Tag Archives: grad students

Graduate Teaching on Diversity: Week 0

The graduate school at OSU is considering adding a new learning outcome for all graduate students as a mechanism for reducing an observed rise in discrimination in our graduate program (based on surveys).  The desired learning outcome is based on the Difference, Power and Discrimination (DPD) program that has all our our undergraduates take a course that has a DPD designation.  The proposed graduate learning outcome (LO) is:

Recognize difference, power and discrimination within social systems and their influence on people of diverse backgrounds both inside and outside their discipline.

There are a dozen pilot programs across campus this year to experiment with methods of delivering a DPD curriculum to our graduate students.  I volunteered to pilot one in EECS and am doing so by way of a 1-credit (1 hr/wk) class devoted to this LO along with a “responsible conduct of research” LO (that is currently required by our graduate school).  I have around 40 students (~1/3 of our incoming MS, MEng, and PhD graduate students) and had my first class yesterday.  You can see the course webpage here (which is subject to change).

I was more nervous going into this class than most classes.  This is my first time teaching non-technical material and there are a lot of unknowns.  At what level should I try to engage the students?  Will our largely international group of students have a harder time with a discussion-based class?  Will the students want to engage in thinking about these questions?

To motivate the LO, I started with a short history of computer science with a few motivating questions.  I started with the black points (right) and talked a bit about the discrimination that Turing experienced due to his sexual orientation and asked: What advances would Turing have made if not for discrimination and his ultimate suicide?.  I pointed out that the history (in black) is stunted both by colonialism and patriarchy.  I added in the blue points, pointing out that computation devices existed before we had computers (abaci) and that positional number systems are requisite for computation.  We see that these contributions are non-Western and we can ask the question: What advances would Mayan mathematics have made had their civilization not been decimated by colonialism?.  Finally I added the red points acknowledging some contributions by women to computer science and asked: What research and development would we be pursuing if women were equally represented among computer scientists?

Thankfully, there were a few good questions after this introduction, which helped to make me less worried about teaching this class.  This intro was definitely CS biased; I hope to make it more inclusive to ECE for the future, since both CS and ECE students are in the class, but I will need some help with that.

I then did a ice-breaker of sorts (since these are incoming graduate students).  I asked the students to write down what they were afraid of as they start their new graduate program.  I collected the (anonymous) sheets of paper and shuffled them and handed them back out for each student to read one out aloud.  I was worried that folks would hesitate to be honest here, but very quickly, there were tears welling in my eyes as fears of being forgotten by their loved ones back home, loneliness, being able to express oneself in English, adjusting to US culture were voiced.  There was a lot of overlap between fears and I hope that hearing their peers’ fears will help the students feel less alone.

So that was week 0.  I hope to update as the quarter progresses and am happy for constructive feedback.  If you do so anonymously, please indicate if you are a student in the class or an outside observer.


Responsibility for versus responsibility to

I received some advice from an established biochemist via a friend in regards to the stress related to advising graduate students.  See, of the new tasks in the past year, graduate advising has been the most stressful for me.  I feel this weight of a person’s career in my hands.  What if I pick the wrong problems?  What if wreck their confidence?

But the advice lifted a weight off my shoulders: you are not responsible for your students, you are responsible to your students.  You don’t have control over whether your students engross themselves in their work, whether they read papers beyond the ones you explicitly say to “read this”, whether they will really focus on their research – you can’t be expected to be responsible for this.  However, you can read and edit their writing, suggest papers and books to read, introduce them to your colleagues, teach them.

It was a simple change in propositions, but it made a big difference for me.

On a somewhat related note, I’m planning on taking up Matt Welsh’s advice on evaluating grad students.  He advocates setting goals on a quarterly basis and remarking on how well those goals were met.  I think this will work well for concrete items such as writing up a paper for which proofs have already been established and completing qualifiers, but how should we set goals for work that may or may not be possible (ie. “settle this conjecture”)?

Looking a gift horse in the mouth

When I was a grad student, I was in a professor’s office when an undergrad stopped by to give the professor an art card as a thank you for writing a recommendation letter.  The professor kindly turned down the gesture.  At the time, I thought that, as the offering was little more than a greeting card, such a denial was not worth the effort.  The professor pointed out that a line has to be drawn somewhere.

I agree.  But I’m unsure of two things: where to draw the line and how to explain the line to students, particularly when cultural differences may play a role.  I’ll describe a few situations that have come up.

I am on the graduate committee for a Ph.D. student along with 3 other faculty.  This involves sitting in on qualifiers and exams and helping to make decisions on their course of study and progress.  Immediately after a qualifier exam some time ago, the student came to my office with a puzzle – having seen that I have a small collection of puzzles on my bookshelf – and offered it to me with a thanks for the exam.  I turned down the gift, explaining that it is not appropriate for me to accept such gestures when I am in a position of authority.  This week, I came back from a week’s vacation to see a gift bag hanging from my office door.  The gift bag contained a card from the same student and alluded to the fact that the bag must have recently contained (a thief in our midst!) the same puzzle.  The student thought it would be ok for me to now accept the present.  I have emailed the student and explained again that I should not receive gifts.  Unfortunately, this time, there is no gift to return!

