‘I Love it When Students Get Me Flummoxed’
Mikhail Ulyanov, professor of the Software Management Department, has been chosen for the second time by students at the School of Software Engineering as an HSE Best Lecturer 2012. Tatyana Bogoslavskaya interviewed him for the HSE news portal.
TB: You teach a course of lectures on methods to devise and analyze computer algorithms. In which sphere do they have a practical use?
MU: They can be used in any computer programme, and without knowledge of how computers work, it’s hard to live in today’s world. Algorithms are the inner engine of programming, they make a programme find the right solution to a problem. In other words I teach computer math.
TB: What is special about the thinking of physicists and lyric poets, or in your case, of mathematicians and lyric poets? Do you need special gifts or can any student with the average abilities, become a programmer if he or she tries hard enough?
MU: There’s a famous story about the early 20th century futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov who didn’t finish his math degree at Kazan University. His math colleagues claimed that he took up poetry because he lacked the imagination to become a mathematician.
Let’s separate two things - the ability to create algorithms and the ability to write programmes based on well-known algorithms. Anyone with common sense can learn programming but creating algorithms is a special talent.
TB: Is it true that programmers spend their entire lives looking at a computer screen? When did you last write with chalk on a blackboard?
MU: Your humble servant teaches three sessions in a row twice a week, writing with chalk at the blackboard – it’s great! Maybe you’ll think me strange, that I go against the current conventions but I think using a projector in lectures is like showing kids cartoons. Of course, I too spend a lot of time staring at my computer monitor but nevertheless, my lectures are almost all hand written notes on four sides of paper. When I write, I think differently, the thought concentrates on the tip of my pen. But when I work on a keyboard I have completely different feelings. I think that a thought is born on the tip of the pen, but not on the keys of a keyboard.
TB: Does teaching help or hinder academic research? Could you imagine your life without teaching?
MU: Of course it helps. I’ve been teaching for 32 years. Teaching is my most important, wonderful and favourite profession. I can’t imagine life without it. At the end of August, my fingers are itching to be holding a piece of chalk or a feltpen, so I can explain something to someone. It’s the way I am - I live through teaching. And I’m absolutely convinced that to really understand something you should spend at least one term teaching it. It clarifies your mind and your thoughts get straightened out into a logical chain.
TB: What do you think of the standard of graduates and students at HSE in your area?
I teach in a a number of other Moscow HEIs as a visiting professor, and I give lectures all over Russia, from St Petersburg to Novosibirsk, so I know the situation in Russian higher education pretty well, at least in mathematics. The quality of education depends on how well prepared the school leavers are as well as on the professional skills of the teachers. I must say that the education system at HSE is devised in such a way that it attracts applicants who have had very good schooling. And in my view, the teaching-staff here are extremely good. I think that the fact that there is a demand for HSE graduates on the job market is a sign of how high the quality of our education really is.
Education is a nucleus, it has a magical gravitational force – knowledge begets knowledge. It gives me a lot of pleasure when I see that gravitational pull in the eyes of my students. But you know what I really love? – it’s when I am flummoxed by my students.
TB: Does that ever really happen?
MU: Not often, of course, but it does, when a student digs something up before a lecture that I haven’t come across. Then, afterwards, I stay up late, reading everything I can find, trying to get to the bottom of it, so I don’t get caught out next time, and that’s great!
TB: Do you have any free time to pursue other interests?
MU: For the last ten years I’ve been collecting pre-revolutionary Russian porcelain milk and cream jugs and I write for an art history publication about the history of Russian porcelain factories. Life is hard if you don’t have a hobby or an interest in something outside work. It just gets dull to be doing the same thing all the time, sometimes you want to look at the flowers that grow in a different field.