339. Industry to Faculty

Some faculty begin teaching as a second career, after working in industry. In this episode, Kevin McCullen and Michael Walters join us to discuss how their prior careers in industry helped prepare them to design authentic learning experiences for their students.

Kevin is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at SUNY Plattsburgh. Prior to joining the computer science department at Plattsburgh, Kevin worked for several years at IBM. Michael is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Physics Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. Prior to joining the Physics faculty, Michael was the CEO of EISWorks Technologies and a metrology engineer for Corning Inc.

Show Notes

  • Design Automation Conference (DAC)
  • Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges (CCSCNE)
  • Clark, D., & Talbert, R. (2023). Grading for growth: A guide to alternative grading practices that promote authentic learning and student engagement in higher education. Taylor & Francis.
  • Lang, J. M. (2008). On course: A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Harvard University Press.
  • CircuitPython
  • R.P. Colwell, At random – Employee Performance Reviews, IEEE Computer, 35(9), 12-15, Sept 2002


John: Some faculty begin teaching as a second career, after working in industry. In this episode, we discuss how prior careers can prepare faculty to design authentic learning experiences for their students.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guests today are Kevin McCullen and Michael Walters. Kevin is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at SUNY Plattsburgh. Prior to joining the computer science department at Plattsburgh, Kevin worked for several years at IBM. Michael is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Physics Department at SUNY Plattsburgh. Prior to joining the Physics faculty, Michael was the CEO of EISWorks Technologies and a metrology engineer for Corning Inc. Welcome Kevin and Mike.

Mike: Thank you.

Kevin: Hello. I will just say 32 years is several.

John: It is. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I think that’s the official definition. Well, today’s teas are:… Kevin, are you drinking any tea?

Kevin: I have Harney and Son’s Hot Cinnamon Sunset.

Rebecca: Oh, that’s a good one.

Kevin: It’s my go to tea.

Mike: And I accidentally left my tea in the car, but I do have a cinnamon tea that is by Tazo.

Rebecca: Yum..

John: Very nice.

Rebecca: Cinnamon’s are a favorite at my house.

John: I have that too, and I enjoy that one. Today, though, I have a spring cherry green tea.

Rebecca: And today I have Hunan Noir, which is very tasty.

John: Each of you received a PhD and worked in industry for a number of years before joining the professoriate. We’ve invited you here to discuss the transition from industry to academia. Many of us just went to school and never left. And we thought it would be interesting to hear the perspective of people who’ve been out there working and returned to academia. Could you tell us a little bit about your initial careers in industry?

Kevin: Well, actually, I took the roundabout path in that I joined IBM after my bachelor’s degree and IBM paid for my graduate work through programs that they don’t have so much anymore. And I always wanted to teach. And when I graduated as an undergraduate many years ago, I was kind of burned out on school. And then it gets hard to leave after a while because it becomes very comfortable. But eventually I kind of felt like it was time. I was becoming I would say more uncomfortable in the situation I was in in industry and opportunity presented itself. I had actually been looking for a number of years for a good local opportunity because I didn’t want to relocate. My wife still works for IBM. And Plattsburgh had an opening and I applied for it. And there’s a very funny story in there with the conversations with my management over that. But I applied for it, and they accepted me, and it’s been a lot of fun.

John: You mentioned a funny story, I think [LAUGHTER] that requires a follow up.

Kevin: Oh, it was just that I had submitted a presentation to an industry conference. So I’d gone through all the clearance work to get it approved, patent clearance and all those things, and it was not accepted. And then when the position opened up, and I applied for it, and Plattsburgh invited me to come over and give a presentation, I went to my manager, and I said, “So do you remember that presentation that we got approved for DAC? Can I go give it at SUNY Plattsburgh?” And she said, “Why?” And I said, “Well, they have an opening, and I’d like to apply for it.” And I said, “Don’t worry too much about it, because my guess is that they can’t afford me, even if they do give me an offer.” And she said, “Sure, go ahead and do it.” So I came back to her about a month later. And I said, “Good news or bad news. The bad news is they can’t afford me. The good news is I’m going to take the job anyway.” And we parted on good terms.

