Skip to main content

Another speech to Duke TIP award winners

For some reason, Grinnell invited me to give a speech to Duke TIP scholars on Tuesday, 3 May 2016. Duke TIP recognizes strong seventh grade students, often basing its recognition on performance on standardized tests. A year later, they asked me to give another speech on Friday, 5 May 2017. They even said I could give the same speech. But I’ve made some changes. In addition, although I said that I would read instead of ad lib, I did ad lib a bit throughout the speech. I’ve done my best to update this version to match what I said.

Good afternoon. As Joe said, my name is Sam Rebelsky and I teach computer science (and many other things) at Grinnell. Congratulations to you and your parents for your academic successes! You and they should be very proud.

I admit that it’s a bit strange to be up here in front of this audience. All three of my sons were Duke TIP scholars, so I’m much more accustomed to being on the other side of the podium. When I’m in Herrick Chapel, I’m usually listening to a speech or a concert. Lecturing is also not my normal mechanism for teaching, since students learn better by doing and , through the Socratic method. Even when lecturing, I prefer to ad lib and I rarely read speeches. But Joe asked me to read a speech, and I always listen to my administrators. I’ll do my best to use your time well. Let’s see …

Friends, Romans, Countrymen. Lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones [1].

What’s that Joe? You don’t want me to give a classic speech? You want me to read a speech I wrote for these people? Really?

Okay. I have a few recommendations for you. I’ll do my best to explain each in turn.

Grinnell asked me to be up here because I represent a certain kind of success. I have an awesome job. I get to make a difference in the lives of my students. I get to work on interesting projects, projects that I often design. I regularly have the opportunity to interact with incredibly intelligent people. I get paid well for doing all that. And I get to watch my students go off to do incredible things, from helping design parts of Twitter, to writing the code behind Star Wars and Pixar movies, to serving their country, to making people laugh on the Silicon Valley TV show, to working on medical software, to raising wonderful children, and more.

My own occupation and that list of student occupations motivate my first recommendation for you: Pursue your passions. Each of my students has found something different that is important to him, her, or zir. Most of them are privileged enough to make a good living do what they find enjoyable and important. (Others do what they are good at, and use their income to make it possible for them to spend time on what they value.) I can tell you that while all of my three sons were Duke TIP scholars, each is looking in a different direction. My eldest plans to be a Quant, someone who applies mathematics to solving a wide variety of applied problems. My youngest son, who is tenth grade, already programs better than many of my students and is taking sophomore-level college math classes. But he thinks he wants to pursue music, since it what really calls to him.

Then there’s my middle son, who is just finishing his first year of college. He has no idea what he wants to do. In the past year or two, I’ve heard Dad, I think I should be a priest. Dad, I’m going to be a human rights lawyer. Dad, I think it would be really fun to make fireworks. Dad, people really like my bread. I should be a baker. Of course, he’s also talked about being a trophy husband, so he really doesn’t know [2]. It’s okay that he’s still exploring. I’ll tell you that my oldest son (the quant) originally thought he’d pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry, and I thought I’d be an archaeologist. Part of young adulthood is figuring out your passions. And that’s my second recommendation for you: Take the time to figure out what you are passionate about. You may not know that until midway through college, or even afterward.

That leads to my third recommendation, Don’t focus on just one thing. No matter what your primary passion is, you will do it better if you can draw on other skills, knowledge, and approaches. As a computer scientist, it’s still important that I write well. I also draw upon things I learned in studio art as I do work. My writing classes help me communicate better. I didn’t play team sports in high school, and I’m a bit envious as I watch my children draw upon the cooperative skills they learned in team sports. More generally, each thing you do may lead to identifying a better direction for you or finding a new passion. And each thing you do can contribute to your success. So try a lot of different things.

