Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence 2015
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

Success is a Team Sport

Robert J. Simmons

Soon after I moved in to the office I now inhabit, I got a fortune in a fortune cookie. I taped the fortune to the outside of my office door, where it has proclaimed for the past two years:

Success is a team sport.

I've thought of that message as an aspiration, a reminder, a warning, and a comfort, for I should not, must not, cannot, and do not teach alone. It never seemed like much of a fortune, but maybe I should now begin to refer to it as, at least, something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My reflections on teaching are simple. Hire extraordinary TAs and support them as best you can. At the introductory level, our school is a place where extraordinary young people come to learn computer science from their peers and then to teach computer science to their peers. We, the faculty, are not irrelevant to this process. Our leadership is much of what gives our courses and curriculum stability, and we do much to define perspective, scope, and scale of our courses. Lecture, further more, is an important way of keeping everyone on the same page within the sprawling form al and informal educational apparatus that lives around us. But the instructor's role is not where the action is happening. Therefore, I repeat the sentiment of many Simon award winners before me: thank you, to each and every one of my TAs. You've made this job both possible and worthwhile.

My other reflection is also one that have I tried very hard to share with my TAs. It was something I learned from Leigh Ann DeLyser, who repeated it enough times that I believe I finally began to listen. When teaching, you are not your target demographic. To teach for the benefit of people that think like you do now, or even like you did when you were learning similar material, is not only a disservice but an injustice to your students.

I try to communicate that truth to my TAs, and I write it here, not because I know what to do with that truth, but because I do not know, not really. We as a school, and I as an instructor, emphatically do not know how to teach introductory computer science to everyone with the willingness to put the time in and learn. It is odd to state such a sentiment here, but I write it here as a reminder, demand, and encouragement. It is a challenge to myself and to future winners of the Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence in Computer Science, who, like me, will probably read the words of previous winners seeking inspiration about what to say. The road is long but we, too, may be able to learn.

17 May 2015

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