Recently I went to write an essay and found myself focusing on an influential professor that I met during my undergraduate studies. While writing it, I discovered some very heart-wrenching news. What follows is an excerpt from that essay, and I hope you'll spare a few minutes to hear my story of this inspiring teacher.
When I went through my undergraduate study in mathematics, I faced something of an identity crisis in my sophomore year. I had just spent the summer participating in a research program where we were exploring the application of topology to macromolecular protein folding. Chemistry was hardly my forte, but seeing how these abstract mathematical concepts manifested in a practical application was an incredibly eye-opening experience. I came back to taking pure mathematics courses in fall and it felt like something was missing. I could follow the mathematics, but it seemed like I was missing the “big picture”. I wasn’t satisfied with simply learning the mathematics anymore and wanted to understand how that mathematics fit in the broader human experience.
Around the same, I was enrolled in an intro psychology course as part of my general education requirement. The professor, who answered only to “Doc”, had a very eccentric teaching style. Intro courses at this school typically ran large, around 300 students per course, and you could go through most lectures without being noticed. Not in Doc’s class. His classes were part lecture and part Comedy Central Roast. Doc would observe some small unconscious behavior by a student and proceed to make fun of them for engaging in it -- almost like a stand-up comedian going off on someone who answers their cell phone. Then, without skipping a beat, he’d turn the subject around and tie the whole incident back to the course material. Something as subtle as a girl tossing a wink to the boy three seats over would turn into an hour long discussion about the role of classical conditioning in human courtship behavior. At first some students seems slightly offended by this approach, but Doc insisted that he wasn’t singling anybody out and promised to offend everyone in the class equally at one point or another. Every lecture was brilliantly connected and it was impossible to tell whether he was improvising or meticulously planned the whole thing out in advance.
In addition to his razor sharp wit, Doc also had a gift for storytelling. These stories were easy to identify since they seemed to always begin with Doc’s favorite pastime: drinking Budweiser. He’d start with “So I was drinking a Bud on the porch and...” then proceed to talk about some seemingly ordinary occurrence like a bird visiting his bird feeder or a naive remark made by his 4 year old daughter. To an unaccustomed observer these stories might have the appearance of small talk, but every single one of them had a hidden purpose that related to the previously assigned reading. Every story had a basis in some behavior and every behavior had an evolutionary basis for its development. The bird might be use an example of territorial behavior. His daughter’s comment might characterize a particular stage in childhood development. As a student in the course, there was a chance of being called out to identify this link. Those that didn’t read up were subject to further roasting, so there was significant negative reinforcement to keep up with the reading. One thing remained consistent though, and that’s that every story was eventually revealed to be an application of natural selection.
One of the most influential moment in my college experience was visiting his office hour. Doc’s previous lecture had started getting into game theory, but his charismatic style had allowed him to make his point without getting into the mathematical details. This gave me the exactly motivation I needed to visit Doc during his office hour -- a visit I’ll never forget. We started talking about mathematics, psychology and the interrelation between the two subjects. I could tell that I had stumbled upon an area that Doc as he smiled with youthful enthusiasm. We discussed everything from the role of mathematics in human development, to artificial intelligence and the abstract notion of consciousness. Not only did Doc have a deep knowledge in a broad array of subjects, but he had an incredible passion for learning that was quite contagious. He had this sense of awe and wonder about the world combined with an insatiable drive to make sense of it all. It was impossible to leave his office hour without feeling inspired.
Before parting ways, Doc recommend that I read a book by Douglas Hofstadter called Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Never before had someone made a book recommendation that was so appropriate for that exact moment in my personal development. It was as if Doc knew me better than I knew myself after only a brief meeting. GEB managed to connect a diverse range of my interests through a common mathematical thread, and gave me the perspective I needed to make sense of the mathematics that I was previously struggling with. Not only did Doc give me the motivation I needed to continue my mathematical studies, but he also shed light on how that knowledge could be applied in other subjects. My interest in psychology continued to grow, and I would eventually graduate with dual degrees in mathematics and psychology.
One of the central themes to GEB is the concept of self-reference and tangled hierarchies of abstraction. In the namesake example of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, Gödel managed to use mathematics as a tool for analyzing mathematics itself. The resulting “meta-mathematics” revealed a deep insight into formal logic and its limitations. Doc’s unconventional lectures shared many of the same qualities. He wasn’t just teaching psychology, he was actively using psychology to teach psychology more effectively. Once I understood this about Doc, his lectures took on a whole new level of depth. Class was an enlightening display of “meta-psychology” with new twists at every turn. Doc had this zen-like understanding of himself, and set a model for students to embark on journey of self-discovery of their own.
During the last week of my senior year, I made sure to visit Doc’s office hour before graduating. This time I made sure to bring a 6-pack of Budweiser along with me to properly say thank you. He laughed and said “well I usually only drink Bud Lite, but I think I can make an exception”. We talked about my plan to apply what I had learned mathematics and psychology to making video games. He gave me some final words of encouragement then I went off to enter the working world. A few years later, I ended up changing careers and began teaching mathematics courses at a community college. I tried to look Doc up, but the college directory showed him as having retired and didn’t list any contact information.
Recently I was saddened to learn that Doctor Dennis Mitchell passed away in August 2012 after a 5 year battle with brain cancer. He was an exemplary teacher and I feel honored having known him. Doc helped me along my way to becoming a lifelong learner.
Actually, it’s more than that.
Doc helped me become a lifelong meta-learner.