Mike: So I did get my PhD before starting in industry. And I sort of backed my way into industry. I was thinking about staying in teaching, but I was worried I wasn’t a good enough physicist to actually go for it. I have impostor syndrome very badly. And so I looked at going into industry because I was worried I was going to only teach freshman physics for the rest of my life, because that’s the only thing anybody would trust me to do. I went into industry for nine years, I did not have to approach anybody to see if it was time to leave, because they approached me and said, “Congratulations, you work your way into a research position at a production facility. That’s a pretty awesome job. And now we’re in a recession. So we don’t need you. Goodbye.” [LAUGHTER] I applied to a couple places in industry, had a position semi-offered to me at a solar panel facility in Oregon. And I could not say to the person who’s trying to hire, “Do you want this job?” He asked me three times. And after the third time, his shoulders just slumped and said, “You can just tell, okay, that was done.” And on my way home, my wife asked me, “Well, how did it go?” I’m like, “ah, I didn’t get that job.” I told her what happened. She’s like, “That’s lovely, dear. You have to figure out what you want to be when you grow up because we need a paycheck.” And at that time, I said, “Do you mind if I tried to go back into teaching? I think I really want to go back to it. Maybe I can not teach just freshman physics.” And so I adjuncted for a year at two institutions near my parents’ house. And SUNY Plattsburgh was looking for somebody who had a physics background but had engineering experience for their engineering three plus two program. I was a visiting professor for a year and then worked my way into a regular position.

Rebecca: I think there’s a lot of folks that are considering moving around and shifting careers at different points in their career. Can you talk a little bit about what that actual transition felt like that first year, maybe, back in academia?

Mike:Well, I can say three things that strike me when I was moving back into academia. Number one, I surprised myself finding out I can teach something besides freshman physics, so that was a great thing to figure out in getting some confidence there. The second thing was, and Kevin and I have joked around about this before, the pressures of academia in general, compared to the pressures in industry are at different scales. [LAUGHTER] And so we used to have fun when people would come up and talk about the pressures of doing stuff, we’d sort of chuckle a little bit, and go,”Yeah, this is pressure,” and I respect it, because there is definitely pressures in academia. But we can also talk about the times when you’re sitting around the office going, “Am I on the cutting block this time around?” …because you know, layoffs are coming this month, or even if you’re not on the cutting block, looking around at your friends and going, “Who’s not going to be here next month?” …is not a pleasant feeling. So being in academia made me feel more relaxed. I didn’t have tenure yet, but just the idea of knowing you belong, and you would know, hopefully, coming up if something was going to happen that way. And lastly, the camaraderie of the department … I am blessed to be in a department that was a very close-knit department. They were very supporting, they felt bad that initially, my office was in the middle of nowhere in a closet, basically, because that’s all the space they had. Kevin, I was on the fourth floor in one of those little side cubby holes. I only could see the sky from a skylight, literally everything else was cement.

Kevin: I thought you were talking about the office I first saw you in which also resembled a closet.

Mike: Yes, well, that was a different closet, [LAUGHTER] but it was a better closet. But anyhow, it was great having that camaraderie and having that trust, and that trust grew into a new major, because they trusted me to go ahead and take out the robotics major, and kick the wheels and let it go out for a spin.

Kevin: For me, it’s autonomy. I see a lot of people, I read the Chronicle and such, and it’s like making the transition to industry, and I’m thinking they’re going to have an interesting end of the year when they sit down with their manager to talk about how they did against their goals for that year, because it can be a little head spinning. My first year, I kind of felt a little lost, because it’s like if you had a guide, if everything you do is coming down from above, even if we get to a relatively high level in an organization like IBM, you’re driven by strategies that are sent to you and you are a piece of that strategy. And now you’re kind of an independent agent. And it took me a little while to get comfortable with that. But Mike and I both know people who really, really are struggling with the pressures of academia and all the things. I feel like I have a lot more ability to say “JNo,” and to say, “No, this is my limit of how much I am willing to take on and so I’m just going to steady on here.

John: I was talking to one of my advisees, who’s planning to go into a PhD program. And he said he was researching the market for a PhD economist, and he noted that jobs in industry paid a lot more than jobs in academia, and jobs in the government was somewhere in between academic jobs, and that, and he asked why there was such a big difference. And I used basically the argument that you just used, that you get a lot more autonomy when you’re in an academic setting, in terms of research, in terms of what you teach, in terms of what you focus on. And that’s something that I think we all value quite a bit. Was there anything that was surprising when you made the transition to an academic environment full time?

Mike: I’ll go with the autonomy. I mean, that was really surprising. Where all of a sudden nobody was breathing down my back. Where are the deliverables that you were supposed to get here? Other than getting classes together and doing your best that way? Yeah.

