Database Delirium

“Ok everyone,” my professor instructed us on the first day of class. “This course will not involve much lecture. My philosophy is that we’re a team here. I’m only going to give fifty-percent of the material. If we are going to master this material, I expect you to contribute the other half. You see, I might not know everything about databases and programming, but together, we will support and teach one another.”

As we looked over the syllabus, my classmates and I nodded our heads as our professor glided around the room with a smile and a friendly laugh. She seemed like a pleasant and amiable lady, approachable and ready to answer questions. Gazing over the projects, papers, and homework, nothing appeared unusual or odd. After all, this was a Masters level course, and we were accustomed to reading and studying outside the classroom, absorbing the necessary materials by ourselves. Therefore, her speech concerning “contributing fifty-percent” and “I don’t know everything about databases and programming” worried us not; that is, until the second week of class, when we began to suspect that she truly and honestly did not understand half of the material . . .

“Ok, does anyone know what an Object-Relational DBMS is? Or what it does? I’m not sure myself. It has something to do with virtual objects? Did anyone read their chapters yet? I can never understand the programming language . . .”

“Ma’am?” one of the students asks, raising his hand above a laptop. “According to Wikipedia, it has something to do with user interaction with databases. Like the emergence of GUI and early user-friendly interfaces.”

“Ah,” my professor ponders. “That sounds about right . . . I think. I don’t know, maybe we’ll come across it later . . .”

At first I interpreted his whimsical personality and ignorance to a teaching style, a method of feigned cluelessness in order to encourage participation. Yet such a performance – if in fact genuinely manufactured – only pushed us into greater confusion and heightened our irritation.

“Now,” she asks me. “Who interacts with the books in a library? What carbon-based life-forms use the books?”

I scratch my head at that, flummoxed by the simplicity of the question. Obviously the patrons and users would access the database to the books, but surely there must be some deeper meaning behind this question. A series of circles and squares connected like a toy railroad to thick lines served to illustrate her model. I sighed. Last year my previous professor had likewise relied heavily on shapes to relay relationships between information systems and society. One year later and the method still seemed rather silly and superficial. Thus, unlike most in the class, I felt ready to state the obvious – that is until her ‘carbon-based life-forms’ comment which left me a little bewildered.

“Um, I suppose, the uh . . . users?”

“Absolutely! Now I wonder what users do with books at a library? Now users perform some operation on the books in a library. We should consider what operation or action this is.”

These last few questions are more statements than questions; so obviously, most of the class is stymied. Our professor continues to dance around actually asking a question: “Hmm . . . I don’t know. What operation could this be? I wonder.”

Finally some brave soul raises her hand to spit out the answer to this riddle: borrow. Users borrow books. She of course is delighted, and scribes the three words in the circles on the board: users — borrow —- books. We should grow accustomed to this style of model mapping, she explains. Every object has an operation that affects another object. She then continues her lecture, delving into the history of the database and computer systems.

The lesson is a good one, but it takes us nearly thirty minutes to arrive at the punch-line, as she intermittently pauses to consider, wonder and ask questions in the form of statements.

“The database stores information. Information needs to interact. There is word that signifies this interaction. How data table can reference each other. One table can affect another table’s data. They interact in a specific way . . .”

“Uh . . . ma’am, do you mean they relate?”

“Excellent!” she shouts. “Tables relate to one another . . .”

Between consulting the clock and these frequent tests of our common sense give me cause to reconsider our professor’s knowledge. Her whimsy and confusions seems more authentic as the lesson draws to a close:

“Ok, so hierarchical models are built like upside-down trees. However, though organized well, they are much slower . . . no wait. This [her powerpoint slide] says it’s quite fast. Hmmm . . . I thought it was slow. Oh well . . . so you see hierarchical models are much faster than previous models . . . ”

Those cannot be her slides, I realized as we pack to leave. She borrowed or pilfered someone else’s presentation. Suddenly my regard for my professor deepens; she obviously must be quite skilled in improvisation and the ancient Irish art of malarkey. It seems I have much to learn from her after all.