Step 65: Advise New Students

As a second year faculty – or rather, no longer as a first-year faculty – one of my new duties is to advise incoming students on their courses. I was initially anxious about this – my vacation travel made me miss a new advisor workshop, and although I later met with one of the workshop leaders, most of what I learned were procedural details of how to deal with edge cases, and very little about how to approach my advisees’ interests.

It turns out that the first advising session doesn’t require you to talk much about the student at all. I spent over six hours on Friday on advising – one hour with my entire new advising group, then 30 minutes of individual advising for each of my 10 advisees. 30 minutes is really not enough time to do anything beyond finding courses that interest them and backups in case those courses are full, and convincing students not to take certain combinations of classes.

Some observations:

  • My most valuable asset as an advisor was knowing how college works. The majority of my advice are things that older students take for granted: don’t take multiple heavy courses, don’t fill your semester with courses from the same area, check for co-requisites, etc. I suspect many students would have done as good a job here.
  • I also found myself being able to catch time conflicts without plotting everything out. I found this ability pedagogically interesting, since my advisees could have figured this out by themselves, except it would have taken them longer. It reminded me of some introductory computer science concepts, which students could slowly apply if given time, but which I could understand at a glance.
  • By the end of this process, I found myself shepherding students into a few classes that I knew had a lot of seats remaining and fulfilled a core requirement. This is after figuring out what classes they do want to take, of course, but after that, it was too exhausting to continue looking for new courses that might fulfill a distribution requirement.
  • Also by the end of this, I had completely lost track of what courses each of my advisees were taking. I tried to write down each student’s plan, but skip a student… and could not remember that I talked about even 30 minutes later.
  • First-years registered by timeslots, and some of my advisees were in the latest groups. Despite my best efforts, I could not find enough backups for students. I suspect I under-estimated how quickly classes would fill – the 10 seats in Intro to Cog Sci, for example, were filled by noon, before half the students had registered. There is also a hidden variable of reputation I’m not taking into account, and which I have no direct way of observing.

Now that the initial wave of advising is over, it’s time to plan out how I want future advising sessions to go. I would like my advisees to think through what they want to get out of college and to define their intermediate-term goal – or more generally, to be deliberate about their path. I heard from a friend who studied at Oberlin Conservatory of Music that she had to say where she saw herself in 5, 10, and 30 years. That sounds a little intense, especially if students don’t know even know what they want to major in, but I understand the intent.

Any advice for a new advisor in that direction would be appreciated.

Step 65: Advise New Students

Step 64: Speculate on the Future Role of Professors

In what is otherwise a mediocre book, Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over contained this passage about the role of professors in a future where online educational material is abundant and AI can precisely measure the progress of students:

In other words, in the longer run, professors will need to become more like motivational coaches and missionaries. The best professors have understood this for years and have been serving that function from the beginning. What’s less well understood is that improvements in AI will make these the remaining roles of what we now call “professors.” The professor, to survive, will have to become a motivator and coach in essence and not just accidentally or in his or her spare time.


It will become increasingly apparent how much of current education is driven by human weakness, namely the inability of most students to simply sit down and try to learn something on their own. It’s a common claim that you can’t replace professors with Nobel-quality YouTube lectures because the professor, and perhaps also the classroom setting, is required to motivate most of the students. Fair enough, but let’s take this seriously. The professor is then a motivator first and foremost. Let’s hire good motivators. Let’s teach our professors how to motivate. Let’s judge them on that basis. Let’s treat professors more like athletics coaches, personal therapists, and preachers, because that is what they will evolve to be.

The book makes some assumptions about the progress of technology, but since that’s not the focus here, I will accept that assumption as is. On the more plausible side, I will accept that we can monitor the performance of students and model how well a student understands each topic. (The latter is actually a hard problem; I have read papers on modeling arithmetic learners, and there is a surprising amount of data-gathering involved. For this post, however, we can assume that this has been done for every existing college course and subject.) For the sake of argument, let’s say we also include cameras (for emotional recognition, eg. frustration) and virtual reality (and haptics!), even if these technologies will take a decade to mature.

What is the role of the professor in this world?

For one, I agree that professors will be motivational, at least in part. I start my introductory computer science course by telling students that they will struggle, but that I will work with them through it. Especially with computer science, which pushes students in new ways, students often need the reassurance that they can figure it out. And the motivational component is not just coursework related – throughout the summer I have been exchanging emails with students about potential majors and courses of study, and placating their worries about not knowing exactly how their college career will work out. With new student advising happening on Friday, this is a role that I am sure will take up more of my time in the near future.

The question for me is whether professors have any other beyond motivation. Elsewhere, I have written about how technologists are often biased against the human element, something I am also guilty of. Cowen suggests that the “classroom setting” may be essential, but I think even more crucial is the physical presence of the professor. As all-encompassing as Facebook is, it can’t subsume physical interaction as a medium, and hugging an old friend has an intangible je ne sais quoi that cannot be reproduced online. Similarly, being in the same room as professor and other students may bring something that merely video chatting (or VR) cannot bring. The nebulousness of this concept makes it hard to talk about, however, and regardless, I can’t dismiss the possibility that physical presence is ultimately only useful as motivation.

