Stories including Winifred Asprey

A Difference of Style

In 1976 I transferred to Vassar with interests in both computers and the human mind. I declared as a Biopsychology major, mostly because Vassar then did not offer a degree in Computer Science. The rumored explanation for this lack was that CS was still too confused with Information Technology and not considered theoretical enough. The proximity and influence of IBM, however, meant that the Math department had access to some very qualified and experienced instructors and I took almost every computer course I could get my hands on.

Because I was interested in the nature of intelligence and cognition, I was delighted when, in 1978, the Math department hired a dynamic young professor named Dr. Martin Ringle. Dr. Ringle was an expert in the burgeoning fields of Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science. He was ambitious, enthusiastic, and a colleague to some of the cutting-edge AI researchers of the day. He was also very young; I estimated him to be no more than five to seven years older than I. In the egalitarian spirit of the 70s, he preferred an informal personal style and insisted that his students call him Marty.

This, apparently, did not sit well with the head of the Math department, Dr. Winifred Asprey. Dr. Asprey was, at the time, said to be the second most senior professor at Vassar, behind only Dr. Tokay from the Biology department. While she was a caring and dedicated professor, she was also rather “old school” and maintained a strict formality with her students. A few weeks after Marty arrived, Dr. Asprey called me into her office and shut the door. She glared at me and, in a scandalized voice, said “It has come to my attention that some of Dr. Ringle’s students call him by his first name. You don’t do that, do you?” I confess that in my surprise I blurted out “No, ma’am!”, even though I most certainly did. After that, however, I tried never to call Dr. Ringle by his first name, especially in Dr. Asprey’s presence.

Thinking back, I realize that while my favorite Vassar professors had widely varying personal and teaching styles, they were all dedicated to sharing their love of learning and enquiry with us. Professors like Dr. Ringle and Dr. Asprey inspired me to seek graduate degrees in both Computer and Cognitive Science, fields which I still enjoy and work in today.

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