Visiting speakers

I was so busy this spring that I didn’t blog on our three wonderful visiting speakers! I did not post about them in the CS @ Whitman group on Facebook either—an oversight I will rectify in the future. In the meantime, here’s a brief summary of those three visits, with thanks to those who made them possible, and a glimpse at what may come in the fall.

Our first visit was from Dr. Barbara Grosz, this spring’s Phi Beta Kappa visiting scholar. Here is the announcement of her public lecture:

Professional photo of Dr. Barbara Grosz

Today, Monday March 6th, at 4:00 p.m. in Olin 138 Dr. Barbara Grosz, noted leader in the field of artificial intelligence, will be speaking about Intelligent Systems: Design and Ethical Concerns.

Dr. Grosz is this year’s Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar.  She is Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences at Harvard and works on computational modeling of discourse and collaborative systems for human-computer communication. Grosz’s many seminal contributions to Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the areas of natural-language processing and multi-agent systems include establishing the research field of computational modeling of discourse, developing some of the earliest computer dialogue systems, pioneering models of collaboration, and the development of collaborative multi-agent systems and systems for human-computer communication.  She is also known for her leadership in AI, her role in the establishment and leadership of interdisciplinary institutions and contributions to the advancement of women in science.

Dr. Grosz’s visit was proposed by not by computer science, but by Theresa DiPasquale in English, who is teaching Science Fiction and Cognition this spring. The visit was organized by Andrea Dobson, who is the Secretary-Treasurer of Whitman’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter. I’m grateful that Theresa and Andrea included us in the planning from the very beginning, a year ago last spring. Thanks to this early planning, Andy was able to schedule a guest lecture into his Natural Language Processing course, where Dr. Grosz spoke on “From the Turing Test to Smart Partners:
’Is Your System Smart Enough To Work With Us?'”

Dr. Grosz also had dinner with two groups of faculty, lunch with women interested in computer science, and an informal drop-in coffee in the CS Commons, all graciously hosted by Phi Beta Kappa. I greatly appreciate not only Theresa’s attention to the topic, but Andrea’s efforts to help CS students and faculty make the most of the visit.

Professional photo of Dr. Noah Smith
Our second visitor was Dr. Noah Smith. His visit from Seattle was funded by Whitman’s Visiting Educator program, administered through the Office of the Provost and Dean of the Faculty. My understanding is that each department or program is entitled to roughly one visiting educator per year. We decided that Andy got dibs on inviting a visiting educator for this year, because he is actively looking for new research problems. We also thought that Noah’s research might appeal to students and faculty in other disciplines.

The talk was announced to students as follows:

This week [April 12] we will be hosting Noah Smith from the University of Washington to give a talk titled, “Strategy and Framing in Text.”

The talk will discuss how he has used CS techniques to analyze political text. One project looks at Supreme Court amicus curiae briefs, another looks at American news media discourse surrounding immigration.

Noah also gave a guest lecture in Andy’s NLP class and dined with students and faculty. Andy invited Rachel George in the Anthropology department to join us. Noah and I had time for a long conversation about computers and persuasive writing, which I wish I had taken more notes on. I am grateful for the funding from the College, and particularly to Andy for taking the lead in planning Noah’s visit.

As an aside, I learned that Noah moved from CMU to UW (my alma mater) around the same time I was moving from Grinnell to Whitman. He doesn’t much look like this picture, as he has grown a significant beard since moving to Seattle.

Terian Koscik with a giant cat mask
Last but not least, Terian Koscik (Grinnell ’12) came to visit the week after Noah Smith. For Terian’s visit, it’s important to know that she has both professional and personal web presences. My Grinnell colleague Sam Rebelsky also wrote an essay about her. Of the three visits, this is the one I was the most involved in planning, and yet, I couldn’t have done it by myself.

Terian gave a wonderful presentation at Grinnell’s CS Reunion last fall, which left me so bowled over that I asked if she would like to visit Whitman without having a concrete plan for how to accomplish it. However, there was a connection. Terian spoke about building Twitterbots for fun (not profit), and also mentioned that she teaches a workshop about building Twitterbots in Python. I had already learned about an experimental course offered this spring, Thinking Digitally. I wrote to the lead instructors:

When I was at Grinnell’s CS Reunion two weeks ago, I saw a talk by Terian Koscik, Grinnell ’12. The title was “Make Something Useless.” She had a positive and inspirational message about making things not to serve a purpose, but to follow your curiosity and learn from the experience.

Terian’s work ranges from the silly to the provocative. She has taught workshops on developing Twitterbots, sex robots, and surrealist Web applications. The first and last workshops are intended for people with some programming experience, but the middle one was designed for people with no prior programming experience. Her web site is here:

Terian lives in Portland, so it would not be too difficult to bring her to Whitman. When I asked during the reunion (I was that taken), she expressed interest in visiting.

