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Some classes that influenced me

I’m not sure why, but this morning when I woke up, my muse suggested that I think about the classes I took in college [1] and beyond that have had the most long-term impact on me. That seems like an interesting exercise in memory [2]. So, let’s see …

In my first year at UofC [3], I took Analysis in Rn with Paul Sally. That class impacted me in multiple ways. I learned that although I was a good mathematician, I was not a great mathematician. On the first exam, I got an 83. Believe it or not, but that was the third highest grade on the exam. That sounds good, until you realize that the exam was out of 150. I will admit that I don’t remember much of the content of the course, except that Prof. Sally worked hard on helping us learn to prove things. Most importantly, though, I learned an active teaching style. I also heard some of my favorite comments about testing and grading styles [4,5,6], comments I use when prompted. I wish I remember what book we used; all I remember was that it was from Yellow Pig press [7], and that may be a false memory.

In my first year at UofC, I also took the Self, Culture, and Society sequence. I don’t remember everyone who taught that course. I know that William C. Wimsatt taught my discussion section one semester, that a visitor from Russia taught my discussion section another semester, and that Janellen Huttenlocher ran some of the lectures. The discussion sections of that course were almost certainly where I learned to argue closely about texts. Reading Freud and Kuhn was quite useful in shaping my understanding of the world. Small things in various parts of the class also made a difference. Our visitor from Russia had a huge vocabulary, but it was from reading. So, for at least a year, I pronounced paradigm as if it ended with dig-’em rather than dime. I should have learned to filter more. At some point in a lecture, I raised my hand and said, No, Janellen, you’re wrong [8,9].

In my second year at UofC, I took my first CS course. I think it was with Stu Kurtz. We learned about CS, using the Lisp programming language, from SICP [10]. That’s the course that helped me learn that I wanted to be a computer scientist. Starting with Lisp also helped form my approach to CS; I remain a functional programmer (at least in that I think in terms of higher-order procedures and functions as first-class values).

Although I tend to be more on the software construction side of computer science, my upper-level theory sequence was incredibly influential. I loved (and still love) thinking about the P vs. NP divide and considering how you show that a problem is NP-complete. I also like thinking about how you explain various parts of that theory. Garey and Johnson [11] and the Loom book [14] have respected places on my bookshelves.

Between college and graduate school, I took five or so different film classes with Gerald Mast. In some sense, those were my opportunity to learn to study a kind of literature closely. I’m sure that the poststructuralists have dismissed Mast’s approach to film, but I appreciate the ways in which he helped me read a film closely [16]. Mast also challenged me to think better and to write better. I don’t have my papers from my film classes anymore, but I remember a regular comment of These are interesting ideas; I wish you could express them well.

Mast’s criticisms led me to take Little Red Schoolhouse [17] with Joe Williams and a slew of other people [18]. That course taught me how to write competently. It also taught me how to edit well. When I have the time and inclination, I apply all of Williams’ principles to my writing, and I find that I write much better. But even when I don’t have the time and inclination to carefully edit my writing, I benefit from his emphasis on emphasizing actors and actions. I use his Style: Toward Clarity and Grade whenever I teach Tutorial [19,20]. Perhaps most importantly, taking this course allowed me to get the following comment from Mast: It’s nice to see that your writing has finally reached the level of your ideas. A- [21].

More recently, Jeremy Chen’s Sculpture helped me learn a lot about how to approach creative works. I appreciate the opportunity to spend so much time making art. But I also appreciate the ways in which Chen encouraged us to support each other and how he helped me consider the relationship between making works and studying the works of others.

I have also learned a lot from teaching my own courses; from talking to colleagues; from workshops, seminars, retreats, and boot camps; from reading books on my own; and more. But if I was called upon to choose the courses that most impacted how I think, these courses are the clear leaders [22].

[1] More precisely, The College.

[2] Or, in some cases, lack of memory.

[3] The University of Chicago. At some point, people started calling it UChicago, but we were UofC when I was there. They’d only partially gutted the common core at that point, too.

[4] You want me to scale the exams? I can scale exams. I’ll scale them down the stairs. The stair your exam lands on determines your grade.

[5] Do you really want a multiple choice test? Okay, the first question will read Which of the following proofs is correct?

[6] Both quotations are approximate.

[7] Or maybe Flying Pig Press.

[8] Yeah, in that class, I was probably one of those students you hate to have in class, whether you are a professor or a fellow student.

[9] Mom and Huttenlocher were friends. I’d learned to call her by her first name before I took the class.

[10] Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. I keep thinking we should do a reading group on that book at Grinnell.

[11] Michael R. Garey and David S. Johnson (1979). Computers and Intractability: A Guide to the Theory of NP-Completeness. [12]

[12] I wonder what people use instead of Garey and Johnson these days.

[14] John E. Hopcroft and Jeffrey D. Ullman (1979). Introduction to Automata Theory, Languages, and Computation. [15]

[15] I think people use Sipser instead these days.

[16] I don’t usually apply all of the things I learned from Mast, but it’s nice to know that I can.

[17] Also known as Graduate and Professional Writing.

[18] I’ll admit that I don’t remember whether or not Williams helped teach it that semester; I think so, but it has been nearly thirty years.

[19] I’m sad to see that it’s out of print. Fortunately, I think I have a big enough stash for my next Tutorial.

[20] I’d love to have someone write software that reads through my writing and applies Williams-style analysis to it. Such software would be much more helpful to me than Grammarly.

[21] I think I have that paper in my files somewhere. I hope to find it again before I retire. If I recall correctly, it was on the role of physical comedy in the American Musical. I noted that most of the successful musicals had at least one piece that used the tropes of physical comedy and analyzed a variety of examples. I think Mast noted that I actually had come up with something novel.

[22] There are also probably a few others I’ve missed.

Version 1.0 of 2017-02-25.