Well, I finally did it. I submitted my last homework assignment for this semester, the fifth one for convex optimization. The only work I have left to do this semester are my final projects.

As I was handing in the assignment, I once again wondered about a related question: how often do students work together on problem sets? My focus is on graduate-level computer science problem sets (or those from related fields). I’ve thought about that a lot this semester, since it’s a subset of the theme that I now think about every day, every hour: isolation.

I spent much of my summer alone in my “shared” office in a deserted VCL lab on the fifth floor of Soda Hall. While the other students had summer internships at Microsoft and Google, I was sitting there from 8:00AM to the evening, staring at my laptop, trying to do research, but often giving up and instead doing some prelim preparation (and blogging about that, of course). The extent of my daily conversations1 would sometimes be when I talked to various cashiers working at the cafes on Euclid Street, because I had to say things like: “I would like to buy X and Y. Thank you.”

That was it for the day (including evenings and nights, by the way).

The isolation I was experiencing gradually consumed me throughout the summer and adversely affected my mood and ability to focus. During the week before, during, and after the prelims, I regularly lost whole days of productivity because I was thinking about isolation all the time and how I wished I had other students with whom I could talk. (Fortunately, the prelims themselves were pretty easy, in part because I did a lot of studying before those “lost days” occurred.)

I still haven’t been able to completely recover from that disastrous summer, but I’ve made some baby steps this semester, and one of those steps has been to reach out to other students for homework collaboration.

This is new for me. In college, I did most homework assignments by myself, and made heavy use of office hours for the professors and teaching assistants. I continued that trend during my first semester at Berkeley, but that did not turn out so well. Last spring was much better, because in computer vision, we were allowed to work in groups of two and submit as a group (i.e., not “work and then submit separately,” which is the usual case) and I actually had a homework partner. He was the one who initiated our collaboration.

With that positive experience in mind, I tried to actively contact other students this semester. I sent more emails and initiated more conversations about the homeworks, and I did benefit from the discussions I had.

But I couldn’t help but think: is this the normal way students work together?

I think about this because I see many groups of students that are consistently together: they attend classes together, they attend GSI discussion sections together, they walk together, they eat together, and they do all sorts of social events together. To me, this indicates that they do not have to rely on the “email, suggest several times to meet, etc.” tactic that I used to discuss homework with classmates.

In other words, I’m someone who discusses work with other students by setting up meeting times; I sometimes feel that other students are just together all the time and don’t have to do that.

Would I like to be able to have that experience? Well, yes, of course. Sadly, working with other students doesn’t always end up working well. I don’t mean “not working well” in the sense that we can’t figure out something; I refer to “working well” in the context of how I feel after a group meeting. For instance, I thought I had an incredible stroke of luck when I found that someone else in my convex optimization class wanted to discuss practice problems to prepare for the midterm. I hastily replied, saying yes. Unfortunately, that discussion had four or five other students there and I could not hear much of what they were saying, so I felt lousy. I left early, wishing that I had specifically requested a one-on-one meeting.

The lesson? I have to be careful about working with other students, and to mentally calculate an extensive cost-benefit analysis.

Anyway, those are just some random thoughts I have now. I hope next semester will be a lot better than this one.

  1. These were the days when I wasn’t Skyping with my parents, of course.