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Fourteen questions (#1097)

Topics/tags: Autobiographical, long

In a recent musing, I presented a draft of an introductory letter to my students. Toward the end of that letter, I noted that since the students had answered fourteen questions for me, I would answer the same fourteen questions for them [1]. Here’s my draft of that subsequent letter.

Dear Tutorial Students,

In my prior letter, I noted that since you have to answer fourteen questions for me, it seems only fair that I answer the same fourteen questions for you. This message provides most of those answers.

I’ll admit that high school is far enough in my past that it’s a bit of a blur, so I’m going to substitute college for high-school in my answers. You can feel free to read or ignore these comments. They probably tell you too more than you need to know.

As always, feel free to send me email or chat with me in Teams if you have comments or questions.



1. Describe the type of high school college you attended and highlights of your academic experience there. What has been your favorite academic subject(s)? Why? What courses offered the most challenges?

I attended the University of Chicago which, at the time, had a moderate-sized liberal arts college (3,000 students) in the midst of a large research university. (My high school also had about 3,000 students, but across three years instead of four.)

I loved (and still love) mathematics and film. Mathematics provides a venue for problem solving; I find a sense of accomplishment when I work out a difficult mathematical problem. Film provided a venue for deep analysis, analysis that combined visual, auditory, and textual (spoken or titled) elements. Toward the end of my undergraduate career, I realized that I liked CS. CS has what I love about math along with the ability to build things.

Although I got A’s on essays in my writing courses in high-school and a local university, I struggled with writing in my first year at UofC, getting a bunch of C’s. I enjoyed most of the Physics I took, but E&M didn’t make sense to me, and it showed in my grade. (Sleeping through the midterm didn’t help.) I’d taken Latin and Spanish in high school, so I tried learning a new language, German. I did okay but found it more challenging than I expected.

2. What do you most look forward to at Grinnell?

When I arrived at Grinnell twenty-three years ago, I looked forward to working with students who seemed to care about learning for the sake of learning, to being at an institution that provided an excellent education to students, regardless of their ability to pay, and to being at a place that cared about strong teaching and that supported innovation in teaching.

Those remain things that I love about Grinnell. I’ve also found that I value the size, including the variety of colleagues I know.

This year, I look forward to our Tutorial (and to the book I hope we write) and to a time when everyone can be back on campus. I’m not sure when that will be.

3. What do you feel are your academic strengths?

I’m good at thinking outside the box. That helps me come up with approaches or solutions that others may not develop. I don’t always realize that my solutions are atypical until I discuss them with others.

I’m willing to take risks in my learning (and teaching). I’m not sure whether I’m more willing to risks now than I was when I entered or left college, but it seems to be a characteristic now.

Before I got those initial writing grades, I would have said that I was a good writer. These days, after years of training, I say that I spew reasonably readable text at a good rate.

I seem to be good at exploring patterns in numbers and in asking questions about numeric data.

4. Which academic skills do you anticipate you will work hardest to improve in the coming year? (Check all that apply) [Mathematical skills; Study habits/time management; Writing skills; Verbal expression; Independent research; Library/Information skills; Digital skills/literacy; Other]

Study habits and time management are a long-standing problem. I still need to work on those. Saying No to additional tasks is a related issue.

I did not know that writing skills were an issue upon entering college, but they were definitely something I needed to work on. I thought I was a much better writer. Then I took creative nonfiction this past fall. Writing skills will always be something that I need to work on.

Asking for help is also a skill I continue to need to work on.

5. Do you have any tentative ideas about what discipline you may major in and/or career-related goals? And please let me know why your interest is in these area(s).

Entering college, I said Math. Going on to graduate school, I said CS. At times I wonder whether I should have said Film Studies, but I wasn’t a good enough writer. If I could go to college another time, I’d probably try studio art. At least that’s what I did during one sabbatical. As you’ll see in my answer to the What courses are you considering question, there are also some other possible majors or topics.

6. What do you hope to accomplish through your undergraduate education?

Wow. We ask you hard questions, don’t we? I went to college since it seemed to be the thing you do after high school. In the back of my head, I always thought I’d be a professor, so I guess Prepare me for graduate school might have been a good answer.

