Discrete Math and Sociology

Sometimes, when discussing education, a question that comes up will be “What was the most important class you took in college?”

As it pertains to my degree in computer science and my career, the answer has always been and will always be Discrete Math. The professor I had, on the first day, described the class as “math without numbers”. It was all proofs and logic. It helped me immeasurably when it comes to programming and crafting logic for IF statements and loops and such.

When it comes to everything else though, it has to be the Sociology 101 class I took. The first day of class, everyone took their seats, nothing assigned, just people naturally sitting where they wanted to sit. The second day of class, everyone sat in the same seats they’d sat in before, but this time the teacher made everyone switch. He made us invert the rows. People who sat in the back had to sit up front, and people who sat in the front were moved to the back, and he informed us this was now assigned seating, and we’d be expected to stay in these seats for the rest of the semester. Then he asked the class why we thought he was doing that.

I had been sitting in back, and now I was sitting up front. I knew why I sat in the back, so I put up my hand. “People who sit in the back often do so because they don’t want to be called on, they want to avoid attention or participation, and people who sit up front are usually more eager to participate. So by putting the talkative people in back, you are making them involve the entire class, and by putting the hiders in the front, you are forcing them to be involved.” I was right. That’s why he did it. And it worked. More than any class I had in college, that one, by far, had the most participation by all students. Putting the naturally engaged people in the back helped increase the engagement of the people who would normally hang back.

As a semester long project in the class, we had to watch the news. Specifically the “6 o’clock news” and then the 10 or 11pm night broadcast. And we had to take notes. The type of stories, were they national, local, good news, bad news, etc. And how long was spent on each. What he wanted to illustrate to us was that the news wasn’t aimed at actually delivering information, but in controlling emotion. Every day there would be new news, and if there wasn’t they would just rehash a previous piece, but despite what happened in the world, the news always followed the same patterns. A certain number of minutes on local, a certain number of minutes on national, uplifting stories always appeared in the exact same spot in the broadcast, there was always crime. It became so weird to know that after they returned from a particular commercial break they’d have a story of a particular type for a set number of minutes. The news presentation was manufactured, precisely. And it always ended with feel good news – someone doing a good deed, or footage of the new otters at the zoo, or something that was unquestionably upbeat. Never ending on death, always ending on life.

In class we would talk about how in a day there might be three important bad stories that should be on the news, but only one or two of them would be, because to cover all three would throw off the balance. These stories were clearly all more important than some of the fluff and filler used to hit their “good news” segments, but the format was more important than the content.

Now, because I’m old, this was before CNN and the 24 hour news cycle. But not a lot has changed. I still have trouble watching the news because of the things I learned back then. MSNBC will be on as background noise while we do things, and there will be three separate hours of news, hosted by three separate anchors, featuring different sets of guests, but all covering the same news stories, with the same facts, and the same clips and quotes, and even though the guests were different they’ll bring up the same discussion points. It’s eerie.

Anyway, we did cover more than the TV news in that class, and all of it was interesting. The core principle though was just to be critical yet open minded. It probably did more to shape who I am today that any other class I took. It definitely was a pretty big slap in the face to the conservative/libertarian privileged snot who walked in that first day and sat in the back of the class.

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