Teachers: Paul Gries

For some time I’ve wanted to write a short post about each of the teachers I’ve had over the years who has passed along something that has made me the way I am today. This is the first in hopefully a series of posts honouring those people who you can point blame to.

It’s fascinating how one little sliver in time can so distinctly shape us as persons. These moments mean the world to us — we hold onto them, embellish them, and revel in how important they are. More often than not, you’re the only one who has any recollection of them. One such incident happened for me over half a decade ago (what a fancy way to say 5).

If you don’t like math, you should get used to making websites.

I had the good fortune of studying under Professor Paul Gries for 3 semesters at the University of Toronto. I was always thrilled to have him as a teacher given the open discourse, mastery of his subject, and the utterly brilliant course design. Learning about things like how file compression works, then doing it, was pretty awesome. Professor Gries was easily approachable, and cared deeply about the performance of his students.

An example of such caring was when Professor Gries held an open forum over a recent test our class took. On the whole, not a lot of people were terribly happy about this test. The test was not something that everyone had…trounced. Professor Gries was taking the time to go over everything with us, ask us for our thoughts, and also inquire about how he could make the situation better. Not only was he going to reduce the impact of this mark on our overall grade, but he also wanted to hear our feedback on how to better structure the course to teach the material. To this day, this is a leadership example that I hold dear and strive to emulate.

Open forum. Bunch of people listening. Of course there was that guy. I’m sure to this day he still knows everything (just apparently not a lot about that test), who needed to let the Professor know just how poorly the test was constructed. This particularly vocal peer had been going on for some time about how he shouldn’t need to know some theorem or some portion of math for computer science. The student went on to mention website design being beneath him, etc., etc. Professor Gries was pretty relaxed through most of this until that last part: “If you don’t like math, you should get used to making websites.” The only sound after this was the mic hitting the floor as Paul Gries erupted into flames, transcending time and space as mere mortal man…that last part is a 100% accurate depiction of the events that took place.

Of course, in reaching out to my classmates and the dear Professor, they have at best a very hazy recollection of all of this. To me, it could have been yesterday.

To me, the words echoed were akin to, “If you don’t like doing the hard stuff, you should get used to doing the easy stuff.” That sliver of time was the point at which computer science went from being a course I was just interested in, to being my major alongside mathematics and fine art. That quote about math has been a huge driving force in my desire to keep learning and keep wading into deeper water.

Professor Gries, we didn’t interact a tonne in undergrad because hindsight is 20:20 and I never really felt that I needed to come to your office hours. I scored decently, and the teaching I received in lecture was to such a caliber that I didn’t really have a lot of questions. Regardless, you were a favourite teacher and one who shaped my trajectory.

Also, I build websites. I hope that you’re still proud.