I am writing to you because I think Terian’s work and message could dovetail well with what I’ve heard of the “Thinking Digitally” course to be offered this spring. Her visit could also be a terrific opportunity for connection/collaboration between CS students and students of “Thinking Digitally,” particularly if she offers a workshop during her visit. Perhaps faculty could participate as well.

What do you think? Do you have any funding for this course that might let us collaborate on hosting a visit?

Sharon Alker responded with enthusiasm, but also said the course did not have any funding for visitors. Sharon suggested we run the idea past Lisa Perfetti, Associate Dean for Faculty Development. Lisa expressed interest but also asked for more details. Gradually over the course of the next four months, David Sprunger and I pulled together a more concrete proposal, including a schedule (mostly my work) and a budget (mostly David’s), and funding for the visit was approved.

We kept Terian very busy with a full two days of events:

Tuesday April 18 
12:00 pm  Lunch at Olive with Janet Davis and David Sprunger
1:00 – 3:00 pm Free time for you OR 1:1 consultation time with students
3:00 – 4:00 pm   Workshop prep time
4:00 – 6:00 pm  Twitterbot workshop, Olin Hall 124
6:30 – 7:30 pm Dinner at Sweet Basil Pizzeria with workshop attendees
Wednesday April 19
9:00 – 9:50 am  Visit CS 270, Data Structures, Olin Hall room 124
11:00 – 11:50 am Visit CS 300, Software Design, Olin Hall room 124
12:00 – 1:00 pm   Lunch with CS and Thinking Digitally students in Reid Campus Center
2:30 – 2:50 pm Visit CS 270 section 2Olin Hall room 124
3:00 – 3:50 pm  Visit Thinking Digitally Olin 157
5:15 – 6:15 pm Dinner with CS Faculty and Thinking Digitally faculty at T. Maccarone’s
7:00 – 8:00 pm Public lecture:  “Make Something Useless,” Olin 129

I was glad that my student Emma Twersky ’17 took Terian up on her offer to meet with students, and also showed Terian around campus. The workshop was well-attended by students, faculty, and staff. Since Terian has made her workshop materials public, the CS@W club leadership talked about offering the workshop again to reach a new group of students. Students in Data Structures had good questions about careers and internships in software development; my Software Design students asked even more questions about what it’s like to develop software in the professional world—so much so that I think “Ask a Professional Software Engineer” may have to become an annual topic in Data Structures, even if it means using Skype to host a virtual visit.

For those who weren’t able to attend Terian’s public lecture, she also shared her talk slides with us. At the end she shared several suggestions for how students can participate in the creative computing community, including the following:

“Through interactive, sensing, self-illuminated, and data-driven projects we seek to provide participants with the feeling of being transported into a living, conscious forest.”

“Python programmers from all over the globe get together for a long weekend to build projects that help our communities.”

This visit was everything I hoped it would be. I’m very grateful not just to Lisa for the funding, but especially to David for pushing the proposal forward and handling all the logistics when I was too busy to think about it.

I’m really happy that we were able to pull together three such wonderful visits, and particularly that we were able to collaborate with other groups on campus to create additional opportunities for our students beyond the regular Visiting Educators program.

We are hoping to have several guests this fall:

  • Christine Alvarado is an old friend from Grace Hopper, SIGCSE, and my alma mater, Harvey Mudd College, now a lecturer at UCSD. She reached out to let me know she is planning a vacation in Walla Walla this September (thanks, quarter schedule!) and would like to visit us.
  • Justin Lincoln invited CS to participate in an October visit by Kirby Ferguson, the director of the online series Everything Is a Remix.
  • I am hoping to take advantage of the Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholars program again. One of this year’s visiting scholars, George Dyson, is practically a neighbor in Bellingham, Washington. His most recent book is Turing’s cathedral: The origins of the digital universe.
  • John is hoping to invite someone from PNNL’s division of Atmospheric Sciences & Global Change to lecture in Simulation Methods and Applications.
  • I was just reminded that I need to ask Andy if it would be appropriate for my husband Brooks Davis to give his “Hello World” talk in Computer Systems Programming.

Since all these visits are all opportunistic, local, or otherwise funded, that leaves us free to propose a Visiting Educator for the spring.

And now, a word from our sponsors:

Alumni: Please consider designating a small gift to computer science at Whitman. These gifts  help us pay for “extras” that benefit our students, such as social events with additional visitors beyond our one official Visiting Educator per year. I am very grateful for the donations we’ve received so far.

Everyone: If you are planning a visit to Walla Walla, or if you are local and would like to visit, please drop me a line! We welcome visits from colleagues, friends, alumni, and honorary alumni (i.e., our former students from prior institutions). We may not be able to fund your travel expenses, but we would be happy to arrange a suitable event with students and faculty. Even if you think you have nothing to talk about, students are eager to hear about career paths and the world beyond the Whitman bubble.

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