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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Samuel A. Rebelsky

Part of an ongoing series about the creatures (well, not squirrels) that inhabit or have inhabited the land in the middle of nowhere (yes, that is the correct translation of Iowa) known as Grinnell College.

We are nearing the end of a month in which I’ve written an essay about a Grinnellian every day [1]. And, while the essays are ostensibly about other people, I realize that a lot of them are implicitly about me, either because I insert myself directly in the essays or because the essays speak to what I value. Anyway, since we’re nearing the end of the month, I thought I should make myself an explicit subject of an essay, rather than an implicit subject [2,3].

Colleges have a reputation of gathering people that it seems best to refer to as characters, folks who would not necessarily fit in mainstream society and who have enough distinguishing and quirky characteristics that they are memorable. One of Grinnell’s characters is Professor and Chair of Computer Science Samuel A. Rebelsky, who prefers that people to refer to him as Sam.

What can I tell you about Sam? Let’s start with what Sam says about himself on the Frequently Asked Questions portion of his front door [5,6].

I’m a Grinnell student planning to declare a computer science major. Will you be my academic advisor?

I am among the least organized people you will ever meet. You need only look into my office to figure that out. History suggests that I will lose your advisee folder as soon as I receive it, and I probably won’t find it again until two years after you graduate. I am likely to forget anything we discuss, including your courses and that you are my advisee, unless my remembering inconveniences you. On the other hand, I am happy to discuss with you course selections and planning for life beyond Grinnell. I am happy to help you work through administrative issues at Grinnell (and, surprisingly, I’m good at navigating administrative stuff). I am also likely to care about you as a person. But I will discuss courses and life with you, help you with administrivia, and care about you whether or not you are my advisee. If you’re willing to put up with the negatives, I am happy to serve as your advisor (or adviser, as the Grinnell Style guide suggests). Note also that I expect you to take the short essay seriously and show evidence that you’ve thought carefully about the purpose of a liberal arts education. You should make sure to read the sections of the College Catalog that discuss a liberal arts education. You should also read William Cronon’s Only Connect.

Which part of that should I address first? His organization (or lack thereof) and issues pertaining to that? His deep concern for our students? Or his knowledge of the College and his willingness to use that knowledge to advocate for students? [7] Or should I skip all of that and go on to something else?

Let’s start with Sam’s organization. His office and lab are both best described by the term pit. Students also say Wow, this reminds me of my dorm room [8]. Sam is clearly a hoarder; a serious hoarder. And, like many hoarders, he lets things pile up. Books. Random tchotchkies. Important papers. Unimportant papers. Office supplies. Grinnell publications. Foodstuffs. Toys. And who knows what else. Of course, Sam has a rationale for it. If I recall correctly, he says My office is an art project in which I explore the limits of entropy. I put things on my desk as they arrive, and let them fall where they may. Do you buy that? I don’t. I think Sam also says I intentionally keep my office like this so that students feel more comfortable; after all, it looks like their dorm rooms. I don’t buy that either. Is it perhaps that he accumulates too much stuff and has too little time to organize it? Almost certainly.

Is he serious about losing student folders? I do know for a fact that there have been times he’s been digging through a box of papers and pulled out an advising folder from someone who graduated two years ago. Today, I heard Sam talking to an advisee in the hall (one I think he’s had for only a few weeks) and this is what he said.

So, I was cleaning up my office. [Pause while the people listening to him roll their eyes in disbelief.] No, really. You can take a look. You can even see parts of the carpet now. Anyway, I was cleaning my office. It was interesting. I saw a four-year plan sheet on the floor, although it was blank. I don’t usually have those. Then I saw a Math/Stats/CS placement form, which I assumed I had leftover from when I did Math/Stats/CS placements. But then I saw a few more things, and I realized that it was your advisee folder, which appears to have fallen on my floor and scattered. But don’t worry, I think I’ve picked it all up. [9]

While Sam may hate the design of Web Advisor [10], I’m sure he appreciates that he can still access student information online when he loses their folders.

