Beki Grinter

Posts Tagged ‘georgia tech’

Unplanned, Delightful, Student Interactions

In academia on October 11, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Don’t get me wrong, there were things about both PARC and Bell Labs I loved (mainly the people I met and worked with). But Georgia Tech remains my favorite job to date, by far. And a significant of why I am so happy here is the interactions I have with my students. It’s actually hard to put into words how rewarding I find interactions with students. I could talk at length about the pleasure of seeing a nicely done homework or exam, what a pleasure those are to read and grade. But, today I want to write about the unpredictable but delightful interactions.

Last week was a particularly nice example of some.

I received an email from an undergraduate student who was preparing to take his GRE. He would miss my class, one for which I keep an attendance register. I wrote back to him and said that I thought sitting a GRE was a very reasonable excuse and did not dock him attendance. He wrote back and not only told me that I had more than exceeded his expectations for reasonableness by a faculty member, but some about how his GRE went. I am at least 20 years older than most of the undergraduates I teach, I feel the gulf created by that time, and when someone reaches across, I value it in ways that are hard to put into words.

I finished a class early, and told everyone they were free to go. Six students stayed to talk with me, a conversation that lasted for some time. Time I spent learning about their aspirations, about their vocations, and yes, I did answer a few questions about class. At an Engineering school like Tech we might be expected to have a few people who like dungeons and dragons, and we do, although I am now far more aware of the multi-day games of zombie killing that go on on campus. But there are so many other experiences of campus that involve sports, adventure, discovering a passion for research. There’s a lot of talk about the role of the brick campus in the digital era, but it is a place to create a magical set of different experiences, I’m glad to know a bit more about the possibilities that Georgia Tech the campus makes space for its students to create.

I received a thank you note from a graduate student. I had written on his particularly nice piece of work, “Very nice. Thank you!” He wrote to tell me that no professor had ever written that on a homework of his before (and judging by the quality I would imagine he’d produced a good selection of worthy candidates). This was such a positive experience for him that he showed it to his wife, and then spoke to his parents about it. All received his news with joy. And then he told me what had happened. It took me less than a minute to write that on his homework, but it lead to all these other things, and ended here with me.

A graduate student, knowing my enthusiasm for WaffleHouse gave me her saved collection of WaffleHouse t-shirts. She didn’t have to, but I was so excited and shall be flagrantly abusing the Georgia Tech dress code in the next week to proudly wear them. And another former graduate student started mentoring a student in her office. Watching her take on the mantle of advisement was a moment of joy.

This is an unusually high number of unplanned student interactions, but I want to share them not just as an example of why I like being a faculty member so much. But also to encourage students to reach out. I suspect I am not alone as a faculty member in enjoying these sorts of interactions. So thank you to all the students and keep the good work up. You may never know quite how much it means to the faculty member that you interact with.

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Steve Jobs, Georgia Tech and excitement about technology

In academia, computer science on October 6, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Late yesterday, like others, I learnt of Steve Jobs passing. As so many have said so eloquently, we lost a creative genius.

Today I went to class, and I decided to talk to the students about this. I wanted to also make them aware that two other very important people had died, Fred Shuttlesworth (civil rights leader) and A. Neilsen (of the television ratings fame). This seemed especially important as the world was mostly focused on Steve Jobs. And then we talked about Steve Jobs, and we had a conversation whose length surprised me. Many of the students I teach will tell you that Apple products are outside of their price range, a number of them want to use open systems only, but all of them uniformly talked about the excitement of technology that Apple generally and Steve Jobs specifically created.

We talked about how our friends and family came to understand tablets through the iPad, how the iPod changed the experience of music. How the iPhone was like a digital Swiss Army Knife. And of course, how unfair it was that Steve Jobs died so young and of such a cruel disease.

And I thought two quite distinct things. First, I agreed with them very much. In all respects. Second, I was delighted that they could all see and relate to the idea that whether you owned them or liked them, Apple did create an experience that changed the ways that they talked about technology with non-technologists. I left that class thinking that the creativity of Apple and its leader, has had a profound affect on how people view technology. It was a moment to pause and reflect. I was delighted to reflect with my class, for they are collectively very wise.

What do you Love about your Job?

In academia, academic management on November 23, 2010 at 9:58 am

I am quite sure I am not alone when I say that feel so busy I don’t feel like I have much time for anything other than the long list of things that need to get done. But, I had a conversation with someone and he asked me what do I love about my job. I paused. I’ve told many people that being an academic at Georgia Tech has been my favourite job to date. (It’s not that I have not enjoyed my two previous jobs, just in summary not quite as much as this). In fact, i’d just said it again. I love been an academic. Why, came the reply. Pause. Er…

Why is it that I can easily enumerate the challenging parts. If I look at this blog I see a pretty sizable enumeration. So, this post is an attempt to address that.

