Wednesday, January 19, 2005


I planned to be a TA this semester. I requested one of the theory courses -- algorithms, perhaps -- but those openings were filled by others. I was told that I'd either be assigned to the compilers course or to one of the courses in the introductory sequence (programming, data structures, and basic architecture). But that was not to be either. My advisor nixed the idea, and convinced me that he was right to do so. I'm trying to juggle too many things at once as it is. I will, however, be a TA once more (in the fall): Jim had me petition not too, but the petition was denied. So it goes.

I don't remember ever having a TA for a math course while I was at Maryland. For most of the courses I took, there wasn't even a grader.

I remember five graduate student instructors for undergraduate computer science courses. The TA for my programming language survey course was competent and pleasant, and had a deep understanding of the material. I believe he won an award for his teaching; he certainly deserved it. The graduate student who taught my first algorithms class -- it was a summer course -- was a Chinese gentleman with a tremendously thick accent. I could not tell the difference between his l and his r, nor between his m and his n. His handwriting was not much clearer than his speech, and I would have been totally lost if I wasn't already familiar with most of the material he covered. He also wrote false statements semi-regularly, and after the first few corrections he took to calling me Mr. Counterexample. My robotics class was effectively taught by a graduate student; the TA for my operating systems course was an Russian fellow, a very sharp programmer who was almost comically abrupt with his fellow humans; and the TA for my network class left no lasting impression.

I've taught and tutored in the past in a variety of circumstances: martial arts, mathematics, and Matlab. But one of the things I thought was useful about being a TA for parallel computing a couple years ago was the type of feedback I received. Self-deception is easy, but the responses and performance of students provide objective data -- one just has to pay attention. I get easily enthusiastic about my subjects, and know something about a broad range of topics in mathematics and computer science. I've had good luck conveying information to people who are interested and who have adequate background to understand what I'm saying. But I've also bored those who really weren't interested, and snowed those who didn't really understand the required background as well as I thought they did. I've observed both the positive and the negative reactions when I've spoken with people one-on-one, but in the context of a class, the basic patterns were more obvious.

Okay, sometimes the patterns are pretty obvious even in less formal settings. I work with smart people, and sometimes those people astound me by saying something deep about a mutual interest -- and then claiming that they learned about it from me. Eh? On the other side, I've tried to explain things to people who never really got it because they didn't have the background I assumed. And I've certainly dealt with people who appeared to lack any sense of curiosity about the world at large, let alone the particular corner of the world that happened to fascinate me at the time. I know some people just aren't curious; but knowing and understanding are different things, and I find incuriosity terribly frustrating.

I like to explain things, to myself and to others. I'm glad to be in an environment where I can do just that.