Before I became a CIS (Computer Science) major, I’d heard about the infamous CIS 160 class, widely known for causing hundreds of Penn students to pull all nighters each week every semester. CIS 160, Mathematical Foundations of Computer Science, is a class both loved and hated. One of the first classes computer science majors take at Penn, it’s a class that everyone agrees stretches you and challenges you to think in a way you’ve never done before.
Having many friends who had taken the class last year, I was nervous beginning this semester when I entered Professor Rajiv Gandhi’s class for the first time in August. Within a minute or two of sitting down, Professor Gandhi, who goes by Rajiv to most of his students, began lecturing, immediately diving into some unfamiliar topics at a brisk pace. Within a minute, he paused in his lecturing, scanned the crowd, and called on a student two-thirds of the way back in the lecture hall by her name. To be clear, this was the first day of class, and he’d never met this student before, but he still knew her name. So the rumors were true - Professor Gandhi memorized the class roster before we even stepped foot into his lecture.
For the first week or two, Rajiv’s cold-calling intimidated me, and the first few times he called on me when I wasn’t expecting it, I fumbled nervously for an answer. Quickly, however, I realized that his calling on people was his way of keeping students engaged, making sure students were understanding the content as he was teaching, and asking people to learn to think on their feet. I soon realized that I had nothing to be afraid of in giving a wrong answer, as Rajiv didn’t expect us to know everything; he merely wanted to ensure that we were paying attention and thinking critically about the material as he taught it. Rather than being a passive viewer of the lecture, I felt like I was actively participating, and when I began to do my problem sets for this class, I felt far more prepared and engaged in the material than I would have if I hadn’t been making sure I understood everything that was going on in the lecture. Many of the tales I’d heard about this class were true - I was spending more time on this class’ homework than on all my other classes combined - but CIS 160 soon turned into one of my favorite classes I’ve ever taken. I felt like I was learning the material in leaps and bounds, and though the homework challenged me and stretched me, it was also extremely rewarding to arrive at an answer.
A couple months into the semester, I decided to take advantage of Penn’s “Take Your Professor to Lunch” program by inviting Rajiv to lunch with myself and a friend in his class. The program allows Penn students to take their professors or teaching assistants to lunch for free at Penn’s University Club on campus. Penn students are allowed to take advantage of this program up to five times a semester! We asked Rajiv about his experience in industry, his philosophy on teaching, and his thoughts on the changing nature of computer science and the students studying it. I was really inspired by the way he advocated for students to take their education into their own hands, to make choices for themselves that are best for their education and what they want to pursue, rather than to follow the most common path. He also, over and over again, emphasized the importance of learning, rather than on getting good grades. Though I should have known this, I think after this conversation, it really hit me - we go to college to learn, not to get good grades. I think I’d been living for the most part to get my work done each week, to study for my exams, and to get good grades, but I realized that I was approaching my studies in completely the wrong way. I should be approaching my classes to learn as much as I can, and in doing so, the good grades may come as a side effect. Once we’re out in the real world, it’s all about the skills we’ve picked up and the material we know, not about how well we did on a certain test.
With thousands of students at Penn and some courses with hundreds of students, Penn could feel like a large and isolating place. But it is teachers like Rajiv and classes like CIS 160 that make the Penn education feel like you as an individual are important and recognized. It is easy to complain about my homework (and I am often guilty of this!), but if we look at our education and the chance to learn in this environment as a privilege and a gift every day, it changes our approach to our classes and our schoolwork. Our schoolwork becomes something exciting and useful rather than stressful and mundane, and we realize how lucky we are to have a full time job of learning every day.