What My College Professors Taught Me

Mary Gao
7 min readJan 4, 2021


Having just graduated, I’ve been thinking a lot about my college experience. I could include so many professors in this, but that’d be pretty boring to read, so here are some of the most memorable ideas I remember.

(I think if you can remember one concept from any class you took/book you read/thing you listened to years ago, that’s a success)

Disclaimer: this is what I learned, not necessarily what they taught. they’re also simply my interpretations/ memory.

Joseph Foudy — Introduction to Economic & Political Thought @ NYU

  • 2016 was a brutal reminder that the elite’s gains have not trickled to the everyday person. What feels like multicultural celebration i.e. eating at a Thai restaurant in New York, doing yoga in London, is enjoyed largely only by the global few — a tribe as exclusionary as any before.

“They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project, or American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools.

They can’t see that their vision of history’s arc bending inexorably away from tribe and creed and nation-state looks to outsiders like something familiar from eras past: A powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the World.”

~The Myth of Cosmopolitanism by Ross Douthat, The New York Times July 2016

  • Technology (think industrial machines, cars, spreadsheets, etc.) has yet to destroy the need for human labor because there has always been a link between new technology -> new wants, new wants -> people to fulfill those wants. But what happens when the link between wants and people to fulfill them is broken by technology? It’s feasible to imagine a near-future where almost all our wants are fulfilled by technology, who are controlled by a wealthy few, and without something like UBI, it’s hard to see how everyone will live dignified lives.

“For many decades, horse labor appeared impervious to technological change. Even as the telegraph supplanted the Pony Express and railroads replaced the stagecoach and the Conestoga wagon, the U.S. equine population grew seemingly without end, increasing sixfold between 1840 and 1900 to more than 21 million horses and mules. [after the invention of the automobile] By 1960, the United States counted just three million horses, a decline of nearly 88 percent in just over half a century.”

~Will Humans Go the Way of the Horses? Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, speaking to Wassily Leontief’s horse analogy

  • All empires must fall, the question is when? After this course, I concluded that China and the US will rise as equal superpowers in my lifetime with China dominating Asia & Africa, and the US dominating Europe & NA. In 2020, I’ve changed my mind. I currently believe China will become the sole superpower, and the US will be remembered like the UK (this is my strong opinion, loosely held).

Ashish Bhatia, Carol Newel, Jeffrey Younger — Business And Its Publics (Writing) @ NYU

  • As a student, up until this point, people have been paid to read your writing. In the real world, nobody has to. So it’s not just about the semantics of writing, it’s about compelling people to believe you have something they should listen to. Write drafts, every word should thoughtfully add something or not be there at all.

James Waldo — Independent Study on the Great Papers of Computer Science @ Harvard

  • The history of computer science is short enough where people generally don’t think of it as history-worthy (i.e. many of the greats are still around), but long enough where there’s so much that could be lost to time (i.e. many of the greats are dying).
  • A general take away from college is that it is vital to nurture and protect the ecosystem at all cost. Marvin Minsky and Claude Shannon advised Ivan Sutherland’s PhD paper on Sketchpad (pioneer of computer graphics). One of Sutherland’s graduate students became the founder of Adobe. Xerox Park. Bell Labs. Great ecosystems produce great teams who produce great tech.
  • Be friends with professors. They always tell you this, but it’s quite hard to do. I got lucky that one professor was willing to spend an extra hour every week just talking to me, (and a little bit more time reading these fun papers).

“Technology is not far away and impersonal. It’s here, it’s intensely personal, and it’s great fun.”

~Ivan Sutherland, Technology and Courage 1996

Samantha Matherne — Phil133: The Art of Living @ Harvard

  • Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetics of Man is a confusing read, actually the majority of philosophy is a confusing read. But the most important takeaway from philosophy is that it’s meant to be lived. The way I interpret Schiller’s letters is that a good life cannot simply be a rational life, i.e. if you decide to donate money but you hate every moment of it and you do it because you know it’s the right thing to do, that’s hardly aligned with intuitive definitions of a good life. But if your desires match your rationality, beauty + rationality, then you’re well on your way.
  • Nietzsche’s heaviest burden asks if a devil came to your door, and told you that you would live your life exactly as it has happened over and over again, indefinitely, would you be upset or elated? The practical way I think about this is evaluating activities in terms of whether they contribute to my ability to affirm life. i.e. I would happily eat greasy Chinese food over and over again, but that extra hour of studying doesn’t seem worth it to repeat infinitely.

Quick fire round!

Computer Science

Rebecca Nesson — CS20 Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science @ Harvard

She was the only female cs professor I had, and the only cs professor who explicitly acknowledge that the material was hard and that it was okay to struggle with it. That was so comforting. She studied folklore and mythology during her undergrad (I believe?), and switched to cs in grad school (this meant a lot to me as someone who started cs as a junior).

Michael Sipser — 6.840/18.404 Introduction to Theoretical Computer Science @ MIT

A legend of the field, who only erased something he had already written on the black board once during the entire semester. I remember looking at my notes for interactive proofs which looked like an alien language, and understood it all (a truly rare occurrence in cs for me).

Stuart Shieber — CS51 Abstraction and Design in Computation @ Harvard

As I said earlier, if you remember anything from a class/subject/whatever, that’s honestly a success. In computer science, I will always remember abstractions & unit testing. Every test you don’t write is like 10 hours of debugging later. And operating at various levels of abstraction/ thinking in a modular way is extremely relevant in computer science, philosophy, and life.

Eddie Kohler — CS61 Systems Programming and Machine Organization @ Harvard

Some professors do put in the effort to seamlessly switch between an i-Pad, live lecture, and a terminal (that’s Eddie). It was also amazing to watch him coach a new professor who was co-teaching this class. It reminded me that the kindest thing you can do for others is to genuinely help them succeed.

Non computer-science

Hagai Segal — Politics of the Near and Middle East @ NYU London

What constitutes the Middle East is — mainstream wise — wherever there is violence in the general region. But each country is incredibly unique. Turkey is rooted in democracy, with its democratic constraints removed systematically by Erdogan. The stories were priceless. Forcing delegates to sit on their hands because people spoke with their hands and it flared unnecessary anger at negotiations. That’s the stuff history is made of.

Philip Sadler — Gened 1037 Experiments That Changed Our World @ Harvard

Every class was built around redoing an experiment from history. When the pandemic hit, they mailed the materials to us. It made science approachable and fun. He’s a wonder, having patented a solar system set for kids, brought us honey from his bees, sent us individualized books based on our final project topics, a teacher who just exudes love for his subject and students.

Joseph Blitzstein — Stat110 Introduction to Probability @ Harvard

1) probability is unintuitive and everywhere. For example, many intuitively conditionally independent events are unconditionally dependent. 2) he is so well-loved because he is so caring. Academia has gotten further from society and society from academia. This is not supposed to be the case. Professors, be like Blitzstein, please be a person first.

Mark Roberge & Lou Shipley — Sales @ Harvard Business School

Sales - in my opinion - is the least appreciated aspect of business. Coming from a cs background, I always think about the engineers and product managers. But sales drives revenue, and there is a playbook for it. In fact, there’s a playbook for each function of a business and it’ll be a lot less painful if you take some time to study the playbooks.

It was beautiful and brutal; excited for the next adventure!

~Me, 2020

medium asked me to add an appealing image