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On the folly of asking the same question once

March 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Recently, I met quite a few visitors to our department, including prospective graduate students and faculty candidates. These visitors got to talk to multiple people while visiting the campus, and for some reason, on multiple occasions, I ended up being near the end on their meeting list. Invariably, I would ask the visitors if they had any questions for me, and invariably would get surprised if the answer was: “Actually, I already had a chance to ask all the questions I had.”

Say what?! Unless, the visitors wanted to ask questions that have precise  answers (e.g., “How many Starbucks stores do you have in town?” “What is the square mileage of your campus?, etc.) I see such a reluctance to take advantage of my offer to ask me any questions as missing a major opportunity to learn valuable information. And this is not because I consider myself possessing some truly unique insights and perspectives.

The answer to the same open-ended question will depend on at least three factors: 1) the person asking the question, 2) the person answering it, 3) the context in which the question is asked. Take for example the question of “How do you like being a college professor?” I will give a completely different answer when I receive this question from a student or a fellow professor. Furthermore, each professor you ask will have a different answer. Finally, my answer is likely to change significantly if you ask me this question after I have just learned about a major rejection or have been demonstrated a research proof of concept.

Whether you are deciding if you should join a department for your graduate studies or if you should accept the department’s potential job offer, this is a major life decision, something that can potentially affect your entire life. When making decisions that important, there is no such thing as asking too many questions or asking the same question different people. Or even asking the same question the same person under different circumstances.

Here are two questions that you can ask each and every person you meet during your visit to an academic department or, in fact, to any other place. “What is one thing that you like most about this (department, company, town, job)?” “What is one thing that you like least about this (department, company, town, job)?” If you ask this question to all the people with whom you meet, you’ll get different answers. And only by collating the answers together, you can get to the bottom of things and form an informed opinion. You want to make major decisions well-informed.

Now, what if you forget if you already asked someone one of these questions and ask them again? What is the worst that can happen? If your interlocutor objects: “But you already asked me this question yesterday!” To which, you can smile and say: “I am terribly sorry, but I have met so many people that I keep forgetting which questions I asked whom.”

In summary, asking the same question to different people and collating their answers is a valuable strategy to ascertain non-trivial, subjective truths. Use this strategy to your advantage. And please never tell your interlocutor that you already have a chance to ask all the questions you had.

E-mail impoliteness dilemma

March 14, 2011 3 comments

Call me old-fashioned, but I find it disappointing and disturbing when I receive a student e-mail without the customary expressions of politeness. Any request not accompanied by the words “please” and “thank you” creates an unpleasant resonance in my mind’s ear.

Here is a case in point from an actual student e-mail: “Let me know if you have any other ideas, [student first name]”

To be fair, I receive such e-mails very infrequently–in general, I am quite impressed with our students’ etiquette and social graces. That’s why I find those infrequent displays of a lack of civility so upsetting. Every time such an unfortunate event happens, I am faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, I am not that student’s parent, and it is not my responsibility to educate the student on the conventions of proper e-mail communication. On the other hand, I realize that once in the real world, such a communication style may hinder the student’s professional career.

Prior to grad school, I worked in industry for several years. Therefore, I am familiar with professional environments both in industry and academia, and I can attest that the issues of politeness and grace in business communication are of paramount importance. I also realize that someone utterly civil and polite in face-to-face interactions may not realize the importance of adhering to the same principles in e-mail communication.

I usually try to lead by example and reply with punctuated politeness, hoping to convey my point this way. Interestingly, the strategy works well in the majority of cases. At the same time, I wonder if by not confronting the problem up front, I may be hurting the student’s long term chances of success. I could definitely use some advice on the matter.

Categories: teaching

College students not learning much?–I beg to differ

March 6, 2011 Leave a comment

It has recently become fashionable to knock the quality of college education in this country.
A recent book by Professors Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia entitled “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” reports on the results of a study implying that a significant percentage of college students show no improvement in their critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills. This book caught my attention when it was just released, and I remember skimming through it in the university library. The findings of the book immediately struck me as being at odds with what I experience as a Computer Science professor in our department, but I did not feel compelled to express my objections in public.