The Ph.D. qualifier exams here are 2 hour oral exams.  Not the most exciting thing.  It seems to become tradition that the student bring food for the examining committee.  This seems to vary from a few cartons of cookies to full-on home-cooked meals with catered coffee from our building’s coffee shop.  Some may argue that bringing your committee a few doughnuts and coffee may be a nice gesture, and this, apparently, is how this tradition started.  However, it seems to have gone much too far.  Of course, I don’t feel that the committee’s decision would be swayed by the quality of the food provided – if anything, better food may draw a failure from the committee so we might enjoy such a spread once more.  A line should be drawn, but how?  I would argue that nothing should be brought.  As faculty, sitting on such committees is part of our job.  We know that the meeting will be 2 hours and are perfectly capable of bringing our own sustenance.    Any line above zero is particularly strange.  ‘A student may provide no more than $10 worth of sustenance purchased at the building’s coffee shop.’  So is a student expected to spend $10?  Now a student has to bring coffee for the lofty professors?  Any line above zero should be funded by the department, not the student.  That would be great, but I don’t see it in the budget.

Finally, my own Ph.D. student and I have an interesting relationship.  We are very close in age, live around the corner from each other and have a fair amount in common.  We also both enjoy baking, although I don’t find I get to as often as I once did.  We’ve exchanged various food items in small quantities, usually eaten during meetings – neither of us can go more than an hour without eating like constantly foraging squirrels.  On the recent occasion of my entering old age, she brought me a small batch of (delicious, creamy, homemade, peppermint, white-chocolate) fudge.  Perhaps I should have declined the gift, which I felt a little over that ill-defined line, but I didn’t.  I have to say – it made great fuel for a recent bike trip.

What do you do in such situations?  Am I too strict, not strict enough for your taste?

How to find a postdoc

While I hardly think I should be doling out advice …

In algorithms, there have been a lot of postdoc positions advertising on the two main email lists, TheoryNT and dmanet.  In my experience, many of the positions are in Europe.  I’ve found that a lot of postdoc’s get their position by word of mouth.

I think, by far, the best thing is to get a postdoctoral fellowship.  Freedom!  It seems NSF doesn’t have a fellowship program for people in computer science.  (Is that actually true?) But I have seen (and ignored, as I am not an American citizen) plenty of postdoc fellowship programs for Americans.  If you aren’t American, try your home country.  NSERC has great fellowships for Canadians that you can take out of the country if you got your Ph.D. in Canada and is tax-free if you take it to McGill.  The short of it is, if you have a fellowship you have the academic freedom to study what you want to study.  You can work with whoever you want, whether or not they have a research grant to pay a postdoc.

I’ve also thought that if you plan far enough in advance you could contact someone you really want to work with and convince them to write a grant with your help that includes funding for a postdoc.  Any thoughts of whether that would work?  I know NSF now asks for an “advising plan” when requesting funds for a postdoc salary.  Would having the potential postdoc involved in the writing process help?

And there are schools and departments that have their own postdoc program – I think U. Penn and U. Toronto do.

Any other suggestions?

What theory should every non-theory Ph.D. student know?

I’ve survived my first week of teaching graduate algorithms and data structures. “Survived” really isn’t the right word. I’ve had a lot of fun and the students in the class are bright and interactive, which makes a 50 minute lecture go by in a flash.

Since the time is going by so quickly, I realize the need to consider more systematically what should be taught in this course. As you might know, I am the only algorithms/TCS person in the department (who isn’t emeritus) and so I will likely be able to quite easily affect the graduate curriculum.  I’m impressed by the amount of theory that the CS Ph.D. students are required to take here (at least in comparison to Brown, a theory-heavy school).  Each student must take the (10-week long) courses called “Algorithms and Data Structures” and “Theory of Computation and Formal Languages”.  Beyond that, there are several other optional algorithms and complexity courses offered every second year.

There has been some discussion on My Biased Coin on what every theory Ph.D. student should know. My question is: given 20 weeks of class time (three 50 minute lectures a week), what topics in TCS should every CS Ph.D. student know?

Algorithms advertising for incoming grad students

One of my first professorial tasks will be a 4-minute talk to incoming grad students. I don’t expect any of the students in the audience will be explicitly interested in algorithms research.  After all, when they applied, there weren’t any algorithms profs here to advise them.  So, I’m not sure what the best use of this time is.

I could ignore the fact that they are likely interested in doing everything but proofs and give my 4 minute blurb as though there were potentially interested students in the audience.  I could appeal to the coadvising role of “whatever your research is, there is probably an algorithmic viewpoint”.  I could just say “this is what algorithms is” and leave it at that.  Besides, (and lucky for me) all the CS Ph.D. students have to take a grad algorithms class – and guess who is teaching that in the first quarter.

However, as far as I know, the EE and masters students don’t have to take the algorithms class.  Do you think I should be convincing them to?