More than a dozen years ago, I taught for one semester at Harvard. A good friend was taking her sabbatical and asked me to take over her course. This was well before I came to Princeton, and, though I had done occasional adjunct teaching, I had never spent real time at a university. Thus I blithely agreed to what turned out to be six months of total immersion.
CS 50 is Harvard’s general introduction to computer science, loosely equivalent to COS 126 here, except that it was much larger and had a much broader spectrum of students: everything from hotshot freshmen who had learned programming in utero to terrified seniors still trying to satisfy their QR requirement. So one big problem was to find a middle ground among very different levels of experience and interest. The other problem, which I discovered only after it was much too late to chicken out, was sheer size: The initial enrollment was 457, a number still burned into my brain.
I have never worked so hard in my life. I had 31 teaching fellows (as Harvard styles its teaching assistants), all but one of whom were undergrads. As one might imagine, this raised some interesting issues, like ensuring that teaching fellows didn’t wind up grading their significant others’ work.
But in the end it all worked out — thanks to hard work by everyone — and I had the time of my life. The experience taught me that I could handle absolutely any teaching challenge, from making up exams and getting them graded to printing 10,000 pages of lecture notes overnight to dealing with discipline cases and the inevitable personnel issues (cf. significant others, above).
Thus when Princeton became an option several years later, the academic life was not a leap into the unknown but a chance to resume something that had been enormous fun. In fact, COS 109: Computers in Our World, the course I’ve been teaching here each fall, began as an attempt to do a better job for less technical students than had been possible in CS 50.
Last week I went north for spring break, to Cambridge instead of Cancun. I gave a guest lecture in a programming course and spent a day hanging out with friends from Harvard’s computer science department. Some of them have gone temporarily over to the dark side by taking on serious administrative responsibilities. It’s clear that the financial meltdown of the past six months has made their lives far more complicated than they had expected when they signed up, and they’re very busy trying to keep things running smoothly. The same is true here, of course, though I wonder if Harvard’s problems are somewhat more severe overall. Fortunately, this is way above my pay grade; I’m glad to have good people in charge and lucky not to be directly involved.
But the high point of the trip was meeting a young man who had been in my class in the fall of 1996. Given the class size, it was not surprising that I had no memory of him. I’m enough of a digital packrat, however, that I still had his grades: He stood eighth out of nearly 400 survivors, which is a mark of exceptional talent. He had taken the course as a sophomore and almost on a whim, since he had planned to be a government major. I can’t claim credit for anything beyond somehow accidentally releasing his inner geek, but he enjoyed the course enough that he switched to computer science. He went on to get his Ph.D. in CS as well, and for the past couple of years has been teaching CS 50! This kind of full-circle experience has surely happened to some of my colleagues here, but never before to me, so it was especially rewarding.
Harvard routinely records large lecture classes — somewhere there is a dusty box of my VHS tapes — and today lectures are freely available on the web. My young friend is a dynamite teacher, and his first lecture alone has provided me with three or four ideas for COS 109 next fall. We spent an hour trading stories of the class and how much fun it was despite the workload. In fact, the sheer enjoyment of teaching seemed to be at the center of everyone’s conversation. The regular folks are wrapped up in current courses and full of ideas for new ones. The deanly types are always looking for some way to get back into the classroom. I don’t suppose anyone would volunteer to teach for free to help out in tough times, but there was definitely a sense of wonder that one can get paid to have such a good time.
Harvard is a different place from Princeton, but that pervasive desire to teach and to do it well is one of the things that links the two and indeed all good schools. Chaucer’s clerk is alive and well, gladly learning and gladly teaching.
Brian Kernighan GS ’69 is a computer science professor and a Forbes faculty adviser. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.