What the Tech?!
Professor at the Queen's School of Computing
Interviewer: Lucas Wong
Q. In your opinion, what are the most important qualities for a successful educator?
The ability to adapt. Students from one year to the next will be different, and so will the relevant content of the course–even for courses that are fundamental and change little in their core over the years. The technology we use to teach, examples we use to motivate, etc. are all always changing. Also, if you ask them, well, the students will tell you what isn't working. So being able to adapt becomes a superpower in the educational setting.
Q. What is something you enjoy about being a Professor in Computing?
I get to imagine what a 5-10 year research agenda might look like, and then actually make it a reality. I have the privilege of working in an area that is in high demand, and so there is no shortage of bright students looking to pick up the puzzle pieces for the bigger schemes I have in mind for the research in our lab.
It's also pretty brilliant to see a student go from early undergrad to excelling in research as a graduate student. If you consider the students you teach as extensions to the impact you can have on the world–and many instructors do–then it's a powerful notion to think that I'm equipping 150+ students every year with a foundation in AI, or 300+ students every year with a foundation in logic. I'm still too new to have Dr's leave my lab, but I'm sure that will be pretty awesome as well!
Q. What are some examples of day-to-day tasks one might do as a Professor?
Meetings, reading drafts, lecture prep, admin committees, etc. I found this floating around online a while ago, and it captures a fair bit of it: https://biotrib.eu/what-does-a-lecturer-professor-actually-do/
The odd thing about it is that it rarely is constant from one week to the next. One week I'll be marking 25 papers for a grad course, and another I'll be rewriting an undergraduate curriculum, and another I'll be knee deep in research code. It changes often enough to not get too bored or stalled on any one thing.
Q. What is a common misconception of being a Professor?
Depends on the perspective. Undergraduate students in my course would have very little idea that I spend 8+ hours a week in meetings with graduate students about their research. Graduate students who have long since finished their coursework may not realize how much time is invested in teaching outside of the classroom. Neither side really sees the amount of service that's required as well (hiring committees, curriculum committees, etc). All of it is very rewarding, but anyone outside of a faculty position would only see part of what it is we do.
Q. What's some of the biggest challenges of being a University Professor in Computing?
Does the pandemic count? I guess that's a challenge no matter what you've been doing the last two year.
Knowing when to say "no" is a tough one. Every aspect of the job can be done better -- you can always polish your lectures more; you can always join another administrative committee; you can always write another paper; etc. But at some point you just run out of space in what would be a healthy work life. Knowing which opportunities to turn down is a tough skill to learn, and tough even when you've mastered it–for the record, I haven't yet!
But perhaps the biggest challenge is having a global view on how much everyone struggles. With stress, anxiety, mental or physical health, etc. When students in a course reach a breaking point, the Prof will of course be a part of that discussion. It takes a toll, even if small, and for a large course this effect is amplified. So many undergrad and graduate students are struggling these days, and the cruel twist is so many feel isolated and alone in feeling like that. It really couldn't be further from the truth, and as a Professor we are constantly reminded of how wide-spread it can be. If you happen to be reading this and are struggling, please know that you aren't alone.