Sunday, January 10, 2010

Triptych of Teachers

People who teach are special.
  • A long time ago, I was a boy, not yet a teen, and lived in what was essentially slums. A young, idealistic single man of a school teacher who lived a few doors down gave us kids a few sheets of paper with facts about the world (called "General Knowledge" or "trivia"), and ran a competition later to figure out who knew most. I learned that elsewhere, away from where I lived, there were large mountains, different kinds of money, and people believed in different things. I won the competition and got a pen as the prize which I am sure I promptly lost in some boyish game or the other. Looking back, I am thankful to that teacher, and realized that I learned then to travel (very) light in life, not carry much of the present into the future, not much of one place to another.
  • Later, when I was an Engineering student, I liked building circuits, solving puzzles, and like a typical youth, lived every day with the desperation of a person who has a single bullet left and longed to fire it. But CS was mainly tedious and I was disillusioned. 3 years into the program, PPC, a young professor, barely out of his PhD, taught a course on Algorithms, showed me the wonderful structure and brought the fun of problem solving back in to my life. Much late now, I may have learned more tricks, but I learned everything I needed to know then, from PPC. PPC it turns out is a pipeline, turning many other disillusioned engineers to theory research in the past 2 decades (you know who you are!).
  • As a graduate student, I was somewhat beaten down by the rigor of STOC/FOCS/SODA research. I liked holding the crisp, 10 pages, LaTeXed paper in my hand and could even drive myself to produce it, but somehow the experience was like having rushed to get few steps into the intersection to beat the traffic light, you wanted to rest some, but have to walk the rest of the distance to cross the street before the flashing light turned solid.For several semesters, once a week, I would go to Joel Spencer, coffee in my hand, and he would excitedly describe to me proofs -- his or others', it didn't matter, whatever caught his imagination that week -- and for a couple of hours, nothing else mattered, except probabilities and nifty asymptotics. Looking back, I realize those moments felt like the rush when you get to the net and volley, if you know what I mean, having baselined all week. Teaching is finding ways to make students feel that way.


Anonymous Atri Rudra said...

PPC it turns out is a pipeline, turning many other disillusioned engineers to theory research in the past 2 decades (you know who you are!).

I will definitely answer to the call above :-) As a senior, I was certain about two things: (a) I was not never going to graduate school and even if I did (b) It was not going to be in theory.

Both of the above turned out to be wrong and PPC is definitely the one to "blame" :-) In my final semester at KGP, I took the computational complexity course with PPC. He was my undergraduate advisor and he was definitely our hero, so I took all the courses he taught when I was at KGP. PPC definitely had the heady mix of being obviously brilliant and very very approachable at the same time. (He did his undergrad at KGP, so he was "one of us.")

I had taken parallel algorithms with him before, so this was not the first theory course he had taught us. However, he did something pretty radical with the course. On the first day of class, he told us which book we would follow in the course (Papadimitrou's) and then from there on, he would tell us which section in the book we would cover next. Then next lecture, he would pick one of us at random and ask us to present the material. (Of course he would help us out if we stumbled, but the onus was definitely on us.) There was no way you could skate through an arrangement like this. Probably for the first time in my stay at KGP, I really learned the material [after few years of sitting through theory courses, I finally really really understood what a reduction was :-) ] and it was glorious! I already had a job lined up by then but the germ had been planted and two years later I started my grad school at Austin.

I have had many wonderful mentors along the way but PPC was definitely the first and the most influential.

5:17 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

what a beautiful entry... i random read your old blog entries on occasion and found the rumination on inspiration inspiring : )

1:01 PM  

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