Is there a function that professors currently fulfill, then, which goes beyond motivation and which even the advanced technology we’ve assumed can’t replicate? There are two that come to mind.

First, among the technology we’ve assumed, I was tempted to list that the “best method” of teaching (for all subjects) have been discovered. What I realized, however, is that it’s possible this “best method” may require a guide to be there. Even in computer science, I can envision Heisenbugs that require more context than the computer has data for, in which case there must be a human in the loop. For other disciplines, even if there are algorithms to classify “good” writing from the bad, I suspect that the coherence of the essay would still require a human grader (but I would be interested to know that I’m wrong).

The other role that professors play – and one that I have stepped into – is counseling. I have already mentioned talking to students about majors, and while making sure they get through the process may be motivational, helping them find the right major is a different job entirely. Understanding the psychology of a student, then adapting to it and suggesting a way forward, is not within the skill set of a computer (at least, not without assuming much bigger advances in AI).

If there is a thread between these two roles, it’s that the professor must take a wider context into account which, I suppose, is a standard weakness of AI systems. So it’s not surprising that professors would be left with the messy human elements.

…Although, I suspect that this says more about how we envision computers than the job of a professor.

Step 64: Speculate on the Future Role of Professors

Step 63: Deal with New Year Pains

I am traveling to San Francisco for the week for my first (and only) real, go-away vacation of the summer. So I want to just briefly talk about some new academic year pains that I’m dealing with.

  • I will be teaching the intro CS course again, but neglected to reserve seats for incoming first-years. What I should have done when I realized this is to require instructor permission for new registration, but I didn’t do that either until last week. As a result, the course only has 3 out of 32 seats for new students. Given that this course has a relatively high workload and can be psychologically exhausting, I do want to be careful about overloading students new to college.
  • Completely separate from incoming students, there are also more existing students who want to take the course than there are seats. As I mentioned before the previous semester, it’s a good problem to have, but dealing with “waitlists” (which is not a thing at Oxy) and having to turn students down is getting annoying. Let’s just say that, with a little bit of luck, this will hopefully not be a problem I have to deal with next year.
  • The other course I’m (co-)teaching is Intro to Cognitive Science, which I co-taught both semesters last year. I do like the team teaching, especially since the faculty are from different disciplines. However, since we rotate faculty every year and faculty have the freedom to include their specialty interests in the syllabus, we have to rethink the schedule of the course at the end of every summer. This is my first time re-teaching the course, so I enjoyed discussing what worked and what should change, but whether we continue with this model or whether we impose more of a canon is an open question for the department.

I am also teaching a software engineering/practicum “independent study”, but although there is paperwork to get everything set up, the preparation so far has been smooth. I suppose I am also anticipating my first required committee service.

Other than that, full steam ahead to advising next week, then classes the week after!

Step 63: Deal with New Year Pains

Step 62: Mentor Undergraduate Summer Research

Oxy’s ten-week summer research program concluded last Wednesday with student presentations. I was traveling to a conference and was unfortunately unable to attend, but I met another professor at a small liberal arts college at that conference, and we shared our respective experiences mentoring undergraduate research. I just wanted to share some assorted thoughts.

I am a goal-oriented person, so my first thought is about the goal of undergraduate research. I think there are two clear goals for me. The first goal is to provide students with research experience, and thereby developing their overall skills as an academic; the second goal is the actual goal of research, to discover ideas with scientific value (and maybe publish a paper on it). It is unsurprising that this reflects the “teaching” and “research” sides of being a faculty member as well.

I originally wanted to write about the process of recruiting research students, and it took me several hours while writing this post to understand the constraints that the two goals impose. Although my initial scapegoat is Oxy’s small population of computer science students, I can replace “computer science students” with “insert-disciplines-here students” and it will be just as true. I think when I try to find good students for projects (or good projects for students), there are two factors at play:

  • Does the student have the skills and ability to work on the project? For me, this is often some basic knowledge of programming, although it may not be necessary for some projects. This question hides a lot of complexity about the development of the student – being able to start on the project is the minimum requirement for improving those same skills and building their interest as potential future researchers.
  • Will the project lead to scientifically valuable results? Especially for me as untenured faculty, I would prefer not to spend time on research projects that do not lead to useful results. (Strangely, I’m okay with leading independent studies, but I judge those very differently from directed research.) The results do not have to be directly publishable, but I (or another student) should be able to pick it up and carry it forward.

It seems obvious, but the difficulty of finding students comes from the fact that very few scientifically interesting questions are pursuable with the skills of an undergraduate. It is not a simple issue of looking through the list of interested students, the list of interesting projects, then picking one from each. Instead, I must consider the skills of the student, and see if any project has a semi-independent chunk that would fit that skill set. Since each project can be broken down in multiple ways, the student-project matchmaking becomes non-trivial. I am partial to a more interactive approach and prefer leaving the final deliverable, or even the scope, of a project undefined until the middle of the semester/summer.

