The Public Perception of the University

June 15, 2009 at 4:59 pm Leave a comment

(Some of my Amazon posts never made it onto my author page or Google reader. I’m reposting them here in WordPress.)

I gave a talk this morning with Henrik Christensen (Georgia Tech’s Kuka Chair of Robotics) at the High Museum in Atlanta.  (My slides and movies are available.)  It was a fun event.  There were nearly 200 K-12 teachers there.  We were both speaking at the end of a three day workshop on Leonardo da Vinci. Henrik talked about da Vinci’s influence on robotics today, and I talked about how our media computation and robotics computing education efforts are modern-day equivalents to da Vinci’s use of painting as a way to understand the world.  We can use computing to study and model our world by creating representations of it, and in so doing, we come to understand the world better.  That all went fine.

After the talks, we had a 45 minute demo-and-meet session where I had at least three dozen teachers come talk to me.  What I was struck by was what they asked of me.  These folks have heard me speak as a computing education researcher, so the range of the questions was surprising to me:

  • “My daughter has had significant surgery on her brain and spinal cord.  Can you and your students design a robot to help her get through the day?”
  • “So. Robotics.  Can you compare that to e-commerce?”
  • “I am an English teacher who struggles with getting my students to improve their intonation.  Can we work together to build a program to use that sound stuff to give them feedback on intonation?”
  • “I am a music teacher, and I’d like to start using more computers in my class.  Could you come out or send a student out to my school to help me get started?”

These are all important and heart-felt requests, and I’d love to be able to help these people.  I don’t have expertise in any of these areas.  (That last one is closest, and I’d like to work on it, but music ed is a long way from computing ed.)  I’d say about half of the people who came up to talk to me had requests like these.  What I’m wondering is what these questions say about their model of a professor at a state university.

I’m an employee of the state, and part of my salary is paid by taxpayers.  In my mind, the job that I do is to teach and to do research on how to improve how people come to understand computation.  I hope that that the teaching and research I do has positive economic impact on the state.  I’m not sure that that’s what these taxpayers want of me.  I think they see me as an expert in “Computing,” and I should be able to help them with anything related to computing.  It’s not quite like those t-shirts that say, “Yes, I’m a computer scientist. No, I won’t fix your computer.”  As a professor, they see me focusing on education and on higher-level issues than dealing with re-installing their virus software.  But still, they’re asking for a wide range of services from me.

The public’s perception of the university and its faculty is increasing important.  As the economy does worse, as the demand for higher-education rises, and the costs increase, the public is naturally going to ask, “Are you faculty doing your job?”  A mismatch between the public’s (and policymaker’s) view of our job, and our own view of our job, is a concern when times get tough.

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Moving in from Amazon Stories Teachers Tell Themselves

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