From 6.840 to 754
7 years, 6 months ago Posted in: Anecdotes, Blog 10

I started my graduate studies at MIT last September, and I am slowly becoming conversant with numbers. Today, I will tell you three stories (with little satire) on 6.840, C2867 and 754, in the break I got from drinking water from fire hose. They span from art of teaching to art of service to art of democracy.

6.840 is a class at on Theory of Computation, taught by Michael Sipser, who wrote the popular book Introduction to Theory of Computation. Being at MIT is like getting the blessings from the God himself. Many theorems appear in the class are also attributed to other MIT alumni – Noam Chomsky of Chomsky notation, the reduced form of Contest Free Grammar (CFG), Rivest, Shamir and Adleman of RSA,  Sleyer of PSPACE-Completeness, etc. I have heard others mentioning that  how people go bewildered when ate Prof Thurairaja, a decade back at University of Peradeniya, used to start his lectures by writing Thurairajah Theorem on the board; I am witnessing it myself only now. I have attended lectures given by professors, senior lecturers, lecturers, probationary lecturers and even instructors in my alma mater, where slides were being skimmed through, jargon and illegible words were being scribbled on the board, and the voice that couldn’t be heard at even in the front row being uttered. But what makes you stay in this particular lecture is the flow and elegance of the presentation – the art of teaching. I know someone who is taking this class and coming to the lectures only to listen to Sipser and enjoy mathematics (too bad, I am from the other side of the planet), albeit having taken all the required in his senior year when he was an undergrad here.

6.840 is offered under course 18 – applied mathematics and course 6 – electrical engineering and . In course 6, area 2, which is major, to satisfy Technical Qualifying Examination (TQE) requirements, at least one class from Theory (there are three sections – AI, Theory and System) is required. Any guess what would be the first choice among non-thoery people? First, let me start with the book Introduction to Theory of Computation. It is a graduate level material, yet first chapter (chapter 0) is dedicated for basic mathematics – definition of probabilities, inequalities, etc. The text then delves deep into the subject often providing examples and analogies. Could I ever have had a droplet of this comparatively abstract material otherwise?

6.840 defines the essence of teaching – thorough understanding, vast knowledge around the subject, simplicity, empathy, assuming no previous knowledge and preparation. Having written a book, and being able to conduct the lectures without any notes or slides Sipser satisfies the first two conditions. He only uses the chalk board (except for one time, when he used an OHP to show the historical letter written to Von Neuman on what is known as the earliest discussion on Theory of Complexity). He invites questions, and often pauses and makes sure that we are following him and if not puts his strongest effort to transfer the concept.  Probably it is the preparation, that is highly regarded as the basic requirement for teaching at MIT  – perhaps because even a monkey could teach if it could memorize all, and an interesting occasion reflecting this was when he tried to explain the Word Ladder game by offering an example – Lead to Gold – and he was taken aback by the solution class offered in seconds, which allegedly took 15 minutes earlier when he tried it while having breakfast and prepping up for the lecture. Even simple – stupid examples are worked out beforehand. Isn’t that better than appearing stupid in front of the class?

C2867 is the class I am going to teach for middle / high schoolers as part of Splash. MIT has been always keen on giving back to the , and in this context, it conducts a series of short courses under a program called ESP. The teachers – volunteer undergrads and graduates students are required to fill the applications, provide course details and attend a mandatory teaching session; the session I attended was carried out by two girls – presumably undergrads in their junior years. What makes it worth mentioning is the way it was conducted, and the consideration shown for people’s (including school kids) time, especially when considering the fact they are still young undergrads.  She wanted to pass the message that teachers are encouraged to come 20 minutes before the class, and not to disappoint the students by not showing up or coming late.  “Suppose you will be little late, say you have a real emergency, for example you are running to Splash and a meteorite falls in front of you, and you will have to go around it, take your phone and let know that you are on the way and will be little late”, she repeated it at least five times. Presumptuous faculties who have little concern for other people’s time have a lot to learn from these kids.

C2867 is one of the numerous classes offered in Splash 2009 for which well over 2000 students have registered. Splash is one of the examples, though not perfect, of student responsibility, commitment and pro-activeness. It is completely organized, publicized, and conducted by students – mostly undergrads. Unlike exhibitions or displays, this type of activities is of high return to the community in terms of time and money. Although similar programs are conducted by many other universities around the world, the significance lies in the organization, effectiveness and gain; of course no graduate students would volunteer to teach, and no school kids would attend otherwise, considering the weight given for the productivity and time spent in the United States.

754 is the number of votes (of total 16000 ballots) Leland Cheung, Cambridge councilor – elect, received in the recent city council elections. Joint MIT/Harvard MBA student Leland Cheung made history on Nov. 3 by becoming the first university student and the first Asian American to be elected to the Cambridge City Council.  Participation in political activities is highly disowned at my alma mater, and politics is considered taboo. However, in par with elsewhere in the United States, dialogue and discussion are hugely welcomed and encouraged at MIT.  Starting from Open House for every courses where professors engage in casual conversation with students, to “Two Dollar Dinner Tuesday” (Alumni Dinner Series) where Dean of Graduate studies, alumnae and students involve in informal discussion over dinner, to task forces that comprise of student groups, fraternities, faculties, and other officers to formulate or reevaluate policies, diversity, discussion and democracy prevail.

754 may not be huge, but significant. As an MIT – Sloan School graduate student, Leland was expected to receive backing from student voters, yet Cheung was not, in fact, carried into office by waves of MIT and Harvard students; though he did well among the relatively few students who voted, Leland’s votes were spread uniformly across the city  (MIT news). What is remarkable, though not very uncommon in the United States,  is that he was able to convince the general public all around the city, and be a role model on the topics concerned, through transparent communication; again, when compared to my alma mater where undergrads are used to picket, wear arm-bands, and even throw stones at each other to communicate their message, and officials who are used to pay attention only when the situation bothers their daily activities, the former is essentially nourishing.

