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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Janet Davis

Part of an ongoing series of essays about the awesome folks who teach and learn at this College in the middle of Iowa, and the equally awesome folks who support that learning.

I’d like to introduce you to Janet Louise Newman Davis, Chair of Computer Science at Whitman College. Why am I including a faculty member at another small liberal arts college in this series about Grinnellians? Because, until about 16 months ago, Janet was a faculty member at Grinnell, and she was instrumental to building our strong CS program.

Janet came to Grinnell about a decade ago. As Henry suggested at the time (and continues to suggest as we look at other candidates), in selecting Janet, we looked for someone who would expand the department in new ways. As we hired her, we knew that Janet brought a lot to the department: expertise in human-computer interaction, an important subject that we did not cover nearly well enough; a thoughtful approach to software engineering; an enthusiasm for teaching, and a willingness to learn and grow. We also knew that she was thoughtful and careful; in her phone interview, she reflected on a variety of things she’d found not just on the department’s Web site, but also the College’s [1].

Once she was here, we learned that Janet had many more strengths than the first few we identified. I’m not sure that I can enumerate all of them, but I can identify a few. One particularly important one is her willingness to write about the things she learns, and to share them with others. For example, she wrote a really nice essay about finding a teaching-oriented position [2]. Janet also networks really, really well. It’s clear to me that she finds opportunities for herself, for her students, and for others through the networks she builds. When Janet was recently back on campus, I was reminded of the breadth and variety of her networks by the very large number of people who wanted to meet with her. That is, she networks not just within the profession, but within her local community.

As we expected, Janet was also an excellent colleague in the department. She worked well with the other members of the department in thinking about curriculum; she was willing to teach courses that needed teaching, even when they weren’t in her areas of expertise; and she brought interesting new courses to the curriculum. The last time she taught Human-Computer Interaction, the enrollments were so high that we needed to offer a second section [3]. Her networking helped connect Grinnell even more broadly.

Two things about curriculum particularly stand out to me, one from the start of her career at Grinnell and one from the end of her career at Grinnell. As Janet was starting, she and I wrote an NSF proposal to re-frame our introductory course to focus on image making and manipulation, adapting some of the ideas behind Media Computation. We worked together with students to develop the software to support the class, and we worked together on curriculum. Since CSC 151 is a workshop-style course, one of the most important things to do was to write new readings and labs (or to modify existing readings and labs). Since I was the expert, our normal pattern was to discuss approaches, have me do the preliminary writing, and have Janet do the editing and critiquing [4]. Of course, my normal mode of working was not particularly supportive of a colleague; I’d generally finish the labs at about 11pm, and Janet would edit them in the morning before class. Over the years, we continuously revised the order of topics, the particulars of the readings, and more [5]. I also appreciate her work on the software infrastructure of our project. I’m not sure why, but I had decided to work with Docbook. Janet did the heavy lifting to make sure that Docbook worked right. Janet also added clever things to our Makefiles to make our work more efficient. But the things that made the real difference were Janet’s willingness to deal with my work style and, more importantly, her thoughtful contributions to the curriculum. It was a privilege to work with her.

After receiving tenure at Grinnell, Janet decided to use her sabbatical for a very different kind of project. Our software design curriculum was a bit of a mess, and didn’t really achieve the goals we wanted. Janet generously spent her sabbatical time developing an innovative approach. She split the course into two parts, one that dealt with the ideas, processes, and tools for software design, and a separate practicum in which students applied those tools to a project of importance to nonprofits in our community. There were (and are) many innovative aspects to the course, including decisions (a) to use projects that were big enough to last over multiple semester (giving many students the experience of joining an existing project, of passing a project on to others, of continuing on a project, or some combination thereof), (b) to use alumni as mentors for each project (connecting our alumni to campus and providing our students with advice of a different kind), and (c) to adopt an xMOOC [6] course for the background ideas in the courses. When Janet left, I took over the courses. I’ll admit that software design fit on the list of courses I never want to teach again, and that Janet’s design does not fit well with my teaching strengths. Nonetheless, it’s a pair of courses that I think make a huge difference to our students, and I will continue to teach them or variants thereof until one of our other faculty wants to take them over.