Kevin: I’m gonna go back to actually, it was a funny question I asked the Dean when I was hired, because I have kind of a long commute, as does Mike. And I was a little concerned about doing a commute from Vermont to New York five days a week on the ferry. And I asked the Dean, what are the expectations in terms of like, where you work, because even at IBM into the 2000s, we did a lot of working from home, pretty flexible work environment. And he said, one of the biggest changes when he moved out of teaching into administration was an expectation that he was in his office. And it’s the freedom and the flexibility. I’ll say one other thing, that was kind of weird, though. It’s the summers, and I’m a volunteer with several organizations. And immediately there was an assumption that I had nothing to do during the summer, and that I would immediately become available to them. And what I’ve taken to telling people is, the way that summers work is, I have a lot of things to do, but nowhere I have to be. And by the way, biggest surprise is that from what I have observed, we have the whole summer and everyone still does their syllabus three days before the semester starts.

Rebecca: We’re deadline driven, [LAUGHTER] just like our students. We are no different and that’s for sure. Can you talk a little bit about how your prior work experience has shaped your teaching practices.

Mike: So when I first came back into teaching, I taught in a very traditional sense. I would have the PowerPoint slides, I would have the graded homework, I would have the tests and exams in class so we can make sure everything is all above board and all that other fun stuff. And then as I go through, I think more and more back on what was important when I was working, and how that work environment operated. I now have moved as far away from trying to test as minimally as possible, if not never, and do much more project-based learning because that’s what I did. And even when I give a test, I would give a two-fold piece of the test. The first bullet piece is the closed book portion, which never ever had a calculation in it. And I told my students, when I was at a meeting, I was there as a knowledge source. And so I’d have to know somethings off the top of my head. That’s what they paid me the money for . And then if they asked me a question about X, Y, or Z, that had to have some calculations based into it, we’ve never had to do it right there on the table. That was not something you did. You could go back to your office, you could use all your resources, you could pull together the things you needed for that project. And so I tried now to model my classroom along those points, I will tell them, these are the things you need to know off the top of your head, this is the stuff that they’re going to pay you for that boom, boom, boom, you need to know. But everything else, Google is your friend, having your textbook there is your friend. And so on any of that stuff it’s open book, open notes. It’s a little harder with AI now. I’m not going to lie. But still, in general, if I was in industry, that would probably be where I would start as well. Oh, I need to do this. Okay, “Hey Google blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” There’s my starting point. Now let’s move on forward.

Kevin: I think two things. So I spent the 32 years that I was at IBM, I spent one year doing microprocessor design and the other 31 years, I was in software development. And I’m a big believer in soft skills. And some of that comes from also being an ex-Scoutmaster, and heavily involved in scouting. But I tell my students, I try to instill in them the idea that your communication skills are vital to your advancement in your career. Everybody can code, but as you advance in your career, as you go further up the ladder, you’ll have larger responsibilities and you have more communication responsibilities, till you reach a certain point in which you live from being as technical toward being more in terms of communication. But one of the last things I worked on was I was basically project managing the, what they call the enablement for a test site, which is to say, just getting all the pieces together to build an experimental chip and a new technology. And that was primarily a communication job, it was a project management kind of thing. The other thing is the importance of group work and project work. And being able to work with other people that those, I think, as well as for my computer science students, algorithms really do matter. And anybody can write code that slow. But it’s important that you understand enough of the algorithms. And that’s because I entered industry as an electrical engineer, I had no background in any of those things. And I wrote some spectacularly bad code, when I was back in my 20s, before I started taking some graduate courses and going, “Oh, wow, there’s a better way to do this.” And so those are kind of the things that I think are important.

Mike: I want to piggyback on the group work part, I do a lot of group work as well. And one of the things I tell my students because I will always get the “Well, I’m the strongest person on this team, I’m doing all the work.” And I go to a “Yeah, congratulations. I said there was never a project that was less than $20,000 I worked on by myself. You’re always part of a team, you’re never a loan problem solver, if there’s money involved, because they want the others to be part of it and keep track of it and make sure it happens as fast as possible.” So group work where sometimes we let them off because of the whole stigma of “I’m going to be the only person working on it. Everybody is going to be a hanger on.” Well, when you get paid, that’s going to happen too and all you have to do is smile and say, “Yay, thank you,” and keep going [LAUGHTER] because you’re getting paid to do the thing.

