The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Dec 24, 2007

The Professor

It is almost Christmas. I am at work. It is a slow day, and I find myself awash in a slightly nauseating bit of nostalgia. It is not a memory of running around the beach wearing nothing that I am labouring under. Rather, it's about my time at the Indian Institute of Science, that demesne where men are men and so are the women (I didn't make this up myself - this is what I was told while getting ragged.) In actual fact, the women were as women anywhere but the men were slobs. Unless you have lived in a hostel you will not appreciate the slobberiness, the miserable slobbitude of the human male. Damn, but we are slobs. Bad at the best of times, we are much worse when we don't even have to bother cleaning up our mess. Yuck.

Okay, it wasn't that which excited my nostalgia. I was, instead, thinking of the greenery on campus, the Primate lab (see also here) for which I wrote a little database application (never delivered), the vt100 terminals, the Gaza Strip1, and the eccentric, eccentric professors.

One, Professor S. V. Rangaswamy, was an institution. Our seniors spoke of him in awe, repeating his pronouncements as though from an oracle. An eccentric oracle. An oracle such as Delphi except without the naked women in trances. A genial man, he was known to be partial to the women in every class, always handing out better grades to them than to the guys. Clearly they adored him, except the one time that he tried to explain the concept of a null (or empty) set in formal logic by saying The set of pretty girls in this class is null.

He liked to invite the class over to his bungalow, ostensibly to discuss automata theory and to clear any doubts we might have before the exams. He would ply us with milk and ask us to mow his lawn in return. Guys, he'd say, introducing his wife to us, this is my wife. But remember, she is my wife!

His son was reading at some engineering college in North India at the time. He'd get letters from the boy, which he would read out to us, exclaiming at the beauty of the prose. Occasionally he'd get upset at a particularly inept turn of phrase and spend minutes discussing the sad lack of grammar or style in the younger generation. When he heard that I was from St. Stephen's College, he was all agog, expecting for some reason to find that I was a craftsman with the pen. He may have been disappointed with my answers in the various examinations, but he certainly professed himself satisfied with my handwriting.

He said he had been waiting years for some kind soul to order on his behalf a little monograph on writing style published by the ACM. I've been teaching here for decades, he mourned, and nobody has seen it fit to present me with a copy.

His classes were invariably held early in the morning. As he would rarely teach anything of consequence, I would absent myself occasionally. More often than not, he wouldn't care who attended or didn't, and continued to read out chunks of exposition from the prefaces of some book or the other. His reading lists were legendary - thirty or forty books, many only tangentially related to the course. But every once in a while, an afflatus of discipline would seize him and he would take attendance. If I were absent, he would say: if the fellow is using this time to study, I wouldn't mind his absence. But if he is in bed snoring, the angels will weep for him.

He tried the patience of the class week after week. If we asked him why he wasn't teaching anything, he would reply that he was a guide, not an instructor, and that anyway we were old enough to learn what we needed by ourselves. His exam papers were pedestrian and his grading idiosyncratic - by his own admission. What do you care about marking policy? he thundered once. It might be step grading. You know, I'd just chuck your answer sheets down my stairs, and the ones on the bottom step would get the highest grade, and so on.

Once he asked why we were so obsessed with grades. Who here cares whether he gets an Outstanding or a mere Very Good? he said. I guessed it was a rhetorical question, but I raised my hand. I'd like an Outstanding grade, I said. He shook his head in sorrow, but several weeks later, I found out that he had indeed awarded it to me.

It was the only outstanding grade I ever received in my four years in Bangalore.

1. The Gaza Strip was what we called the section of road between the Central Library and the Physics department, which used to be carpet bombed by crows coming in every evening to roost in the lush trees surrounding the area. It was said that if a crow shat on one's head, one was condemned to do a PhD at IISc. I got hit only once - on the shoulder - so I escaped the academic horror of a doctorate from that institution.


iagree said...

I still remember you got 20/20 on the real "FLAT" course second test. (It was all about NP, NP hard, turing m/c etc). While we minions were struggling to understand the answer the prof had put on her room.

Regarding "NP hard", me and my esteemed collegue seemingly "solved" a problem that was NP hard in matter of few hours". (We never realized it was NP hard, and just went ahead and solved it).You should have seen the expression on the profs face, when we claimed that we had solved the issue.

Feanor said...

Hmm, interesting you should recall that FLAT grade of mine - I have no recollection of it! What NP-hard problem was it that you solved?

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to find out that S.V.Rangaswamy is as lunatic as he was 25 years ago. IISc is an institution set up to provide a luxurious life for egotists and lunatics while they pretend to be professors. Of all the professors there, perhaps 1% make the grade to qualify as good human beings.

cloud-krbabu said...

I may not agree with all of the characterizations here, but with one characterization, I would, but only with an additional qualification. A refreshing eccentric, that is what he is; the rest of the professors I had were 'cookie-cutter' professors. I distinctly remember listening to him in a Modern Algebra class, and his presentation was so refreshing that I almost went on to do a PhD in that subject at USC! (Almost, but not quite). It takes a certain teaching skill to introduce liveliness in an otherwise dry subject.

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