So it’s been awhile since I last posted, mostly because of a rush of work. As I write this, I’m sitting on an Amtrak train to New Haven, CT, as I’m going to visit Quinlan at Yale. I can’t post from the train, unfortunately– while I’m eyeing the Sprint wireless broadband dongle of the person next  to me, I doubt he’d be willing to share.

This last week, in addition to finishing a variety of homework (some of it interesting, all of it required, unfortunately), I was also asked by my nominal boss, Dr. Houlahan, to teach the Java lecture, as she was sick. This was all sorts of fun for me; while I have taught a lab section for three semesters now, teaching the lecture is ordinarily not possible (both because Hopkins forbids TAs from teaching under normal circumstances, and because Dr. Houlahan likes teaching). So finally, I get to talk to all the students, and make them really learn, right?

Well, after teaching two classes, I have to hand it to the real professors; it’s hard to keep yourself upbeat, looking out at a lecture hall filled with scared kids. No, my students weren’t bored; I was that entertaining, at least (being able and willing to explain language features in depth, including some fairly amusing history of computing, kept them interested, it would seem– or at least, my willingness to admit that certain language vagaries of Java were made radically inconsistent with either logic or good sense). However, since all my public speaking training is in debate, it’s tough to have no reaction from an audience. In APDA (the style of debate I did earlier in college), it’s a wild ride; people yell out praise (or criticism) in the middle of your speech, your friends pound on their tables to applaud you, and your enemies whistle or cry “for shame!” when you blow it. Even in the more-sedate NFL format (National Forensics League, not some football thing; the high school debate league), you still get reactions from your audience.

By contrast, most of the time, the Java babies appeared to be frightened, or at least too jaded to talk back. Maybe I’m too used to my upper-level courses (where there’s a 10-1 student-faculty ratio, or less), but aren’t you supposed to participate in your education? I found it difficult to keep going, and ever-more-radical thoughts popped into my head.

  • "Pick the most-scared looking student and throw candy at them."
  • |Call out 'Can I get an AMEN for the POWER of the LOOP? AMEN!'"
  • "Improv a song on control structures in Java."

And so on. I didn’t actually do any of those things (I was really tempted to do the Baptist preacher one, but lacking a backup choir, I decided against it), but it was frustrating, not being able to get students to react. I’d much prefer they say something, even something drastically wrong, than say nothing at all, and stare back at me like I’m some Rodin they don’t really get.

I did have lots of positive comments after the class, though; many students said it was the most interesting Java class they’ve had. “So why didn’t you speak, when I asked for a comment?” “Oh… I don’t really do that.” Is that common, I wonder– and is it college as a whole that makes students sit down and be quiet? Is it the frightening breadth of their professors’ knowledge and experience?

Or are most Hopkins people really just this quiet, not to say boring?

I hope not. In the meantime, though, I’ll go on making a ruckus in my classes– and I hope that my professors appreciate it, not as disruption, but as my attempt to bring some life to education.

Update: Now at Yale, in my brother’s dorm room; this is a happening place!