Even knowing the rough direction of a project, I have yet to master the art of guiding students through the research process. I am averse to projects where students just analyze data from experiments, and unlike many physical sciences, few computer science experiments which require human babysitting. Instead, most of the time I have my students explore the literature and generate ideas, as I help them understand the basic concepts and direct their attention to topics that interest me. I must admit, however, that I struggle to balance giving students with enough information without overwhelming them. More than one student have suggested that doing research with me can be frustrating, and I’ve never figured out why.

There may be several factors at work here. One is the illusion of transparency – I will explain an abstract concept and see my students nod, but they will have trouble applying that concept in their assignments. Unobvious confusion is not a problem limited to my research, as I felt the same way when teaching loops in CS1. In that specific case, I provided worked examples that also described my step-by-step reasoning, and a similar solution may work for research. I’ve also decided that although weekly meetings are sufficient to track progress, I need semi-weekly check-ins to make sure that students understood what they were supposed to do. The more frequent meeting schedule prevents wasted effort, and also gives me more immediate feedback on whether the student needs help.

The other factors of student frustration are less clear to me. One may be how most research students work alone. I must distinguish between working on a project alone but spending time with students on other projects, from working alone and not talking to anyone at all. Other faculty have anecdotally suggested that I should avoid both types of isolation, although personally I have had success with students who worked on their projects by themselves. I suspect that the summer schedule also has an effect – compared to the regular classes and office hours during the school year, the one meeting a week may give the impression that I am unavailable at other times. I considered organizing work sessions to increase face-to-face time, but missed the opportunity to do so at the beginning of the summer.

A third potential factor comes from asking whether I interact differently as a research mentor (as opposed to a teacher). One difference may be higher expectations for students to figure things out on their own. This is especially during the summer when they are not taking classes and are (in theory) doing research full time. I don’t have data on how many hours my students work, nor do I have a target number of hours for how much they should work. It is at least possible that I am being unrealistic in my expectations, and I should informally survey my students about this.

I’ve been fairly critical in this post, but I do enjoy working with students on research. Besides forcing me to keep up with the literature, research focuses my attention on the students individually, and often pushes them in ways that normal classes cannot. I think many students who decide to do research see it as this grand pursuit of the Truth, and if nothing else, I think I can use that reminder more often.

Step 62: Mentor Undergraduate Summer Research

Step 61: (Fail to) Plan for Grace Hopper

One of the unexpected negative effects of not belonging to a computer science department is not being aware of the timing of major community events. I was late in planning an Hour of Code for Computer Science Education Week last year, and only in the last couple weeks did I realize had completely failed to plan for Grace Hopper (aka. the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing).

Not having been a computer science undergrad at a liberal arts institution – and I’ll admit, being much less concerned with the homogeneity of computer scientists – I wasn’t aware of the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) until the middle of my graduate career. I knew friends who have gone multiple times and they always reported a positive experience. A student of mine went to GHC last year and said it was amazing; in fact, it was due to their prompting that I started planning for Hour of Code. Still, it never crossed my mind that I should attend, never mind organizing students to attend as a group.

It is to my shame that I only realized my mistake when a student took the initiative to organize a trip (there’s a pattern here…), and it is to the students’ credit how quickly they suggested avenues of funding. The student first emailed me on June 28; by the next day, the group had identified several funds at Oxy that might support student travel, and also located outside sources such as a scholarship from Google. One student even contacted one of Oxy’s associate deans, who then brought it up with the dean. If computer science had been more established at Oxy, there might already have been a fund set aside for GHC, but trying to create one now is better than nothing.

Of course, if computer science had been more established, I might have had colleagues who knew that the GHC has a special group registration process for universities that opened in April. Instead, I saw that the general registration opens on July 13, and I figured we had time to find funding… until GHC announced that they had sold out of general registrations by 9:20am the day the registration opened. This is jaw dropping to me. I don’t know the exact time registration started, but even if half of the anticipated 15,000 attendees went through general registration, it’s likely that close to a thousand peopled registered every hour until registration closed. (I later learned that it is not uncommon for colleges to send large groups of students – I heard that Mount Holyoke sends 40 students a year, causing other faculty untold annoyance.)

I was lucky that when I became aware of the situation, registration reserved for faculty was still open, so I will be visiting Houston in October. I’m not sure what I hope to learn. Although I’m sure there will be events aimed at computer science faculty and mentors, I suspect the main appeal of the celebration is for women to experience the rare luxury of being the majority, and to share stories and learn from each other. I have no issue with that, but since students are the main beneficiaries, it is a shame that the rising seniors will not be able to attend while they are still students.

Now that I am familiar with the GHC schedule, I have put the academic registration on my calendar for next year. I can’t think of any other event that I could drop the ball in the same manner, if there are opportunities for undergraduates that I should plan for, please do let me know.

Step 61: (Fail to) Plan for Grace Hopper