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Getting my gig at Grinnell (#1129)

Topics/tags: Autobiographical, Grinnell

The other day, one of our many amazing alums posted a short video on how she ended up in her first full-time job. In the comments, she asked her viewers to discuss how they ended up in their first-full time jobs. I didn’t count my full-time summer jobs [1] or my part-time high-school jobs [2]. So Dartmouth was my first full-time post-Ph.D. job. I posted a short description of how I ended up there [3]. She asked me to describe how I ended up at Grinnell, and so my muse asked me to write this piece.

After I taught my first course at Dartmouth, it seems to have become clear to the folks at Dartmouth that my teaching was of the caliber they wanted of their faculty and it was clear to me that I enjoyed Dartmouth. So I ended up as a long-term, full-time visitor [4]. And it was equally clear that while I could likely be a visitor indefinitely [5], I would never end up as a tenure-line faculty member. So I applied for tenure-line jobs. I went on interviews. I even got a few offers that I turned down [6]. Times were different then; there wasn’t quite the demand for CS faculty that we currently see.

I did a bunch of interviews in 1996-97. I know that I lost one job because my standard recitation-centric methodology failed miserably. Of course, that was an institution that didn’t pay you enough to buy a house in the area, so I’m not sure it’s a bad thing. My best interview had me teaching heaps for the first time, even though I taught myself heaps on the plane ride there [7]. The students were engaged, I designed the class well. In the months after the interview? Silence. One of the faculty there later told me that, given the quality of my interview, they assumed I wouldn’t accept their offer. I thought a visit to another institution went well, but they also didn’t respond. In that case, they told me retrospectively that they didn’t think I’d taken the interview seriously because I gave my research talk as a chalk talk, rather than using slides. But I took that interview particularly seriously; it’s just that they didn’t have me teach a sample class, they told me that they would use my research talk to judge how I teach, and, well, I don’t teach using slides [8]. I probably screwed up at least one interview by being overconfident in my knowledge of and skills in mathematics [10].

Then there was my Grinnell interview. It felt right. I loved that the student who gave me a campus tour was a dual CS/Chinese major. The Grinnell students seemed interested in learning for the sake of learning, not because it would give them a job [11]. The faculty there were creative in their teaching. CS was using workshop-style teaching, something much like the flipped classroom that has gained popularity recently. Plus, they had just started using Scheme in the first class. Math was doing creative things with an interactive, experiment-based Linear Algebra classroom [14]. I knew that I’d enjoy teaching the students, that I’d get to help develop the curriculum, and that I’d get to try new ways of teaching. It also helped that Grinnell’s president was a female mathematician who advocated for the faculty [15].

Plus, Henry Walker took me out to Rabbits for a drink after we went to a talk by one of the candidates in Mathematics [16]. For those of you who don’t know, Rabbits is, well, a dive bar. But Henry didn’t tend to go out drinking, so he just drove around until he found a bar.

Anyway, Grinnell—or at least the CS faculty at Grinnell—liked me as much as I liked Grinnell. By the time I got back from my interview, Henry had called the CEO of Grinnell Regional Medical Center and they had called Michelle to invite them out for an interview of her own [18,19]. Grinnell graciously hosted us for that visit, too. I think I got an offer before Michelle, but I’m not positive. I’m told that I’m the first person who asked for the Faculty Handbook before signing their contract [20].

So, although Grinnell was going to pay me less than Dartmouth, had a higher teaching load, and used the semester system rather than the quarter system, I decided to come to Grinnell. I’ve been happy here ever since. As I say, I get to make a difference in the lives of amazing young people, I have wonderful colleagues, and I get well compensated [22,23]. I’m not as happy to be here as I was, say, a decade ago, but I’m still damn fortunate and I’m still glad I came here.

Postscript: One thing I appreciate about the CS community, or at least the CS Ed community, is that it’s close knit. One of the faculty at the Was he taking the interview seriously? school mentored me for many years; I feel so fortunate to know them. I’ve collaborated with one of the faculty at the Heaps school. And I’ve talked to the faculty at these schools regularly at conferences.

Postscript: One of the amusing side notes to the story is that the year after I started at Grinnell, Henry Walker did an external review at one of the places that didn’t extend an offer and told them You need to hire someone like Sam Rebelsky.

Postscript: Right now, one of the reasons I’m glad to be at Grinnell is that it’s in good financial health. One of the places I interviewed at recently closed. One of the places I interviewed has been bribing faculty to retire early.

[1] New England Mobile Book Fair.

[2] The Book Fair and a newsstand in Wellesley.

[3] I earned $10K for teaching one course in 1993. I’m pretty sure that Grinnell currently pays one-course adjuncts between $6K and $10K, and Grinnell is likely on the generous end. I have a friend who got offered $12K to teach four courses as an adjunct. Higher Ed’s treatment of adjuncts is atrocious.

[4] At Grinnell, we’d call me a full-time term faculty member. Although I’ve used term faculty member and visitor interchangeably, I’m told that Grinnell considers those different kinds of positions. Just don’t ask me to distinguish them.

[5] If I recall correctly, there were visitors at Dartmouth who had been there twenty or more years.

[6] As I assessed it, a non-tenure-line position at Dartmouth was better than a tenure-line position at some institutions.

[7] Really. I’d not learned heaps in my data-structures course. Or if I did, I’d completely forgotten them.

[8] Most of the time, I still teach without slides. But some online teaching has benefited from slides [9].

[9] Or, as we call them these days, Decks.

[10] I taught Calculus at the UofC before I taught CS at the UofC. I appreciate William Henry Meyer’s mentorship. I wish I’d told him that more.

[11] The economy was different back then. Graduates from top liberal arts colleges could easily find jobs, irrespective of their majors [12].

[12] Of course, the networks that helped that happen almost certainly prioritized men and people from majority groups. At least human beings reflected on applications, rather than automated systems.

[14] Linear has become much more of a proof-based class at Grinnell. I think that’s appropriate if we think of Linear as a class for math (and CS) majors. But for students using Linear Algebra as a tool, the computer-based class was a great idea.

[15] Rumor has it that it’s one of the reasons she was forced to step down. (It refers to advocated for the faculty; not the gender or the field.)

[16] Marc Chamberland ended up in that position. He was not the person interviewing while I was there. I earned tenure before Mark, but he got a named Chair before I did [17].

[17] I guess I can leave out the before I did. I don’t have a named Chair. I probably won’t end up with one. That’s okay.

[18] In my experience, that was a high point of Grinnell town-gown cooperation in bringing people in. The College has had strong candidates whose spouses were physicians, and in some cases, no one in administration reached out to the hospital about possible connections.

[19] The trip out was among the worst plane trips I’ve taken. I think our arrival in O’Hare was delayed by eight hours. During that time, we got rerouted to Detroit, sat on the runway there, and then sat on the runway in Chicago for more than an hour once we arrived there.

[20] The contract said something like, We will pay your $X to teach five courses per year. The Faculty Handbook handles the rest and is incorporated in this contract by reference. I wasn’t going to sign something that said that. I think I asked for the Trustee By-Laws, too [21].

[21] That reminds me that I should ask for those.

[22] Of course, I’m pretty sure Grinnell had to bump my salary when we hired each of the next two CS faculty so that mine wasn’t less than theirs. It appears that I did not negotiate well enough.

[23] And I know that each year, the starting salary for at least one of our graduates is higher than mine.

Version 1.0 of 2021-03-31 .