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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!

--
Banazir

Comments

banazir
Dec. 3rd, 2004 10:32 am (UTC)
Chewing stones
Teaching the young is like chewing stones.
    -Masai proverb (quoted by my father's Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Clever, Professor Emeritus, Emory University)

--
Banazir
(off to get my bowl of Fruity Pebbles for today)
discoflamingo
Dec. 3rd, 2004 10:59 am (UTC)
Re: Chewing stones
Dr. Clever? That's right up there with the Dr. Doom that works at Kentucky State!
banazir
Dec. 3rd, 2004 11:08 am (UTC)
I can do better than that
My nickname in graduate school really was Octopus.
(Because I used to open 8 telnet windows on the Engineering Workstations to run jobs! What did you think? ;-))

--
Banazir
discoflamingo
Dec. 3rd, 2004 01:13 pm (UTC)
O, I like that
But your name is only a nickname - Dr. Doom's real last name is Doom (I went to school with his son, and he just went by Doom).
banazir
Dec. 3rd, 2004 01:37 pm (UTC)
Fandom names
I wonder if there are a lot of Judge Dreads and Doctor Octaviuses out there. Certainly names such as Perry White and Clark Kent have to still exist despite the popular overloading.

--
Banazir
discoflamingo
Dec. 3rd, 2004 02:05 pm (UTC)
Re: Fandom names
Well, Office Space viewers remember what happened to Michael Bolton . . .
banazir
Dec. 3rd, 2004 07:30 pm (UTC)
Office Space
OK, OK, I do need to watch that.
Only - enlighten me for now?

--
Banazir
grain_king
Dec. 4th, 2004 03:04 pm (UTC)
Re: Office Space
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0151804/quotes
Samir: No one in this country can ever pronounce my name right. It's not that hard: Samir Na-gheen-an-a-jar. Nagheenanajar.
Michael Bolton: Yeah, well at least your name isn't Michael Bolton.
Samir: You know there's nothing wrong with that name.
Michael Bolton: There was nothing wrong with it... until I was about 12 years old and that no-talent ass clown became famous and started winning Grammys.
Samir: Hmm... well why don't you just go by Mike instead of Michael?
Michael Bolton: No way. Why should I change? He's the one who sucks.
banazir
Dec. 4th, 2004 03:23 pm (UTC)
Michael Jordan
LOL!

So which of Michael J. Jordan and Michael I. Jordan should say that about the other? :-D

--
Banazir

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