Monday, April 8, 2013

Who Were Your Best Teachers And Why?

[This began as a response to Dr. Pratap Chillakanti (CEO of Lensoo) who asked the question "who were your best teachers and why?" on the LinkedIn 'MediaX at Stanford' group. My response is apparently a couple thousand characters too long, so I'm posting it here instead of there]

I have been lucky to have several really good teachers during the course of my life.

The one that stands out most is Dr. Dan Gajski, who taught the intro Logic Design class at my college. He was extremely knowledgeable about the topic at hand, but with every class he would always dispense a certain amount of "wisdom": not just the technical stuff, but he'd talk about larger things in life: one's career, how to get along with people and co-workers, etc. He eventually became my thesis advisor in graduate school and working with him was a wonderful and educational experience in itself: he was always trying to do things to make the class new and fresh and fun.

But -- as much as I wish I could say "his secret was ..." and give you a nice list of surefire ways to make any teacher a great teacher, I can't. Part of his success was, frankly, that the man had a great deal of personal charisma. And beyond that, he *liked* teaching, and it was important to him that his students learned something from him -- whether it be a lesson about logic design, life, or career.

I also learned quite a bit about public speaking from Dr. G. Effective use of humor was one thing he did very well: nothing elaborate, nothing planned: it was mostly that hard-to-define ability to know your audience well enough that you could ad-lib a joke and get laughs. Note that I said "effective use of humor" -- it wasn't an hour of non-stop giggles. But he used some humor to make the class fun and interesting. And if there is one single lesson I learned from him, it's that if you can make a topic fun and interesting to someone, they will learn it.

I had a number of TAs who were quite good teachers -- heck, I like to think *I* was a good teacher when I was a TA. I think a lot of it hinged on the newness of the experience of teaching. I can see how teaching the same calculus class year after year might grind one down. That said, the three TAs who taught my first three semesters of Calculus were very, very good.

I had a Physics prof -- I can't remember his name -- but he was quite good at conducting interesting experiments in front of a large audience. His "specialty" was assembling compelling demos and then explaining the math and physics behind them -- later in life I came to realize just how *difficult* a task that is.

I had a Literature professor named Phil Reinecker who led a simple but extremely effective class according to the plan: read one book every week; write a two page book report on the book; discuss the book in class; and at the end of the class get together and talk about what we'd learned. No tests. Phil had an easy-going personality -- today we might call him a "slacker" -- but he was quite intelligent and always had an interesting question or insight to share when we did classroom discussion. He was genuinely interested in the books that he was teaching, and his interest was infectious.

(Looking back over the years, the classes I took to satisfy my Humanities requirements left me with some of the most enduring and rewarding knowledge of my college career)

I took Theory Of Computation with Dr. Edward Reingold and it was one of the more challenging classes of my college experience. Dr. Reingold was not an especially friendly man (at least not to undergraduates) but he had a certain intensity about him and a genuine interest in the material he was teaching. Imagine a hardcore mathematics version of Kingsfield's Contracts class. To the best of my knowledge Dr. Reingold never made anyone throw up, but he had that same ineffable quality of intelligence and unapproachability that nonetheless can motivate a student to learn and succeed.

I took an intro Psych class on Learning and Memory with Dr. Charles Hopkins, who holds PhDs in Electrical Engineering and Psychology, so he was definitely "working below his level" teaching a bunch of freshmen and sophomores about the basics of pavlovian and operant conditioning. But he was obviously enjoying himself. A dapper, articulate, and well-dressed gentleman with a handlebar mustache, he would have been at home in almost any Merchant-Ivory production you could name. But - if there's a constant theme in this entire monologue, it's this -- he was having a good time, and made a great effort to help us understand the material. Occasionally he would spice up the material with stories of his own experiences, or once -- he was quite familiar with various memory techniques -- he had everyone in the room give him a word (we're talking 100+ words) and then he paused for a moment, and recited the words back to us. And then he recited them back to us in backwards order. Neat stuff.

And -- I took an Archeology class with Dr. Henry Walton Jones, Jr, who really made the subject come alive. He had performed quite a bit of active field work and had many, many engrossing stories to tell, which enhanced the classroom experience quite a bit.

I'll end with the most extreme example of a *lousy* teacher that I've ever had. I don't remember this fellow's name and never got his "story": he was a professor in the Math department and seemed a classic example of someone who was somehow being *forced* to teach a class. To say that he was a "grumpy old man" is to perhaps call up an image of Walter Matthau or Jack Lemon, which would be completely wrong, because this guy was not possessed of a rough exterior surrounding a heart of gold: he was a mean, sour guy who hated teaching and hated the students. His teaching strategy was to assign homework to the entire class, and then by rotation assign 6 or 8 homework problems to individual students who were to arrive early to class and write their solution up on the chalkboard. The actual class consisted of said students describing their solution to the class, with Professor Sourpuss correcting any errors. To this day, I can't believe I paid money for that class. There's a theme here, too, one which I won't expand upon except to say that he was not the only professor who, for whatever reason, seemed to actively dislike students.

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