Here’s to You, Professor Behdad

I suppose this fits in with the previous post, since the stories in this post are stories that come up in every class I teach.

I have been blessed in my life with many outstanding teachers at every level of my education, too many to name here.  If they have rubbed off on me at all, even a little, then I am sure I will be a good educator.

There is one man whose name always seems to come up, both when I think about my teaching style in private and when it comes time to tell stories in front of the class.  I’m referring to my economics professor at Denison University, my undergraduate alma mater, Dr. Sohrab Behdad, and that man could tell a good story.

Let me be clear — the man is an excellent professor all the way around.  His class was informative and interesting and challenging, etc.  But right now I am focusing on one slice of it — the stories, specifically the stories that I have remembered and now use in front of my own classes.

Whenever I have been lecturing for a while and there have been no questions, despite my prompting for questions, I think about the Maytag repairman.  You may remember those commercials — the conceit was that the Maytag repairman was lonely and bored in his office all day because no one ever called, the washing machines all being so reliable.  However, if you are the Maytag repairman, Prof. Behdad would explain, all you know for sure is that there are two possibilities.  Either all the washing machines are working perfectly or nobody is doing any laundry.  And telling that story usually jars a question or two out of the class.

One day, he explained to us that, in Iran, they learn the multiplication tables in the form of a sort of chant.  Apparently in Persian there is a natural rhythm.  He told us about an exchange between himself and his father.

Father: Son, what did you learn in school today?

Son: We learned the multiplication tables.

Father: Ah, it is a good thing to be able to multiply.  Tell me, what is six times seven.

Son: Well, I don’t know how to multiply any numbers, sir, I on’y know the rhythm.

Later that day, we happened to be reviewing for an exam, and he worked out some extended example on the board.  He asked who felt they had understood everything he had just said.  About half the hands went up.  Then he pointed at one student in particular and asked her what would happen if the tax rate was increased from 5% to 10%.  She said she didn’t know, and then he asked “Did you only know the rhythm?”

This is something I struggle with every day, both as a teacher and as a learner.  How do you know whether you really understand something or you merely know the rhythm?

The previous two stories were rather serious in the sense that they informed my pedagogy in meaningful ways.  But that aside, the professor was just funny.

One particularly windy winter day, he told a joke about a tardy student.

Student: I’m so sorry I was late, sir.

Teacher: You’re half an hour late!  What happened?

Student: It’s the wind, sir.  Every time I took one step forward, the wind blew me two steps backward.

Teacher: If that were true, you’d have ended up at home.

Student: But sir, I was trying to go home.

(As it happens, on the very day he told this joke to my class, a student came in about 30 minutes late, full of apologies and blaming the weather.  The professor asked him where he had been trying to go.)

Another thing I will never forget about him is that he offered (and, I presume, still offers) a “lifetime guarantee” on his courses.  He told my class that anyone who had ever taken one of his classes could come back to his office, at any time in their lives, to follow up with economics questions he or she may have.

I have unapologetically stolen this idea, and I offer my own lifetime guarantee on my math classes.  Every once in a while someone from last fall’s calculus class sends me an email or knocks on my down, and it always makes me smile a bit.

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