Public relations

When I took on this new role, I knew I would become the face of computer science at Whitman – at least for the first year or two. But I didn’t fully appreciate what that would mean. In this post, I consider the many ways in which I am representing computer science at Whitman.

Admissions. Before I even arrived at Whitman, I met Admissions staff and wrote an admissions profile for the computer science minor: a document for the admissions office to share with prospective students interested in computer science.

A few weeks ago, I led an information session for admissions tour guides. Tony Cabasco, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid, suggested that I focus on three major points. What I settled on:

  1. Computer science is the study of algorithms: Not just expressing algorithms as programs, but also learning what problems can be solved algorithmically, how we can know that algorithms and programs are correct, how computing changes human relationships, and so on.
  2. Computer science is a brand new program at Whitman, with new faculty, new labs, and new courses.
  3. Whitman offers a minor in computer science; a major is in the works.

The tour guides asked good questions that I could imagine prospective students also asking. It was fun! I received a lovely thank-you note afterwards, which said I may have persuaded a few of the tour guides to study computer science.

I’ve also received a trickle of requests to meet with prospective Whitman students, just as I did at Grinnell. None of those meetings have actually happened yet. I’m a bit nervous about those meetings, because I’m not sure how much I can say. I can’t truthfully promise any particular timeline for a major.

Alumni. My meeting with admissions tour guides fell just before the annual Reunion Weekend. Nancy Mitchell, Director of Alumni Relations, invited me to speak to alumni on Friday afternoon. I addressed three main topics. I introduced myself, since none of the alumni already knew me. (This did not go exactly as I planned, since I had already been thoroughly introduced by VP for Development & Alumni Relations John Bogley.) I presented the case for computer science in the liberal arts, since I thought there might be some skeptics in the audience. And I presented the state of CS at Whitman – which I expect will be the main topic of presentations to alumni in years to come.

As I prepared the talk, I found myself thinking of Mike Erlinger, one of my mentors and past chair of CS at my alma mater, who I’d seen giving such talks many times.

The alumni in attendance were mostly older, celebrating their 40th and 45th reunions. (The 50th year reunion is special – they march in the commencement exercises in the spring.) Although I talked longer than I had planned to, there was still plenty of time for questions. To my surprise, these questions were mostly not about plans for CS at Whitman, but rather about problems with computing in society – it was a fun conversation.

After the formal talk, we adjourned to the intro lab, and talked about classroom teaching, pair programming, and choices of programming languages.

I’m told that alumni had good things to say about the event. I don’t know whether this will be a regular thing, or perhaps only for the first five years while CS-interested alumni are returning to campus for the first time since the program started? I’m still learning what roles departments normally take in events like Reunion (and, indeed, in all sorts of things).

Majors fair. Whitman College has an annual “Majors Fair” for first and second year students. Because so many students have been asking about computer science, Associate Dean of Students Juli Dunn invited me to participate. I followed a standard template to answer questions like, “What questions should a prospective minor ask of him or herself as he or she explores this discipline?” and “What courses are open to first- and second-year students?” I was also asked to suggest two or three intended minors to attend the fair and answer questions.

The Majors Fair was last night. I learned that it is almost entirely staffed by student volunteers; there was only one other faculty member there, along with staff from the Registar’s Office, Off-Campus Study, and so on. However, most majors have an established curriculum that current students can address. For computer science, most of the questions were about the trajectory of computer science at Whitman, and only I could answer.

I also learned that there is an annual table-decorating contest, the prize for which is a departmental pizza party. Some faculty keep a box of discipline-related decorations for just this event. I should think about this.

Colleagues. During October Break, or “4-day” as students call it, I attended CCSC-NW in Seattle. CCSC runs small, regional conferences for computer science educators at post-secondary institutions. It was a last-minute decision; David Hansen at George Fox persuaded me it would be a good opportunity to “meet the neighbors.” Indeed it was. I had attended CCSC-NW once before, in my last year of grad school, and remembered it as quite the whirlwind. This year’s CCSC-NW seemed much quieter, though perhaps because I already knew some of the people there. While not all institutions I might have hoped to see were represented there, many were. The sessions were informal and provided more space to connect than one would find at a larger conference; they suggested some different ways to think about curriculum design. The conference also seems like a safe, supportive venue for students to present their research.

I found myself realizing that I was representing Whitman College at least as much as myself. I volunteered to serve on the conference committee next year–as Partners Chair, a position which I was told mostly involves emailing corporations and asking them to support the conference. I figure I can use this as an opportunity to meet Whitman alumni in the NW tech industry. I also seem to have volunteered to host CCSC-NW at Whitman in 2020.

At GHC 2015 last week, I once again beat the drum for faculty careers in the liberal arts. But I think there were more faculty at my panel session than there were graduate students. I’m looking for new venues.

However, I was also able to meet a few folks from PNNL, about 40 miles away in the Tri-Cities. (It’s remarkable how one finally meets one’s neighbors while at conferences thousands of miles away!) I’m excited about making connections there.

I can’t count how many times I was asked, “So how do you like Whitman College?” It’s a hard question to answer since I’m not really settled in yet and I still miss Grinnell a lot. (The highlights of GHC for me were lunch with Sam Rebelsky, who is currently department chair at Grinnell and who I miss terribly, and seeing my Grinnell students and alumni.) For the sake of good public relations, I need to find an answer that focuses on what’s great about Whitman College (many things!) and not how homesick I am right now.

Community. Having gotten involved with service learning at Grinnell, I made a last-minute decision to seek out community partners for the design projects in my Human-Computer Interaction class. Noah Leavitt, Associate Dean for Student Engagement, helped me connect with Sara Archer and Nikki Raver at the Blue Mountain Humane Society, as well as Danielle Garbe, CEO of the Sherwood Trust. Danielle introduced me in turn to Mary Campbell, Executive Director of the local Community Council, which “helps address community issues by bringing residents of the region together to study topics and implement recommended solutions.” Of the five class projects, three address recent Community Council study topics and one serves the Humane Society. (The fifth addresses the changing newspaper industry.) I am looking forward to reading what my students learned from their contextual interviews with local community members, and Mary tells me she is very excited about the projects’ potential impact.

I never got involved in educational outreach at Grinnell—Sam seemed to have that covered—but it seems like an important thing to bootstrap at Whitman. I was thrilled to learn that Whitman has a staff position dedicated to science outreach. I look forward to meeting with Heidi Chapin next week to talk about possibilities for weaving computer science into existing programs. We’ll also talk about possibilities for Computer Science Education Week, coming up in December. I’m not sure whether this is something I’ll be responsible for in the long term or if it’s something one of my new colleagues will want to take on. But regardless, I think it’s important to involve students in educating the public about computer science.

I also received a couple random requests from the community during one week earlier this fall: A request to have an independent study build a web site for a non-profit (I shared this as a volunteer opportunity instead) and a request for an intern with very specific skills (I referred them to Kim Rolfe, Director of Business Engagement). I can’t necessarily do what I’m asked for, but I’ll help however I can!

Working group. The Computer Science Working Group consists of trustees, alumni, and friends of the college who led the fundraising effort for three faculty positions, two new labs, and a departmental operating budget. This is the group that I first met with in February 2014.

I worked with John Bogley to schedule a meeting of the CS Working Group in Bellevue for mid-November. I’m looking forward to meeting with John to discuss the agenda. What will this group become as fundraising is complete (for now) and faculty are leading the charge to develop the program?

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