My Life at N.E.D. - Episode 2: Cats, dogs and native American chants

October 14, 2023

“Ab chahay kuttay ki awaz nikalen ya billi ki….”

Selective amnesia is a fascinating aspect of human cognition.

Consider this: there is no other person in the world who has experienced life exactly the same way as you have. The memories you accumulate throughout your life, with all their intricacies and nuances, are singular to you. There is no backup file of past events of your life; it’s all stored inside your head. And your memory is prone to errors. And it fades with time. Some people forget stuff faster than others. Selective amnesia means that when you try to recall events of the past, you may only have fragments of events and experiences available in cold storage. Your brain has to fill in the gaps while you are trying to piece together past events and experiences.

As a result, the picture of any given past event that your brain re-constructs in the present may be different from what really happened back then.

The words I opened this piece with were uttered by our C language lecturer (whose identity I’ll keep under wraps) during a lecture. This was probably during my second year at N.E.D. The fragment roughly translates as “I don’t care if you people bark like a dog or meow like a cat…”.

Strangely enough, the latter part of that sentence eludes my memory. That’s probably because the second part of the sentence wasn’t as shocking as the first part. I surmise it bore the undertones of a threat. Our class, for reasons I will explain in a moment, had clearly irked him. So basically he was saying that as the response to our barking and meowing, there would be a pop quiz at some point in the near future, one designed with a singular goal of being insurmountable for second year Computer Systems Engineering students.

So basically, we were all doomed.

Our brains are much better in capturing shocking moments of life than the routine and predictable. I guess the first part of the aforementioned warning was much more shocking to me than the second part. It was probably the way he said it.

But why would a teacher threaten the whole class that he wanted us to fail the impending quiz? And to do that to a class that comprised of arguably the best 18 year old students in the country of over 100 million people at the time? And why did he mention specifically cats and dogs?

Let me explain.

Most of the lecturers we had met up to that point in N.E.D. seemed to embody the adage, “those who can’t do, teach”. Remember that I was doing an engineering degree! Many of our esteemed lecturers would saunter into class and, with all the flair of a sleepwalking mime, flood the old-fashioned blackboard (yes, we were in the pre-whiteboard era) with inscrutable equations copied from their notes. More often than not, they seemed to either misplace their “Explain the Topic” manual or perhaps thought we all spoke fluent ‘Gibberish’.

Pouring over our notes after the event felt like being part of an archaeologist club trying to decode an alien civilization’s grocery list.

Some of us were better at taking notes than others. While my notes sometimes looked like I was doodling my next masterpiece, others had records that could give the Encyclopedia Britannica a run for its money, capturing every nuance. So I would often be missing calculation steps in my notes, while others would’ve captured everything on the board, plus every sneeze, yawn and fart of the presenter. And, believe it or not, during our late-night decoding sessions, knowing - for example - the exact moment of Sundi’s dramatic sigh often turned out to be the Rosetta Stone we needed!

Sundi, by the way, was the secretive nickname we gave to our physics lecturer. It’s the Urdu term for caterpillar. The moniker seemed apt, as his lectures often felt as if they were designed to decimate our brain cells, much like a caterpillar infestation ravaging crops.

In the midst of classroom sessions where understanding was elusive and our only task seemed to be transcribing bewildering strings of numbers and symbols, what was our recourse? How were we to keep ourselves engaged and maintian our sanity? The solution was obvious: unleash some amusing sound effects.

And for obvious reasons, cat and dog sounds reigned supreme in such circumstances, likely due to the ease of their imitation. Whenever the teacher pivoted to the board to continue their mindless copying from their notes, our class would magically transform into a bustling menagerie of meows and barks. My personal pride though was a human tradition deeply rooted in an amazing ancient culture: a particular native American chant I’d picked up from a movie, which I had honed to perfection by then. But just like my mates, I loved animals too. My rendition of a German Shepherd’s growl wasn’t too shabby either, if I might add.

Obviously that day in the C language class our teacher couldn’t take that animal behavior anymore.

But here is the issue. The guy had no understanding of the content he was teaching, and clearly no skills in computer programming. I remember that I started writing small Basic language programs by the age of 11 or 12. So I could piece together a program that would print out, say, 20 smallest prime numbers. This guy was copying programs from his notes which most of us could write in our sleep!

And worst yet, he was getting visibly upset when asked any reasonable questions.

In the hindsight, I would agree that our behavior was bad. Before N.E.D. I wasn’t that disrespectful to any of my teachers. But remember, at that point we were a bunch of teenagers.

In a future post I’ll try to explain in more detail how extremely damaging my subsequent experiences at N.E.D. were to my personal and academic life. But the most perplexing question to me up to this point was that how on earth somebody was able to find these clowns to teach at what was supposed to be the most prestigious Engineering university in the country? Most of these “faculty members” had no clue what they were teaching, and in those rare cases when an N.E.D. lecturer actually understood the subject matter they were teaching, they had such poor communication skills that their intellectual prowess was basically useless. Out of the 39 courses that we did during my bachelor’s of Computer Systems Engineering degree, I would think that probably four teachers in my very subjective opinion actually deserved to be teaching at the best Engineering School in the country.

The academic standard at N.E.D. was garbage back then. I sincerely hope the past 30 years have ushered in improvements. Having now experienced a range of academic programs globally, I feel more secure in my assessment of N.E.D.’s educational quality back then.

However, those very lectures, which often seemed uninspiring, became the backdrop for mastering an eclectic mix of sounds and chants from all over the world.

I guess I got something out of those sessions after all.