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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 11:01 am (UTC)
Surviving against all odds takes character and the lack of it to beat all odds. The instructor either knew the outcome or did not. He may not have known one person would die but the foreknowledge and the agreement of one being able to die and allowing it to happen is a real military lesson my friend.

I do not doubt one minute he really wanted you to see that dynamic and was given permission for any outcome.

You do know that now or you do not. Let's just say I may not have passed that test. I would have saved my person next to me no matter if Hitler was or was not watching me and as a raw recruit it just came to me and I was very afraid to stand up.

If my drill was the Emperor of China maybe I would have stayed seated because I would die. But an American, doing that? Well, I had to take my chances with the fellow recruit convulsing possibly upstairs and tell myself this was not war, where even my snoring would give my fellow soldier's postion away, or crying out in pain.

I was the only one to stand up while my drill ranted that cowards are left to die in war and if she took pills she deserved to die.

I just felt she needed a doctor and if no other person of the same American mind, us being the lessor of the two controls would do anything in this horrific dynamic, at least by standing up, I was a human being and she did go home after her second try as a hold over at Ft Jackson, South Carolina.

But it is scary to watch the group dynamic take over where everyone in the room realizes right or wrong but no one will do the right thing and someone could very well die and there'd we all would be; accomplices to one murder.

Because if she was suicidal and she was, and even if she only wanted attention though negative, there were her fellow soldiers all sitting with me and one United States Army Drill Sergeant in charge and he never looked at what her condition was and in a convulsion possibly the person does not swallow their tongue but it might get chewed up enough for her to choke in other ways.

So I am happy that she got the help she needed and I did graduate by other means not described by anyone I ever knew who graduated properly and with any more honor than I did.

Getting along does not mean turning a blind eye when another soldier is being harmed or man or human being unless every life is on the line. That is my opinion. We were only on post in America and not on the battlefield and she was not acting normal in any way and had just gotten back from one suicide attempt. He had no right to put her in harms way and delay assessment as he was a medic and knew how to tell what to do in a situation.

He taught me it takes guts to disobey a lawful order and you better have the character to back it up. Sooner or later you will go home for it; but in the very least you are a good to go troop.

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