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Changes in my teaching

Topics/tags: Autobiographical, writing, teaching, bragging

The other day, one of my children shared a podcast with Kumail Nanjiani ’01 and said, Dad, he mentions you at about 57:20.

Now, for those who haven’t been paying attention, Kumail was both a CS major [1] and a Philosophy major [2]. For some reason, Kumail ended up being my advisee. Kumail and I started at Grinnell the same year, so I’ve always considered myself one of the class of ’01 [3]. As I mentioned in an earlier musing, he even did summer research with me and came along to a conference. Kumail was also in two classes, CSC 152, what was then the second course in the introductory CS sequence, and CSC 323.

CSC 152 was a crammed course: Students learned Java (after they just finished Scheme), data structures, algorithms, some object-oriented design, and more. Java was a simpler language then [7], so I got deeper into algorithms and analysis then than I do now in CSC 207 [8]. The class had a weekly group programming projects and, to make things more fun, I asked each group to write a short essay on what they learned in the project.

But it’s me. I tend to have more things to do than I have time to complete them, especially when I’m in the midst of teaching three courses as well as running an independent study project with nine students [9]. And so I did not get much of the grading done, other than the exams [10]. On the last week of class, I finally gave up and said grade your own homework. I’m pretty sure that no one gave themselves anything higher than a B. And, well, I got perfect end-of-course ratings. The students in that class taught me that I should assign difficult work, and it didn’t matter whether or not I graded it.

CSC 223 was our software design course [11]. Kumail was in a group that designed an IMAP-based mail reader [12]. They had a wonderful name for it, You’ve got mail: Kumail [14]. I almost certainly had them write a project report, although I can’t recall what my requirements [15] were.

Okay, you now have the context for Kumail’s comment about me. Let’s see what he said [16].

I just had a couple thoughts. One. You know memes is an interesting thing, obviously. It’s sort of a shared meaning and it’s created by a community and I see the positive aspect of it. But, like, all the responses of GIFs and stuff. I’m going to sound like such a fuddy duddy, but I think people are getting worse and worse at expressing themselves. I think language separates us from f*cking animals and people are getting worse and worse at it. People speak in the same phrases. They reference the same memes. They use the same GIFs. You know, Michael Jackson eating that popcorn or whatever and the first time you see it, you’re like clever.

Another computer science professor, Sam Rebelsky, at Grinnell: He wanted us to write papers about algorithms and this kind of stuff. And his thing was like Do not use any phrases. Don’t use cliché phrases. I don’t want people to say suffice it to say. Find your own way to say it. Or that kind of stuff. And he really would dock a third of a grade if you’d use a phrase that was a sort of autopilot phrase. And that made me really aware of how many times I speak in ways that are, you know, [Nick Bilton interjects Like everyone else] like everyone else. And I think these GIFs are like an extreme version of that. [17]

My first reaction was I don’t recall any of that. He must be thinking of someone else; perhaps it was John Stone or Elizabeth Dobbs. But then I thought a bit more. I certainly had students write about algorithms. I’ve been known to be a picky grader. And you lose a third of a grade for X has been one of my standard approaches to grading. But clichés? I can’t remember disallowing them. And, I must admit, I use many clichés in my writing, or at least my musing [18]. I know that use of clichés has not been a category on my Tutorial grading rubric [19].

Nonetheless, I can believe that there was a point at which I came back from a Grinnell teaching seminar thinking more carefully about such issues and, at that time, I may have made them a focus. It may also be that Kumail is conflating things: I certainly do comment when students use pointless clichés and, as I noted earlier, I have been known to take off a third of a letter grade when a student exhibits a repeated writing problem. Would I disallow clichés today? Not explicitly. But, in reviewing a paper with a student, I would likely discuss some of the more obvious ones.

As importantly, as my latest crop of CSC 151 and CSC 207 students will tell you, I remain quite picky [20] when I grade. I know that many of my CSC 151 students were frustrated that I asked them to write detailed preconditions and postconditions and took off points if they did not meet reasonable standards. I also know that some of my CSC 207 students were frustrated that I did not give credit for programs that did not pass the unit tests I provided. However, as I told them, Boeing and many others have shown the difficulty of relying on software that isn’t thoroughly thought through.

I began this musing planning to write on how much I seem to have changed since I started teaching at Grinnell. I ended by realizing that the central characteristics of my grading are similar: I don’t grade everything and, when I do, I tend to be quite picky. Oh well, I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same. Or is that too much of a cliché?

[1] For his parents.

[2] For himself.

[3] Thanks to Vivek [4], I’m now an honorary member of that class [5].

[4] Rhymes with like cake.

[5] Did you know that alumni relations doesn’t keep track of honorary class members [6]? That’s sad.

[6] No, I am not saying that to imply that I made up my honorary membership. It’s more that I am sad that they don’t track such things.

[7] If I recall correctly, Java did not have generics back then. It also did not have anonymous inner classes or lambda expressions. I like all of these additions, but they certainly complicate what we teach.

[8] I’m glad to see that we’ve finally reintroduced graphs and recurrence relations to CSC 207; I considered them important parts of 152.

[9] What’s the difference between an independent study with nine students and a small seminar? The College compensates faculty for the latter, but not the former.

[10] Yes, I know this sounds familiar. Stay tuned.

[11] Its successors were CSC 323 (same course, new number), CSC 325 (an alternate with more of a focus on Web development), CSC 321/322 (a new version of the course split into two halves), and CSC 324/326 (CSC 321 and CSC 322 combined into a single course, with a 2-credit option in subsequent semesters).

[12] This was in 2000 or 2001. Writing an IMAP-based mail reader was a big deal. Perhaps it still is.

[14] I’m pretty sure that revealing the project name does not violate FERPA restrictions.

[15] In the first draft of this musing, I wrote demands rather than requirements. I suppose that says something about how I think of them.

[16] Or at least let’s see my attempt to transcribe what he said.

[17] Kumail Naniani and Nick Bolton. 28 June 2019. Why Kumail Nanjiani Is Sick of Big Tech. Inside the Hive with Nick Bilton. Available online at!377c8 or

[18] I’ve already written about one cliché I tend to overuse. I’m sure that there are many more.

[19] That reminds me; I need to think about when I can teach Tutorial again and what its subject will be.

[20] Some students would say overly picky.

Version 1.0 of 2019-08-14.