The five courses that impacted me the most

* This is a re-write of a past blog. Along with a few dozen others, I lost it when I screwed up my site’s database late last year.

 

Honestly speaking, I am taken aback by the seeming obsession of some UPOU students with their grades. It would be ok, if this obsession went hand in hand with a drive to achieve actual excellence. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

This got me thinking about my time as a student. I have been a part of UP for most of my life, the biggest chunk of it as a student. After a high school diploma, three degrees and more courses than I care to count, I still recall milestones that has shaped me, not just as an academic, but as a person. Some of these milestones came in the form of courses that I took.

 

Social Science II – Social, Economic and Political Thought
Grade: 4.0 (second take: 2.25)

This was probably the only instance where I strongly believed that I didn’t deserve my grade. I still don’t. The prof also had a reputation for having it in for children of fellow faculty. At the time, I am a UP faculty’s son. So was one of my classmates. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and took it as a personal challenge. My classmate promptly transferred to a different class. I will never definitively say that the prof was one spiteful little prick because I had no concrete proof. But one thing was certain, I went on to be handed a conditional failure, while my former classmate, who was  more or less my academic equal at the time, passed the course with no issues. Granted I didn’t really take the course seriously at the start, but by the second half of the semester, I carried that reference book wherever I went and read it. Too bad, it wasn’t enough.

I had the option to either take a removal examination from him or just start over and enroll again, but with a different prof. As I had already started to believe that he did have some sort of vendetta against students like (hey, I was young and didn’t want to blame myself), I opted for the latter. While I didn’t get a high grade either, it was ok. I didn’t exert much effort but still passed.

Another thing that bothered me was that this prof was the only person who has ever told me that I had terrible, terrible English. It was on my second long exam bluebook. I was under pressure and had too many things in my head to write about in an effort to answer his exam questions. So, there was bound to be a few grammatical errors. Damn, you can diss my handwriting. You can call me out if my answers are bullshit. But telling me I had terrible, terrible English hurt. It hurt even more than the time I was not deemed qualified to be in Advanced English classes back in high school. And along with that exclusion, I will remember that prof for the rest of my life because of his comment. In fact, it has become a source of motivation for me. I have been complimented for my English proficiency and writing abilities in different countries. I got a respectable score in the TOEFL iBT even without studying and coming in over half an hour late for the test. I had even been given the chance to write a full page article (and continue to enjoy an open invitation to write) for the country’s leading broadsheet. All of those, I dedicate to this prof like a knee to his gut. Nah, I’m just kidding… But in all seriousness, for each of my achievement that involved any sort of writing, I remember him. No other prof managed to motivate me quite like the way he did.

 

Animal Science 181 – Poultry Sanitation and Disease Control
Grade: 5.0 (second take: 3.0)

ANSC 181 was a curious case for me. It was one of the last major courses I needed to finish before graduating. It was also one of the most difficult in the bunch. So, there was a bit of pressure coming in. But what was really in my mind at the time was the professor. Dr. Batungbacal (which, no shit, literally translates to iron stone) was legendary in the former Institute of Animal Science. Despite that frail-looking frame of hers, as far as the students were concerned, nobody in the institute carried an air of intimidation the way she did. Her reputation always preceded her. The semester hadn’t even begun and I was already scared. That was a fatal mistake. Looking back after my first take, I realize that I had already failed the course even before it started. I would not make that mistake again. I barely passed the second time around, but that by itself, was considered quite the achievement. And I did so without the burden of pressure and intimidation during the first take. Seated literally in the middle of the classroom, I even had the nerve to doze off every now and then in her three hour lectures, much to the chagrin of my seatmates. That made life so much easier.

I didn’t appreciate it back then, but the thing about Ma’am Bato (as we fondly called her to her back) was that she knew bullshit when she saw, smelled and heard it from her students. And she never hesitated to call students out on it, whether through clever sarcasm or straight shooting. Sometimes all she had to do was stare a hole through you. She had a knack for putting students in place with little or no effort. I always respected that.

I suppose that, as a teacher, I do take to her in some ways. And it is only now that I begin to understand where she was coming from all those years ago.

 

Computer Science A – Discrete Structures in Computer Science
Final Grade: 5.0 (second take: 1.5)

Computer Science D – Data Structures and Algorithms
Final Grade: 5.0 (second take: 2.25)

The Diploma in Computer Science program is peculiar. It lied between being a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree program. Coming in, it was also the first time I looked at myself as an adult learner. It was also the first time I realized what that really meant.

