Celebrating 30 years in the classroom, I reflect on past students.
First off, I’m not that old, I just happened to have a chance to be a TA while I was an undergrad.
As another generation of students leaves campus and the next group starts, I’m tempted by the thought of what makes a student memorable. And thus, I’ve gone into the archives and have remembered these: (BTW, I’m not using names, not out of privacy, but just that I’m horrible at remembering names and too lazy to go look them up; same for the dates. Also, I’m not including anyone from the last 5 or so years as I may remember them, but they haven’t had enough time to become memorable).
1983 – Calculus recitation – The only student I’ve ever had that bombed the first test (she got a D) and then put in the work needed to pull it up to a B by the end of the semester, without really much help from me. I thought that this would happen again, but it really hasn’t.
1985ish – Precalculus – An older student (probably about my age at the time) returning to school to get a degree. He passed the course, but what is more memorable is that I continued to see him around campus as he finished his undergraduate degree in engineering, and then began work on a graduate degree. I didn’t expect a student starting in precalc to end up at that level.
1993 – Some PDE Course – A graduating senior, super bright, and searching for a non-academic job. He was my first encounter with a really bright and mature student (outside of my fellow graduate students). He came by to chat often, especially about his job search which included Microsoft and whatever passed for Bell Labs at the time. He’s memorable because of this and that I remember writing in a letter of recommendation that he was (truthfully) the brightest student I had taught so far.
1998ish – Graduate Numerical Course – He was an undergraduate in a graduate course (which was less common then than now), and he dominated. In the second semester, he barely passed as his girlfriend of 3+ years had broken up with him over Christmas break. He was another super bright, mature student. He went on to a big name graduate program, and did super well (Ph.D., I think). He’s memorable because of the quality and the dynamics of the year I knew him, and his eventual success.
1998ish – Modeling Course – Same year as above, and actually a friend of the student above, but this guy was not the same type of student. He’s memorable because he was the first student I ever saw get really excited about doing mathematics (from a modeling project) and then choosing to go to graduate school. He got into a good school, and I think got a Masters. By that time I’d seen too many students, mostly undergrads but some grads, just going through the motion, and it was energizing to see a student get excited about math, make some serious changes to pursue it further, and be successful.
At this time I should start listing some memorable graduate students, but I remember most of them as good people and good students, and as we recruit many students like that, none stand out above the rest. I remember them and am glad I knew/know them.
Of course there are more recent students, but as I wrote above, they need time to see if the become memorable.
So, what can I conclude from this list? I’ve enjoyed working with many bright, hard-working, successful students, but that typically does not make a student memorable. I probably can’t tell you who made the higher grades in my classes. But students that exceeded expectations, ones that pushed out on their own and achieved something, and those that had life transformations and shared them with me, those are memorable. And so, when I’m advising a student as they prepare for preparing for life past my little corner of academia, I always tell them to be known by someone(s) (faculty) on campus; to share their experiences and dreams. That will make them memorable.