Thursday, April 10, 2014

Parallel Computing, TA-Style

When working as a TA in the computer labs of KSU in the early 80s, I was often the only help available to students. I paid no attention to my official work hours, and was always in the lab helping out with most of my spare time. When the lines got really long outside the lab's corner TA office, I would sit a student down at each of the three desks and help them in parallel. I would look at the first student's program listing, and start asking questions to guide them to discover their own answers. As soon as they would need to think for a moment, I would go to the next student at the next desk and do the same thing, then the next in a round-robin style, until they needed to go adjust their programs. Then someone else would take their spot the process would continue. I found I could help so many more students this way in the shortest amount of time.

Some really busy nights, this process could stretch on for hours without a break. I got to know so many different types of students. KSU had a large international student body, so I worked with students whose home countries were all over the world. I grew up, as I like to say, a poor hillbilly - born in the Ozarks of southern Missouri and raised in rural Kansas, so this was quite an eye-opening experience. At times, I would have three students from three different countries seated at the TA desks, helping them all at the same time. It was quite a challenge to switch from understanding one heavy accent to another, all in the span of a minute or two in succession. It took enormous concentration, and at the end of a lot of those nights I would be utterly exhausted.

It was the beginning of my exposure to a much larger world than I had ever known. One filled with ordinary people just like me and yet nothing like me, people with experiences I could hardly imagine and yet readily relate to, people whose language was both foreign and familiar. I would be an entirely different person today without the sum total effect all of these experiences had on me, and I know they made me a better person, a more empathetic human being. Despite the long hours, missed sleep and skipped meals, this was where I knew I belonged in those days: In the lab and helping everyone who needed it equally, with no borders and no limits.

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE YOUR WRITING. sigh..... The entire ending paragraph is so poetic and speaks definitively about the core of the person with whom I fell in love 12 years ago. I wish I had met you in college, but even though I didn't, these stories help me feel as though I did.