Kevin: But I’ll just add that there’s no industry group I’ve ever worked on, where there weren’t checkpoints and communication of where things were. And so I know Mike does a lot of these kinds of things as well, which is the idea that what happened when we were undergrads where they basically say, “alright, you’re in a group, go do this, and then deliver the product.” So even in student groups, the importance of having checkpoints, and I basically have them write progress reports like you would do in industry along the way. It’s not “Here’s the project, go do it. Now here’s an end result.” It’s more like “Okay, you’ve gone for a week. What has each person done? What’s your next step?” Those kinds of things.

Mike: And while we’re trying to develop these skills for students going into industry, we think that there… well, I say, and probably Kevin will agree, they’re important no matter where you’re going to go into, including academia or any of the other spots. So I don’t want to make it sound like we’re trying to educate students just to go into a particular engineering job. But this is more of a realistic facet of life in general.

Rebecca: Do you think you both would have found this same path in teaching had you not had the industry experience and kind of underscoring and value some of the same things that you do now?

Mike: Absolutely not. You like what you’ve seen, and so we would have seen “sage on the stage,” and that is what we’d do. And to a point, that’s where we all start, right? I mean, there’s that sage on the stage piece, and then you start saying, “Okay, there’s got to be something better, because I’m not reaching all my students.” So how can I do that with the knowledge that you never will reach all of your students, but you got to give it the best bet you can.

Kevin: I think when I started, one of the big differences was the deference that people showed, it’s like, “Oh, you’re a faculty member, oh…”, and I worry, actually, if I had been 28, and started teaching at that point, that that would have gone to my head, and I would have started to believe my own PR. I don’t see people around me with that problem, but kind of a stereotype of academia. And you do read stories about actual faculty who are like that. But working in industry can give you a good strong sense of humility, because you have successes, and you have failures along the way.

Mike: So I will say in industry, there was still some of that out there. I mean, I used to get emails from my PhD colleagues down in Painted post, who would talk down to me because I was at a plant saying, “Oh, let me explain this to you in very simple terms.” In the very next email, I would just respond. “Well, thank you so much for your guided steps. Dr. Michael Walters, PhD da da da da da.” it was amazing. The next email was much more as an equal instead of I will talk down to you because you are way out there in the hinterlands. Do you know how to rub two sticks together to get fired, because you might need that you’re in the cold part of the country.

John: That reminds me of a time when I was coaching soccer for my sons’ teams. And there was another child who was on the same team three or four times over a space of four or five years. And there was an article that mentioned me in a local newspaper, and this mother came up to me and said, “Well, I knew you worked at the college, but I assumed you were a janitor there.” It was an interesting experience, because she always saw me out there in sweatpants and t-shirts and just assumed “Well, that’s not how a professor looks.” I think maybe that attitude is more common in elite private institutions, Ivy League, and so forth. I don’t think I’ve seen it at Oswego, which is very much like Plattsburgh, in terms of being a four-year comprehensive college.

Kevin: Well, if you wanted to, you could have coached in the tweed jacket with the elbow patches, and then they’d have all known.

Mike: And a pipe, you gotta have the pipe. You don’t have to put anything in the pipe, because that’s bad. But just the pipe itself.

John: I actually had one of those sports jackets. And it was a running joke with some of my students back in the 1980s, [LAUGHTER] because I just had that one sports jacket, and I wore it whenever there were honors, awards, and so forth. And they still ask me about it 35 years later. [LAUGHTER] But you know, one of the things I’m hearing from both of you is that you’re both doing some authentic assessments, which is something that we’re trying to encourage faculty to do in general, to move beyond the traditional types of teaching. How do you find that students react to these types of group projects or the teamwork or other things that you’re having them do?

Kevin: I’ve had, I think, a lot of success with it. I can’t think of any really bad experiences. Mike’s nodding his head. But I have a poster actually coming up at CCSCNE on our tech startup class, that actually, Dr. Del Hart, our department chair, the person who kind of came up with this idea, and then he came to me and he said, “So you’ve worked in industry, and you’ve been a Scoutmaster, how would you like to try leading this class, and it’s a multi-level multi-semester class where students basically can take on different roles based on whether they’re 400, 300, or 200 level in the class, and projects can run for multiple semesters?” And it’s probably one of the most fun classes I’ve ever taught. Because a lot of times I found myself, I don’t teach it now, but I found myself actually telling them “Slow down a little bit. Let’s establish some realistic goals. I know you’re very excited about what you want to do here.” But I think generally, I find the project work goes really well. But I do try really hard to make sure that I’m aware of what they think is going on with their team through various assignments that I collect that are like reflections or statuses.

