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

Reflections on Teaching

Frank Pfenning

Ever since I was a child I have enjoyed telling stories, first to my siblings and cousins and later to my own children, nieces, and nephews. Unfortunately, they were mostly bedtime stories, which may explain why students sometimes fall asleep in my classes.

When I began my career in computer science I knew I wanted to do research, but I was not sure whether I wanted to be a teacher. This changed when I had the chance to develop my first course with complete creative freedom. Looking back at the courses I enjoyed most as a student, I realized that telling a compelling story is at the very heart of good teaching. Designing a course is like setting up a world in which many individual stories can be told. Sketching a lecture is like outlining a story; giving the lecture is like telling the story. Scenarios are set, characters are introduced, tensions are created and resolved. Successful story-telling techniques, such as breaking the tension with a bit of humor and involving the audience, are just as important in the classroom as they are around the campfire.

I found that, in the end, the story itself is more important than any lessons we are trying to embed in it. Knowledge is almost incidental. By following the story line students learn how to think in a certain domain rather than memorizing facts that would quickly be forgotten. It is to the great credit of the outstanding students that I had the privilege to teach, that they have always been willing and eager to explore the world I am trying to open up for them.

I would like to close by acknowledging the three great teachers that inspired me the most: Wolfgang Luh, who taught me to be precise; Robert Harper, who taught me to believe in what I teach; and my wife Nancy who taught me the importance of each and every student. And finally I would like to thank my students who make teaching at Carnegie Mellon such an enjoyable and rewarding experience.


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