… continued from Part 1.
In 1972, after completing my PhD, I was offered a position as a lecturer in the Electronics Department at Southampton University. I had no experience or formal training in the art of lecturing and, in fact, when I questioned why I was being offered the position the answer came back that I had the potential to generate revenue into the department through research grants. The fact that I had no experience in lecturing was not important! I asked if the university provided any training for new lecturers and received a negative reply despite the fact that there was a Department of Education within the university. “Teaching and lecturing skills will come with practice,” I was told. “Go get the research money, tiger.” Thus, in 1972 I was thrust into the lecture theatre and confronted with an audience of fifty or so undergraduates, some thirsting for knowledge, others for the blood of novice lecturers!
I survived but for the first few years as a lecturer I had to take a shower every evening after work and put on a clean shirt. Lecturing at university level did not come easy to me and I started to think about how to improve my style as well as deliver the technical goods. But I had no role model.
My main teaching subject was the design of digital sequential logic circuits using a methodology based on a switching theory developed in the ’50s, the decade that marked the beginnings of commercial computers. A sequential logic circuit is one that has a past, present and future, like the control circuit for a set of traffic lights: it was red, now it’s amber, next it will be green. Nearly all practical logic circuits are sequential. It sounds complex, is complex, but I understood it and had even contributed to it with technical papers based on my PhD research work. I read around the subject however and, in particular, I looked at a new 1972 book titled Logic Design Algorithms written by Demetrius Zissos, a professor in the Department of Mathematics, Statistics and Computing Science at the University of Calgary in Canada.
In terms of its content, Zissos’s book was very similar to a 1968 book written by my PhD supervisor, Doug Lewin—a book I was very familiar with—and I recall looking through Zissos’s book and discussing it with Doug. Doug was complimentary of the content but scathing about the paucity of the references. To paraphrase another maverick, Isaac Newton (who went to the same school as I did—the boy done good!), technical authors are expected to acknowledge the contributions of the giants on whose shoulders they now stand. In other words, it is an unwritten rule that if someone publishes a technical paper or book, due credit and reference should be given to those who went before and who formulated the principles described or extended therein. Switching theory had its giants in the ’50s—foundation papers by Huffman (1954), Mealy (1955) and Moore (1955) in particular—but there was no mention of the contributions of these people in Zissos’s book. No mention of Moore’s famous Gedanken experiments; no mention of the breakthroughs in sequential circuit synthesis made by Huffman and, later, Mealy. There were a few references to more recent papers and textbooks including papers written by Zissos himself and the book came in for heavy criticism for not giving credit where credit was due and for appearing to plagiarise the earlier work of people like Huffman, Mealy, and Moore. In the technical world in which Zissos resided, this was considered a cardinal sin although it didn’t bother me too much. I was using Doug’s book as a course textbook and had no need to defend Zissos’s book.
In 1973, one year into my lectureship, I received an alert about a three-day summer vacation school on logic design at the University of Canterbury in Kent. I decided to sign up to check my own understanding of the topic, find out about new developments, maybe contribute both from my research activities and teaching experiences, and definitely sample the local beers made with Kentish hops. I noted also that one of the presenters was Demetrius Zissos. Now, this could get interesting, I thought. I hope he likes beer. There could be a lot of bar talk.
I have never forgotten his lecture. It was a spellbinding performance. He was a man of slight build, possibly Greek in appearance but Canadian in his speech and mannerisms. He entered the stage with nothing in his hands, cast off his jacket, rolled up the sleeves of his tie-less shirt, picked up a piece of chalk, and in one amazing hour used a blackboard to develop the whole of the theory of sequential logic design working from first principles.
I was stunned. In one hour, he had taught me the difference between lecturing and teaching and he had proved beyond doubt that he knew his subject right down to the bare bones. He needed no notes, no overhead transparencies, no agenda, not even his own textbook, nothing. It was all in his head and it came from the heart. I came away from that lecture with but one thought—that one day, I would like to lecture in the way Professor Zissos had just lectured to me.
I also wondered if with the depth of knowledge and understanding he displayed, he had ever read the foundation papers of Huffman, Mealy and Moore. Maybe in the tradition of a true maverick, he had thought it all through for himself? It’s an interesting conjecture but I’ll never know the answer.
Zissos had been painted a maverick but, on reflection, this is no bad thing. He knew his stuff and knew how to put it over, and did so with no pomposity, no air of hubris, no arrogance. That one hour in his presence gave me an ambition and changed my life as a presenter forever. I’d like to think that towards the end of my professional career I achieved something of his style, elegance and ability to teach but you would need to check with my students. All I can tell you is, as a one-man-band electronics consultant, I travelled the world presenting short courses to electronic designers and test engineers in industry. I never received a bad review, not that I knew of, and usually I scored very highly in course assessments so much so that one of my regular customers, the Dutch electronics company Philips, created a special certificate to honour my lecturing style. In the certificate, I am described as a lecturer-entertainer. I consider this a compliment and I owe it to the inspiration of Demetrius Zissos.
Thank you Professor Zissos.
Footnote. In preparation for this blog, I searched the Web for an image of Demetrius Zissos. I found none. I e-mailed the University of Calgary Archives and received a response from an archivist, Karen Buckley, who verified his year of death and suggested I contact the Department of Computer Science but, alas, was not able to supply a staff photograph. I e-mailed the University’s Department of Computer Science and never received a reply. I searched for, and found, a good-condition copy of his 1972 book, an ex-library book from Brunel University, £7.85. It was worth the expense partly to check the references rather than rely on memory and partly because here was the work of a man who had an impact on me even though he never knew it.
If he has any living relatives and if they should read this tribute to him, please Contact Me. I’m open to sharing a beer (hopped with Kentish hops, of course) or a glass of wine with you!