Beki Grinter

Posts Tagged ‘students’

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.

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.

Trainees? Seriously?

In academic management, research on February 2, 2011 at 7:14 pm

Female Science Professor directed my attention to the following post about what you can (as a PI) expect from your “trainees.”

I could say a lot of things about the post, but for now I want to comment on the use of the word trainees? I presume that that’s referring to students. Particularly at the Ph.D. level there is a substantial amount of apprenticeship that takes place. But, while I take mentoring seriously I’ve never once thought of my students as trainees.

Perhaps I’m mis-reading the intent of the word, but, well it was an opportunity for me to question myself.

I guess when I first work with a student I think of them as that, a student. Someone that I should guide, encourage, advise, advocate for, … mentor. Over time, I really enjoy the change. They become colleagues. Well that’s the point isn’t it. If it is an apprenticeship in research, then the objective is to help each person find their unique voice, the one that they’ll go on to become researchers using and maybe want to work with you as a colleague.

To me trainee implies a period of training, and there is no doubt that there’s a period of learning. But it’s not knowledge transfer from advisor to student, it’s also about developing that person to be able to do research that is outside of the scope of your own ability. I hope it is anyway…

Perhaps, I can’t help wondering, if the author thought of his or her students as people who deserve mentoring and may end up doing research that you could never have imagined yourself doing because you don’t have the skill set for it. Well perhaps the work that they do, and the work that only they can do, would be clearer.


In academia, research, social media on July 28, 2009 at 12:59 pm

I’ve been hearing more and more about millennials.  Millennials is the latest name for a generation, the one after the baby boomers (perhaps the one that is the product of what happened when the baby boomers themselves had babies).

Millennials are now entering the University, so this is one context in which I have heard this argument.  So what is the argument.  The argument is that millennials are different. And that that in turn should influence education, science, and product design/development.  Which one depends, of course, on what it is precisely you want to accomplish/argue for.

But, let’s pause for a minute.  Millennials can be used in such a way that it buries a set of phenomenally important questions.  Questions about change (often the attractive answer) and questions about stability and “business as usual” (usually the less attractive option).

So one of the reasons I am skeptical about the millennials arguement is evolution (a theory to which, dear reader, I subscribe—always worth saying in the United States I think).  Evolution doesn’t suggest change quite as quickly as the millennials argument does. Given that evolution has turned out to be a relatively robust theory of explaining how humans have evolved over millions of years, I’m going to bet that arguments that turn on evolution would suggest that for the types of things that evolution can explain, there’s very little, if any difference, between millennials, baby boomers and even their 8Xgreat grandparents 🙂

A second reason I want to inspect the millennials argument is institutional. The institutional arrangements in which millennials operate are not so different than the ones that their parents did. Yes, they have bank accounts, drivers licences, need to find gainful employment (mostly), … the patterns of life, the rhythms of what happens, when and why, are still being shaped by institutions (cultural, legal, governmental, etc…) that don’t change that rapidly.

That said, it is here in the more institutional analysis that we can also begin to look at where some changes might exist. One example is the increasing use of technology to accomplish some of these activities, and what that might say about the genres. Let me give an example. Students now, frequently, use email to interact with me (as a faculty member at the University).  This is both graduates and undergraduates. I reflect on how I used email as a student, which was never with faculty, but only with other students (oh, and of course I am old enough that I only used it with students, because there were very few if any dotcom email addresses, the Internet was a largely educational-military-governmental technology). I think that email has undergone a genre convention, from being an informal medium of communication to a far more formal one. That happened as soon as it shifted from being a medium for peers to one that is now formalised. Additionally, that various legislation came to pass that suggested that what I put into email was part of the State record, and could be used as evidence in a court. I think that changes the nature of the genre, our expectations of how we use it, and when, and why.

So maybe millennials have never experienced email in the informal mode? Surely they have. But they came to email with many different possible uses of email, all as being part of email usage. Unlike I, I have acquired different uses of email as I have used it for 20 years.

OK, stepping back.  I’m not saying that millennials aren’t encountering technologies in ways that I did not. But, that’s the level of change, we need a type of granularity to the millennials argument that gets glossed over when we evoke the term and move on as if it alone is enough to explain and justify change.

What we risk when that happens is that we can proceed to design for a type of proximate, but never actually occurring future, without actually critically examining the future we are in fact going to experience and are indeed participating in building.

Thank you Georgia

In academia, academic management, computer science on July 14, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Right now at Georgia Tech the freshmen are coming to visit.  They’re participating in the FASET program (Familiarization and Adaptation to the Surroundings and Environs of Tech). They are here with their families, walking around the campus and learning about Georgia Tech.

And seeing these groups, and looking carefully at the faces, I see all sorts of emotions. There’s excitement, for many of the students I presume it’s the first time they’ve left home. And perhaps a twinge of worry, trepidation. Very natural. For anyone going to University and leaving home, that’s a very understandable set of reactions.

The families, parents, grandparents, guardians, there’s another set of faces. The ones of pride, the smiles that reveal a deep sense of pride in their ward.

I’ve been walking around campus in the course of getting various things done prior to going to Metz, so I’ve encountered quite a few groups, and I see these same faces over and over again. And it’s quite humbling. Here are families entrusting me, as a faculty member, to not just teach their wards, but to do whatever I can to help them learn as much as they possibly can from the University education. And I believe that there’s far more to learn than just what is taught in the classroom.

So, I am entrusted with this responsibility and this privilege, I promise to do my best.

I also wanted to say (since I have a tendency to write about academic management) that students are the most fabulous mission statement that I’ve ever encountered. Everytime I see a student I am reminded of a fundamental mission, to educate, and all that that means. Many companies I have worked for had mission statements, many of them were largely vacuous if they were comprehensible. Seeing a student makes the mission very clear in a way that I never encountered in the corporate sector.

Thank you Georgia.