7. What activities (formal or informal) that you were involved with in high school college were most important to you, and why?

I spent a lot of time in Doc Films, the student film group. We showed films every night. I worked as a projectionist, shipping chair, and, for a summer, as programmer/leader. I don’t know why I developed a passion for films during college, but considering the various aspect of a film interested me. I also enjoyed the skill of seamless reel transitions when serving as a projectionist.

I also became a vinyl addict in college. I spent way too much time at the local used record stores. Finding a new great tune released some kind of endorphins, as did finding a hard-to-find record.

I lived next door to a used book store. Raiding the free pile that appeared each day was one of my favorite activities.

I worked in the Central Users’ Site for many too many hours each week. I enjoyed learning more about computing technology, reading newsgroups, and helping others.

I worked as a teaching assistant for mathematics and computer science. There’s a great sense of accomplishment in helping someone else learn.

I also enjoyed spending time with friends. I hope everyone finds a set of friends who provide good company.

8. Beyond your studies, what activities (formal or informal) do you hope to engage in at Grinnell? Why is that?

I had no idea what I wanted to do beyond my classes when I got to college. I would not have predicted that I would study film, or collect vinyl, or work as a computing assistant. I might have predicted that I would be a TA, although I seem to recall that I wasn’t all that good at first. (My friends had some comment like Sam figures out the approach or solution, Randy explains it.) I knew I’d end up accumulating books; it’s something I’ve done all my life.

Beyond teaching and raising a family, I did not have a good idea of what I would do at Grinnell. Activities I’ve enjoyed have included: serving as Division Chair (I liked knowing how the sausage is made), developing new classes (I guess that’s part of the expectation), taking classes, serving as coach of the middle-school MathCounts team and wrangler for the middle-school Chess Club and Backgammon Club, running a summer code camp, finding ways to bridge CS and studio art, helping with the library book sort and book sale, and so much more.

9. What is your greatest concern about Grinnell? Or about the transition to college, in general?

When I started college, I was worried about making friends.

When I came to Grinnell, I was worried about being in the middle of nowhere. I worried about the inability to browse bookstores, to visit a variety of restaurants, to go to art museums. I still worry a bit about these things. But the College museum is awesome, Des Moines isn’t that far away, and I seem to make more events on campus than I did when I was in busier cities.

10. Are you the first in your family to attend college?

Nope. Mom had a Ph.D. and her father attended college. Dad did not finish college and neither of his parents attended.

I hope I understand a variety of circumstances. I have close friends (and colleagues) who are the first in their family to have attended college. I also have close friends (and colleagues) who represent multiple generations of college graduates. And I certainly have taught and supported students from a wide variety of backgrounds.

11. If you’re comfortable, please tell me about your family, and describe the role they play in your education, if any.

My father died before I attended college. I was an only child. Mom supported whatever I wanted to do, but didn’t always seem to know what I was interested in. I seem to recall her talking about chemistry long after I’d lost any interest I had in chemistry. Although mom was a professor, her experience of what higher education was like was much different than mine.

12. What language(s) do you speak? What language(s) are spoken in your home?

I primarily speak English. At various times, I also spoke a bit of Latin, Spanish, and German. I regret that I have not kept up those languages.

At home, we also speak variants of nerd. I participate most actively in the CS-nerd, hacker-nerd, and linguistics-nerd conversations. I can usually keep up with the math-nerd conversations. I stay out of the chemistry-nerd conversations.

13. Share anything else you would like your adviser to know about you: your passions, your identity, challenges you have faced in your life, or anything that will enhance the relationship that you are beginning with this important mentor.

As I said, we seem to ask you hard questions. I look forward to seeing what you write. You probably deserve some answers from me.

I should add a somewhat complicated disclaimer, particularly since I did not write this question: I will be your academic advisor. I will do all that I can to support you (or all that I can within reason). I’ll help you develop an academic curriculum that not only serves your needs but also challenges you. I’ll listen to you when you want to talk. I’ll advocate for you and work to cut red tape. I will try to push you in ways to be pushed. To me, those are all part of advising.