CMSC A and D were handled by the same prof during the same semester. In no way am I taking away from her abilities, but it was being under her when I realized that I no longer had it in me to sit through certain teaching styles, which sadly included her. Mathematics-related courses or subjects were difficult enough as they were. But them being taught the way they would be in high school, I could not take it anymore at age 22.

My failing both courses marked the first time I ever felt self-doubt about being able to earn this degree — something I initially thought was going to be easy, given my inclination towards computers. I re-took both courses, but with different teachers. CMSC D was taught in a similar manner as before, but with the class being particularly small (there were only two of us), mentoring was a lot more hands-on. I think I responded well to that. CMSC A, on the other hand, was taught in an almost radically different manner, in which I surprisingly excelled at. This was my first encounter with Prof. Connie Khan who went on to be part of my panel when I took my Master’s and my senior colleague at UPOU.

I may have forgotten how to prove mathematical equations or write good pseudocode over the years. But as a teacher, I realize that there is no one-size-fits all as far as methods are concerned. My own experiences in failing to connect with my profs is the driving force for my need to employ any means necessary to reach out to my students and help them get through my courses.

 

Environmental Science 255 – Environmental Psychology
Final Grade: 2.0

It might be a little strange for some to see me conclude this list with a course in which I got a decent grade in the first take. But the thing to take note here is that ENS 255 was a Master’s level course. Anything lower than a 2.0 was practically a failing mark.

I was finishing my course work in the MS Environmental Science program. Environmental Psychology was not part of my curriculum, but I thought it was interesting. So, I took it as an extra course. And yes, I still believe that it is one of the more interesting graduate courses that I have ever taken. I thought I was doing well enough — I made sure I attended all the classes, took the time to read books, submitted requirements and all that.

The main requirement for the course was a term paper to be presented and submitted at the end of the semester. I did those and ended my oral presentation with a fair amount of confidence. And then it came… my prof asked, So, where is the psychology component in your report?

I had no answer. And I was not alone in the class. She asked the same question to my other classmates. No good answer, either. Our prof, may she rest in peace, had that look of disappointment and exasperation that broke my heart. I failed her. I failed myself. It was kind of her to give me a final grade of 2.0. I didn’t deserve it. It was too high. She could have given me a 2.5 or something and I still wouldn’t have complained.

I learned a hard lesson here. For the first, time, I truly realized that you cannot achieve excellence through effort alone. Second, more than ever, I realized the importance of communicating with my teacher. I was never good at it, and it almost caused my downfall at the end. I could have asked my prof for help and avoid the embarrassment, but I didn’t. And I paid for it.

When I first thought about writing this blog, especially given the title I had in mind, I didn’t realize this would end up being a list of the courses I performed especially poorly in. But it makes sense. Unlike in the courses I did well in, these were the ones where I faced real adversity which weren’t overcome, at least not at first. The immediate rebounds were not always spectacular, but the long term effects of these ordeals were the ones that built character. And while it is true that these grades on my transcript almost left me ineligible to teach at UP, I do believe that these are what actually make me a better teacher today.

Of course, at the time, I certainly did not see these experiences in a good light. And while I never had the sense of self-entitlement nor the arrogance to question any of these grades, I admit that there would be times when I was not above laying blame over everything except myself. Self-accountability is a sign of maturity that, while I understood its need early on, took me a while to genuinely take into heart.

Knowing what I went through myself, I cannot expect students today to be happy the moment they see low grades in their records. However, it is my hope that, in the future, they will also revisit what they went through and at least try to see the good in them. They might be surprised.

2 comments

  • Allan  

    I couldn’t help but feel the concern in you as I reach the end of your writing. It was a great share and a worth read, Sir Al. Thank you for sharing.

  • Alexie Francis Tobias  

    My admiration of your character was present early on with the start of the trimester – for offering to meet up with students face-to-face from a distance education standpoint. That was something. Then with the way you answered questions in forums and posted reminders about assignments and stuff. I’ve met other program chairs during my long university days – but never have I met someone like you. After reading this blog, I understand why you are who you are. And I have to say that my admiration of you only grew. It’s truly a privilege to study under your tutelage.

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