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Attendance Policy Considered Harmful

April 11, 2013 2 comments

A recent e-mail exchange between an NYU professor and a student has been making rounds around the Internet. During the first class meeting of the semester, a student walked into a classroom an hour late; the professor would not let the student into the classroom; the student got upset and expressed her frustration via an e-mail to the professor; the professor’s anonymized reply, made public, became an internet sensation. How so? Using very harsh language, the professor explained why the student was wrong and also gave some advice about how the student should behave in the future. What I found most surprising about the reaction to this story is how almost everyone is siding with the professor, complimenting him for having the guts to tell it like it is.

By contrast, I disagree and find the entire incident quite bizarre, as it goes against both of my core teaching principles: (1) treat students as adults, and (2) don’t take yourself too seriously. In line with these principles, I have no attendance policy in my classes. During the first lecture, I usually say something as follows: “I certainly hope that you will find my lectures interesting and worth your time. However, if you have something more important to do with your time than to attend my lectures, please feel free to do so–I won’t get upset and it will not affect your grade in any way.” I have no attendance policy because I respect my students’ right to decide how they want to learn (or not to learn) in my classes. They are free to attend my lectures in full or in part,  or only read the textbook,  or only talk to me in person during my office hours, or engage in any combination of these activities. Besides, there could be things going on in their lives that are more important than attending lectures. For example, they can be preparing for a job interview with the company of their dreams or creating a proof-of-concept for their brilliant startup idea.

However, the issue at hand with the NYU incident seems to be not missing the lecture but rather walking in late.  It does not bother me a bit when students walk into my classroom late. Let’s take an extreme case of a student coming in 10 minutes before the end of the lecture. My thinking will go as follows: “Wow, this student was obviously doing something very important that did not allow him to come to my lecture on time. However, he finds my lecture so interesting and important that he found it worth his while to attend the very last 10 minutes of it. I must be doing something right!” Besides, who knows–perhaps some of the insights I share in the last 10 minutes may prove to be valuable for the latecomer. So in my view, coming in just for the last 10 minutes is better than not coming at all.

But what about distracting other students by walking in late? Gimme a break! We live in a distracted world, in which we need to switch our attention to various matters continuously. In fact, the ability not to let distractions derail your work progress is one of the most valuable skills for a modern professional. I have worked in industry, and I do not remember having a sterile working environment, in which I could focus on the tasks at hand without any distractions. Working in a cubicle, I had to learn to maintain my focus in the presence of extraneous conversations in the neighboring cubicles, colleagues passing by, phone calls, etc. Why should the modern classroom be so drastically different from the modern workplace? Of course, common sense still applies: I do take exception to students talking loudly to each other during the lectures.

Notice how in the absence of an attendance policy, the NYU incident would never have transpired. I understand that it was an MBA class, and the professor may have good reasons to run his classroom the way he does. However, as a computer science professor, I choose not to have an attendance policy that explicitly disallows absences and lateness. I believe that my students are better off as a result.

Curbing the Unnecessary Scholarship (an annual April 1 e-mail)

April 1, 2013 Leave a comment

Dear Colleagues:

The Taulbee Survey Report ranks CS departments based on the amount of their external funding: “The U.S. CS data indicate that the higher the ranking, the more external funding is received by the department (both in total and per capita).”
(Source: http://cra.org/uploads/documents/resources/taulbee/CRA_Taulbee_2009-2010_Results.pdf). And yet, as the recently submitted Faculty Activity Reports (FARs) indicate, some of you are spending only between 60% and 90% of your time on “research activities,” defined as bringing in external funding to the department. If we are truly serious about increasing the rank and prestige of our department, we should be spending a 100% of our time on such research activities. Two obstacles stand in the way of realizing this vision: teaching and scholarship. Fortunately, recent advancements in massive open online courses (MOOCs) have great potential to significantly alleviate the first obstacle if not to remove it altogether. Effective handling of the scholarship obstacle, however, will require some creative problem solving. To that end, a new committee has been established: Curbing the Unnecessary Scholarship or The CUrSe Committee for short. How do we know what scholarship is unnecessary? We will use the following intuitive definition: a scholarship activity is necessary if it prepares preliminary results for a successful funding proposal; it is unnecessary otherwise.

Conference publishing is particularly harmful. Publishing at conferences wastes faculty and graduate student time, while traveling to conferences incurs high administrative overhead, draining staff time and resources (and is bad for the environment). Besides, allocating budget for conference travel makes your funding proposals less competitive. All other factors being equal, which proposal has a better chance of being funded: the one that asks for $5K in domestic and international travel or the one that asks for $500 to travel to DC to discuss your next proposal with an NSF program director? It is simply unjustifiable to be wasting your and your graduate students’ time to go through several rejection cycles to have your papers accepted to conferences with ridiculous acceptance rates (e.g., CHI, ICSE, KDD, IPDPS, SC, etc.). Conference publishing is a dangerous addiction and should be treated accordingly. Therefore, the first recommendation of the CUrSE committee is that we go cold turkey on conference publishing for a period of one year. Then, the committee will assess the expected positive impact of this initiative and may recommend occasional recreational conference publishing on a case-by-case basis.

Journal publishing should be curbed as well. Too much time and effort is spent on preparing journal manuscripts and addressing comments from the reviewers. To address this inefficiency, the CUrSE Committee is tasked with compiling a list of journals that do not impose the unnecessary burden of the review process on the authors. The committee needs to identify those journals that fully embrace the value of inclusiveness and welcome all submissions irrespective of their topic, content, or fit.

The journal writing process itself can be streamlined as well. A couple of years ago, SCIGen, a promising technology emerged from MIT that makes it possible to automatically synthesize scientific manuscripts (Source: http://pdos.csail.mit.edu/scigen/). At the time, SCIGen received some negative press due to its technical imperfections stemming naturally from the breakthrough nature of this technology. Only because an innovative technology does not pan out as intended right away, it does not mean it would not mature over time to become ready for practical application. Therefore, the CUrSe Committee will explore whether it is the right time for us to invest time and efforts in mastering SCIGen.

Once all the unnecessary scholarship is properly curbed, we will be able to dedicate all our time and efforts to increasing the amount of research funding in the department. What about graduate students? One point needs to be made perfectly clear: the value of a graduate degree is positively correlated with the rankings of the department awarding the degree. Therefore, our graduate students should be even more interested in and dedicated to increasing our rankings than we are. To help our graduate students really increase the value of their future degrees, we must immediately stop counting publications as a criteria for graduation. Instead of saying “OK, this student deserves a Ph.D., as he has published N papers,” we should be saying “OK, this student is ready to graduate, as he has contributed preliminary results for N successful funding proposals.” When a graduate student asks you “When can I expect to graduate?”, you should have profound answers prepared; for example: “When your thinking reaches the right depth.” If students ask you what devices will be used to gauge the depth of their thinking, just look thoughtfully off into the distance and utter Yoda-like: “You won’t miss it when you get there.”

Please, let me know by EOB today, if you feel prepared and motivated to join the CUrSe Committee. We need a lot of talent, energy, and passion to eliminate the scourge of unnecessary scholarship, thereby fulfilling our raison d’etre of increasing our department’s rankings!