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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 09:07 am (UTC)
Actually, Dr. Meyer went on to explain that the black water was very opaque, and though there were instructors enough to pull people out, it was difficult to find them if they didn't make any sound and just floundered and sank.

Obviously the example isn't great as far as it being (IMO) unsound practice to teach swimming that way, but the intellectual analogue is reasonable: the real world is a "sink or swim" endeavor, and so should learning be. Equally important, I came to realize during the course that Meyer really did care whether we learned or not, for all that he declared that it was our responsibility and no skin off his back if we didn't.

Dec. 3rd, 2004 09:22 am (UTC)
Re: Rescue

But, that's the key. You have to be willing to put forth the effort to learn before he'd take any extra time to assist your understanding.
Dec. 3rd, 2004 01:35 pm (UTC)
Putting forth the effort
Just so, but what I was getting at is that life-and-death situations do not necessarily form the best analogy with learning. Yes, it is fundamental, and sometimes lives (including the learner's) depend on the effort of the learner.

The lesson I learned was not "try or die" but "people are standing by to help you, but they need to know how and where you need help - sometimes that you need help".
Ernest Hemmingway once said, 'The world is a beautiful place, and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part.
    -Morgan Freeman, Seven


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