Mike: I’ve had overall success. There have been times where there’s been failures, one or two semi spectacularly. We do a intermediate robotics lab, which is a project-based group class and at the beginning of the semester I give them what I call a 90% google-able project and say “Okay, from here on out, your group is now doing this for the rest of the semester. If you get done with part A, there is a part B you can have as a stretch goal if you want, but this is what you need to do.” And I try to emphasize that failure still means you can get an A, it just means that you failed at trying to get the project to work. The 10% is the hardest part of the whole project for any of these projects. Working for Corning, I was working on the bleeding edge of technology. And so I was always a horrible person till then in saying how long it’s gonna take to do something because I’ll say “it takes two weeks,” because it looks simple. And at the end of the two weeks, my boss would come back to me, “How’s that going?”” I got the first step kind of done.”” What do you mean kind of done?” “We’re still inventing something brand new, it didn’t happen as fast as I was hoping.” So when the project does work, this 90% thing, it’s great to see the students get excited, they see progress, they keep moving. And then what’s funny is then the cockiness will come out and say we can get this done in that three weeks, I’m like, “Yep, you’re just like me, we’ll see you at the end of the semester.” And sure enough, [LAUGHTER] that’s when it’ll happen, because they’ll run into wall after wall after wall because that last 10% is hard. But I do get sometimes, like this past semester, where the project I picked ended up being a failure. By the end of the semester, it did not work the way it was supposed to work, they could not get the robot to do the thing. And you can tell that towards the end, they were getting really down. I mean, really, really down. And at our final session where we basically talked about what worked and what didn’t work for the project, basically, I told them, “This is what happens probably 25 to 50% of the time in industry. You’re going to work on a project, work on a project, and it’s not going to work.” And there’s times when you got to sit down and say why doesn’t this work? And then go to your boss and say, “Well, you either a didn’t give us enough information, or enough resources or a combination of the two.” And I told them, “I didn’t give them enough resources to make it happen.” But we got to this point. So I pumped them up like, “Here’s the teamwork that you did, this is all great.” And they all got their “A” because every single person contributed and worked towards it. But those failures can sometimes be problematic. On the flip side of it, doing so much non-assessing means I go ahead and give them a lot of homework assignments that once again, are graded basically, “did you hand it in?” Did it kind of do the thing was supposed to do? Yay, you get all the points. And what’s funny is I thought this semester where I cut up all my tests. I have no test this semester whatsoever. Everything is you have homework, classwork, and a project. That’s it. And the beginning of semester, I was nervous. I was like, how am I going to differentiate? Not that I care. If all the students get As I’m happy. But I just want to know if I had to differentiate, how am I going to do the differentiation based on the system? Well, my students have proven to me that they can self select, because they stopped doing assignments. So they stopped doing whatever. And it’s like, “okay, this is how self selection will work.” It’s not that I don’t even come to them, say, “by the way, you haven’t handled this in…” “yeah, I’ll get to it.” We’re human, they’re not going to get to it. And that’s fine, too. But it ends up being almost more psychological of “You didn’t prove to me, not only that you didn’t know the material, but you also showed that you didn’t have the discipline to get that piece done.” And whether that is the focus of my class or not, I don’t know. That’s the negative to this type of assessment. I can’t tell if it’s because they didn’t know the material. So therefore, they didn’t feel comfortable trying to finish the assignment, or whether life happened. And that’s the only negative I’ve seen so far about using this assessment, because you see them not be so stressed, because there’s a test coming up and not be so focused “I’ve got to cram this thing together,” then five minutes later don’t know a single thing when you go talk to me in the hallway about what I put on the piece of paper.

Kevin: It’s funny in that class that I started by actually did something that would be called ungrading. And I used something I’d found in an article years ago, I could find the reference if I had to, but it was how Intel assessed people is managers would come in initially with a sheaf of overhead slides, then they’d have “this person should be promoted.” And you look at it’s here slide 1 of 60 kind of thing. And they went to this thing, I think they call it three up, three down, where you had to give three positive and three negative for the person and then summarize. And I actually had my students in that class for their midterm and their final grade, they had to do those. They had to do a self assessment, they had to tell me three things they were proud of, three things they could have done better or they didn’t do well, what they thought their final grade shouldn’t be and why. That class, though, that was a pretty much a highly selective class, that it was very, very seldom that a student checked out. And part of that was because the person in charge of their project was the 400 level student who they had agreed to work on that project with. And so there was a lot of peer interaction that led to just generally, I think, really good outcomes. Dr. Lecky’s teaching the class now, and from what I hear, he’s having a very similar experience with that course sequence.

