I’ve just come back from a weekend retreat that was wonderful and very much needed, as I was forced to confront some work-in-progress areas of my life in a much deeper and more intentional way than I’ve had to in the past. (Ironically, in light of Week 2’s post, one of those areas was that of vocational callings.) It was also pretty emotionally and mentally exhausting. I’m still recovering and processing what happened there, but since that gets pretty heavy, here’s a memory that made me grin this morning. This one comes from a few years back, while I was an engineering student at Northwestern. Hope you enjoy it!
During my first quarter at Northwestern, most of my cohort and I had the distinct pleasure (and pain) of taking a class on quantum mechanics with a professor of exceptional caliber in the field. Minutes into his first lecture, it was obvious that this was someone who knew his stuff forwards and backwards. We later learned that he’d actually taught himself solid-state physics from textbooks as a young student. His teaching style was, to say the least, disciplined and rigorous, though he was happy to answer questions even if they may have sounded less-than-intelligent to him. He was not unkind, yet he gave the impression that he was not a man to be trifled with.
Our professor and his quantum course were something of a legend within the department. It was widely known that the class was a heavyweight, even in context with the non-trivial core classes we had to take for the degree. It was a tradition for the older students to take the first-years out to Nevin’s, a local pub, to drown out the pain of the first exam at the end of October. I distinctly remember telling a classmate in a post-exam daze that I felt like I’d been run over by 12 trucks.
Our professor also had the simultaneously endearing and infuriating habit of regularly pausing in his lectures to ask, “Is everyone comfortable with this?” The question was clearly asked out of a desire to ensure his students’ understanding of the material. Still, it became a point of desperation and hilarity with a good number of the class for whom quantum mechanics was not a research interest or side-interest. I think I’m being fair when I say that most of us were quite uncomfortable with the weighty material, but no one really wanted to say that out loud. Whatever quantum was, it was not a comfortable subject.
Ah, those were the days. It was a stressful first quarter – and to be honest, this class was only one of a number of factors that made it so -, but the challenges pushed us to work and study together. I’d heard horror stories of grad students who sabotaged each other to avoid being weeded out of their programs, but I found almost all of my classmates to be very willing to help each other understand what we were learning. It was hard at the time, but looking back on all that now, the memories have mellowed out into nostalgia and thankfulness for the camaraderie that grew over the course of that first year in Chicago-land.