What about caring for students? I believe that Sam has written an essay about caring for alums. We see Sam’s concerns for students appear in many ways. He sets reasonable workload policies in many of his classes [17]. He remembers things about them. He advocates for them in many different situations. He seems willing to talk to them about almost anything [18]. Just today, I saw him talking to students about study abroad programs, about post-graduate plans, about their lack of sleep, about career options, about dealing with parents who don’t understand the liberal arts, and probably some other things I’ve forgotten. Oh yeah! At some point, he probably talked to students about CS issues. I think that students also know that Sam cares about them. For example, Sam tells me that one alum recently wrote

I really appreciate seeing you try to make every Grinnell student into the best possible version of themselves they can be, regardless of the obstacles they face [20,21].

Yesterday, I overheard a conversation between Sam and a colleague [23]. I believe the colleague said something like the following: Every faculty member has a few students and alums they care deeply about, but only a few faculty care deeply about a large number of students and alums. You and Chris Hunter are the first two that come to mind [24,25].

What about red tape? Sam regularly says One of the great things about Grinnell is that we’re small enough that it’s possible to know most of the people on campus, and we’re collaborative enough that it’s easy to pick up the phone and call someone. Sam really does seem to know a lot of people around campus, and he’s certainly willing to call (or visit) with folks to discuss and argue about things [26]. I’ve also seen him walk students to various offices to help them work through issues.

I think we’ve covered Sam’s statement pretty well. Beyond those issues, one thing that I particularly appreciate is Sam’s willingness to take risks. You may have heard that he wears a Tigger suit to class on Halloween and April fool’s day. I’m pretty sure that he does it primarily to brighten the lives of the people around him. When Sam teaches Tutorial, he often holds it in Saints Rest so that his students can have the mythical college experience of discussing literature and learning in a coffee shop [27]. Sam gives a Friday PSA to his students, asking them to think about the implications of what they plan to do for the weekend. Sam is willing to take on the president and other administrators at faculty meetings, although I wish that he’d do so in a less confrontational way. Sam is willing to make transparent things that many people would keep private, such as his department’s procedures for assessing candidates in its tenure-track searches. I even hear that he’s started a ’blog of some sort in which he openly criticizes a wide variety of things on campus [28].

As you know, the folks we tend to designate as characters [29] also have some not-as-positive quirks. We’ve already considered Sam’s forgetfulness [30] and the ways in which his disorganization affects his ability to get things done. Those are characteristics we often associate with older male faculty. You’ve probably heard about his dad jokes. But one particular negative about Sam is that he is, let us say, casual about getting things graded. This habit is not new. When Rachel Heck Rose visited Learning from Alumni, one of the things she pointed out was that Sam essentially graded no homework in her second course in CS [32]. Sam says You learn more from doing than from grades, but I expect that he also knows that students do deserve feedback.

I will admit that, these days, I’m somewhat worried about Sam. He’s always seemed a bit stressed, but the stress seems to be particularly bad last year and this. I’m sure that the high ratio of CS students to faculty does not help. It looks like the stress has affected his health; he’s clearly gained a lot of weight in this past year, and I know that he was proud of how much he’d lost a few years back. I’ve also heard rumors that he took the Maslach burnout inventory and that his scores are not good.

However, it looks like he’s turning things around a bit. I think his daily essays have helped give him a more positive outlook [35]; I’ve heard he’s restarted his exercise program; and he’s looking a little thinner (although I don’t know whether or not he really is). I have high hopes that his stress will continue to decrease, particularly now that the CS reunion is done, his online class is ending, and his chair’s responsibilities will get passed on to another faculty member before fall 2017.

In the end, I feel fortunate that we have someone like Sam at Grinnell. As importantly, I think Sam feels fortunate to be at Grinnell. Certainly, his essays suggest that.

[1] That’s not quite accurate. Since I need to get many of the essays approved by their subjects, I sometimes have to write an extra essay, and I sometimes can skip a day because of that. But it’s close enough to every day that I’m willing to call it such.

[2] My muse is also refusing to let me get any other work done until I write some parts of this essay.

[3] I should observe that one of my readers noticed that I’d included myself on the list of Grinnellians I planned to write about and volunteered to write that essay. While I appreciate the offer, I think that person missed the point. The essays are therapy for me, and they are supposed to reflect my perspectives, not other peoples’ perspectives [4].

[4] However, I should admit that they can reflect other people’s perspectives when I decide to borrow those perspectives. In those cases, I do try to cite.


[6] What’s a front door? Fortunately, Sam answers that question on his Front Door [5], too.

Why do you have links to a Front Door and Origin rather than a Home Page?

