January 23, 2009

Requiem for a black leather jockstrap and a whip...

I returned from an interview for a new faculty position at a teaching university to find a message in my in-box that a former professor of mine, Bill Wilson, had passed away. "Dr. Bill" taught electrical engineering at Rice University, my alma mater. Many people have influenced my career, but few had a more lasting positive influence than Dr. Bill. So instead of spending Friday night being entertained it seems fitting to remember how life-changing and long-lasting even the smallest events can be.

Rice is a selective, private, research university with a strong undergraduate tradition. I went to Rice from the small town atmosphere of the Panama Canal Zone. To a shy, protected geek Rice was dynamic, exciting, and in the early 1980's very anarchistic. Crazy parties, new people, its own private vocabulary, girls- Rice rolled students under, submerged their identity in its own, and created a strong need to belong. And it is a good thing they did since like many new students I was in over my head academically. The work was intense and never ending, the pressure unrelenting, the fear of failure ever-present. I suffered through the academics to maintain the lifestyle. Always at the back of my mind there was a little voice telling me I wasn't good enough, I wasn't cut out to be an engineer, "this isn't what you were meant to do with your life". And in the long nights of homework and rare moments of quiet reflection I knew I was lonelier than I had ever been before. But weekends of booze and barely-controlled social chaos kept the voice and loneliness at bay most of the time.

The biggest party of the fall semester was Weiss College's Night of Decadence (NoD links here and here); the party is, um, somewhat unrestrained. My first encounter with Dr. Bill, a faculty associate at Weiss, was at NoD in my freshman year. I ran into him in the line for 40 proof punch served from a twenty foot long paper mache penis that would have made a Titan feel inadequate. Dr. Bill had a drink in one hand, a whip in the other, and he was completely unclothed except for a metal studded black leather jockstrap which did little to hide his skinny, white 40-year-old ass. I simply did not believe that this was the first tenured electrical engineering professor I'd met at Rice despite assurances from my friends that he did in fact teach EE classes. Though I didn't talk to Dr. Bill again for nearly two years, this first meeting made a big impression on me.

After the initial novelty, life at Rice settled into a grinding routine. The loneliness increased along with the work. The voice also became more insistent as my enjoyment of schoolwork waned. I reached the nadir at the end of my sophomore year when the loneliness, work, and lack of meaning of constant homework made me give serious thought to switching majors or dropping out. I hated what I was doing and had no idea from my classes what it was engineers even did. But always there was an image of a middle aged, balding man in a black leather jockstrap and a whip enjoying the hell out himself in a crowd of students half his age. And I'd think to myself "Look at Dr. Bill, being an engineer can't be that uncool. Maybe people do emerge from this with their soul intact. If I just get through the next week.."

Dr. Bill's electromagnetics class in my junior year was the first engineering class I had at Rice where I had a sense that I "got it". He explained things simply and intuitively. So I specialized in electromagnetics, optics, and solid state--arguably the least intuitive sub-discipline of EE--to take more of his classes. I still didn't know what I wanted to do when I graduated so went to graduate school both due to Dr. Bill's encouragement and my own hazy vision of becoming a faculty member in order to lead a life like his. Being a professor like Dr. Bill seemed nearly ideal career choice to a lost, 21-year-old displaced beach bum. He was a kind and sane voice during my first traumatic years as a graduate student. Over time my life was influenced even more strongly by others, and eventually I found my own direction and pursued my own goals. But I never fail to smile when I remembered my electromagnetic fields professor in a black leather jockstrap and a whip. Any sanity, commonsense, and humanity that I've managed to retain during my academic research career so far I owe, in part, to the mental image of Dr. Bill and his metal-studded black leather jockstrap.

So on this Friday night I raise a pint of beer in your memory Dr. Bill, you will be sorely missed. I resolve never again to try to hard to maintain what little dignity I have in front of my students, to take myself or what I teach too seriously, or be too busy to take the time to explain engineering to the lost souls. Reflecting back I see that the smallest thing we do can resonate far beyond our own life but only if done with humor, grace, and a keen sense of our own folly. Although it is hard to say good bye, I know you had fun.

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