What convinced me to write about this topic was a recent New York Times editorial, “College the Easy Way,” penned by Bob Herbert. The editorial basically reflects on the book agreeing with its findings. Nowadays, reader comments are often as revealing as the piece upon which the readers chose to opine. What I found  staggering was that out of almost 200 reader comments on Herbert’s editorial, none of them disagreed with its main premises.

I am not going to refute the general findings of Profs. Arum and Roksa. But I would like to state unequivocally that Virginia Tech Computer Science students learn a whole lot in our program. Not to be making unsupported claims–a recent Wall Street Journal survey of close to 500 employers ranked out program as number 5 in the nation. So we must be doing something right.

I would like to refute some of the popular claims about the nature of college students, education, and faculty. In the following discussion, I am only going to reflect on my own experiences rather than make strict statistical arguments.

1.) Students nowadays are not academically prepared for college level work
Since I have been serving on the faculty only for five years, my experience is somewhat limited. I can only say that I am amazed how technologically savvy our students are. Our best students explore various Computer Science topics on their own and constantly learn new technologies. Besides in my view, to become a competent Information Technology professional, one only needs solid logical thinking, attention to detail, and perseverance. All other background knowledge and skills can be learned.

2.) Students do not have the right attitude to learn effectively
This is certainly not true for Computer Science students. We have a rigorous curriculum that requires multiple hours of out-of-classroom studying.  If anything, I constantly hear from our students about the all-nighters they had to pull to complete their course assignments. In fact, they take pride in how hard their major makes them work. Besides, I am constantly amazed and inspired by the “let’s do it” attitude of our best students. Whenever I get to work with our undergraduate students on research, they surprise me with with their ingenuity and productivity.

3.) The curriculum is not sufficiently demanding and obsolete
Let’s examine each part of this claim. It is certainly always possible to make any curriculum more challenging. But our students do spend hours working on their programming and other assignments outside the class. In addition, many of them are pursuing their own side projects. For example, one of the members of my original Bus Tracker team has recently created an application that shows which restaurants on campus are currently open. This application apparently already has thousands of users. It is important that Computer Science students have time to pursue such independent projects. In addition, we have an active undergraduate research program, where our undergraduate students get involved in cutting edge research with our faculty members.

With respect to the curriculum being obsolete, it is difficult to keep the material we teach always up with the latest technological developments. And being a university, we have a responsibility to teach the foundational concepts that are unlikely to change throughout the entire professional careers of our students. Nevertheless, we do teach current technologies and concepts. For example, in our introductory classes, we teach test-driven development. We also offer a class on mobile software engineering using smart phones. Overall, I believe that we teach our students a harmonious mix of fundamental concepts and latest technologies.

4.) Faculty do not care about teaching and do a poor job at it
There is this notion that particularly in a research university, faculty are rewarded and promoted mostly based on their research accomplishments. As a result, teaching gets the back seat to research and getting research funding. There is certainly some truth to this, but I have not encountered a single faculty member in our department who did not care about teaching. In fact, I constantly witness my fellow faculty members bragging about the educational innovations they have introduced.

Personally, even though I consider myself a researcher first and foremost, I treat teaching as an intrinsic part of what I do as a faculty member. In fact, I see my research program as a guarantee that my students are learning from an expert who is current in his knowledge. Besides, I have recently found myself engaged in educational research, which I find quite exciting. For example, currently we are working on revitalizing introductory CS classes by using real-time live data of relevance to the students. In particular, my students and I have exposed the real time data of VT Bus Tracker through a convenient Java API that our introductory student can use in their programs.

All in all, I am excited about preparing our students for exciting and remunerative careers in IT. In addition, we also send our students to the best graduate schools. Can things be improved? Is everything right with the way we teach our students? Of course there is always room for improvement, but this is the topic of a another blog post.