In 2004, my friend and I signed up for an intermediate computer science class. The class consisted of a lecture delivered by the instructor to all students (roughly 200) and discussion sections led by teaching assistants, with 30 students in a discussion section. In a 50-minute discussion section, the teaching assistant would go over the material in the first part of the class, followed by a quiz based on the material just covered, which counted for the class grade.

There were three teaching assistants. One was dynamic, knew his material well, and had the exceptional skill of conveying the material to the students. The second teaching assistant was solid but unspectacular. Did his job capably, and that was that. The third teaching assistant was a nice person but tended to meander all over the place in his attempt to explain the material. He wasn’t a good teacher, to put it bluntly. As luck would have it, my friend and I got stuck in the discussion section with the third teaching assistant.

In an ideal world, we would ace the class regardless of the quality of the teacher and teaching assistant; we would be on top of the material and breeze through the quizzes and exams. I regret to inform you that this was not the case. My friend and I brought back mediocre quiz results. And we saw our classmates in the first teaching assistant’s discussion section acing their quizzes. And we would see the first teaching assistant in the lecture now and then, helping the teacher with her class material; it was evident that he was very well versed with the material. 

Not happy with status quo, I put on my sinister hat and hatched a plan. The next step was to convince my friend to be my partner in crime. He was reluctant, but I was at my persuasive best and he eventually agreed. Here was the plan: We attend the first teaching assistant’s discussion section for the first part, sneak out just before the quizzes are administered, make it in time to our discussion section and take the quiz. This way, we would get a good exposition of the material. All of this was not allowed officially, of course, because we were required to attend the section that we signed up for. 

We duly went to the first teaching assistant’s section the following day. We took our seats in the back row, ready to make our getaway. The teaching was sublime, as expected. I could actually grasp the material; it seemed like a miracle. Soon, the teaching came to a stop, and it was quiz time. As discreetly as possible, my friend and I collected our things and stood up, ready to make our getaway. The way I pictured it, we make our way without quite being noticed by anyone, and it would be uneventful even if we were noticed. I did not foresee what was about to unfold.

When we stood up, every pair of eyes were on us. The teaching assistant was bemused. The students were amused. Some would have realized what we were up to. Others, who might not have realized that we did not belong to that section, would have thought it odd that we would attend the lecture and skip the quiz (vice versa was more plausible, for the quiz counted towards the class grade). My friend and I were mortified. We sheepishly made our way out. No, our embarrassment wasn’t quite over. I realized I had dropped my notebook. I made my way back to my seat, with every pair of eyes still staring at me, and made my way back out.

We made it back to our discussion section in time for the quiz and aced this particular quiz. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be able to repeat this maneuver. If we were more enterprising, we could have tried the same maneuver in the second teaching assistant’s section and seen if we could plan a better getaway. No, my friend was done with my brilliant ideas. Not that I was enthusiastic about a second attempt, either. For the rest of the semester, we accepted the karmic parcels we received from the teaching assistant lottery and did the best we could. 

Picture Credit: Vanessa Garcia from Pexels