Many of you worked very hard to get here. And I very much congratulate you on that; knowing how to work hard is an incredibly important skill. However, for some of you, it likely came easy. And for you, I will share my own story. Like you, I was a smart kid, and things came easily to me. Grade school? No problem.. High school? No problem. Things even came relatively easy to me in College, and I attended the University of Chicago, one of the most challenging schools in the nation. My wife was envious that I always seemed to have time to go book and record [4] shopping, to work as a Calculus tutor, to work for our film society and attend or run daily film showings, to work late nights in the computing center, and to hang out with friends. I’ll tell you it was great. And then I hit graduate school. I quickly realized that I could no longer get along on just intellect and that I didn’t have the skills I needed to succeed. I didn’t know how to buckle down and get work done; I was too used to just dashing off an answer. It therefore took me about two years longer than it should have to finish graduate school. I wish I had learned good work habits earlier. And so these are recommendation to myself as well as to you: Learn how to organize yourself. Figure out how to buckle down and get work done, even if it’s not always pleasant work. And to do those things, you may need to challenge yourself, even if others do not challenge you. I wish I’d done all of those things, and I strongly encourage you to do so.

My previous recommendations have been primarily about you and how you might succeed. My next recommendation is somewhat different. Take responsibility for others. As some of our brightest citizens, you will take on leadership roles. You may develop ideas and products that can change the world. Take your successes and use them to help others - serve as a mentor, a tutor, a guide. Helping others is one of the most rewarding things I do; I hope that you’ll find the same.

My next recommendation also has to do with other people. Don’t do everything yourself; collaborate with others. Joe gave you a long list of things that I do. All of those things I do in collaboration with others. I find that these endeavors are much more successful when I work with others. We get more perspectives and the additional perspectives lead to a better result. We share work. We challenge each other. We keep each other in check. I know that I’ve often made a decision that I thought was great, only to discover later that it was wrong. When someone challenges me early on in the process, I avoid wasted time going in the wrong direction.

It should be obvious, but you should also take time to thank the people who make a difference to you. You’ve clearly achieved a lot. You probably didn’t do it alone. Thank your parents. Thank your teachers. Thank your siblings and friends. I’ll admit that I could not have hoped to have reached the position I’m at without a lot of support, support from my parents and teachers when I was young; support from my professors, when I was in college and graduate school (I still remember my most frequent comment from Gerald Mast, from whom I took about five classes: Sam, you have great ideas. It’s too bad that your can’t write. He’s responsible for me eventually finding a competent writer’s voice.); support from my colleagues, in my professional life; and support from my family, who help me achieve everything.

We have almost reached the end of my remarks. It is time for my penultimate recommendation. (I know all of you know what penultimate means, but let me explain to your parents. Penultimate means next to last. We use the more confusing term to make ourselves sound smarter.) I think Joe might try to get President Kington to fire me if I didn’t say When you’re looking at colleges in a few years, consider Grinnell. Grinnell permits you to explore a wide variety of interests, exposes you to new and challenging ideas, provides you with committed faculty and other resources, and gives you a set of interesting and talented peers to work with. (Joe, did I do okay?)

My final recommendation is to be proud of yourselves. Few students achieve your level of academic achievement, and you should take the time to congratulate yourselves.

Do you know what happens at the end of a lecture? [People applaud] [5]. No! Lectures end with a quiz. I hope that you took good notes.

Which of the following were recommendations that I made today?

  • Pursue your passions. (Yes) Please raise your hand to vote on answers.
  • Do what you love now; it’s clearly what you’ll always love. (No) Um, I’d like to see more of you raise your hands.
  • Use words like penultimate and defenestrate. (No) _Okay, you who raised your hand: What does defenestrate mean [6]?
  • Learn how to buckle down and do work. (Yes)
  • Attend Grinnell. (No) No, I didn’t tell you to attend Grinnell. But I do hope that you’ll consider Grinnell.

Most importantly: Be proud of yourselves. You deserve it.

Thank you for taking the time to listen. I look forward to seeing you receive your awards. I also hope you enjoy the rest of your visit.

I should, of course, acknowledge that the speech I started to give was by M. Anthony, as quoted in [8] W. Shakespeare.

[1] M. Anthony, as quoted in W. Shakespeare.

[2] Given his multiple interests and abilities, he might make a good trophy husband [3].

[3] No, I did not say that to the Duke TIP students.

[4] Records are 12" round discs of vinyl with engraved grooves. Through the miracle of technology, you can get sound out of them without the use of a computer.

[5] No, I didn’t plan for them to applaud.

[6] The future trophy husband knows that it means to throw out a window [7].

[7] Some computer aficionados use defenestrate to mean remove Microsoft Windows from your computer.

[8] Perhaps I should say as translated by and quoted in. Or perhaps as imagined by.

Version 1.1.1 of 2017-05-05.