Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence 2012
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

Passionate Teaching, Serious Fun

David Kosbie

I am honored to receive the Herb Simon Award for Teaching Excellence. The award's namesake is an intellectual giant and one of the founders both of our department and our entire field. The award's prior recipients are all extraordinary teachers, and many of them have served as role models for me. And in particular, it is a great honor to receive an award selected by students, as they are the ultimate arbiters of a teacher's success. Along with this honor comes the duty to provide reflections on teaching. Foremost, I believe teaching is more art than science, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. So please consider the following five goals as serving suggestions. Your mileage may vary.

Aim high.
Choose an intellectual mountain for your students to climb, one that is within their abilities but requiring months of struggles. While your students may grumble at times along the way, over time they will be motivated by prior students' assurances that this is doable and that the results are indeed worth it. And be sure there is a magnificent view for them when they reach the top.

Support your students.
The karmic quid pro quo for demanding so much from your students is that you must give them even more in return. More support, more of your time, more of your staff's time. Of course, do not coddle them. They must climb that mountain! But do not swing too far the other way, and out of fear of coddling fail to provide bountiful help as they first gain their footing and then their confidence. Be there for them, first to show them how, then to provide a safety net, and finally to applaud their successes.

Hire the best TA's.
This is absolutely essential. Your TA's collectively spend far more time with your students than you do. They are the lifeblood of the course. So take the time to hire the best (and here I mean the best teachers, across a broad range of job-related skills, and these are not necessarily your best students). Then train them to teach in your image. Then actively strive to create a culture of excellence among your staff. Show them what that means, monitor their adherence to your standards, and reward them for their excellence.

If you want your students to innovate, then model this yourself! Don't change everything all the time, of course, but always change something about your teaching. It will keep you and your course fresh and relevant.

Have fun.
If you're not having fun, then for sure your students aren't, either! To the extent that you have such flexibility, choose topics or applications that you especially enjoy. Learning is serious business, but it is best done in a fun and inviting environment.

Be passionate.
And most importantly, love your work and let your passion shine through in your daily actions. Let your students know that they come first (truly, first) in your professional life, that you would do anything to help them learn the material, and hopefully to have some fun along the way. And don't let them know with words. Let your actions do the talking. Teach, teach, teach. Then teach some more.

And that wasn't five, because the last item is to avoid an undue devotion to consistency. Yes, in a perfect world, every last detail of your course would be a polished nugget of intellectual perfection. And you had better be mostly right most of the time! But here in our crazy, busy, complicated, ever-changing real world, if you allow yourself the occasional misstep, your innovation, fun, and passion will more than make up for it.

Carpe diem.

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