Portrait of the Professor as Student


Well, I’ve been gone from Austin for more than a month now, and I am starting to get the swing of the CA lifestyle. I completed orientation, wrapping things up with a great tour of the beautiful Stanford campus and a dinner with some of the former fellows. I had my first week of classes last week, and I’m already swamped and behind. The first computer programs are already challenging, and I probably spent more than 10 hours over the weekend working on four exercises. But it’s fun, and I’m learning a lot.

As expected, teachers here are top notch and students are very smart. There are always a lot of good questions in class. Everywhere I go students are in huddles working on projects, talking about assignments. There are several tips that I am taking so far from this experience. My Intro to Databases professor, Jennifer Widom, in one of her introductory slides, said that she is “strict and nice.” I think it is important for students to know that professors can be both. Another thing she does is announce at the beginning of the course that for all the students who make A+ in her class (as well as a winner of a competition), she will take them out to lunch at the end of the session. I like that idea, so count on me stealing it.

The Database class is flipped. We watch videos online and then have guest speakers or exercises in class. We already had guests in class from Twitter and Facebook. The topics in the videos covered so far have been XML, Document Type Definitions and Schemas. It’s been really interesting and very good to know, but writing DTDs is pretty boring. However, it’s something that I’ll probably need if I am going to develop an API. Today we are covering UNIX commands. I did understand most of them, but it’s nice to get the validation of exactly how much I know. Much of my technical training has been self-taught, so this is a great opportunity to connect some dots.

The Java class I am taking, mentioned above per the challenging programming exercises, is held in a giant lecture room, with more than 300 students. The professor Mehram Sahami is fantastic. He has high energy and humor. He moves swiftly, but is able to explain things clearly. There are discussion sections and times to meet with helpers (I am not attending those, since I am auditing), but for the most part, students are on their own to download the required software and to do their programming assignments. And they are serious about the honor code here. You have to document any help you receive or be subject to potential suspension. That includes help you get from TAs. You are expected to solve the problems yourself.

Karel the Robot - programming the interface to drop "beepers" in a checkerboard pattern - for any sized grid.

Karel the Robot – programming the interface to drop “beepers” in a checkerboard pattern – for any sized grid.

The Java assignments use the Eclipse environment and a program called Karel the Robot. The assignments require us to move Karel around a grid, dropping “beepers” and picking them up, according to the exercise specification. It sounds easy, but as I mentioned, the first assignments have been very challenging. It might be simple to get the program to work in one scenario, but you have to test it in different sized “worlds,” and that can really mess things up.

Actually, all the instructors speak at a fast pace. It makes you pay attention. They do stop and ask if there are questions, but you never get an “I’m lost” or “Could you go over that again?” Perhaps the students are saving those questions for the discussions or helper sessions? The questions the students do ask have all been very focused and insightful questions that add on to or shed additional light on what the instructor has covered.

The third class I am taking is one that I am just observing. It’s Intro to Computer Science for non-computer science majors. The instructor covers much of what I do in my Web design course… and then some. We’ll get into PHP and data. I think that’s pretty aggressive for non-tech types, but we’ll see. I have picked up some ideas, though. He starts the class by going over how computers work, hardware, software, binary code, etc. That’s probably not a bad idea to add to Web design in the early classes, because it is unlikely people will get it elsewhere. We may be looking at parsing the Web Design class into two classes, with a beginning and advanced emphasis, much like we have for grad students (undergrads only have one right now), so that could open up some space for a topic like this.

I am also sitting in on a class in Social and Networked Information Analysis with Jure Leskovec, but it looks like I can only attend lectures once a week. The professor is great, but I don’t think I have the background (yet) to do many of the projects – it’s heavy on statistics and math and moves very swiftly. He teaches in each quarter, so I will try another class in the future.

I keep thinking of things that we’ve done since my last post. We’ve been really busy. We had a day-long workshop in the d.school, which introduced us to Stanford’s design thinking philosophy. We were in the workshop with fellows from other programs. And, I got to see Justin Ferrell again. He’s the d.school director and a former Knight Fellow. I met him at SXSW last year, and he was very helpful in providing advice to me about this fellowship. Some of the other fellows are taking the quarter-long Design Thinking Bootcamp. I hope to do some of their short courses before I leave.

