Wednesday, June 4, 2008

No Applause, Please

My school recently had its graduation. This year's graduating seniors (the computer science majors, anyway) are particularly memorable for me. For one thing, I had more success than usual in luring them into playing board games, especially Race for the Galaxy, Attika, RoboRally, and Ricochet Robots.

However, this group also stood out for a classroom behavior that I'm not used to—applause.

It started in Algorithms. In this course, when a homework is due, I usually have several students present their solutions. If the student solutions have not illustrated a point that I wanted to make, I will then present my solution, which is usually more elegant, and sometimes significantly more efficient as well. My goal in doing this is not to show them up, or to say “hey, dummy, this is what you should have written”, but rather to help them catch a glimpse of the beauty I see in an elegant algorithm, to inspire them with what is possible. (I do worry sometimes that fragile personalities might find the experience demoralizing, rather than inspiring.)

Last year, after presenting such a solution, I was very surprised when one particular student started clapping. He continued to do this in future weeks, and eventually pressured other students into joining him.

At first, I was taken aback, but over time, I got more and more frustrated. It felt like the applause was saying “this is so far beyond me that I could never hope to match it”, whereas I was hoping for a reaction more like “this may be beyond me right now, but, by golly, if I work at it, I'll be able to do that someday”. Eventually, I snapped, “C'mon, I'm not trying to impress you with my brilliance. I want you to impress me with your brilliance!”