Professors who are insecure with respect to their ability and competence demand, rather than command respect. They institute complicated procedures which ensure that students need to suck up to them. Professors who know they are good don’t care. For example, the better professors who taught me at IIT never took attendance (everybody would be marked present), and would yet lecture to a full house most of the time. Lesser professors would get finicky about attendance. And other such trivial things. By forcing students to do things in a certain way, by “being strict”, they assumed, that students would respect them. It is a wonder that none of them thought this might be counterproductive.
In our third semester at IIT, we had this course called “Digital logic and VLSI Design Lab”. It was a decent and useful course. You would build digital circuits and test them out. No rocket science to it, but something that was useful in the long run. And because there was no rocket science to it, the faculty (one of the more insecure professors) had instituted a complicated process so that he gets some respect (or attention at least). Actually it wasn’t that complex. Before an experiment, we had to write up about the circuit and how we go about the experiment and get his signature on our write up. The lab assistant had been instructed that we should be issued components only after our report had been countersigned by the professor. Nothing too complicated, but a small step to ensure we suck up to him.
Things were mostly smooth, but one day the professor was late to arrive. Or maybe he was there and we didn’t see him – I don’t remember correctly. I don’t know how it happened but we managed to get the components from the lab assistant without our report having been countersigned by the professor. In a jiffy (after all we were three bright IIT boys) we had finished the experiment. And we called the professor to show him the results.
The experiment didn’t matter to him. He didn’t care one bit about the elegant circuit we had constructed. He only looked at our write up. His signature was missing. And he went wild. I won’t get into the details here but he went absolutely ballistic and threatened to annul our experiment, and possibly even fail the three of us in that course. “Such indiscipline is not to be tolerated”, he said.
“Sir, but this is not fair”, a teammate interjected. It only ensured that the professor went even more ballistic. “You guys must be reading the newspapers”, he thundered. “You see what is happening in South Africa? Is that fair? There is absolutely no fairness in this world, so you won’t get any brownie points by arguing that something is not fair” (the professor was a big cricket fan. The events in South Africa pertained to the one match suspension of Virender Sehwag and a suspended sentence to six other Indians, handed out by match referee Mike Denness).
“I don’t want my students to be this indisciplined”, he went on. “You never know where this will take you, if it is not nipped in the bud. One day you will do your experiment without taking my signature. When that is tolerated, you get encouraged to more indiscipline. And so it grows. And one day you will be bombing the WTC”. None of the three of us was able to react to this (this was in October 2001).
I don’t exactly remember how it ended. If I remember right, we had to dismantle our set up, take the professor’s signature on our write up, re-issue the components and re-do the experiment – but I’m not sure – maybe we were let off. But it was an important lesson for us – if indiscipline is not checked right up front, you could go on to be a terrorist it seems!