There’s so much more I appreciate about having Janet as a colleague. We talked at length about many things in the department, the College, and the discipline. We considered ways to make the department more diverse. We explored the roles of alumni. It’s a privilege to have such a thoughtful colleague and to be able to talk with them regularly. Janet also made me feel useful; while I don’t think she needed a lot of mentoring, it was clear that she came to me when she needed mentoring, and that she found my mentoring useful [7].

There’s a lot more I could write about Janet [8]. But I think this is long enough for now. You can talk to alums to learn more. You can read her ’blog.

Damn! I do have to mention her scholarship. For most of her time at Grinnell, Janet’s primary scholarship was at the intersection of persuasive technology [9] and value-sensitive design [10]. I’m not sure how people feel comfortable doing persuasive technology without including value-sensitive design (other than a feeling that we know better than our stakeholders), but Janet was clearly a pioneer in applying these techniques to persuasive tech. Janet’s emphasis on including value-sensitive design in persuasive technology work says so much about her, and why she was (and is) a Grinnellian. She also did really cool projects, including an attempt to persuade people to use the stairs rather than the elevator [11], and an extended exploration of how we could help Grinnell students sleep better.

So, how did we lose a wonderful person like Janet from Grinnell? About two years ago, Whitman College in Walla Walla Washington was planning to start a new CS program and recruited Janet to create that program. As I wrote in her recommendation letter, I can’t think of a better choice. We tried to keep her at Grinnell, but the lure of creating a new program was too tempting. Even though she had taken over the leadership of re-envisioning an important program at Grinnell, creating a CS curriculum was even more exciting. I know that everyone at Grinnell wished (and wishes) Janet the best, and we all look forward to seeing her when she returns to campus from time to time.

This essay, like the other essays I’ve written about former Grinnellians [12,14], was hard to write. Janet really made Grinnell better. I’m proud of her courage for going on to Whitman, and I commend them on making such an excellent hire. And, while I miss Janet, I am thrilled at the new faculty we’ve hired to succeed her and I appreciate the regular opportunities that Janet and I have to chat.

Oh, I usually end the essays about people I know with some explanation of why you should reach out to them. Those explanations are usually for students. For Janet, I think the explanation holds more for professionals, including some alums. Janet networks really well, and collaborates equally well. So I’d encourage you to find ways to collaborate with her; you’ll be glad you did.

[1] That was back when there was actually a reasonable variety of information on the College’s Web site.

[2] I’ll admit that I think of a position at Grinnell as more than a teaching-oriented position. We expect a good mix of research and teaching.

[3] We need to have HCI back at Grinnell. One of our new hires may be able to teach it. If not, Janet’s promised to help me develop a syllabus with which I can try to teach the course.

[4] Version control systems are your friend.

[5] Jerod Weinman joined the rotation and made his own significant contributions.

[6] A MOOC is a Massive, Open, Online Course. There are two models of MOOCs. The original MOOCs were centered around communities of learning, with a focus of people teaching each other. Those are usually called cMOOCs. However, the kinds of MOOCs that seem to have gained prominence focus much more on a sage on the stage model, with lectures and assignments. These are called xMOOCs.

[7] I won’t claim exclusivity; Janet also went to Henry, John, and even people outside the department for advice.

[8] The recommendation letter I wrote was three full pages.

[9] Persuasive technology is technology that encourages others to behave differently. The prototypical example I tend to use is a plant between a garbage can and a recycling bin, with a sensor and grow light attached to both. As you throw things away or recycle them, the plant grows in a way that shows the impact of your actions and, hopefully, encourages you to behave in a certain way.

[10] As the name suggests, value-sensitive design is design that begins by considering the values of the stakeholders and ensuring that those values are considered in the design.

[11] I wish we’d been able to keep that project up permanently. It was really awesome.

[12] By former Grinnellians, I mean former faculty and staff.
While alumni are former students, they should always feel that they are Grinnellians.

[14] And, while Janet is no longer at Grinnell, I do believe that she she will always be a Grinnellian at heart.

Version 1.2.1 of 2016-12-06.