Written a few years back to a student in a class I was TAing ("NINJAing, " in Olin parlance). Good reminder to myself now as I'm {still, continuously} learning how to be a student even in the absence of a school - I can read it now from the student's point of view, as a letter from a TA who just so happens to be my teenage self. (Often I think I was smarter back then; "different back then" is probably closer to the truth.)


Camera's charging - you should get the whiteboard photo before 3pm, if I remember how long it takes for it to juice up.

Thanks for coming in today; I know 8:30's really early in the morning. So! Here's what's up.

Meeting once a week - you, me, and another student (if they say yes this afternoon). We'll make sure y'all are ok with this week's stuff, and then we'll go over 3 week's worth of old stuff and throw problems about the room and make sure you're good with 'em and make mistakes and have lots of fun. I'll let you know the scheduling of this tonight. Look for more long emails from me. (You get many long emails from me if I am your NINJA, but you knew that already.)

Your assignment between now and next week: MAKE MISTAKES.

Try to wander off and tangent into something where you don't know what you're doing on every problem (like we did with the "hah, it is conservative!" bit for #1). The tangent can be anything. It can be ridiculously simple. Just listen for when you find yourself going "but I don't know how to do it..." and do it, try it anyway, even if you can't get through it. Tangents should be pretty quick, unless you really get into one; if you're spending more than 5 minutes going off somewhere, just write it down and move on.

Make notes of these tangents and write 'em down, and tell me what you got out of the wild tangenting - why was it not a waste of your time? Note that if you learned something, it was not a waste of your time. Paradoxically, if you learned it was a waste of your time, it is not a waste of your time - because you know then not to waste your time on it in the future. (See? Nothing's a waste of time.) I'm going to be asking you about what you did the next time we meet.

My objective in this is to get you less afraid of playing with [class] stuff, and more ok with just plunging in and making mistakes* (and believe me, I've made plenty of mistakes... just ask my profs about a couple of my quizzes from frosh year and a certain disastrous matsci project last semester involving CD drives).

*"mistakes" are sometimes the greatest things in the world; without them, we wouldn't have the theory of relativity (look up the michelson-morley experiment sometime), penicillin, and a lot of things in chemistry (check out this guy Joseph Priestly).

Also, from here: "An eighteen-year-old chemistry assistant, William Henry Perkin, undertook the project of trying to prepare artificially the anti-malarial drug, quinine, on his Easter vacation. He started with a simple waste product, aniline, from coal tar. He failed at synthesizing quinine but did produce a mysterious black powder. Given his training and curiosity he tried to discover what it was. He soon found that the powder dissolved in alcohol to produce a stunning purple color. Instead of discarding the solution, Perkin wondered if it might dye fabric. He found that not only did it color silk and cotton, but the color did not wash out with soap or fade when exposed to sunlight. Perkin built a factory to produce his mauve dye and it made him a rich man, allowing him to continue research on coal tar products. Using his accidental experimental results, William Henry worked out the synthesis of the red dye alizarin from anthracene, a component of coal tar. The value of these dyes is not limited to the textile industry. Researchers have found that bacteria can be stained and show up for microscopy when certain dyes are used. Tuberculosis and cholera bacilli were discovered using this technique."

So whether it's math or chemistry or physics or life, you gotta play with stuff; if you don't know the answer, that's great. Maybe you can find it. And maybe nobody else knows the answer either - in which case you've made a stunning new discovery to share with the whole world.

Also, [professors] would love to see you [at office hours]... So go in! Show them your tangents! Make mistakes! Seriously; the more mistakes you show us, the happier we are, because that means we see the mistakes now and not on the test.

Go forth and be merry, and I'll email you later tonight.

Play! Play!