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Veni, vidi, vici!

for my students, Fall 2011

by Danuta Hinc

When my students were in the preliminary stages, meaning, “familiarizing themselves” with Assignment #5 (writing instructions for experts and non-experts), one of my students from the A. James Clark School of Engineering, questioned the requirements of that assignment.

“Professor Hinc,” he asked in his baritone voice, “the assignment calls for 400 to 750 words.”

“Yes, it does indeed” I said, knowing that what will follow will be another, already familiar to me, tirade of precise explanations in which graphs, charts, drawings, and a mind-boggling calculus equations will be used as supporting points.

“Well, I think that we don’t really need that many words to write instructions,” he said to the perfect silence of the other twenty-one students in the class, whose faces were now turned towards him.

“Really?” I said, waiting for the calculus equations and seeing all the faces in the room turn to look at me.

At this point everyone in the room understood that my engineering student and I were engaged in a match and that the outcome was of the great interest to all in the room.

“Yes.  I can pretty much explain anything under 400 words.”  All the faces turned towards the baritone voice.

“Are you sure?” I said not knowing what to say.

“I am pretty sure,” he said.

“Well, in this case, we need to conduct an experiment.” All the faces turned towards me.

“Experiment?” The baritone voice clearly liked that word.  “What experiment?” he asked.

“You will see,” I said, trying to be as mysterious as I could.  I think even my eyebrows moved up slightly.  “We will conduct an experiment in the beginning of the next class, on Wednesday.”

“Okay …” The baritone voice was cheerful and confused at the same time.

***

“An experiment?  Why did I say that?  Now I have to come up with an experiment,” I was thinking coming up the stairs to my office.  “I can’t believe the things I say sometimes! Why do I have to make it difficult on myself?” I remember that “regret” was the first word that followed the questions.  The second word was “Jesus!” This is the one that comes to my mind habitually.

On the evening of that day I paced my house—admiring the autumn colors of the woods I see through the enormous windows in my living room, visiting the refrigerator in hope of finding something that needed to be purchased immediately, checking the dryer wishing to find clothes that needed to be folded—and nothing came to my mind.

To my disappointment, I realized that I was on an impossible quest to surprise my students, to engage them in something fabulously interesting, to challenge them, to make them happy, and—most importantly—to prove the baritone voice from the engineering school wrong.

I struggled way past my bed time and finally gave up.  I turned the lights off. A voice in my head said: “It’s okay.  It’s good to know when to give up.”  I took a deep breath and said to that voice: “I am not giving up, I am just going to sleep, you idiot!”

I was feeling myself dissolving into the warmth of my bed, drifting away into the place where my body, my thoughts, the air, and even the walls and the ceiling of the bedroom become one.  On the precipice of a dream a saw the walls of my room disconnect and float as geometrical shapes—a small square with an opening for a window, a gigantic rectangle for the ceiling, two trapeziums that supporting the cathedral ceiling, and a rhombus from nowhere that decided to join the other shapes.  They floated above my head in different patterns as if revealing all the different combinations of connections that exist within those shapes.

And that was the very moment when I realized that the dance of the geometrical shapes was the experiment I needed.  For a moment I was surprised how unimpressed I was to finally have it and then I realized the reason: I knew I had to get up and write it down because otherwise I won’t remember anything when I wake up in the morning.  “Jesus!” came to my mind.

***

The next morning I opened a Power Point, went straight into Shapes and chose Basic Shapes.  I arranged different shapes into a picture you can find here: http://tinyurl.com/6sbtye7

I would like to say that on Wednesday all my students were eager and excited in anticipation of the experiment, but the truth is that I was the only person exited because I was the only person who remembered about the experiment.  My students’ seemed slightly bewildered when they heard the word “experiment,” but when the baritone voice said, “Oh, yes, the experiment,” everyone seemed to remember our Monday’s match.

Here is the experiment:

I asked my students to pair up.  I asked them to sit back to back.  Half of the room faced the wall on the right and half of the room faced the wall on the left.  I gave the students facing the right wall a sheet of paper with the picture I prepared for the experiment.  The students facing the wall on the left were given a blank piece of paper (of the same size).  Then I asked the students with the picture to give instructions to the students with the blank paper to draw the picture they were holding.  The students with the blank paper were not allowed to see the picture; they had to draw it only on the basis of the instructions given by the students holding the picture.

After about 10 or 15 minutes everyone was done.  The results varied.  Some of the drawings were very close to the original, some of them were not, but all of them revealed one simple truth: giving instructions is not easy!  Or is it?

“How many words do you think you needed to instruct your partner?” I asked the baritone voice (he was the one giving instructions in his pair).

He smiled the smile of integrity. “Way more than 750,” he said, still smiling.

I didn’t need to say anything. I felt victorious!

“Professor Hinc,” called the baritone voice. “I would like to show you our drawing.”

“Yes,” I said walking towards his desk.

He put the drawing made by his partner on the original to reveal that the drawing was very precise.  The two pictures aligned perfectly.

“How did you do it?” I asked.  “It’s almost impossible!”

I turned to the class and showed them the drawing aligned with the original.  I asked if anyone else had such perfect results.  No one did.

“How did you do it?” I turned to the baritone.

“I gave him all the instructions in inches,” he said and smiled the victorious smile.

This story was originally published in “The Professional,” a newsletter of the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland, College Park.

 

 

One Response to “Assignment: Veni, vidi, vici!”

  1. Colleen says:

    Academia in its purest form… challenging each other and learning something new in the process.