I told you three stories on three different arts, and I feel, some stories must end without a conclusion. I let the reader connect the dots.

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10 Responses

  1. Danekka says:

    Well said :)
    an inspiring article :)

    Do write quite frequently :)

  2. sachitha says:

    Great article as always!
    If possible can you make a comprehensive article about postgraduate life . It would be useful for someone thinking of pursuing higher studies!

  3. Dinesh says:

    It sounds awesome. Good for you.
    No wonder why MIT grads are so innovative.

    Great article. Nice work Gar

  4. Sivasayanth says:

    Once again great article Garthee.

  5. […] in the United airlines from Logan international airport – Boston to Los Angels. Following a simple pattern I had adopted recently, I will tell the story in three parts – concerning three different […]

  6. Rupasinghe says:

    Nice article.. But all the lecturers were not like that. right ? There were some good lecturers. They are earning about $600 a month and their service should be appreciated as well. However as I believe, it is hard to expect more from free education in a third world country. You are a great product of that free education. Hope you’ll do something to improve its quality:)
    You’ve got a attractive writing style. Expect more from you..

  7. garthee says:

    @ Rupasinghe

    First I was stating facts and opinions, and I wasn’t complaining. I believe it is the difference in the attitude – the urge to constantly improve the status quo and it is not about the choices people made especially about where to live and how to serve. What I welcome in this blog post (that is quite common in US) is that positive attitude – taking responsibility and working towards the optimum. To quote my earlier blog post

    “The life is not necessarily the happiest here. After all, people here work hard, and play hard. I have seen people only watching tech shows in TV and only listen to iTunes U in iPod. I sometimes wonder whether they live. The path is always decided by efficiency and often harnessed by the objectives; and every second is measured in terms of productivity. Unlike what you see in TV series and movies, they do go to work, and don’t wait to finish their cappuccino in the coffee house.”

    Secondly, I have heard the complaints about free eduction, low wages, etc quite a lot enough not to forget. I am not talking about free education here and it deserves a separate blog post involving taxes and how we influence it. I don’t mean any disrespect here, and I do appreciate their noble intention. But would that be an answer for not trying to improve the situation. I think what contributes significantly is rather the laid back atmosphere in SL and common to everyone – from cleaners to students to professors to politicians. Both worlds have their pros and cons. Also you can’t always get the best of both, but isn’t it always good to try to improve the status quo?

    Thirdly to answer your question, of course I have seen few wonderful teachers and excellent personalities. But I was talking about the number in general. Also I understand the skills come with experience, and it is unreasonable to expect a junior lecturer to be exemplary. However, I was frustrated by the fact people with years of teaching experience
    1. didn’t choose to put some effort to improve it. How could you explain the fact that a professor with decades of experience delivering a sub standard lecture, using the borrowed material and referring/dictating the notes word by word?
    2. did choose to deliver a low quality lecture just to make some point (again I mean no disrespect, and stress on the point that students should be independent, find materials on their own and educate themselves.)

    I must admit, I really admired the lectures by few. Ranging from veteran professors (the likes of Prof Indra Dayawansa, Prof Lucas, Prof Gihan Dias) to experienced lecturers (the likes of Mr. Kithsiri Samarasinghe, Mrs Premaratne, Mr Sharkar). Also there are few lecturers who put an effort to encourage the students, stress the importance of developing skills tailored towards postgraduate requirements and industrial expectations and go the extra mile (the likes of Dr. Pasqual, Mr. Kithsiri Samarasinghe).

    My supervisor at MIT once told me, the easiest way to predict the status of a patient is to count the number of tubes sticking out, and we don’t need any machine learning algorithms. Interestingly I noticed (both in SL and USA) it is the number of times they use the chalkboard or dry-erase-board that decides the quality of the lecture. And the number of times they refer to the notes and the number of slides they use degrade the quality proportionally.

    Finally, I would like to tell an anecdote from the Bill Gates’ visit to MIT last week. He pointed out the OCW and how he admired it, and benefitted from it. To quote TECH

    “I’m a super-happy user,” he said. “I re-took physics with Walter Lewin, I took Professor Sadoway’s course and loved that — I recommend it to everybody.” Of the 33 courses that have video, Gates said he’s taken 11.


    Ritu Tandon ’10 developed a website that bridges OpenCourseWare and syllabi from Monterey Tech in Mexico, allowing students to supplement their classes with materials from MIT. During her presentation, Gates asked, since so few OCW courses have video content, whether linking to plain lecture notes would be as useful. “On OCW, it’s 33 courses out of 1,981 that have the full videos right now,” he said, rattling off the numbers by heart.

    Do you think he has any need to take those courses nor someone is paying him to remember those numbers? Is he complaining that doing philanthropy makes its extraneous to remember those numbers?

    I think it is the attitude that matters – yet a lot of people talk about attitude but very little show that in deed.
    Everyone should overcome their smugness wherever they are to make the difference!

  8. Rupasinghe says:

    I totally agree with you. What I expected were the some credits to names mentioned by you who did a good job amidst many difficulties. As you have mentioned we can never forgive the idiotic professors who taught to the white board. Luckily, such 2 hour lectures were finished within an hour :)
    It is true that attitude is the key to make the difference. That is why you made the difference..wish you best of luck

  9. Dinesh says:

    I also believe its not fair to compare MIT with ours. With such a limited number of lecturers and resources its not possible to perform that well. But we have to agree that many of our lectures did very well though they had to work on areas which they haven’t specialised on because of the lack of lectures.

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