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Polytechnic Days — a memoir (1999 – 2000)

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ONCE UPON A TIME, so long ago that it seems only like yesterday, circumstances so occurred that I found myself lost in the local Polytechnic and I was forced to spend about two years of my life basking in the illusion of really “moving up” in life, but without the convenience of actually knowing which direction I was really going. As it was once said by someone who could have or not have been me, “you make progress only when you know the difference between motion and direction.” It was actually during that period of overwhelming (read: “confounding”) opinion about future job [in-]security. Everybody around me seemed to be ardently believing that an era would soon come in the nearest future when every major profession and discipline would go to hell (except farming and maybe except robbery and prostitution, too) because computers would be taking over and ruling the world.

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So when my in-law finally convinced me to go for Computer Science rather than the Architecture that I was dying for, I reluctantly decided to enrol for a Diploma course in Computer Science at Kwara State Polytechnic, Ilorin. At that time, I certainly was not (really) sure of my competence, but I just enrolled for the course anyway. My major goal for going for the course really was to enable me go where the money would be in the nearest future – to transform myself into a marketable commodity who will, by the age of thirty or thereabouts, have a luxurious home, at least two fancy cars, and a profitable investment portfolio. So although I had always wanted to be an architect, I decided to take up Computer Science on the ground that when designing and planning of houses and towns went to hell in the nearest future, I could fall back on computer work. I didn’t realize, of course, that my decision was very much like falling down full-weight on a kit of a trouble-shooter’s tools.

I had confidence in all the other things about going to a higher institution of learning of course, but I couldn’t have confidence in studying Computer Science. This was because I had heard an awful lot of bizarre things about computers in the past. For instance, I was once told that after complex calculations that consumed the lifetimes of at least a hundred and twelve professors and other experts, a super computer was eventually built which was able to come out with an answer to the question: “what is the meaning of life?”.

The answer was, and perhaps still is, 42.

dPain Over dT
Image Credit: xkcd

A certain hitch-hiker who spent a good deal of his life touring the universe in a time-machine came up with that answer; but I’m sure whatever that actually means is not known even to the gods and devils of computing at IBM, Microsoft, Sun, Google and elsewhere. But (needless to say), the idea of somebody coming up with the idea that computers did calculate the meaning of life and eventually arrived at a numerical idea of 42 had always been enough to make me pathologically fearful of the idea of being involved with computers, almost to the point of compuphobia.

So you can understand the reason behind my lack of confidence, and you can also understand why my decision to study Computer Science was actually like crashing on a kit of a trouble-shooter’s tools. But I went in blindly anyway and my first real trouble in Computer School began the very day I was given an assignment in what Computer Scientists call “high-level language programming”.

It required me (and my colleagues in class) to practically use a desk-top microcomputer in writing a BASIC program to compute student results (BASIC stands for Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) and I took all day typing just one single line of program instruction. And I bet you will be appalled to know that the longest computer programming instruction at the elementary level is often a simple, trivial statement such as:

10 INPUT A, B, C

or some other things like:

10 LET P = A + (B * C) - 3.142

But typing that sort of trivial thing on the computer was hell for me. I had to hunt for each letter on the computer keyboard and it got so bad in subsequent assignments that I had to always ask somebody to help me hunt. For some reasons which I can’t fathom even till today, the letters “H”, “R” and “C” were, in particular, very hard for me to find on the computer keyboard with its rather weird arrangement of QWERTY alphabets.

But my early days in Computer School grew into weeks and as it turned out, my embarrassments, incompetence and fumbles were not confined to practical programming assignments alone. I also had to endure several hours of good grief during lectures in a course I think was called “Elementary Probability Theory”, which was code-named STA 111. There was this particularly controversial lecturer who taught my class the course. Mr. Adewara (that would be his contrived name in this memoir) was widely believed to be an atheist simply because he would never go to any conventional place of worship to do what everyone else would do. Well, I somehow liked him for daring to be so radically different in a society full of religion but empty of love.

Yes, I liked him quite much, but I never liked his gritty course because he himself seemed to have that gritty habit of appearing to be like “The Great Master of Statistical Knowledge” whose function was only to pass on to students the vast store of knowledge he had acquired and then retreat to his office. I might be wrong, but to me he seemed to adopt an elitist approach which sabotaged my understanding of the course he taught. Maybe this was because I was perhaps the first or second dullest student in class, or maybe he really was too blasé in his approach to teaching. . .

Anyway, he often would walk into the class with a self-expressive air, call everyone to attention, and begin his lecture without consulting any notes or textbooks. Quite often, less than two out of every twenty-five students would be interested enough to stay awake throughout his lecture as soon as he began his monologue of infinite statistical and probabilistic gibberish. Determinedly disregarding students’ glazed eyes and especially my own stifled but intentionally distractive yawns, the Great Master always delivered his lectures almost without any break, dispensing one dry statistical fact after another. Certainly, there couldn’t be any point being in classes like that, but the advantage to being at the receiving end during Mr. Adewara’s lectures was that no student, especially the easily confused dullards like me, had to worry about being randomly called upon to question a point or solve an exercise on the chalk board before the whole class. The Great Master never seemed to be ever willing to spare a minute of his precious time to give students a voice.

keep calm

So he would simply drone on and on. His descriptions, explanations, examples, exercises, and assignments were based on statistical evidences which always had a tendency toward being phenomenal portraits of probabilistic meatballs, with the lean and the fat all ground together to deliver an average lecture in the elements of statistics. That was always Mr. Adewara’s woozy method and I still don’t understand how I managed to escape a deferred pass or a “carry-over” (into the next session) in what I found to be his old-fashioned course.

But apart from the Mr. Adewaras of my time at Kwara Poly, there had also been some other weird sort of lecturers who came across as the students’ “Buddy”. These types of lecturers did not see themselves as imparters of knowledge or as learned superiors but as pals, just some ordinary guys in a community of equals. Most often they started their lectures with phrases that sounded not exactly, but quite close to, something like this: “All of us here know pretty well that this higher institution stuff that has to do with grades, diplomas, exams, degrees, etc, is a bad game. So maybe we shouldn’t be playing it with any seriousness, or should we?”

my heart with pleasure filled

Characteristically dressed in baggy trousers sometimes with unbuttoned shirts and open sandals, the Buddy lecturers projected a relaxed, casual attitude. Lecturers like this may insist that their students call them by their nick names, may not follow the prescribed syllabus and will give very few tests and assignments, believing that such exercises are irrelevant to their colloquial methods.

A new lecturer among the three appointed in my department shortly before I left school (whom my colleagues simply nick-named “Mr. Orobs” typified this sort of “Buddy” lecturer. He had a free, almost careless, spirit and if students chose to use class time to discuss the course he taught, that was fine by him. But if they wanted to discuss something else, especially something pertaining to how he could make money, that was also fine by him. In fact, he seemed to be especially fond of digressions from academic matters. By talking about his accommodation problems, his unpaid salary, his sick mother in the village and his fiancée who was observing her National Youth Service Programme in one of the south-eastern states, this Buddy made his students, or me particularly, to feel like he was just a regular guy — just like me and anyone else.

At first I eagerly looked forward to classes with him. I tremendously enjoyed his informality, the chitchat, the lack of pressure. But after a while I began to wonder and ask (no one in particular) why I was paying for a course where I really learned nothing. I might as well have stayed at home and found something very interesting to do – such as running around the yard and screaming “blue murder!” as I poke my bleary eyeballs with a sharpened pencil...

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