Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70
Ingemar Stenmark is arguably the greatest skier of all time. An interviewer once asked him why he was so good. He replied that he watched other skiers carefully, not to copy them, but to adapt their good qualities to his own athletic skills and body structure.
That seemed like a good idea to me when I read the interview in an airline magazine, on my way to someplace, some 30 years ago. I started watching MIT’s great lecturers, ignoring content and watching delivery, not to copy them, but to adapt their techniques to my style and subject.
Often, a student will say so-and-so is a great lecturer, but then, when I ask why, he can only repeat that so-and-so is great. Often, a faculty candidate will tell me his thesis adviser was great, but then, when I ask why, he cannot think of a single example of something learned from the great thesis adviser. Not very impressive.
Last week I slipped into the back of 10-250 to watch Donald Sadoway at work. Don is enormously popular, drawing the bulk of the freshman class into 3.091, Introduction to Solid State Chemistry, one of several subjects that satisfy the General Institute Requirement for chemistry. I wanted to see him in action, ask myself why he is so good, and articulate answers.
While I was in 10-250 Don finished his lecture by talking about the virtues of magnesium and explained that there is an inexhaustible supply extractable from seawater. The title page of a paper he wrote on the subject flashed up on a screen. He demonstrated how light the stuff is by waving around, with one hand, a big block of it that he had brought with him.
So there it was. One of the characteristics that make him a great lecturer is that he takes the final five minutes to tell an interesting story spiced up with historic pictures and physical artifacts. He does it every time, so students know they have something to look forward to during the hard parts of his lectures. It works like magic, but it’s not magic, it’s tangible technique. I’ll figure out how I can adapt the idea to my style and subject.