Reposting a Memorial

Originally published Friday, July 25, 2008 10:15 here.

A Tribute To Robert Carroll

I found out last night that my high school physics teacher, Robert Carroll, passed away very recently.

He was a teacher that was hard as nails and had it in his mind that he was going to push his students closer to their actual abilities rather than to the accepted median.

Here are his standards as I remember them:

  • He assigned homework practically every night and accepted nothing late without a doctor’s note.
  • All work was turned in with a uniform heading on the paper.  Anything that deviated was not graded.
  • All problems had to be done in given/find/solution form with the final solution boxed in.  Anything that deviated was penalized heavily.
  • No erasing was allowed.  Work that was considered to be incorrect could be crossed out with a single line.  Anything that deviated was penalized.
  • Labs were recorded in a bound, unlined lab book.  He transitioned you into labs where you wrote out the entire lab (procedure, data, conclusions), neatly and legibly.  He collected lab books at random times.
  • Definitions for units were boilerplate: <x> is the <fundamental/derived> unit of <time/extension/volume/capacity…> in the <standard> system <defined as/based on> …  (Ex: A Newton is the derived unit of force in the MKS system, defined as 1 (kg m)/s2.

He made it clear that this was a class in which physics was used to teach us procedure.  He established the procedures and made it clear what it would cost us to step outside the bounds.  The first quiz that he gave was nearly impossible to pass because of the amount of detail.  In fact, there were routinely students who lost more points on the quiz than were available.  He graded on a curve and that was a survival mechanism.  He insisted on using the ironically titled book “Modern Physics” by Charles E. Dull (and others) published in 1955.  He also scheduled a mandatory test on senior skip day.  And if you did something exceptionally stupid/ill-advised/dangerous you would be given the “Dufus Award” (a rebranded cheerleading trophy) for the class period – his version of a dunce cap.

In the process he did something that few other teachers did: he taught us how to study, how to solve problems, how and when to attend to detail, how to be responsible for our actions or inactions.  He demanded good work and accepted little else.  A lot of his students went to hardcore engineering programs and had the tools in hand to succeed.  Although I did not ask him for this, he wrote honest, top-notch recommendations for college applications.

Out of frustration, my friend Mark Hamm would draw an elaborate caricature of him on the blackboard most mornings.  Without missing a beat, Mr. Carroll would look over the work, erase it and deftly draw a cartoon pig with an enormous ass, with an arrow pointing it out (ie, the ham).  No spite – he could dish it out and take it.

My oldest brother and his peers formed a group called the Honors Physics Consortium as a coping mechanism and went to the trouble of (eventually) self-publishing a book about their exploits.

Mr. Carroll had a very long career as a teacher: 38 years.  That’s 38 years of students who went through his class or roughly 800 students in his honors class that were affected by him.  While not everyone agreed with his methodology, I believe his method had strongly calculated purpose and prefer to believe that the other 799 students, like me, have come to recognize the benefits of the purpose.

Rest in peace, Mr. Carroll.

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