I’m excited that people will soon get a taste of what it was like to be in the classroom with Sasha. Coming out in early June, our new book The Nature of Drugs: History, Pharmacology, and Social Impact is based on transcripts from the fall semester of 1987 when he was teaching his popular pharmacology course at San Francisco State University.
I consider myself fortunate because I was able to sit in on some of those classes. It was a lesson in how to let information absorb really quickly. Sasha was notorious for going a bit too fast when he lectured, especially if one was not completely familiar with the subject that he was talking about.
In the book, one of the stories he shared with his students was about a girl in his Forensic Toxicology class at UC Berkeley. He would watch her to monitor how he was doing.
She wore everything on her face, her affect was absolutely evident in everything she did. And when I said something she understood, there was this great big smile. When I went a bit too fast and used a word she didn’t know, she couldn’t help it, she went into tears and would quietly cry, her tears would actually run, and her whole face would cloud up like a storm. I used her as a bellwether. It was marvelous! I’d go lecturing along, I’d kind of glance over there occasionally, I’d see these tears rolling down. Hah! Slow down. Go back, go over it again.
I could relate to that girl! The Nature of Drugs was an entry-level class, but at that time I wasn’t familiar with most of what he was lecturing about, and he could not help but to speed along. Luckily I wasn’t taking the class for any credit. I was just there to sit in and experience him teaching. It was entertaining and fun. (Can you imagine… chemistry being fun?) I sat near my mother, Ann, who was recording the classes with an old tape recorder. (I’m so happy she did!) I remember the classroom, the desks, the fluorescent lights, and, most of all, Sasha up front with the chalkboard behind him. He did a lot of hand-waving when he spoke. He was animated and engaging. My mother would worry when he was going too quickly; she was picking up on the feelings of the students and most likely feeling her own frustration at trying to keep up with him.
I only attended a few of those classes, not the whole course. But it was an experience I’ll never forget. It gave me a deep appreciation of how important it is for a teacher to be fully present and excited about what they are teaching! Even now, thirty-four years later, just reading the text of Sasha’s lectures transports me back to that time of experiencing his genius. I think that reading The Nature of Drugs will give you that experience as well.