John: One of the things we’re doing right now, and I know Kevin, you’ve already been participating in this, is a reading group on Grading for Growth by Robert Talbert and David Clark. And one of the points they make in their book is that, while we’re so used to traditional grading because we grew up with it, and that’s what we’ve always done in some way, one issue is the only time people tend to be graded this way is in academia, when they’re working in industry, they’re reviewed, but they don’t get grades, they either meet the requirements or they don’t, or if they exceed them, there are chances of promotion and so forth. But in pretty much everything else, including our own careers, we get renewed, we get tenure at some point, and there may be some other additional pay increases based on how well you’ve done. But we don’t get letter grades. And we don’t get numeric grades every year. And one of the things I’m noticing is you’re both doing some types of grading that are closer to the types of experience that you’d find in industry. Do you think that made you perhaps more willing to try these types of things that a lot of faculty have been really reluctant to experiment with?

Mike: I think so. When we talk about the industry thing it brought back a story, I one time was in a review, and I was rather well paid at this plant. And so they had high expectations for the salary they were paying me. I remember, I was talking to the plant managing engineer and they even brought the plant manager in during my review. So either this was gonna be a really good thing or a really bad thing. When I walk into the room. It’s like, okay, which way is this gonna go? I thought it was a bad thing. But what’s funny was they gave me a “met expectations.” But the plant manager turned to me he and he goes “I expected you to “exceed expectations.” I’m like, “Well, how am I supposed to exceed expectations? By default, you’re saying that is your expectation. So therefore, I either met the expectation or I didn’t.” And we got into a heated verbal argument for a little while. And eventually, I said, “Look, you either give me met expectations, or I didn’t meet expectations, I don’t care. But what you just said makes no sense.” And she threw up her hands and left, and I got “met expectations.” But it was just one of those things. It’s like even using these types of methodologies, sometimes you get conflicting viewpoints that goes forward. As to what your question asks, yeah, I think with the industry, this is why I’m gravitated towards that. I teach a class called fundamentals of engineering design. And when I tell the students why this class is there, I said, it’s everything I wish I knew as an engineer, before I became one. I was a physicist, I didn’t go through any of these preparatory courses, and then boom, here’s an engineering role, go run with it. And so being able to help my students be in a better situation when they go out into industry, which I assume most of my students are going to do, is a good thing. And any of the skills they pick up because of this isn’t bad if they stay in academia. Maybe this helps break the cycle of, we only can test and do homework for grades. By the way, I’m just gonna throw out my pet peeve for all of you out there listening. My biggest pet peeve is if you grade homework like a test, and count it, where are the students supposed to make the mistakes? That’s the thing that always used to tick me off. Where do I practice and get legitimate feedback on my practice, to know where I’m making a mistake such that when I go ahead and then perform, I know I’m performing at a higher level. That part always bothered me when I was an undergraduate. That was from day one, when I started adjuncting, I said, I’m not going to do that. Homework is going to be: did you try it or did you not try it, period, That’s it.

Kevin: I’m gonna make just one little thing. IBM really, really tried very hard for a long time to just grade people. We had a system where you had an appraisal or a personal business commitment. And at the end of the year, your manager basically gave you a score from one to five. The system changed many times over my years, but: one was, you’re on track, we’re going to promote you, you’re doing awesome, and a five was it was nice knowing you, but you generally knew where you were going to fall. And I won’t get into all of the arguments over the years as to whether there were ratios or stacked ranking, and at what level in the organization, there was a quota on how many could be at each thing. Actually, those kinds of systems caused a lot of the negativity that made me think that maybe I wanted to go to teach. I think, for me, one of the really big things has been, as soon as I started teaching, I started trying to learn how to teach, because I walked in the door, I adjuncted for one class at the University of Vermont, it was a graduate-level course and I really enjoyed it, and it was great. But I realized how much I didn’t know about teaching. I had my teaching statement when I applied for the job, actually leaned really, really heavily on stuff I’d learned as a boy scout leader, and then like a leadership course called wood badge, a six day leadership program. And I had learned a lot of what was basically active learning as part of that program, something called the edge method: Explain, Demonstrate, Guide, Enable sort of thing. And so I had kind of this foundation that came from a very non-traditional place in terms of pedagogy. And I came in and I started out doing exactly what I had experienced, which was you stand up, you lecture, you use PowerPoint, it’s really cool, you give homeworks but at the same time I started reading stuff and a lot of it was James Lang’s books. I think I’ve read all of his books, because the first one I read was On Course, and I think that they should give every new faculty member a copy of that book during orientation, because it got me through my first year. I have a copy in my office that I think has got a thousand post it notes stuck in it. And then I started reading his other books. And then I started reading the books he was talking about. And these days, I love to teach my classes in our programming lab, because when I can, it takes more prep time, but it makes actually the class easier for me in a lot of ways to do a little bit of lecturing and then say, “Okay, now you get the computer in front of you, go make JavaScript to do this.” And I’m going to walk around the room and help you do it. And so you’re kind of turning even lecture sections into labs, in that sense. And I find that’s a lot of fun for me. And I think the students find it more interesting, because some of them kind of struggle. But the thing is, there’s me, and there’s the other students around them. Like when I give quizzes, now I hand out a quiz, I say, “Take about 10 minutes and work on this.” And I say, “Okay, now compare your notes with your neighbors.” And then I say, “alright, let’s discuss it.” And at the end, I collect it, and basically say, “There you go, you get credit for being here, because you did this.” And I have a couple of students and Mike would know their names, I won’t mention them, they sit there, and when I give him one of these things, they’re way beyond anything I’ve even envisioned, they’ve gone off. But other students, I have to sit with them and help them. And I just find that’s a lot more satisfying for me as a teacher than to stand at a whiteboard and scribble on it for 50 minutes, or mine are all an hour and 15 minutes this way I set my schedule up.