Diversity in activities. The three elements of being an academic, research, teaching and service, mean that I have variety in my job. Most days I spend in some combination of the three. In the short term this can feel chaotic, in the longer term though it means that I am exposed to a variety of activities. I feel stretched by these activities, and that can and does mean learning (as I prepare, say, for another lecture in the new to me class I am teaching this semester).

Grant Writing. Grant writing pushes me to think about the important intellectual problems I want to solve, and articulate their import and the best conceivable approaches to solving them. After writing one I am almost always eager to get on with the research described within.

Writing. Writing takes time. I like the difference between what sounds good in my head and what reads coherently on paper. Setting things down on paper makes me realise how much more there is to structuring an argument than what is in my head when I start. I like the process of wrestling with text. I’d prefer not to have to do it more than once of course, but that is the way of reviewers!

Mentoring. Wow. I love mentoring. I’m not always sure that the people I provide advice too like it or find it helpful, but I love giving advice. It is humbling to be asked, always intellectually demanding and rewarding when in my mind I find the “right answer.” Sometimes, as I am sure my students know all too well, I have to talk-out-loud and through it to get to an answer.

Knowing the Mission. I worked for two companies both of whom would change their mission statements. I still remember spilling my coffee over the book that Lucent published to help me understand it and what the corporate values were (there was a poster included so that you could hang the concise edition on your cubicle wall). I remember wondering “how do I fit in?” What I like about academia is that the mission statement seems clear. Educate. That includes teaching, but also research. It involves the students, it involves the State and the public. Educate. Really simple, and when I see the students running from one class to another (in the 10 minutes that Georgia Tech allocates for this), there it is, mission statement alive. As I squeeze into thTech Trolley, there it is again.

As I look at this list, and I am sure that there is more it’s all about learning (research, teaching and even service). That’s the skill that our Ph.D. training emphasizes. Research in the short term can feel like a series of to-dos. Meetings. Grants to be written. Papers to submit to conferences and journals. Reviews. Rebuttals. Rejections. And of course other people’s validation of your ideas in each of these events. Perhaps that’s why reflection gets lost. I am driven to do what I do for a love of research. I guess the conversation was a reminder that I need to spend more time thinking about what it is that I am passionate about.

What about you?

Why Faculty and Administrators should ride the Tech Trolley

In academia, academic management, empirical, women on October 7, 2010 at 10:14 am

There are many efforts on campus to bridge the gaps between students and faculty/administration. They frequently turn on making connections. Undergraduates are encouraged to get involved in research. Faculty can serve as advisors to the undergraduates associated with a particular part of a dorm. These, and other initiatives like this, are very important to fostering a culture of understanding as well as creating a community.

But some divides remain, and I would suggest that some should remain. We want to connect, but surely one of the most crucial experiences of being a student is the independence that that brings. So this raises a question, how do we the faculty support that and understand what that experience is like when we fundamentally can not be a part of it. And that’s where indirect observation comes in. And this is where the Tech Trolley comes in. It’s one of the best places on campus to observe and experience the student culture, to learn from them, without having direct interaction. And there’s lots to be learnt.

Why the Tech Trolley you might ask. Well because it’s a reasonably confined space (unlike say the area outside the student center where you’d have to get close enough that I think the students would think you were completely weird — OK perhaps that’s not such a stretch from being a faculty member…). Also, unlike the other three bus routes the configuration of the seating makes it far easier to see everyone else, the stuff that they are holding, and so forth. The Blue Route for example, the seats are arranged in a traditional bus style (rows of two seats divided by the middle aisle, so books and bags can and are obscured by the seat backs), by contrast the Tech Trolley’s seating is bench style down either side of the longer-narrower bus. It’s also a better audio space. Well when the engine isn’t going flat out trying to get up the shallow hill.

So, what have I learnt by riding the Tech Trolley.

I think I understand “the ratio” better. The ratio is the ratio of women to men at Georgia Tech. By the combination of numbers and degree offerings our ratio trends towards men. I’ve watched more than one failed attempt by a man to chat up a woman on the Tech Trolley. I’ve facebooked about the funnier ones, but I do have a serious point. The ratio is part of the experience. As is the traditional patterns of men asking women (I have yet to see it the other way around).

Sometimes I count the numbers of men and women, sometimes I count by race. These numbers are not generalizable of course, and Tech keeps its overall facts and figures on a website, but they remind me to think about the experience of being in a minority, and what it might be like to feel like you are the only one of your kind. Of course there are other minorities that ride the trolley who are imperceptible. But, I still think that there’s a valuable exercise, and that’s to try to get a bit closer to the visceral experience. The Tech Trolley in its confined space, allows me to do that, at least for a short time. The effects of doing it last far longer than the journey though.

The orientation towards the sciences is also something that I see on the trolley. A fabulous example was when I was watching a man staring at a rather good looking woman on the trolley. At first I thought that the ratio was about to kick in again, and I did wonder whether it would work out (it’s always nice to see romance blossom on the trolley as it also is in TSRB, but that’s a whole other post). But then I realised it wasn’t her, it was her homework that he was interested in. She was looking at a Math problem, and I could tell that he was trying to solve it. Actually, I had to get off, I have no idea whether this is an approach to the ratio challenge. Brilliant, and sort of an “only at Tech” approach.

