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Teaching Statement (2023 February 2)


As part of my application to be promoted to Clinical Professor in 2023, I was required to submit a personal statement. Here it is.

Personal Statement

Teaching has always, and I hope always will be, something I enjoy. In addition to its noble purpose training others to be active members of society, this vocation has kept my interest by providing ample opportunity for self-development. I would like to apply for a promotion to Clinical Professor at Courant to allow me to continue helping others while developing my own interests - a path that I have been on for almost two decades here at NYU.

Path to pedagogy

When I first started as a teaching assistant 19 years ago in an NYU undergraduate Neuroscience course while a graduate student myself at Tisch, my focus was on overcoming a dread of public speaking as well as on making use of my own undergraduate neuroscience knowledge. Then, starting in 2005 at NYU School of Professional Studies, I taught 8 hour per day 12-day weekend crash courses in software development where, for more than a decade, I enjoyed the challenge of explaining complex concepts to a broad spectrum of people from varied backgrounds who had taken time away from their own jobs, families, and lives and had invested a lot of money to learn something new from me. Many former students, including top executives in the finance and media industries, have reported to me that these courses changed their careers and, in some cases, their lives, and this reinforced my interest in education and teaching rather than my primary commercial work at the time, where I did not often feel that I was helping anyone.

Accumulating a position here in the CS department at Courant, first as a part-time instructor in 2011 and then as full-time contract faculty in 2013, was an opportunity for me to learn the inner workings of a more formal educational system as well as to dissect and formalize my own understanding of computing and software development, originally learned as a child and then self-taught on-the-job as a software engineer, designer, and consultant.

Whereas professional education could assume students to be interested and invested in their own learning, undergraduates often find themselves in courses about which they have little advance knowledge or interest. Teaching in this context thus requires a different approach, and I have enjoyed the challenge of constantly reworking my course materials and teaching methods to find a formula that sticks, even as my relationship with my students has evolved and their expectations shifted. With a moving target, one always has to anticipate and shoot a bit ahead.

Ensuring quality of service

Having taught well over 4,000 students to date, I have come to believe that students learn best and are most engaged when their instructor is engaged and excited about what they teach. While some people have a special gift that allows them to excel under any conditions, for the rest of us, as many gurus in Human Resources have written before, an employee’s performance over the long term is better when they have a sense of agency and control over their work, a sense of shared mission and of being valued by their peers, combined with support from their institution to continue to develop themselves. As my own tenure (no, not that kind!) in this department has progressed, I have appreciated the general goodwill and comraderie of the faculty and staff, and doing my part to support our positive work environment and shared mission has come naturally, but has not been without intention.

Department service

In 2019, at the behest of the then-Director of Undergraduate Studies, Prof. Marsha Berger, I began co-coordinating CS101 with Prof. Bari, hiring and scheduling myriad tutors every semester (which Prof. Bari primarily handles) and ensuring that the many adjuncts, postdocs, and full-time faculty teaching this course hit upon a shared set of core learning goals and have example syllabi, schedules, quizzes, and lecture notes from which to base their own materials. In addition to initial setup each semester, Prof. Bari and I give regular guidance to instructors throughout the term. This semester, for example, the new faculty fellows are using CS101 course materials I have developed and at least two of the three are running automation tools I have created over the past few years to automate away much of the laborious processes of building course websites and generating lecture slides. This should provide them more focus on pedagogy.

Starting in 2021, Prof. Berger also asked me to more generally mentor new adjuncts and faculty fellows - something that I continue to do today. In trying to explain “how things work here” to new contract faculty and answer their most basic questions, I realized that so little of the institutional knowledge I had gained over the years in the CS department was documented, at least not in a form that was easily discoverable. A lack of documented processes, procedures, systems, and expectations creates a haze of uncertainty and prevents some from becoming fully engaged and empowered in their roles. To resolve that, I wrote the “Quick Guide for Contract Faculty” - an attempt at an exhaustive overview of the people, processes, systems, and expecations for adjuncts and full-time contract faculty in the department. With the help of colleagues who ocassionally provide feedback and suggestions, this document has continued to evolve and has proved valuable to contract faculty new and old.

