Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence 1994
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

Growing Up With My Students

Peter Lee

On a few occasions -- well, maybe more than just a few -- my wife has told me that I act like a kid. I find it hard to agree with her (especially since she has in mind a child of at most ten years of age), but I do at least admit to sharing a certain kinship with my students. I clearly remember my own life as a college student, when I would spend countless hours fretting about whether I would be able to register for the classes I wanted, or wondering about the empty refrigerator in my apartment, or staring out of the window daydreaming about the trip I was about to take for spring break, and so on. Unfortunately, all of this would be going through my head as I was sitting in a classroom, my thoughts filled with just about everything in life except the lecture going on at that moment...

Of course, I wasn't always so inattentive. But now, as a professor, I look out at a classroom full of students and see many reflections of myself, most of them just as distracted as I ever was. In a way I find this strangely comforting, and perhaps this has made it easier for me to cut through the distractions and communicate in ways that seem more interesting and relevant to the lives of my students.

On the other hand, interacting with my students has also made me realize that there were probably more fundamental reasons for my inability to understand what some of my professors were trying to teach to me. Put simply, often I lacked the maturity, as well as the patience that comes with maturity, to tackle a difficult subject, appreciate its motivations, and commit the time and effort to understand it at a deep level. Seeing this part of myself in my students has provided me with a sense of urgency in the classroom, and has driven me to teach in ways that not only convey the "facts and figures" of the course but also attempts to raise each student's level of maturity and commitment to the study of science.

In many important ways, I, in partnership with my students, have also had to become more mature. The desire to see immediate results from my teaching has had to be tempered by patience, both in my lectures and in personal interactions with students. And, I have had to learn just what it means to make a life-long commitment to teaching.

To my wife I might still be a kid, but the past years of teaching have matured me immeasurably.

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