I’m following the lead of my colleague, John David Stone. Dr. Stone notes that Home Page is ambiguous, because it can either mean entry to my site, or place which I use to start my browsing. He suggests using Front Door for the former and Origin for the latter.

[7] Is there a difference between the latter two? Perhaps not.

[8] You should feel sorry for such students.

[9] Yes, the events described in that paragraph are accurate. Yes, I said this to a student (and some other folks who were nearby). No, these are probably not the exact words I used.

[10] That’s a good topic for an essay: Why WebAdvisor troubles me as an Advisor and as a Computer Scientist. The main reason is that it is needlessly and inappropriately slow [11].

[11] The Registrar tells me that it bothers me more than most folks because I have more advisees than most folks [12].

[12] Thirty-five advisees, as of today, with more on the way. It doesn’t help that I’ve placed limits on my early-career colleagues [14], and that I’m the only other faculty member in CS who is on campus this year and who will also be on campus next year. I expect many more [15].

[14] My early-career colleagues are permitted to have twelve major advisees at the end of this year. That’s already a lot. Since they will be teaching Tutorial in the fall,

[15] Maybe some will leave me for Jerod when he returns to campus. I can only hope [16].

[16] This is not to say that I don’t love all of my advisees. But I think they get better advising when I have fewer of them.

[17] Given the difficulty of some of Sam’s take-home exams, it is only reasonable that he sets limits.

[18] Well, evidence is that he would prefer not to hear about their use of recreational substances. But that’s okay, almost no Grinnell students use recreational substances [19].

[19] Remember our slogan: Take notes, not drugs.

[20] Anonymous. Private communication dated 5 October 2016.

[21] I don’t believe that Sam cares for every Grinnell student. Just most of the ones he knows, and he knows only a small subset of Grinnell’s 1600 students [22].

[22] Given the growth of the CS major, that may not be such a small subset for long. Rumor has it that Sam has allowed 42 students into the spring section of CSC 151. But at least he’s saying no to any more.

[23] Well, it was an administrator, but I think Sam still counts them as a colleague. And they are one of our most awesome administrators.

[24] I feel honored to be described in the same sentence as Chris Hunter. I should probably write an essay about him at some point.

[25] I hope that the mention of Chris Hunter doesn’t reveal the identity of the administrator. It shouldn’t.

[26] FEPRA policy indicates that I should not tell you about the kinds of things he has advocated for in recent weeks.

[27] I appreciate that Sam usually treats his students to the coffee (or other beverages) and muffins (or other foodstuffs) because, in his words, Your ability to pay should not affect your ability to enjoy my class, and I should not need to know about your ability to pay.

[28] As middle son says: Tenure is a wonderful thing.

[29] I think we introduced the concept of characters back in one of the opening paragraphs.

[30] Or at least I think we have. Maybe I forgot [31].

[31] More accurately, when I wrote the sentence that begins We’ve already considered Sam’s forgetfulness, I really did intend to go back and write about my forgetfulness. But then I forgot. And it’s too much effort to insert it into the essay at this point. Suffice to say that Sam has sufficiently many advisees [12], and ends up talking to so many students that he has trouble keeping track of which students are and are not advisees.

[32] That class was legendary [33]. They had weekly group homework. They had to write an essay about group process to accompany each homework assignment. My intent was good, but I never got the homework graded. (I did, however, grade the insanely hard exams relatively promptly.) At the end of the semester, I told the students to grade themselves. No one gave themselves anything higher than a B. I also got perfect ratings in the course. That experience taught me that grading is optional ( : [34]

[33] It was also legendary in that it contained many of my favorite alums. Not just Rachel, but also Vivek, Kumail, Joey, Andrew, Sarah, and many, many more. They are part of the reason I think of myself as Grinnell class of ’01, even though I’m not.

[34] Alternate form of smiley due to Lea.

[35] Remember that conversation with an administrator I overheard? I think they were following up on an earlier conversation about Sam’s burnout, and I heard him say I’m doing much better. Writing the profiles has helped a lot. I’m not losing my temper about things like the branding consultants coming to campus [36].

[36] Yeah, we have branding consultants coming to campus. In a four- or five-paragraph Grinnell 2030 vision statement, diversity appears in one place, as does self-governance. And my Executive Council reps didn’t even know that the consultants were coming. Yay transparency!

Version 1.0.2 of 2017-05-28.