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Don't be shy

When I was an undergrad, my digital logic course (a simple course on sequential and combinational logic gates, with a tiny touch of circuit theory) was taught by Gerard G. L. Meyer, who later became the head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) department at Johns Hopkins.

Dr. Meyer was very strict, and he spared no egos. Once in the spring semester of 1990 I went to him (as a nervous 16-year old sophomore) with a question about truth tables and Karnaugh maps. He pulled a microrecorder out of his desk drawer, held it up to me, and drawled: "I am going to tape what you say, and play it back to you, so you can hear how inane your question is."

Now, honestly, my question was pretty inane. I mean, how hard is propositional logic - especially when you are 16? Dr. Meyer solved the problem I'd been struggling with for about 20 minutes in about 20 seconds (really), and I left that day able to solve the problem just as quickly. More important, I was much more self-demanding when it came to working problems.

I don't say that sort of thing to students, because you never know what kind of fragile self-esteem you might trash that way, and certainly I don't advocate tearing into people out of malice or some kind of intellectual chauvinism. However, perhaps a little ass-kicking now and again to get people over themselves is not a bad thing.

During the first week of his course, Dr. Meyer related the following anecdote in a heavy French accent:
When I was young (many years ago) I was a university student in France, and in those days students were required to serve in French ROTC. Furthermore, one of the requirements for French ROTC trainees was that one had to know how to swim.

Now, in those days, they had an interesting procedure for teaching people how to swim while testing whether we could. In a foundry near the training camp was a deep pit, about twenty-five metres long, eight metres wide, eight metres deep, and filled about halfway to the brim with water that was mixed with black coal dust.

In my class there were fifty students. Now, the instructors took us to the foundry, lined us up on the edge of the pit, and said: "young men [for we were all men], if you do not know how to swim: don't be shy". Then they pushed us in. Twenty-five of us could swim, and we did. Twenty-five of us could not. Twenty-four of these began to call out to be rescued. The instructors let those of the trainees who could not swim thrash for a while to learn.

One student - he was shy.

Forty-nine students came out of the pit that day.

Let me tell you: none of us hestitated to raise our hands to ask questions. And though we thought twice before going to the instructor's office hours or the teaching assistant's, all of us went - and we did not leave until we were bodily kicked out or we really understood the answer. More often, it was the latter, I am glad to report.

To paraphrase Vic Vyssotsky (quoted in reference to John Roebling in the "Back of the Envelope" chapter of Jon Bentley's Programming Pearls), I wonder: are we engineering teachers like Gerard Meyer?

Edit, 11:15:
Happy birthday, shine_to_shame!



Dec. 3rd, 2004 05:28 am (UTC)
Your Dr. Meyer reminds me of one of the crusty old History profs at Kenyon. He was a difficult man to learn from - apparently he'd had the lisp before both the strokes - but he was brilliant and took no crap.

But because he taught medieval history, every year his intro class was full to bursting with dragon-slayer wannabes. His method of weeding the wannabes from the historians was to introduce himself and then announce, "All of you will flunk the first test. The second test you will... show improvement."

1/3 of the class inevitably dropped out that day. Another third refused to study, on the basis that they were doomed anyway. The last third buckled down fiercely with an attitude of "you are SO passing me or explaining your policies to the Department Head, you old coot."

He never gave quarter and he was one of the best teachers I ever had.
Dec. 3rd, 2004 06:26 am (UTC)
he reminds me of one of the best instructors i had as an undergrad. wasn't even a "real" prof - he was a graduate ta that got stuck teaching a bunch of juniors the ins and outs of mechanics of materials.

he'd tell stories like that and the also sobering stories (real or made up, i'm not sure how it matters) of how "real engineers" doing mechanics analysis screwed up and people die (which became a rather macbre in-joke for everyone that's had him).

he was great, and kicked our asses on a daily basis. and while we didn't appreciate it, in subsequent classes that relied on that material.. well, you could tell who had the marine and who had the profs, because those of us with gunny actually remembered most things.... to the point that i'm not too concerned that it's been roughly 5 years since i've had mechanics for next semester's adv mechanics course...

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