Mike: I’ll agree with that, and I’m actually moving more and more of my courses over to, I will give you the bare minimum that you need to do what I’m about to ask you to do, and then go do this thing. And practice it there. And I’ll walk around, I’ll help out, we’ll talk to everybody, make it much more of a laboratory class, even though it’s not a laboratory class, just because the interaction between their peers, their interaction with me, becomes more of a one on one instead of one on many. Way back when, I used to start off my class, when I would teach introductory physics with saying, “You could learn from the book everything I’m about to show you, and that’d be great. And if you never show up and just show up for the test, you could do that. Awesome, congratulations, we’ll see these dates and have a great time. I know. But if you come here and just listen to me, that gives you the book and me. But here’s the more important thing, look around the room, there’s 40 other people here. So that’s me, 39 other people and you. All of a sudden you have lots of teachers that could work with you. And as long as I help facilitate you being able to use that resource, you have many, many more options, because I might not have the analogy you need. But your friend next to you or the one over two rows from you might have that analogy you need to make that connection.”

John: Could you each share some of your favorite teaching activities that you use in your classes?

Mike: I’m trying to teach them brainstorming methods, especially technical brainstorming. I have 1 2 3 4 5 6 whiteboards in my room. And I’m going to ask in front of each whiteboard, “I want three technologies, just random three technologies.” I’ll keep writing them down without telling them what’s happening, three technologies on every whiteboard. And then I break them up into groups and give them each one color markers. They always use their color marker and say, “Okay, now the six groups go to each of your boards, you now have two minutes to write every single technology product you can come up with, that’s a combination of some sort, matter, or form of those three technologies.” And sometimes like it could be weird stuff like ice cream, rocketry, and such and such, and I’m like, “Yep, now you got to figure out how you’re going to combine those three.” And I tell them, “Okay, so if you’re the first person on the board, you’re gonna put a one next to your thing, you only get one point for every one you come up with. Then you’re gonna draw a line and the next group comes up, they get two points per thing they come up with, they can’t come up with something that you already have, all the way up to that final group, where now five of the groups that brainstormed, but everything you come up with now is worth six points.” So it’s like you get one or two things you just made up for your first board and second board without a problem. But it really shows them, sometimes those six pointers at the end, when you’re really just grasping at straws, become the things that you want to move forward on. It goes to writing even. So I know when I do my writing, it’s like that first draft, you did all the easy stuff. Now throw out all the easy stuff, and I’ll start putting the second and third order stuff that might make it much more interesting.

Rebecca: That’s a great exercise. It’s really hard to get students to get to that further step. They want to stop at step one or two.

Mike: Oh exactly, and making it a competition of which team can get the most points, get some of them, their juices flowing. And it’ll be funny because at the end, we go through everybody’s stuff like “is this a legitimate idea?” No, cross it off. Then it doesn’t count. That’s a group response of rating, basically, of the thing. And it’s funny because at the end, most of the time, I can’t get through all six boards by the end, and they’ll be sitting there going: “We got to finish this. I want to know who won.”

