had an index.  Looking up partitions in the index, I found a further discussion that gave me the algorithm I needed.  I finished my problems, turned them in before the teaching assistants had been coached to be fussy about comments and style, and went on to the rest of my classes. I remember thinking,
-Glad I’ll never have to do that again.
Towards the end of the semester, I noticed that I was missing my good friend Jeremy. We usually met in the cafeteria. He was majoring in biochemistry.  I was concerned enough to go to his room and there I found him surrounded by pencils and scraps of paper looking more like a biochemistry major than I had ever seen him before.
-Jeremy, I asked, what are you doing?
At IIT, the most common discussion was “how do you do this problem” so I was not surprised when he held up a book.  I was surprised that it was the computer problem book.
-Have you seen this one?
It was partitions.
-Oh Jeremy, the algorithm is further on in the book.
Jeremy’s reaction was inappropriate.  He was not filled with joy that he could finish his requirements and go on to make his fortune in bioengineering. Instead, he was angry.
-No, it’s not.
Jeremy was being a scholar.  I was being an academic.
Many years later I was the lead computer programmer on a report generation system written by the ancient ones with hairy knuckles.  It was in Assembler and used macros to create a user language that generated marketing reports. Some of the reports had gotten so big that they broke the assembler. It used execute channel program (EXCP) processing which was unusual for an application system.  The major hog in the system was the newly developed library maintenance system so I used a minor requirement as a justification for cleaning that out.  Then I kicked, screamed and pleaded until I received enough resource to foreground test the report system, stepping through it as it ran, rather than trying to puzzle out what it was doing.  This allowed us to tackle several issues, opening the door to a rewrite.
We had yet another management change and the new manager who had once worked in our group came to me with an idea of consolidating some of the report functions.  I said:
-What’s the cost benefit?
So, one of my junior people became the new project leader. I was being the scholar rather than the academic.
I first noticed this distinction at Shimer in the course Natural Sciences II.  We read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Evolution is not a straight forward subject.  For instance here I am the product of thousands of years of sexual selection. Obviously something isn't quite working.  Or take the fact that I require glasses.  You would think that poor vision would select out very quickly.  Toward the end of the semester my roommate Carl gave me a quick lesson in how not to read a book.  He flipped through the syllabus and said:
-The only thing they can test us on is the Scientific American reprints. 
He spent a little under an hour reviewing those and aced the class.
The life of the mind is a dangerous place; it is easy to lose your way, difficult to know where to focus.  The academic survives in that world and recognizes the pitfalls and snares. Survival forces him to narrow his focus and search for the payoff.  In that sense, trying to learn scholarship from an academic is like trying to learn love from a prostitute.

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