Bend It Like Feynman

Next week I begin teaching. This is really the first course that I’ve fully taught-I’ve given plenty of summer school lectures, and guest lectures, and I was a teaching assistant through most of my years at Berkeley-but this is the first class that I’ve really been in total control of the class. The class is “Quantum Computing” and is in the professional masters program here in the Computer Science and Engineering department at UW. You can check out the course webpage here. But there’s not much there but a syllabus yet. The cool thing is that I get to teach this course the way I think it should be taught. On the other hand, this means that there are “no excuses”-the quality of the class rests squarely on my shoulders
Since this is the first time that I’ve actually had to lecture for an entire course (as opposed to being a TA, in which you aren’t the first person to tell the students about the material) I’ve been spending a bit of time contemplating what makes a good lecturer. One way I did this was to go back and read the “Feynman Lectures on Gravitation.” Something I’ve noticed about a large number of the good speakers and lecturers, including Feynman, is that while their actual vocabulary might be limitted, they almost universal express themselves in ways which are very unique. Reading Feynman’s lectures, there aren’t many sections which are just ordinary drolling on. Saying the ordinary in extraordinary manner appears to be vital to keeping a lecture going. And certainly this also adds to Feynman’s humor. Perhaps by expressing his thoughts in such strange manners, he is just naturally led to funny sentences such as

There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it’s only a hundred billion. It’s less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers.

Indeed, if you read Gordon Watts blog, he put up a list one of his students had kept during his teaching of all the crazy things he said during the term. And you can tell, just by reading this list, that Gordon would make an excellent teacher. Now I just wonder if I need to tone up or tone down my crazy speak habits…