Saturday, August 8, 2015

Great Moments in Teaching II

Thirty-five years ago, on a small island off the coast of Texas, I taught computer science at a small college.  This is not common knowledge, as for years I have kept this knowledge secret for fear somebody might make me do it again.

It was only a part time job, something I did at night.  My classes were small, the pay was minuscule, but the students were motivated, as this was just at the beginning of the microcomputer revolution.  For most of my students, this class was the first time they had actually touched a computer so, during every class, I was truly covering virgin territory.

Then, I got a call from a major university, one that you have heard of.  And the wanted me, to teach for them—Really!  The job, however, was not on their campus:  they wanted me to teach on their floating campus—a very large commercial ship that had been converted into a sea going laboratory and classroom.  Specifically, they wanted me to teach an intensive course on FORTRAN.  By intensive, they meant several hours a day, every day, for two weeks.

I found out later that something on the ship was being repaired.  Maybe they had to change the bilge oil in the starboard disgrontificator or something.  Whatever it was, the ship would be tied to a dock for two weeks and if they didn't have something to keep the students busy, it would turn into an impromptu spring break on the island's beach.  And as we all know, university administrators live in mortal fear that students might enjoy themselves, so something had to be planned.

I have always wondered what the backup plan was.  If I have been unavailable to teach that course, would the students have been forced to take a lab class in oyster shucking?  Would that have been more useful than FORTRAN?

Fortran (back then it was always FORTRAN) is a programming language that, while still popular in higher number crunching, back then was used extensively by almost all scientists and engineers, so teaching the language to a bunch of budding oceanographers was not a bad idea.  Teaching it on a ship that possessed not a single computer was a bad idea, but I have always operated under one simple business rule:  Tell the customer the truth one time, then shut up and take the money.  I'm honest, but I'm not a fanatic about it.

When I pointed out that the relative difficulty in teaching a programming course without a single computer was not dissimilar to teaching Chopin without a piano, no one thought this was a major difficulty, and as it turned out, it wasn't.  By this, I mean their check cleared.

I prepared my lessons, printed out quite a few tutorials for the students, and headed off to class.  The ship was huge.  I knew nothing about ships (for further proof of my ignorance, read this), and had never been on anything more nautical than the ferry boat that connected the island to the mainland. 

Eventually, I found my way to my classroom, which—despite being in a seagoing vessel—was about the size of my classroom at the local college.  The desks were about the same, the blackboards were the same, but the students were different:  All male, all relatively young, and all as bright as new pennies.  I thought to myself, "This is going to be a fun course."

And the first hour of the class was fantastic—right up to the time where I got horribly seasick.

I still maintain that this is not funny.  God knows, I wasn't laughing.  My students were howling, however.  More than once, one of them pointed out to me that I was on a large ship, tied to a dock, on the protected side of the island, and on a day with absolutely no weather whatsoever.

I wanted to throw up the cake from the birthday party my parents gave me when I turned eight years old.  And every single damn thing I had eaten since then.  The students were laughing so hard I was terribly afraid they wouldn't die—while I watched.  What is so all-fired funny about watching someone else being seasick?

I finished the class.  The second hour was done on the dock, after I had the students relocate one of the portable blackboards.  I seem to remember doing at least part of that remaining hour while lying flat on my back in the middle of the pier, but only until the dock stopped moving.    The students seemed to enjoy the first class, and not just for the entertainment value of their instructor's misery.

The second day, I was ready and prepared.  I had told my wife, The Doc, about my problem, and she helped me obtain the right medicine to prevent a reoccurrence.  I took the pill—can't remember what it was—about twenty minutes before I boarded the ship.  And that's about all I remember.

Either I took too large a dose, or I had a bad reaction to it.  My students later said it was their favorite class in the whole series, but refused to elaborate other than to say that the entire class had been taught not on the dock, but in the classroom.   I suspect that I had passed the entire two hours talking nonsense and gobbledygook, but I can't prove it.  The students did their homework, so I must have done something right.

By the third class, I finally had my act together.  I was taking about a third of the seasick medicine, seemed to stay coherent, and my students got fairly proficient in writing code in FORTRAN.  I had even brought a microcomputer aboard and let them play a little with BASIC (a much smaller programing language that had started as a subset of FORTRAN).

I never heard from the university again.  The ship sailed, and I have no idea what happened to it, or the students on it.  I doubt that any of them ever wrote another line of code in FORTRAN.  But, I bet all of them never forgot the class.

I'm probably the only person in the world who ever got paid to teach FORTRAN while lying on a dock.


  1. Picture it: Texas A&M University, 1975. FORTRAN on punch cards. The near riots trying to get on one of the few card writers. Then waiting for "happy hour" so you could run and debug your 50 line program without the computer time being charged to your account. Ah, the good old days....

  2. My favorite teaching experience was canoeing class at Lone Star Camp. It was the height of my teaching career.

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