But I may not be your mentor. I don’t think you can assign mentors. A mentoring relationship goes beyond those kinds of activities. Mentoring relationships take time to develop, and they don’t always develop. I hope that I will develop mentoring relationships with many of my tutees; history suggests that I will. History also suggests that you will find your true mentors elsewhere.

What will enhance my advisor-advisee relationship with you? I’ve told you a bit about myself, both directly and indirectly, in the preceding paragraphs. Do you need to know more about me? I suppose sharing some things can help. Some things are probably necessary.

As you will quickly discover, I am snarky. I will make too many cutting comments. I’m doing my best to cut down on those comments, but they seem to be ingrained into who I am. Most students end up appreciating that aspect of my personality.

I will appear disorganized to you. And, in many ways, I am disorganized. But that’s usually a symptom of the amount I do and the amount I accumulate. Michelle (my wife) says that I think more about organization than most people. These days, I tend to focus my organization in a few small areas, which means that everything else seems disorganized.

I went to a school whose undergraduate curriculum involved a lot of requirements. Grinnell’s curriculum provides a strange contrast to me. What I regret most is that Grinnell students lack a common intellectual heritage. At Chicago, it was pretty clear that by the end of your first two quaraters, you, your roommate, or your best friend had read Freud, Marx, Plato, Adam Smith, and Thomas Kuhn. (Yeah, a bunch of dead white guys.) Being able to draw on a common set of knowledge deepened our discussions, our arguments, our conversations. I miss that.

Chicago was also on the quarter system. That meant that most students took between forty and forty-eight courses in their time as undergraduates. Most of you folks take thirty-two. Grinnell transcripts still seem slim to me.

Although Grinnell has an open curriculum (officially, an individually advised curriculum), I believe that you should start your career with some language (other than your native language), some math, and some course that might be a major. As you’ll come to learn in this Tutorial, I don’t like treating liberal education as a checklist, but I do expect you to be able to articulate a vision of liberal education and to explain how the collection of courses you’ve chosen support that vision. I’ll encourage you to take music lessons (free at Grinnell) and a wellness course every term. (I know for many of you, playing music is a kind of wellness. Something that gets you exercising is also important.) I’ll also encourage you to consider at least three majors in your first year and a half at Grinnell; one of the great strengths of a place like Grinnell is that you have time to discover a new passion early on.

I’m opinionated. You can probably tell that by now.

I tend to write too much. You can probably tell that by now. And when I write too much, I sometimes go off the rails, as it were.

I expect you to advocate for yourself. If I’m giving what seems to be too much homework, let me know. If I’m not giving you the information or support you need to succeed, let me know. If I’m being too directive, let me know. (Or is that too directive?)

Oh, I also make a lot of jokes. Or perhaps I should say I try to make a lot of jokes. I think they get classified as bad dad jokes. Few people laugh.

Backing up a bit, an alum who read a draft of this message wrote, " hope your students do take to heart the idea of telling you when there is too much homework or more importantly how to ask you for help and support when they need that. I found it essential at Grinnell."

I see that the new student planning document mentioned below suggests that we describe disabilities. My vision is going. I may need to peer closely at things. My hearing is going. I may ask you to repeat yourself. I am red-green color deficient. Please do not expect me to distinguish red and green or green and black in a diagram. There are also other issues I choose not to disclose.

14. List below several courses you are interested in taking during the first two Fall terms. The typical schedule for new students is 3 courses plus the First-Year Tutorial and the First Year Experience, across two terms (Fall 1 and Fall 2), for a total of 16+ credits. We encourage you to list at least 6 possible courses so that you and your adviser have a number of ideas to consider. Consult Academic Planning for New Students for suggestions on planning a well-balanced schedule.

I decided it was not worth including the list in this already too-long email message. If you’d like to see my answers, visit my ’blog post at

There you have it. What I might send to my students. I will likely need to edit it a bit. Perhaps you’ve learned something new. If you’re a long-time reader, it will likely all be familiar. Maybe the new context is useful. I wonder if any of my students will read it [2].

You’ll also have the chance to read my list of courses tomorrow.

[1] As I noted to them, turnabout is fair play.

[2] I’m betting on somewhere between 25% and 50%.

Version 1.0 released 2020-07-17 .

Version 1.1.1 of 2020-07-18.