Institute service

In October 2020, surprised by the apparent lack of inclusion of Clinical faculty voices in drafting earlier Clinical Faculty Reappointments & Promotions Policies, I ran and was elected to serve on the committee tasked by Director Caflisch with drafting a new such policy. Working closely for over two years with Profs. Ernie Davis and Anasse Bari of Computer Science, and Profs. Shafer Smith, Shizhu Liu, and Elizabeth Steppe of Math, we extensively researched earlier Courant policies, other schools’ policies, national trends, the activities of the Contract Faculty Senators Council, and we interviewed almost all contract faculty in both departments to find out their concerns and hopes for a new policy. I and the other contract faculty on the committee organized several assemblies to inform our contract faculty colleagues about the process, our findings, engage them in a shared mission and keep them invested in the outcome. Ultimately, our committee submitted a draft policy to Dr. Caflisch in February 2021.

In August of that year, leadership put up for vote a very different policy from our recommendation that did not address most of the concerns we had discovered among the contract faculty. And, perhaps unsusprisingly, this policy was resoundingly voted down by the contract faculty. Director Caflisch again invoked the committee to help draft another version, and in May 2022, after countless hours of meetings, draft revisions, and ongoing discussions with Director Caflisch, a new policy accompanied by an important memo from the Director was put up for vote that, when viewed together, did address many of the concerns our committee had discovered. I and the other contract faculty on our committee again reached out to all contract faculty at Courant and encouraged our colleagues to vote “yes”. The policy easily passed the vote.

In December, 2022, over two years after we started, the new policy was approved by the Provost with minor revisions and came into effect. Thus, for what seems to be the first time in Courant history, the policies and procedures for hiring and rehiring full-time contract faculty, and the expectations of their roles are thoroughly documented and contract faculty concerns have been heard and largely addressed. I am thankful that this new policy governs my own application here for promotion. (PS: you will note that the policy says nothing of letters of support, although I have just now found out that they are customarily included in applications for promotion - someone should fix that in the policy!)

Continuing what I believed to be unfinished business regarding contract faculty’s documented inclusion in their own governance at Courant, in October 2022, I ran and was elected to the Courant Governance Committee. Our work is currently ongoing and I take my role as an elected representative of the contract faculty to heart and continue to respectfully lobby for inclusion of contract faculty in their own governance within bounds that are acceptable to all and common sense for the betterment of the Institute as a whole and for contract faculty individually. While I have yet to encounter anybody who opposes basic contract faculty rights and involvement in their own affairs, this has clearly not historically been a major concern for the Institute and thus requires continual effort and vigilance to gradually shift the culture to embrace the de facto reality of the composition of today’s higher education workforce.

Keeping up with industry

In addition to my activities within Courant, I have kept abreast of developments in the software and media industries, consulting with the world’s largest real estate company for much of 2022, with one of the largest educational technology firms in 2021, and winning a prestigious Effie award in 2021 for my design of an application for Iceland’s tourism board. This consulting work has a great influence on the course content of the more practice-based courses I teach.

And more

It goes without saying that my work in the CS department has required constant curriculum development, professional development, and collaboration with faculty and staff colleagues. This includes the creation of three completely new elective courses: Agile Software Development & DevOps, Software Engineering, Physical Computing (the last of which has not been taught in several years) as well as a redesign of the Database Design course and collaboration with others to continually evolve the Intro to Programming, Web Design, and CS101 courses that I also periodically teach. I took the opportunity during the pandemic to thoroughly overhaul all of my own course materials and teaching approaches to be tailored to both online and/or in-person modalities, and I believe the course evaluations will generally confirm my sense that these changes have worked well over the last few years, providing steady education to students during otherwise turbulent times.

In sum

With ongoing improvements to course curricula, mentoring and documenting processes and procedures for contract faculty, a new policy for reappointment and promotion, and an upcoming policy for governance that I hope will formally recognize contract faculty as valued partners in the Institute’s shared mission, I believe we will have made the Institute a better workplace where instructors can dedicate more focus on pedagogy with the support they need to perform well, develop themselves, pursue their passions, and provide to record numbers of students the quality education they deserve from instructors who feel empowered and energized in their roles. If my activities will have helped bring this vision closer to reality, then I will consider them to have been a success.

Teaching history, January 2023