This past week I sent off for my unofficial undergraduate and graduate transcripts, because I discovered that my copies that I got in 2000 for my last job search were long gone from my archives. I got both transcripts in the last couple of days, and reading them is an interesting trip down memory lane.
I was a pretty hard-working student and my grades in my undergrad and graduate courses were mostly A’s. But I did have a few courses here and there where I didn’t get A’s; far from being disappointed by those courses or feeling like if I had just given a little more effort, etc., I actually feel pretty doggone good about some of them.
- General Physics I and II (Fall and Summer of sophomore year): B. My undergrad is from Tennessee Technological University, a place swarming with math, science, and engineering majors — especially freshmen who came to Tech wanting to major in engineering. With that many engineering prospects, there had to be a weed-out course. Physics I and II was it, and the department at the time openly embraced the role of that course. In the run-up to the final exam in Physics I, the professors adamantly told us that the exam would not be focusing on memorization of obscure formulas but on big, general concepts, and we should absolutely not expend energy on memorization. The exam itself was, of course, a series of problems which all required recall of exotically obscure formulas. I made a 20% on the final exam, and that ended up being in the upper quartile of the course. In the second semester, the profs said the very same thing about memorization — that we don’t need to worry about it — and I promptly went and did the opposite of what they suggested. I ended up with the highest grade on the final out of over 200 students taking it. I survived, and I am darn proud of those two B’s.
- Advanced Calculus (Fall of junior year): B. This was the first semester of a yearlong sequence in Advanced Calculus. The course was taught by a faculty member using the Moore method approach, only she used the Moore method only because she didn’t know the material herself and would frequently rip students to shreds when presenting only to find out later that her own criticisms were mathematically flawed. Once I was struggling with an induction proof and she said, “You know Robert, the good students in the course aren’t struggling with this.” (And people accuse me of being uncaring.) Also, she was a chain-smoker, and these were the days before smoking bans inside buildings; my attempts to get help in office hours probably shortened my life by 5 years. A nightmare of a course. I made it my mission in life to get an A in the second semester, and I did.
- Theory of Functions of a Complex Variable (Fall of grad school year 2): B+. My complex analysis course at Vanderbilt was taught by Richard Arenstorf, a brilliant German mathematician of the old school — meaning he was as prolific as he was hard-nosed. His grading system for homework consisted of four kinds of grades: R (“right”), R/2 (“half right”), 0 (“zero”), and F (“false”). (I have never fully grasped this grading system, but it seems awfully appealing to me now as a professor.) Our weekly homework consisted usually of 3-4 problems that would take all of us fully one week to solve (if indeed we did solve them); our two-hour final exam consisted of ten of them. I am still thrilled to have merited a B+ in his class. In fact on the course evaluations I remember writing, “It is a distinct honor to have my intelligence overestimated by Prof. Arenstorf.” Despite all that, I actually enjoyed Dr. Arenstorf very much as a mathematician and as a person, and I was disappointed to see his proof of the Twin Prime Conjecture didn’t work out.
Sometimes it’s the less-than-perfect grades that mean the most.