Kevin: …favorite teaching activities. I really do like and I do it a lot now, which is to give the students little coding challenges in C++ or JavaScript class, which is to basically hand out something that looks like a quiz, but it’s basically: here’s some coding, let’s do do this simple coding thing in class, because if I handed out as a homework, well, they could try using ChatGPT. Although I have to at some point talk with Mike about the fact that one of my students tried that and ChatGPT hallucinated a library for circuit Python that doesn’t exist. And as I said, on social media to my friends, I’m happy to set up a PayPal account, if ChatGPT wants to hire me as a consultant to debug their program’s mistakes, because the poor student had no idea what to do, because the code he was given was incomprehensible. But I really like giving the students an exercise to do in class. The second place I would say, was, when I taught our ethics course, I did a lot of debates in class. And sometimes I would let them self select what side they wanted to be on the issue like drone warfare things, other times, I would kind of assign them. And when they balk at that, I’d kind of lean hard into my own experience and say, “Well, you know, I debated in high school, and you didn’t get to choose what side you were on. And it helps sharpen your brain to argue something that you don’t necessarily agree with, to try to logically follow it.” I would say for in classroom, those would be for out of classroom, like project kind of things, the posters, having students do a poster session, at the end of the semester, actually printing the posters, and putting them up in the lobby of our building. And then having kind of a little session where people can walk around, just like a conference poster session.

Rebecca: it’s really great to hear the different ways that both of you have incorporated your industry experience into the classroom from changing grading systems to thinking about consistent feedback throughout the semester so that students can learn and always being on that verge of not quite knowing what’s coming next, like you are often when you’re in a tech field and having to constantly learn or have professional development or try things that are brand new to you. But we always wrap up by asking: “what’s next?”

Kevin: I am, as the phrase goes, playing with house money. I was at IBM for 32 years, my wife still works there. I continue to do this because I really enjoy it. And I love all three aspects of the job in academia, I love the research, which we do research, I think I would say with a small r,, not like R1 with a capital R. I love the research, I really liked the service. All that time I did at IBM, I can do committees like you wouldn’t believe. I know how to do that kind of stuff. And I know how to be helpful in that way. And I love the teaching. I mean, I’m teaching an honors seminar on algorithmic bias this fall that I’ve taught once before. I really enjoy teaching a new class every once in a while or creating a class. It’s a very intellectually stimulating field. And I’ll just do it until my wife and I decide it’s time to be able to go to Disney World in September or something. And my guess is that a few years down the road, I’ll probably retire. And I will continue to adjunct because the great thing about adjuncting is you can keep an email address and you can also still get discounts on software. [LAUGHTER] I kid you not. It’s kind of like “Hey, I’ve got all of the Adobe tools and I was playing with Dreamweaver for my JavaScript class and generative AI creating images the other day.” I’m so curiosity driven that continuing to teach as long as I’m enjoying it.

Mike: My “what’s next” is to try to become a better evangelizer for the robotics major here at Plattsburgh. We’ve been growing it slowly, and I firmly believe in what opportunities it allows people to have it going towards the future. I run a not for profit here in Plattsburgh that works with middle schoolers and high schoolers to give them robotics opportunities on Saturdays. I do this major, I’m chair just so I can make sure I have the time to devote to doing things. It is fun, starting something and watching it grow up. And I’m just having a ball with it. All the stresses and anxiety that come with that as well. But yeah, that’s my what’s next.

John: And going back to Kevin’s comment, before you make the decision to go to Disney World in September. If you start teaching online or doing some more work teaching online, there is the Online Learning Consortium, which has a conference at Disney World in November, which is a really great time to leave the Northeast. And it’s a four-day conference, but you get the special conference rates at the hotel for a couple of days before and a couple of days after. So you might be able to combine those things.

Kevin: I will have to look into that because the best conference I ever went to is Design Automation Conference, it was held at the San Diego Convention Center and I went to that a couple times for IBM for CAD software and it’s one of those 6000-person trade show conferences, top end technical conference and on the trade show floor, everybody’s collecting polo shirts and desk-y gadgets, that kind of thing. It can be a lot of fun. And I have stories about that that are actually very funny as well, because when you’re at one of those and the part of the company you work for actually competes with many of the companies you’re visiting, eventually they kind of figure out that you’re asking questions that an ordinary customer would not ask. [LAUGHTER] And they’re kind of like, what exactly do you do for them?

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It was great to get a chance to talk to you in more depth.

Kevin: This was fun.

Mike: Thank you.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.


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