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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Narren Brown

Part of an ongoing series about people associated with Grinnell College.

I’d like to introduce you to my friend and former colleague, Dr. Narren Brown. I think I’ve known Narren for his whole career at Grinnell, and I appreciate the many things he has done for the College.

I first met Narren when he was interviewing for his first position at Grinnell, which I think was in whatever we called the Office of Institutional Research and Analytic Support (OASIR) at the time. He was a fresh Ph.D. [1] from Iowa State. He struck me as thoughtful and competent, interested in studying the kinds of issues that are worth hiring. We made a good decision in hiring him.

I’ll admit that I don’t recall all the interactions I had with Narren while he was in OASIR, or even if we had many interactions. But Narren is a restless soul, and talented in many areas. In spring, 2013, Narren became Interim Director of the Office of Intercultural Engagement and Leadership [2]. He did some fairly interesting things in that position. For example, he brought his analytic skills to the study of issues pertaining to our domestic students of color and first-gen students. Rarely have we been as well informed about those issues as when Narren was in the position.

Narren was also instrumental in setting up the Peer-Connections Pre-Orientation Program (PCPOP [3]), a program that builds a supportive community among a diverse set of students. Of course, Narren made some strange decisions in that program, such as asking me to serve as a mentor [4]. Because Narren built a strong program, we’ve made it a central part of our post-Posse diversity efforts.

I really appreciate the casual interactions I had with Narren at Grinnell. We talked a lot about issues of diversity and the ways in which Grinnell supports or fails to support our domestic students of color. I learned a whole lot from him. Along the way, I learned that he was willing to sit in on faculty members’ classes and observe dynamics in those classes [5]. Because I worry about persistence of students from underrepresented groups in our discipline, I asked him to sit in on my section of our intro class. I think students enjoyed having him there. However, he didn’t have a lot of suggestions for things to change [6], other than indicating that I might have my class mentors do more of the typing during class [8].

Somewhere along the way, Narren also became an informal part of the CS department’s search process. He graciously offered to meet with every candidate, to attend their classes, and to attend their talks. I learned a lot hearing him talk about what he saw in those classes and talks, particularly about how the candidates interacted with students. (I focus enough on content that I didn’t catch many of the things that he did.) As importantly, having him talk to the candidates about diversity issues helped reinforce to the candidates the high value the department places on diversity.

At some point, Narren followed this interest in supporting teaching to Grinnell’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment (CTLA [11]), where he became Associate Director. In that role, Narren is responsible for the latest phase of my career. In one of our many discussions about diversity in CS, Narren said something like: Sam, if you really want to make a difference in attracting a more diverse group of people to computer science, you have to start earlier than Grinnell. By the way, did you know that there seem to be no summer computing camps for middle-schoolers in Iowa? And so we wrote an innovation fund proposal together to create camps focused on these issues.

I appreciate that Narren pushed the camp in much different ways than I would. He helped us apply for and receive the governor’s STEM seal of approval. He found interesting college students from beyond Grinnell to help design and teach the camps. He also did an awesome job of mentoring the summer students who worked on the camps, not only helping them think through issues of survey design, statistical analysis, but also guiding them through the process of becoming professionals and strong counselors.

Narren has had a long and interesting life path, from a childhood in Oakland through work as a chef to an undergraduate degree at Luther College and a graduate degree from Iowa State [12]. His wide-ranging background gave us the opportunity to talk about many different things, from the joy of assessment (no, really) to knowing Pete Brownell to assessing restaurants in Grinnell to the frustrations of CPAPs [14], and beyond.

This past month, Narren took the next step in his career and accepted a position elsewhere with more responsibilities and, I think, a direct report to the president. We will miss him from Grinnell … his energy and enthusiasm for studying students, his thoughtful approaches to diversity, his overall presence. It will also be harder to run the camps without him [15]. Perhaps most importantly, it’s no longer clear who will keep the empress of the Forum basement grounded [16].

Why did I write this long essay about Narren if he’s no longer at Grinnell? Well, when I planned the essay, I didn’t know he was leaving, and I planned it because he’s really a person that faculty and students would benefit from knowing. Now that he’s gone, I think I still owe him this tribute. Plus, I expect he’ll be back to visit, and perhaps this essay will encourage you to meet him when he returns to campus [17].

However, I do wonder what happens to his Twitter handle, which is the wonderfully ambiguous @BrownInGrinnell.

[1] At that time, I think he was a near Ph.D.

[2] I think folks refer to that as OIEL or something equivalently strange. I can never remember what the letters stand for.

[3] When the signs were up in the building, I had at least one parent ask me why we had signs up about PCP.

[4] I think I’ve been a fairly good mentor to the PCPOP students who ended up in CS, but I wasn’t assigned those students. I was much less successful with my assigned students.

[5] I even remember when I learned that. We were standing in the Noyce lot after some campus event, just talking about different things. I feel like I had a huge number of conversations like that; one of us would stop the other one in a parking lot or somewhere outside on campus.

[6] Probably because I’m such a spectacular teacher [7].

[7] You can stop laughing now.

[8] I use the computer, rather than the whiteboard. That preserves a record of the class, more or less. I like typing because (a) I type faster than almost all of my students; (b) I can insert random jokes while typing; and (c) it helps students learn why they should use vi [9].

[9] Yes, I’m cruel. I make students think vi is usable. Some day I’ll tell the story of why I use vi rather than emacs [10].

[10] I apologize for the computer geek detour, even to the computer geeks.

[11] No, it’s not the Center for Three-Letter Acronyms. But I do need to write an essay about the CTLA at some point.

[12] I don’t think I have the right to say more than that.

[13] Building code forbids the inclusion of a reference to footnote 13.

[14] Continuous Positive Airway Pressure, according to the NIH. The term refers to the devices that provide that pressure, and help folks with sleep apnea and other similar afflictions.

[15] I’m still working on figuring out just how I should get ready for these camps without Narren. I don’t have the skillsets for the things that he did.

[16] No, not Karla.

[17] I also hope that this essay encourages him to come back to visit Grinnell.

Version 1.1.1 of 2016-11-04.