It’s great to just stroll around on a college campus. I need to remind myself in San Marcos that I can actually go outside and hang out from time to time. Right now, I am writing this blog post sitting on the Main Quad, where I can see the Hoover Tower, Memorial Church and a grouping of Rodin sculptures (Stanford has the largest collection of Rodins outside of France). It’s a pretty inspiring environment. I know at TXST, sometimes I get so busy that I forget that I work in a fantastic workplace.  I hope this experience will help me to remember.

Speaking of strolling around, I made an appointment to meet with Professor Howard Rheingold, the author of Smart Mobs, Net Smart and The Virtual Community. If you have taken my New Media Issues grad class, we’ve read excerpts of each. I was pretty excited to talk with him. Our meeting consisted of a brisk walk around campus. It was fantastic to spend time with this early Internet and social pioneer.

This is my first time as a student using a laptop as my main productivity tool. When I was in the phd program at UT, before 2005, laptops weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now and wireless was not as available. Computer classes make much more sense when I can follow along with the commands in class. And, I find it much easier to take notes on a laptop – much more so than on an ipad, which I may use from time to time. From my vantage point, usually sitting at the back of the classroom, however, I get to see all the other students’ laptops open to Facebook, gmail, Tumblr, whatever. Multitasking…

I had my first Caltrain fail last week. We attempted to go to Hacks/Hackers in San Francisco, but apparently there was a brush fire at a chocolate factory (of all things) near the tracks. So, trains were held for 3 hours. We bailed, found a bus back to Palo Alto and ended up eating at a place called Tacolicious. So, all in all, not a bad consolation. Sad we didn’t get to HH, because the speaker was Jonathan Abrams, founder of Friendster. I will definitely try to make it to the next one.

giantsI gave Caltrain a second chance on Fri, and it was fine. A bunch of the fellows went to a San Francisco Giants game. It was a beautiful night, and the stadium is amazing, right on the waterfront. I’m glad I got in a game before the season closed.

Another fun thing I did was take the ferry to Sausalito. I had done this many years ago, during my first visit to SF. It’s a bayside community, pretty relaxed with lots of shops and restaurants, beautiful views. I had a great lunch of clam chowder and oysters on the half shell.

The fellowship events have kept us very busy. We have arranged our own brainstorming sessions to help each other on our projects. One fellow gave a great photography session, to help us take better photos. I learned a lot about composition and scale. Another fellow did an overview of Web development. He’s a developer from CartoDB, the mapping application.

We have weekly seminars on Wednesdays, with our first week just allowing us to discuss the future of journalism. Since we have so many different perspectives in the group, we covered a lot of ground. We have people in the group from a variety of career experiences and cultural backgrounds. We’ll also have Monday night dinners and back stories, to learn in more depth about each other.


Cloudy day view of San Francisco from Sausalito Ferry.

Last night, our seminar featured Pulitzer-prize-winning author Adam Johnson, who wrote the book The Orphan Master’s Son. The book is a fictional account of life in North Korea. He had some access to this strange and isolated country. His stories were fascinating, and I admire his passion for this project. We have access to so many talented people here!

And one more thing… I dropped by a Computer Career Fair on campus yesterday. There were more than 75 companies, and it was packed with students. I mean really packed, like you could barely move. Evernote, Yelp, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google. Even Apple. Yes, Apple. They were all there. What a great opportunity these students have and what a great talent pool the area companies enjoy!

I have also had the chance to hangout with some Austin friends over the weeks. Ethan and Kelly Lowry live here now, work at Apple, and they have kindly invited me to their home three times since I’ve been here. They have three adorable little girls that are so much fun to hang out with. And, good friend Andrew Waldrup drove down to Stanford this week while he was visiting SF. Yay for Austin friends!

But I am thrilled to be headed back to Austin this weekend for ACL Festival. It will be a little weird to be back. I’m just getting used to my CA life. It’ll be nice to catch up with friends and not feel so disconnected from my old life. And to hear some great music. And eat a few tacos! I’ll be posting pics and vids at onthatnote.com.

Enjoy a few more pics from around the Stanford campus: