Wednesday, June 8, 2011

University Life - Part 2

Returning to University
After my first stint at university (see part 1) I was very reluctant to return.

I had established a comfort zone at work and although I had plenty of ambition, I lacked the drive to uproot myself and go through change again. This is a fairly common theme in the life on an aspie.

My mother however was very keen on the idea that a university education is a requirement of modern jobs and much as it pains me to do so, I have to agree. Sure, there are plenty of jobs that you can do without needing to go to university but most of the higher-paying ones require you to have skill with your hands or decent muscles. I had neither. My brain was my best asset and it had failed me miserably on my last attempt.

Eventually, I decided that one of the main reasons for my failure was that I had taken on more subjects than I could handle. I had discovered this towards the end of my earlier university venture when I was complaining about being unable to keep up with eight subjects and I discovered that my fellow full-timers were only doing four. Had I been more socially adept, I might have found that out earlier when it could have made a difference.

Making Appropriate Choices
I went back to university but this time, I only went part time - at nights after work. My workplace was surprisingly supportive of this and even recognised my chosen course, telling me that they would pay half each sememster - but only if I passed. That was a great little incentive to keep me going.

The other important thing that I did was choose a course which lined up with my special interest. I chose Bachelor of Applied Science (Information), a course which could apply equally to libraries or computing. It was my way of keeping a foot in both of my special interest camps (reading/writing and computing).

I found that going part-time was much better for me because most of my part-time peers were adults and I related better to them than I had to people my own age. I still didn't make any lasting friends there but at least everyone was pleasant and mature and included me in conversations.

I also found that the part-timers mostly had families and for the most part would arrive, learn and then leave. I didn't seem to miss out on as much of the social scene because there were so few social activities going on. People tended not to notice my social ineptitude as much and when they did, they were much more adult about it.

Organisation and Change
I still almost missed my first assignment but after that, I learned to get organised in my own way. I couldn't handle schedules but I'd generally start assignments on the day I found out about them and finish them a few weeks later - even when we hadn't actually covered the work. I was well known for handing assignments in several weeks early but it wasn't because I was "showing off", it was because I simply couldn't handle deadlines. I still do this at work.

I never left home during my university days but commuted to work and to university. I don't think that I would have been able to handle the changes associated with living elsewhere. There were enough changes in my life without introducing more.

The Highlights
My course ended up being a brilliant choice because it included a wide range of topics such as psychology, communications, marketing, classification, statistics, sociology and publishing as well as some fairly in-depth computing electives and the mandatory information science topics. Talking to people years later who did Computer Science (my other choice), I realised that I'd received a much more rounded and "human" education.

Some of the highlights included Psychology where I told the lecturer right at the start that I thought it was a "pretend science". She accepted my challenge and set tasks aimed at getting me to prove otherwise. By the end of the year, I was a true believer and I thanked her for an amazing contribution to my education.

My computing lecturers were also good. Actually they started off terribly with my first lecturer being an eighty plus (or so it seemed) old man who told us that we were lucky to have keyboards because he did his programming using a soldering iron. Things got better from there and I ended up with an open-minded lecturer who was happy to let me abandon the course's text-based 4GL langauge in favour of writing our final application (an artificial intelligence system) to run in the "new" Windows system. Windows 3.0 was only a year or so old when I did this, so it was pretty exciting for me.

I also got a lot out of marketing and my lecturer told me that he was sad that I was choosing computing as a career instead. I loved marketing and was very good at it but I really didn't have the people skills to deal with real-life (non-paper) scenarios.

The Low Points
My worst subject was sociology in which I attemped to do the same thing as psychology but I remained completely unconvinced. I was failing the subject despite citing a whole lot of evidence in my essays. I think that my problem was that being aspergers, I was less emotionally attached to subjects and I would always write what was in the best interests of the state. My essays were logical and were well backed up by statistics and facts but I never took human feelings into account.

At the end of the semester, I tried a last-ditch experimental attempt to resurrect my failing grades in the subject. In the exam, I told them exactly what I thought they wanted to hear; I discussed oppressed people, discrimination and other emotive social issues but didn't provide any evidence to support my claims. I passed but at the same time, I completely lost faith in sociology as a science. It's not a good subject choice for aspies.

Perfection and Group Work
My worst experiences were all related to group work. I hated group work and would always try to be the last one picked in the hope that I'd be forgotten about. It usually didn't work but at least I tended to be put into smaller sized groups. I found that I couldn't communicate my ideas properly to the group and my "bottom up" (details first, then the overview) approach would often completely bamboozle my peers. On many occasions, I was told by my group that they didn't understand what we were doing but that they were glad it looked great.

I also had big issues with perfection and would tear up my own work over a spelling mistake or a minor printing blemish. In fact, on several occasions I had meltdowns over mistakes in my assignments which I discovered too late to correct. In those days, an assignment could take several hours to print and in one case, I took it to the university to get it bound and they dropped it and bound it with pages upside down. I melted down badly and drove extremely dangerously all the way home to reprint it. Looking back, I'm amazed that I survived that trip home.

With all of my perfection issues, you can imagine that I was less than grateful when group work colleagues would give me hand-written papers or typed pages with pen corrections on them. I'd end up having to retype them.

In one assignment, we were developing a computer system. I built the system and another boy wrote the manual. His manual ended up being 25 pages, mostly filled with screen shots. I knew that I couldn't simply dismiss his work but at the same time I considered it to be seriously sub-standard. I ended up including it as an appendix in my 300 page manual. At the time I didn't realize how insulting that was.

I was also involved in a video project with a girl. I couldn't understand why we were always going off to her parents house or her sister's house or going out for lunch and wasting time. I just wanted to shoot the video and get it over and done with. To this day, I still don't know if I was supposed to be picking up some kind of subliminal messages there.

In any case, we shot the video and had a lot of arguements in the editing booth because I simply didn't understand what we'd shot - it was images and sound but had no script and didn't tell a story. On the day that our videos were to be "screened", I was asked by other people what it was like to work with her and I told them how it was - directly. As it turned out, she was standing right behind me and never talked to me again. We did however get an "A" for the project which ended up being (apparently) a feminist piece about women relaxing and being themselves without feeling like they had to be a stereotype. I'm still not sure how it said that but I was happy to get an A anyway.

7 comments:

The Rambling Taoist said...

I genuinely can relate to the dislike of "group work." I hated it too. I generally took it upon myself to do the whole thing and then let the other group members sign on to it. This tack, unfortunately, made me a very popular person to be assigned to a group.

I can also relate to the perfection angle. I wrote my 90+ page Master's thesis on a typewriter. If I made a mistake on the last line of a page, I would rip the page out, wad it up and start from the top again. Since I'm not a perfect typist, I ripped up many a page.

Narkito said...

Hey, I've been lurking your blog for quite some time, I'm only coming out of the shadows because what you've said about university has totally hit a chord within me.

I had a much similar experience with university, in fact I'm still having it, as I haven't graduated yet. (I'm studying psychology by the way).

I started with computer science and failed miserably, dropped out after only two months, then spent the rest of that year and the next trying to get my life in order, or as close as possible, the only thing that finally gave me enough confidence to go back to Uni, was that I enrolled in French classes at the Maison de France and was placed with adults only. Which was brilliant.

The only two exceptions were these two guys, friends to each other, that picked on me really badly over my eccentricities, until one day another classmate told them to cut it off. As it turned out my saviour was my uncle's old classmate at junior school and recognised my name, so he decided to step in and take me under his wing.

I already got rambly, sorry, I just wanted to tell you that so far I've really liked your series on University life, they sound pretty familiar to me.

At first the worse was getting organised and talking to others, group work is still hard, but I now have a somewhat close group of people I work very well with. What really kills me, though, is picking up a book and reading for my class, as in, when I'm obligated to do so, unless I really like the subject, I don't do that much studying out of going to class. Papers and reports are a different story, though, I love doing those.

Serena said...

I can relate to most of this, but saying that Sociology isn't for aspies is a pretty blanket statement.

I excelled at Sociology. Even if I don't tend to understand most people in a face-to-face sort of way, I have always been fascinated by human interaction, which I have always credited for my ability to blend when I am forced to be in groups, even though group situations take a lot of of me and I need days to recover from them.

Maybe this is a gender difference thing. I don't claim to know.

Gavin Bollard said...

Good point Serena and thank you for picking me up on generalization. Sociology was definitely not for THIS aspie but individual difference mean that it could be perfect for another.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely hilarious - the video girl was hitting on you! Haha! She was probably thinking you were a challenge!! Anyhoo...'live and learn'. By the way, Im NT but find group work as loathesome as you do, for exactly the same reasons. One question I have - why do people with Aspergers find it so hard to organise themselves? I ask this, looking for strategies to help my daughters with. Is organisation a skill they will never learn?

Lenni Kam said...

I definitely disliked group work - still do. I am the solo programmer who has to do the whole task myself. Fortunately that's possible in my job.

Like another poster I really liked sociology. While I did not do brilliantly at the subject at uni, I did learn the difference between individual and social facts, and I have worked in applied social research positions in the public sector for most of my life.

I actually had to withdraw from uni after failing most of my subjects in second year - even though I had passed the HSC (I'm in NSW too) with a score that would have got me into medicine. I was anxious and depressed, and definitely not coping with the unstructured world of university, after the smaller, more tightly knit world of high school.

I did better when I went part time and studied at night. Like you, I found mature-aged students easier to relate to. I eventually attempted a PhD, but spent six years trying to write the first page of my thesis. I really cannot organise myself for a big project like that. But I thorooughly enjoyed burying myself in the uni library and reading lots of books about subjects that I wasn't studying formally.

Artemis Synn said...

Have to say, as an Aspie my degree is psychology (I enjoy it) and I have done (and enjoyed) sociology and philosophy. I am capable of getting passionate about the topics without needed to have any direct "feel" or "Association" with the groups I am talking about. They are all variables in a complicated big picture.

I don't think the logical answer is always "what is best for the state" I like sociology because there is no simple answer - there are too many variables. So I don't think that this makes sociology lesser than a science subject (or that 'science' is always the best mode of thought[or rather I just think science is broader than chem/bio/physcis]).

Sociology and philosophy are undervalued, they facilitate critical thinking skills. Which is right up the ally of many Aspies - you just have to see the puzzle of it.