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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): CS (and other) alums

Part of an ongoing series about the people of Grinnell.

It’s 11 p.m. [1] on Saturday night. I’ve just spent fourteen hours at the CS affinity reunion. I have a whole host of alums I want to write about. But it’s also late and I’m tired. So I’m going to write about my general experience with alums at the reunion, rather than any particular alum.

At dinner tonight, an alum asked Sam, how do you remember all of us and remember things about all of us? [2] But I don’t find it that hard to remember most students. Why? I usually explain it on the last day of class, using a variant of one of my mother’s last day of class speech.

Believe it or not, but they way faculty feel about their students is a bit like the way they feel about their children [4]. That is, we want to help you grow and thrive. At the same time, we know that there’s a time that we have to kick you out of the nest and let you fly on your own. And, just like we want to hear about our children’s successes and problems, we want to hear about yours. So stay in touch [5].

The sentiment is serious. I care a lot about my students [6]. And so I remember them, just as I remember my children. I don’t remember everything. Sometimes I even forget what classes they’ve taken from me (or even that they’ve taken classes from me). But I tend to remember significant events, whether it be an internship, or an infamously snarky comment, or a really good presentation, or just a deep conversation. And so I have something that I remember about almost every student. It’s not hard.

But this essay isn’t supposed to be about me. It’s supposed to be about these wonderful alumni I care about. (And some ones I did not know previously, who I’ve enjoyed meeting and who remind me once again why I love Grinnell students.) So, what did I see in the alums who returned this weekend? I saw people who are passionate about computing (generally), but also still passionate about making a difference in the world. I heard dinner discussions of how they were much more inclined than their peers to think about the possible impacts of their work. I talked to one alum whose startup is designed to help channel donations to nonprofits. I talked to another who is part of an initiative to provide what I think they call Pro Bono PMs to nonprofits. I love that almost every conversation about cool technology was also accompanied by some considerations of the benefits or hazards of that technology.

I was also thrilled to see their passion for Grinnell. The most frequent question I got from the alums was What can I do to help? [7] These alums really do want to give of themselves. I’ll be working with our SEPC and the CLS over the coming weeks to identify possible things. Some are obvious. They should be on GrinnellConnect. They should host externships, if their companies allow them to. (If not, then can still host students on externships, since not every externship host can also provide housing.) They can provide mock interviews and resume reviews [11]. Many also found ways to help while they were at Grinnell. In addition to the normal mentors for CSC 322, a few other alums snuck in to the classroom and provided advice and perspective. (Yes, it really is important that your tests achieve 100% coverage.) Some made it a point to chat with as many students as possible. And lots talked to students at the recruiting fair, whether to try to attract students to their companies or just to provide general advice.

I also love the things they are doing outside of work, whether it’s hiking mountains, running triathlons, designing wedding rings based on physics phenomenon [12], talking proudly about their children or lovingly about their partners, volunteering [14], writing Twitter ’Bots [15], drawing comic strips, reading, writing [16], building furniture, and oh so much more.

Of course, they do frustrate me a bit. As far as I can tell, not a single one of them laughed at the excellent joke [17] that started my The State of CS at Grinnell speech. A few of them [19] noticed that I left my laptop unsecured and thought it important to demonstrate to me why that’s a bad idea.

But they also have to put up with me. I can seriously say that most of the speakers dealt with completely inadequate guidance, and sometimes even insanely insufficient warning. For example, I’d put Lea on the schedule for Learning from Alumni on Thursday, since I knew she was coming in early. But I forgot to tell her that until, um, 10pm on Wednesday night. I didn’t tell Janet she was running the CSC 321/22 panel until 2pm on Friday. And I don’t think I did anything beyond invitations for the awesome Gehorsam/Rose AR/VR panel [20].

In any case, these are wonderful, awesome, people. It’s given me an incredibly warm feeling to see them again (and to meet some for the first time). They remind me why teaching at Grinnell is an incredible privilege [21]. How could I not remember them?

I look forward to the next CS affinity reunion [22,23].

[1] More or less.

[2] The question is somewhat funny, since most students know that I can’t even remember which current students are and are not my advisees [2].

[3] That’s actually reasonable. I do my best to advise, mentor, and help every CS student at some time or another, whether or not they are my advisees. And some of my advisees are the kind of people who don’t really want regular advice, so some semesters our primary encounter is an email that says Sam, I chose a good set of courses. Approve them.

[4] Assuming they have children.

[5] It’s 11 pm. Deal with the fact that I’m even less articulate than normal, even when attempting to replicate something I’ve said close to one hundred times.

[6] Well, most of my students [7].

[7] Well, most of the students who try to be active in my classes or the department.

[8] Okay, the most frequent question may have been Can I sit in on one of John Stone’s classes? and the second most frequent question might have been To what do you attribute [9] the tripling of the number of majors? [10] But What can I do to help? was right up there.

[9] Timing.

[10] I’ve asked myself that question a lot. Since the alums kept asking me, I came up with an answer. Here goes. It’s not any one thing, but rather a confluence of things. Adding 208 as an alternative to 218 made a difference to some students. AppDev helped students more quickly realize the applicability of what they were learning in classes. (Oh! That’s why linked lists (inheritance, higher-order programming, polymorphism, dictionaries, etc.) are useful!) We’ve also had an increasing number of CS majors who also served as SA’s or something similar, which means that they encouraged their first years to try 151. For a lot of my career, I’ve had students who take CSC 151 in their 3rd year and say If only I’d taken this as a first-year, I’d be a CS major. Now they are taking it in their first year. There are also external factors; the ubiquity of computing means that more students consider it. Maybe the cool images for CSC 151 helped, too.

[11] I’m too lazy to include the accents.

[12] Seriously.

[14] Frequently, for computing outreach activities for groups underrepresented in the discipline.

[15] Or, in one case, a Twitter Butt.

[16] And probably ’rithmaticing.

[17] I’m here to tell you the state of the department. It’s Iowa. Did you expect it to change? [18]

[18] I assume that you didn’t laugh either.

[19] Well, maybe only one.

[20] Can I use mathematical proporties to turn AR/VR into (A/V)R?

[21] Note, however, that this doesn’t mean that the Grinnell students are smarter than the Grinnell faculty, in spite of what one of the alumni claimed.

[22] Okay, I’ll admit that I don’t particularly look forward to preparing for or running the reunion. But I do look forward to seeing the alums and hearing their talks.

[23] Will there be another CS affinity reunion? I asked someone from DAR whether we could have one in five years, and I got a definite maybe [24].

[24] Admittedly, it did feel a bit more positive than that. We’ll see. I don’t anticipate another confluence of circumstances like we had this time [25], but I’m pretty sure the other affinity reunions didn’t have any particular confluence.

[25] No, not the closeness of the moon to the earth. It’s the 25th anniversary of the first students graduating with CS majors, the 10th anniversary of us being a separate department, and the year Henry Walker enters Senior Faculty Status, after 42 years on the faculty [1,26].

[26] I love being able to reuse footnotes.

Version 1.0.1 of 2016-11-20.