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SamR’s undergraduate workload

Topics/tags: Autobiographical, rambly [1]

As I wrote my recent musing about my experiences visiting the University of Chicago [2], I recalled that in my earlier musing on workload I had promised to muse about my undergraduate jobs if someone requested it, and someone did. So, here goes.

If I recall correctly, I worked three paid jobs and one primary unpaid job as an undergraduate. My first, and most time-consuming job, was working at USITE, the Central User’s Site for computing, which, at the time, was on the third floor of Harper Library [3]. I also served as a teaching assistant for Calculus and, starting in my third year, for Computer Science. Starting in my second year or so, I served as Shipping Chair for Doc Films.

What did each job entail? At USITE [4], I helped users with the computers and the printers. When I started, we still had a card punch and a giant fan-fold printer. You could also send print jobs to the remote printer. One of my jobs was to file them when they came back. Many were from ARTFL, the project for American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language [5,6].

Most of the computers were either terminals to the giant IBM-clone mainframe made by Amdahl or IBM PCs. Some of the IBM terminals were especially cool in that they allowed you to type Greek letters in addition to Roman letters; I recall using those for learning to program graphics in APL. We also had a bunch of VT100s, or perhaps VT102’s. During my time there, we added Macintosh computers, when they were released in 1984, and Laserwriters. Replacing cartridges and paper, as well as troubleshooting, became one of my more common tasks.

I had some of the same inclinations then that I have now. So I spent time learning strange markup languages [7]. I learned a bit of JCL so that I could help folks. And I wrote much of the USITE assistant’s guide. I think I still have it on a floppy disk somewhere [8].

I worked multiple shifts at USITE. Usually, two of my shifts each week were the graveyard shift, from midnight to 6 a.m. I liked the graveyard shift; there weren’t a lot of people there during those houses, which meant that I had time to play a bit, and it tended to be the same group of people who were there, which meant that we formed a bit of the community. I recall a graduate student in some social science who was doing a bunch of number crunching when rates were lower and who managed to convince their committee that Fortran should count as their foreign language. I recall going home from the shifts, making something like garlic burgers to wake myself up, and then going to class. I’m still not sure when I slept on those days [9].

My work as a teaching assistant in Mathematics generally consisted of running review sessions [10]. Like Grinnell’s mentors and TA’s, I occasionally struggled with separating my professional and personal relationships; I know that some of my students came to our parties. One even sent her son to Grinnell.

After I finished my first or second CS class, I became a teaching assistant for computer science, too. Strangely enough, my brain recalls that I helped answer questions in a lab somewhere outside of Ryerson, but doesn’t recall where that lab was.

If you add up the normal workload for those three jobs, you would find that I regularly worked much more than twenty hours each week. At some point, someone in administration figured that out and told me that I had to cut out some of my responsibilities. But cutting is hard. I loved working at USITE; it let me play with computers [11], help people, and learn new things. I felt a responsibility to my Math students and to my CS students. And so I did the only reasonable thing: I said How about if I TA Math as a volunteer, rather than as a paid employee? [12]. The powers-that-be seemed okay with that arrangement, which suggests that their concern was not so much with my well being as with the legal implications of having a student work more than twenty hours per week [14].

Then we had the Pyramid incident. For some reason, UofC liked to buy off-brand mainframes. We had purchased an Amdahl, rather than an IBM. When we went to buy a Unix box, we bought a Pyramid, rather than a DEC. The Pyramid was used primarily for research in Math and CS and for teaching in some upper-level CS classes [15]. Strangely enough, we also had a DEC-20, but it was running TOPS-20, rather than Unix.

Since the Pyramid was used for research, the Math and CS faculty had accounts on it. To make sure that they could install the software they needed, most of them had root accounts. But memorizing a password took important mental resources, so many also had no password. I discovered this looking at the /etc/passwd file while playing around one day.

Like any responsible student, I reported the issue.

No, that’s not right. Like any not-quite-mature undergraduate, I took advantage of the easy access to root accounts. I didn’t do much of import. Mostly, I had fun creating new accounts for Hanna Holburn Gray, president of UofC, and Harold the Chicken King, conduit of food second only to manna from heaven [16].

My amusing and harmless hack was soon discovered. As our sysadmin said, I left tracks all over the place. Reasonably enough, the CS department thought that I should no longer be permitted to be a TA, or at least to be paid to TA. I think I still ended up hanging around the lab and helping people in any case.

So I quickly went from three paid jobs to one paid job. But that was okay; I’m pretty sure that my boss at USITE let me pick up extra hours. And the CS suspension was only for one semester.

