Senior Year Transition

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Behold, I have set before you an open door,
which no one is able to shut.” (Rev 3:8)

Senior Year Transition

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My senior year in college at Iowa State University (1975/76), I thought that I was bullet proof and signed up for 18 hours, including graduate level micro and macro economics classes. Other classes, like economic history, computer science, and statistics, provided important background for later studies and work in my career. Outside of class, I had a steady girl-friend—one of the few—in college, and I worked in the cafeteria in Wilson Hall, where I sometimes felt out of place.

For example, my floor in Wilson Hall had a successful basketball team that frequently went out to practice and played a game once a week. Although later during my time in Germany I was the star of the graduate student basketball team, here playing for Wilson Hall I mostly sat on the bench during games—most of my college buddies had played varsity-level basketball in high school, being from small high schools where everyone was given the opportunity to play. By contrast, because my own high school basketball team  took state champs throughout my high school years, only the most dedicated players made the team. Consequently, I felt out of place sitting on the bench while my team beat other teams.

But I also felt out of place trying to date small town girls. Most students at Iowa State came from Iowa and, because they hoped to remain in the Iowa after graduation, they remained closely tied to high school friends on campus. As an out-of-state student, it was difficult to break into these high school cliques. Unlike the movie stereotypes of rural kids dying to get out of their small towns, these were kids who were intensely loyal to their hometowns and chose careers to make that outcome possible. My cousin in Cedar Rapids, for example, never left Cedar Rapids—even to attend college; my roommate studied computer science, in part, so he could remain in Ames after graduation. Consequently, I felt out of place socially at Iowa State and ended up dating a bright young Iranian girl who I met in one of my economics classes.

My girl friend and I dated for several months, but later broke up because she criticized my car. In my sophomore year, I worked in construction for several months in the summer before transferring to Iowa State and used the money that I earned to buy a used 1967 Volkswagen beetle. I was intensely proud of my beetle, in part, because I had paid for it myself. Being Iranian, she assumed that my family could and should buy me a new and better car while I knew that the gift of a new car was unlikely. Thus, her criticism amounted to a cultural misunderstanding, but at the time this criticism simply cut too deep and we broke up. We remain friends, however, and she went on later to a doctorate and to teach agricultural economics at an important university.

Supporting my interest in international economic development, I took a series of classes in economic history. Although economists often envisioned economic development in terms of dollars saved and invested, the actual experience of economic development was often more of an historical process where key policies either supported productive investment or diverted resources away from useful investment into consumption activities. Understanding the difference was an important theme in economic history, which made it fascinating and helpful in explaining why some rather poor countries prospered while other comparatively rich counties squandered even better opportunities.

My history professor at Iowa State was a rather brilliant, but frustrated[1], professor from Yale University who did not like my term papers and was not particularly interested in explaining why. Actually, he threatened to flunk me if I signed up for the next class in the economic history sequence. After working unsuccessfully to please him with several papers, I went into his office and sat on his desk until he explained the problem. The problem was that I conceived of history as a chronology (or narrative) of events over time, while he saw history as the product of deductive reasoning. According to the deductive method, a paper should state a hypothesis and set out to provide it with historical observations. When I then adopted a deductive method in my next paper, he liked my papers and, in the process, I learned to pay attention to methods of argumentation when I would venture outside of economics to study other fields.

My lesson about focusing on argumentation methods came up again in studying macro-economics. The economics department at Iowa State was well-known for using quantitative methods, but my macro-economics professor preferred an history of thought method of argumentation.[2] The tension between these two methods set him at odds with the department so when he began drumming students out of this class (a common approach among professors trying to minimize their required teaching load) he quickly found himself isolated also from students—a class of over 20 students soon became a class of only 4 students. I soon had the distinction of being the only undergraduate student in the class after he  expressed open disdain for undergraduates generally and reiterated such comments even in private meetings.[3]

Stressful as some of my classes turned out to be, senior year was also physically exhausting and I frequently got only about 4 hours of sleep at night, preferring to catch sleep during dead time during the day. Not being a coffee drinker until much later, I took caffeine pills in a vain attempt to stay awake in the evening. Normally, I would study until eleven p.m. then go jogging to wake up so I could a couple more hours; then, at six a.m. I worked the breakfast shift in the cafeteria.

In the middle of my senior year, I applied to three graduate schools—University of Massachusetts, Iowa State University, and Cornell University, each of which had strong agricultural economic programs, according to my dad. I was offered admission and support at University of Massachusetts, but decided against it. Iowa State admitted me almost immediately, but was slow to offer me financial support. When financial support finally came through, I was assigned to work with a famous, but rather controlling professor. I went to see him several times to try to get to know him, but soon felt uncomfortable with this relationship. When Cornell University later offered me both admission and financial support, I changed my mind and decided to attend Cornell.

By May I had reached a breaking point because of stress and long hours and got sick. When I went to the clinic to get myself checked out, I was not ready to hear the news—I had mononucleosis. I freaked out—my history professor’s assistant just happened to be in the clinic at that moment and ran back to tell him the news—for a full-time student, it might as well have been the plague. Back in the dormitory, my roommate and my friends avoided me leaving me to eat and study by myself. When I told my parents, my dad told me that he had a business trip to Iowa later that month and promised to stop by and to bring me home in about a week. This meant that I had about a week to finish up my remaining classwork.

My remaining classwork turn out to less than expected because Iowa State had a rule that any graduating senior with a B average or better did not need to take final examinations. It was my policy in college to write all my term papers early in the quarter so that I could focus on studying for mid-term and final examinations later in the quarter. Being exempted from final examinations meant that I was essentially finished with my work—all but some FORTRAN programming and a few class projects. Time went by quickly and my father picked me up; we flew home to Maryland; and I spent the next 6 weeks in bed, missing out on graduation ceremonies.

Reference

Johnson, Glenn L. 1986. Research Methodology for Economists: Philosophy and Practice. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

[1] He was from the east coast and felt that it was a hardship to work in Iowa.
[2] In broad terms, Johnson (1986, viii) classified the different schools of thought in economics as positivism, normativism, pragmaticism, and existentialism.
[3] He later failed to achieve tenure and ended up working for the Federal Reserve.

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