But that’s just one example, it’s everywhere, in the books being held by the students, in their notepads that are full of calculations, and in the discourse that permeates the Trolley. This can lead to some entertaining mishearings. For example, there was the time when I heard a student say that they were going nuclear, which I believe to be a phrase to express anger. No, it turns out that they were going to a class in Nuclear Engineering (going to nuclear). But more generally, the discourse of science is experienced on the Tech Trolley, it’s in the many conversations and that seems to me to be one of the most evocative visceral incarnations of our science/engineering culture on campus.

The orientation towards technology is also apparent on the trolley. It’s not just that half the trolley has their headphones in, some while engaging in conversations with other people on the trolley. I am still trying to work out how they can hear each other with earbuds in, and when the protocol will shift from being one where earbuds are a sign of not wishing to talk to someone to you are available for conversation.A significant number of the discussions appear to be about taking full ownership of a device through hacking or personalizing it. A sense of technological victory, a mastery, shared through tips and suggestions, and through deep pride in possessing the skills it takes to really own a system.

Also, there are discussions comparing and contrasting various devices, plans and so forth. Discussions of cellphone plans remind me about living on a student income, about managing budgets, and for some of the students this is among their first exposure to taking that type of responsibility. The combination of years of experience and enough money so that I can make things work even if I don’t pay close attention to the cents (although I am a fiscal conservative, which explains my 17 year old car…) has dulled my senses to the newness of being a young independent adult trying to balance all sorts of responsibilities when all of them feel new. Watching those conversations, I see the newness of managing financial responsibilities, and at the same time the excitement about figuring out the best technological strategy in the midst of constraints.

It is obvious to me that the students know I am a faculty member. I think like many others, if asked I would tell you that I have aged externally but I dont feel a corresponding internal mapping. The students read the external well and sometimes students will offer me their seat. They are too young to know that this delightful form of politeness only increases my anxiety about being middle-aged. I sometimes want to say “I’m only 40 please sit back down” but instead I take the offer (because trying to decline it is an exercise in even more politeness exchanges). This reminds me of the ongoing divide, the divides that turn on a calibration and orientation to age. I can’t help playing a role in that, my body participates in this relationship without the care or consent of my head.

Why does any of this matter? I think understanding the lived experience of the students is helpful for understanding where they are coming from with respect to their engagements in all facets of campus life. But, another, and sometimes almost peculiar piece in my mind is that while I age, they do not. Yes, sure, each student ages for the 4-5 years they are on campus, but then they leave, and I do not. New students arrive, once again struggling with new responsibilities, this time armed with new technological gadgets. I consistently age, but the student body as a whole stays remarkably young, and so this gap (one of experiences stays in place and is repeated). And it is for this reason, more than any other, that I advocate for riding the Tech Trolley, to expose ourselves to the lives of the students, at least for a short time, and to use the opportunities to reflect on their experiences by temporarily surrounding ourselves with them as we ride around campus.

A Little Information History

In computer science, discipline on March 11, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Mark recently blogged about the disciplinary structure of Computing that Georgia Tech is experimenting with. We have three schools: Computational Science and Engineering, Computer Science, and Interactive Computing. Despite prevailing trends elsewhere, note that we do not have an Information School.

Mark’s post concludes that Computer Science (the discipline and not the Georgia Tech school) is getting too large and that it’s time to separate out fields within the discipline. Our structure is one attempt at that, our non-CS degree programs are another. And again, we don’t have an information offering (such as a M.S. in Informatics or Information).

Now why am I so focused on information, or more accurately the lack of it?

Well in a rather peculiar twist of history, Georgia Tech appears to have had an early role in the creation of the very idea of Information Science. In a 1976 paper by JP Emard (which is a chronological history of the development of Information Science) there’s mention of a 1961 conference.

That conference, supported by the NSF, was focused on Training Science Information Specialists and was held at the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1961 and again in 1962 (Emard, 1976).

According to Robert S. Taylor (1976) these conferences represented

the first time the distinction was made between specialist and scientist, between information technology and information science.

Taylor went on to add that

Two graduate programs, reflecting this vision, were direct results of the Georgia Tech Conferences: the School of Information and Computer Science at Georgia Tech and the Centered for the Information Sciences at Lehigh University. At the same time, approximately 1962, a program in Information Science was intiated in the Drexel Institute of Technology

And the School of Information and Computer Science remained as such until it became a College of Computing. The name also stuck for the degree, B.S.’s and so forth were in Information and Computer Science, although eventually Information was dropped from their names. And so while information is absent today in the names of the organizations and degrees that comprise the College of Computing, it was a name that led to the formation of some of the very entities I and my colleagues inhabit, some of the commitments in teaching that we make.

So, Georgia Tech may not have Information today, but it has Information in its origins and it was in part an origin of Information.