More importantly, because I had volunteered to TA math, Diane Hermann hired me to be the TA for W.H. Meyer’s summer Calculus offerings. Meyer was the long-time Associate Chairman of Mathematics and, among other things, was responsible for placing students in their first course [17]. About halfway through the summer, Prof. Meyer decided that I should develop teaching skills by teaching some class sessions. I don’t think the students suffered much, and I began to build my teaching skills with his advice. I did not thank him enough for that. The following summer, after I’d finished my S.B., I got to be lead instructor.

That’s most of the story of my work as an undergraduate. I also took classes, usually four each quarter. I struggled at times. I slept through an exam in Physics, so my Physics grades were A-C-A across the three semesters. I took an incomplete in Abstract Algebra. Chicago was more generous with incompletes than Grinnell is, so I had a year to make it up. I still recall rushing to finish [20].

Oh, one more thing. As I mentioned, I also worked for Doc Films. My primary job was Shipping Chair; I picked up the films at the post office when they came in and shipped them out when we were done. It wasn’t part of the Shipping Chair job, but I also ran the projectors from time to time. I found great satisfaction when I managed to get the transition between reels done perfectly. I also got to watch a lot of movies. One of the best parts of being in Doc was that you got access to the keys to the Chicago film library. The ability to watch, say, a Sam Fuller noir, a Chaplin silent comedy, or Singing in the Rain when you wanted, was a much different experience in those pre-videotape [21] days.

Did I need to work that much? I’m not sure. Since my father had passed away, I came from a single-parent household. But mom was gainfully employed as a professor. I guess I had just decided that I should be responsible for my expenses, particularly my habits of purchasing books and records. I think I also paid my own rent. I’d worked throughout high school, so it made sense to continue to work as much in college.

What about my classes? Well, I certainly did not work on those for the 48-hours per week that Grinnell expects. But I did well enough.

Beyond classes, work, and movies, I somehow found time to work on accumulating vinyl and books, to hang with friends, to throw parties, to cook, and to do the many other things that helped shape me into me.

[1] Are all my non-trivial autobiographical musings rambly? I’m not sure. The two seem to go together.

[2] Or is that re-visiting my days at the University of Chicago.

[3] I see that it subsequently moved to the basement of the Crerar Library and then to the first floor of Crerar. Now that CS is in Crerar and CS labs and the Makerspace are there, I wonder whether USITE still exists.

[4] I’m not sure why we write it in all caps since it’s not an acronym.

[5] I’m glad to see that ARTFL still seems to be active.

[6] I’m not sure why the F doesn’t appear in the acronym. I know that some call it the project on French and American Research on the Treasury of the French Language, but that makes an easy-to-abuse acronym.

[7] Sorry, I have no idea what the name of the markup language for the Amdahl was.

[8] You know, the thing that looks like a physical manifestation of the Save button in some programs.

[9] Michelle and some of my roommates suggest that I did not sleep those days. At times, I feel like I’m still catching up on that lost sleep.

[10] I can’t recall whether or not I was also supposed to attend classes.

[11] Getting paid to read Usenet groups was wonderful.

[12] I may have been smart, but perhaps I was not wise.

[14] At the time, I assumed it was just a stupid rule. These days, I understand that there are benefits issues associated with people who work more than twenty hours.

[15] Have I mused about the Pyramid before? I can’t recall. I’ll add it to my to-muse list.

[16] When I was a first-year student, one of the upperclassmen informed me that When the g-ds on Mount Olympus tire of manna, mead, and honey, they head to Harold’s. Or something like that.

[17] Chicago had about four or five levels of Calculus [18]. Some first-years could also place out of Calculus. I recall meeting with him after taking the placement exam and him saying something like, You seem to have understood the core concepts we expect from our Calculus courses, except that you have no knowledge whatsoever of matrices. I will allow you to take Paul Sally’s Analysis in R^n, but Prof. Sally may choose to send you back to Calculus.

[18] The sections had nicknames, too [19]. If I recall correctly, Math 161 was Calculus for G-ds, Math 151 was Calculus for demi-G-ds, Math 141 was Calculus for normal people, and Math 121 was Math for shrubs. I don’t recall the nickname for Math 131.

[19] Please don’t blame me for the nicknames; they existed before I arrived.

[20] I did not rush as much as one of Michelle’s friends, who needed to finish a dozen or so incompletes right before they graduated.

[21] Let alone those pre-DVD, pre-Blu-ray, and pre-streaming days.

Version 1.0 released 2019-12-28.

Version 1.0.2 of 2019-12-31.