"The Griffithses were over for dinner the other night. My husband, a lawyer, was talking about legal style, how a legal argument is two things. It's an exchange of information, and it's a posture. It's confrontational. You assert, and see how others react. You're entirely sure of yourself. Never admit you don't know something. In science, too, that is the standard style. I saw it big time at Stanford.
"David's style is totally antithetical to that."
Johnny Powell, a Reed physics professor just back from the swimming pool, leans far back in his office chair and gathers his thoughts from the ceiling.
"Of all the aspects of the craft of teaching--lecturing, choice and frequency of problems, choice and frequency of tests, sticking to a syllabus, thesis advising--you can be great at any one category and still be a mediocre teacher. David is really good in all areas. But if I have to hang it on one nail, I'll say it's his clarity of exposition.
"So," he continues. "You want to ask, 'What is it about David himself that makes it so he can be clear?'"
"What makes it clear to him?"
"David spends a lot of time on the structure of the argument. For example, the physics department had stopped teaching the second law of thermodynamics in freshman physics. The arguments were just too hard. David wouldn't let it go. He had to penetrate and articulate the argument. He even considered teaching the second law of thermodynamics in Physics 100. He didn't. But. Now. If you have two people who both pass the exams, one by understanding the structure of the argument and another by just solving a bunch of problems, the former will be the better teacher.
"An equal key to his success is that he genuinely wants to lower the threshold. Students like David so much because they're never irretrievably lost. Within the first 120 seconds of his first Physics 100 lecture, students understand he is totally committed to their understanding physics.
"David assumes infinite responsibility for himself and lays next to no responsibility on the person he's interacting with. I was in his office one time when a student showed up late--egregiously late--for his thesis meeting. The student gave a spurious excuse. I would have been furious. David's response was, 'That's all right. I make mistakes, too.'"
Kathy Reeves '96 and Kate Martin '00 are at Woodstock Wine & Deli on a lunch break from summer jobs at the physics department.
The question before them is why did David Griffiths win this year's Robert A. Millikan Medal, awarded by the American Association of Physics Teachers. They are not at all stumped.
"He's organized," Kathy says. "He'll come into the room and section the board off with chalk. Here's today's lecture, and this is all building to this. Very neat and methodical. I learn better from the professor than from a book, and he just makes it clear. Quick return of homework and tests. And he's always reviewing. You keep up."
"You forget," says Kate, "that physics is hard."
"He tells you right out, 'This is what I expect,' and you do it."
"He can pack so much information into a 50-minute lecture."
"And you have to be ready. At any time he might say, 'And now Eli is going to finish this derivation for us,' and he'll hand the chalk to Eli."