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 MIT 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 graduate classes 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 computer science. In course 6, area 2, which is Computer Science 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 community, 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 us 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.
This entry was posted on Friday, November 13th, 2009 at 7:54 am
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