Tough questions and great thoughts: Advice from Richard Hamming
Posted November 1, 2018
By Rodney Schmaltz
In the busyness of undergraduate studies, students sometimes lose sight of the big picture. Understandably, many students do not take the time to step back and make the connection between what they are doing in their studies and how this relates to who they want to be, and where they want to go. This might be a tough sell, but I’m going to make the argument that a grainy, lengthy, twenty-year old video of a lecture by a cantankerous mathematician is essential viewing for students. Not only that, but I believe this video can provide a springboard for instructors to facilitate meaningful class discussion regarding careers, motivation, and work habits. Enter Richard Hamming and his lecture, “You and Your Research” (https://youtu.be/a1zDuOPkMSw). This lecture provides instructors with a tool to help students focus on long-term goals while potentially providing a greater sense of purpose in the short term.
Richard Hamming was a mathematician who was widely recognized for his contributions to computer science. In 1995, Hamming recorded a lecture focused on how to conduct research. This was not new material for Hamming, as a transcript of an earlier version of this presentation was published in 1986 (Hamming & Kaiser, 1986). An instructor could assign the transcript for students to read and not use class time for the video, but I believe this would be a mistake. The later version of this lecture provides greater insight from someone who reached the top of their field. While research is in the title of the talk, the content is really about how to excel in nearly any career. It is a rare opportunity for students to hear what it takes to excel at the highest level from someone who has done it, and is now looking back on their career.
Hamming discusses how he would set time aside every Friday for what he called, “Great Thoughts”. During this time, he focused on the important problems in the field, and more generally, he would consider the issues that really matter. The first time I showed the video to one of my classes, I asked them to set aside time for great thoughts. I wanted them to consider why they are interested in the field, and what contributions they wanted to make. The students were enthusiastic, and seemed to think this was a fine idea. At the end of the semester, I asked how many students regularly engaged in great thoughts. The answer was one. One single student. The rest of the students said they wanted to, but couldn’t find the time, and also reported that they didn’t know what to focus on. Although frustrated, I wasn’t ready to give up yet.Hamming dedicated 10% of his time to challenging himself with questions about the field. I decided that I would dedicate 10% of my 400-level senior seminar class to challenge students with thought-provoking questions, which I based around Hamming’s video. Students in this course watch the Hamming video early in the term, and are then given one “Great Thought” question a week with ten minutes of class time dedicated to discussion. The discussions are conducted in groups of three to four students, and following the small group discussion, we briefly discuss the question as a class. The feedback I’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive, and the discussions have been eye-opening both for me and for the students themselves.
Here's a sample of Hamming’s advice that I have found most inspiring for students, and examples of the questions that have been drawn from his talk.
Leading a significant life
Hamming said, “. . . you need to live the life you want to live, and you do this by doing something significant.” I ask students what is your definition of significant? The discussion does not have to focus on what is significant only in the field of psychology, but generally, what does it mean to the student to make a significant contribution. The most common response to this question, at least initially, is a blank look followed by a sombre, “I…don’t…know.”. This is where the group discussion is invaluable.
Luck favours the prepared
In “You and Your Research”, Hamming discusses the somewhat tired cliché of how luck favours the prepared. I’ve always found the notion that luck favours the prepared, while accurate, to be too vague to be of any use for most students. To challenge them to really consider what this means, I pose the following question, “It’s your lucky day, you’re at a conference and a professor you desperately want to work with at graduate school is there and you have an opportunity to talk to them. What type of preparation would be needed to ensure this bout of luck turns into something meaningful?”. The discussion can tie back into Hamming’s point that the way you lead your life from day to day is the way you prepare yourself for success or failure.
You need a vision of what you want to do and who you are going to be
Hamming uses the clumsy metaphor of a pretty girl and a drunken sailor, but his point is solid. Without a clear vision of where you want to go, it can be difficult to focus on what is important, or to even know what is important. The question I have students discuss is, “Assuming that everything you want to do works out according to plan, where are you in ten years? Be specific, where are you working, what research are you doing, and what contributions have you made?”. It’s amazing how many students haven’t really thought through exactly what they want to achieve. For example, some want to go to graduate school, but don’t have a clear idea of what they hope to accomplish by doing this.
Study success closely and determine which elements of successful people you can adapt to your situation
Hamming tells a great story about his admiration of John Tukey. Hamming could not understand how someone Tukey’s age could know so much and was told that “you would be surprised how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did for that many years.” It’s valuable for students to look at people they admire, and then explore what it took for that person to succeed.
I ask students to discuss who inspires them and why. As a follow-up, if they could meet one psychologist, living or deceased, who would it be? The idea here is to get them to focus on people they admire, and then start to think about what aspects of these people they could incorporate into how they approach their career.
Communication is the key
One student concern that is reliably brought to my attention is a fear of speaking in public. This is not particularly surprising as it is one of the most common phobias. Hamming has an interesting perspective. He points out that to be successful, people need to be able to effectively communicate orally, in written work, and casually. By orally, he is referring to giving a presentation, and by casually, he is referring to discussing research in an informal setting. Hamming states that when watching a presentation of any kind, be it a lecture or formal academic talk, one should be listening both for content and for style. The listener should look for what they like, what they don’t, and what aspects they can adapt to their own style. To facilitate this type of discussion, I ask students to name the best presentation they have seen, which does not have to be restricted to academics. Some students list motivational speakers, comedians, or even politicians. The goal here is to get students thinking about which aspects of successful speakers they can incorporate into their own style.
Great (Final) Thoughts
The goal of these discussion questions is to encourage students to think about some of the big picture issues. This can be difficult to do, but using Hamming’s video as a springboard has been successful in my courses. While Hamming provides a lot of solid advice, his approach is not the only way. I like to have students debate aspects of Hamming’s view on work-life balance, and contrast this with a great article by Radhika Nagpal, who has a different slant and is also highly successful (Nagpal, 2013). For other perspectives on Hamming, I highly recommend Erren et al.’s (2015) work on Hamming’s rules for lifelong learning and for doing your best research (Erren et al., 2007).
I encourage instructors to try adding at least a few “Great Thought” questions into their lectures, and I would love to hear what types of questions you use and the responses that you receive.
Rodney Schmaltz is an Associate Professor of Psychology at MacEwan University. His research focuses on pseudoscientific thinking, with an emphasis on strategies to promote and teach scientific skepticism.
Erren, T. C., Slanger, T. E., Groß, J. V., Bourne, P. E., & Cullen, P. (2015). Ten Simple Rules for Lifelong Learning, According to Hamming. PLoS Computational Biology, 11(2), e1004020–6. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004020
Erren, T. C., Cullen, P., Erren, M., & Bourne, P. E. (2007). Ten Simple Rules for Doing Your Best Research, According to Hamming. PLoS Computational Biology, 3(10), e213–2. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.0030213
Hamming, R., & Kaiser, J. F. (1986). You and your research. Transcription of the Bell Communications Research Colloquium Seminar. University of Virginia, 7.
Nagpal, R. (2013). The awesomest 7-year postdoc or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the tenure-track faculty life. Scientific American, Guest Blog.