Skip to main content

Interview prep (#1050)

Topics/tags: Autobiographical

Today, I was interviewed for the CMD-IT Newsletter. CMD-IT is the Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in IT. I was interviewed because I’m one of the Scholarship Chairs for the ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference, which CMD-IT helps run. It feels a bit strange to be interviewed. I don’t identify as a minority in computing [1]. But I belong to the Tapia community, I do work hard to support diversity in computing, and I serve an active role for the conference, so it makes some sense.

This musing represents my notes for the interview, with a few additional comments I added after the conversation [2].

All the prior interviews had an introduction, so I’ve put one here. We didn’t discuss this.

I am a Professor of Computer Science at Grinnell College, a small liberal arts college in the middle of Iowa. I’m serving as one of the scholarship chairs for Tapia. My other professional roles are vice-chair for ACM SIGCAS, a professional society on computers and society, and mailing list moderator for ACM SIGCSE, a professional society of computer science educators.

Tell me about growing up

I grew up as an only child in the Boston area as a second-generation American; my grandparents immigrated to the US as children in the early 20th century. My mother was a professor of psychology at Boston University. My father, who grew up in a socialist/anarchist commune [3] and did not finish college was an executive, eventually ending up as director of equal opportunity. I mention that, in part, to remember that there was a time when people could be judged on skills more than degrees [4]. Mom tells me that when she applied to graduate school after interning with Bruno Bettelheim [5], one of the first questions the graduate program asked her was What guarantee will you give us that you won’t have a child and waste your Ph.D.? Even though I grew up in a household with two professionals, I feel like their background and earlier experiences shaped me a lot [6].

Jerri is a good interviewer, so she got me to talk about a bit more. I know she established that I’m from Newton. I’ve forgotten what else she managed to get out of me.

How did you end up in Computer Science?

I entered college planning to study mathematics and to go on for a Ph.D. in math. Midway through my undergraduate career, I took a CS course on a lark. The course used Lisp. I quickly learned that not only did CS have everything I loved about math—problem solving, the ability to play with formal abstractions—it also let us construct interesting systems. I much preferred exploring the results of programs to checking the details of proofs.

I also let slip that I got a zero on the Putnam exam, lacked a proper growth mindset, and decided that I would never be a great mathematician. I think we also talked about why I went to graduate school, my post-Chicago career, how I ended up at Dartmouth, why I left Dartmouth for Grinnell, and why I still love Grinnell. Oh, yeah, she also got me to try to explain lazy functional programming, which is something I haven’t tried to do in, say, a decade or two.

What are you working on today?

Right now, I’m just trying to figure out how to be an online faculty member at a small college that prides itself on interpersonal interactions. And I’m worrying about all the people affected by the pandemic. But I expect that’s not what you were asking.

For the past few years, I’ve been looking at how using nontraditional subjects for middle-school code camps can help build interest and confidence among students who are underrepresented in the discipline, particularly girls and people of color. My students and I have designed and conducted camps that focus on image making, data science, social good, and digital humanities.

We also discussed why I don’t do overnight camps (although I wish we could), my worries for the future of the camps, some of the successes, things like that.

I’m making a transition back to exploring relationships between computing and the arts; I’m particularly interested in how a functional programming approach can help us think differently about art making. And I continue to try to find ways to help diversify who enters our discipline.

I may have forgotten that last sentence. I also noted that it’s hard to talk about art-making without images in front of us.

How did you become involved with the Tapia Conference?

I first attended Tapia in 2015 in Boston, bringing about eight amazing students to the conference. We’d been sending students to the Grace Hopper Celebration, and it was having a positive impact on our women majors, and I was hopeful that Tapia would provide similar benefits to our students. And it certainly did. My students who attended both conferences told me that they appreciated the size of Tapia, the ability to get to know many people and see them again. They also appreciated the conference’s clear focus on students. I appreciated the way all the keynotes began with a background story of how they ended up where they did; it gave an important additional aspect to their talks. And the talks made me want to go back to grad school. I signed up to do what I could to help. After a few years of reviewing scholarship applications and attending the conference, I got asked to be one of the scholarship chairs.

We also discussed what I see as a big change in Tapia. The year I attended was the first year with a career fair. Now, the career fair is the centerpiece of the conference for many students. And that’s understandable; it’s awesome to come away with an internship of job. But I love the way that the earlier Tapias gave students more of an interpersonal experience. When asked to give recommendations to students, that’s one thing I suggested.

And there you have it. My notes for the interview as well as a few post-interview notes. Those of you who have known me for some time have likely heard most of this. Those of you who didn’t may now know me a little better, or a least know my public persona a little better.

Postscript: I forgot to mention one of the important parts of our family that my mother used to emphasize. My grandfather only went to college because he had a high-school teacher who encouraged him. Without that encouragement, he would not have gone on to become an engineer, mom probably wouldn’t have gone on to college (or at least not where she went), and I probably wouldn’t be where I am now.

[1] I am, arguably, a person with disabilities, but most of my disabilities can be accommodated in relatively straightforward ways.

[2] I would likely have remembered more of our conversation if I hadn’t followed it up with two long phone conversations with prospective students. I also don’t feel comfortable sharing any of the interesting stories that Jerri shared with me.

[3] In Stelton New Jersey.

[4] Dad was white, but also clearly Jewish. I don’t how that mix of privilege and lack thereof fit in.

[5] There’s a great story about how she ended up his intern. She was in one of his lectures. Like many students, she also scribbled in her notebook. Among the things she scribbled was a nickname students had for him, Brutalheim. For some reason, he asked to borrow her notes, saw the name, and launched into a lecture on how insults like that hurt the person making the insult more than the person receiving the insult. They talked after class, and somehow she convinced him that she should work for him at the Orthogenic School.

[6] I feel like I should mention mom’s experiences growing up in Amalgamated Housing, but I can’t think of a way to do so.

Version 1.0 of 2020-04-16.