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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 01:13 pm (UTC)
Well, yes, that is one possible lesson learned.

Apr. 23rd, 2005 07:43 am (UTC)
This grasshopper saw that in 1984 and has thought about that moment, until I first started writing it out. So, I have thought out the possibility of the Sergeant striking the troop, killing the troop, or worse.

The dynamic felt bad. The ideas felt bad in the open air as he ordered everyone to listen to his views. In war, nothing is fair and only after time do Vets of war get over their experiences or not.

We have many visual representations in movies, Sean Penn's example in his movie, with the rape of a Vientnamese captive woman. The right or wrong of rape vs the feelings building in men tasked to fight and afraid of every person they see, because there is no defined enemy. Any citizen of that country could be the enemy at the time, down to a babe in diapers.

Not pretty, and I am not a student of war. I am sure that students of torture and mayhem and interrogation know more about what helps them sleep at night and what they tell themselves to rockabye them to sleep.

I will give you this. If I were a general and I had a sum of men, they would be getting out of harms way before the enemy got any consideration. So, as it was their soil, we cannot disagree with utilizing any person in a opposing battle plan. It has to be psychologically hard on character to watch the enemy jump up and out of the ground and disappear into a bunker or hole.

It is good skill to learn for both genders. How to forget yourself for your nation when working a battleplan. You do sacrifice a part of yourself whenever you serve as a group to meet a common goal. Team playing is not really Rank and file either. You have only one choice and that is to obey.

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