Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Not Teaching / Double Teaching

Last semester, for various reasons, I ended up "double-teaching", offering both my undergraduate algorithms class and my graduate network algorithms class. The disadvantage of double-teaching is that it take a lot of time and, in my experience, is very tiring -- especially when you teach the classes back-to-back, as I did. It's not apparently recommended practice here, as there's a clear preference for teaching one class a semester. I can certainly see why -- it's good to have reasons for faculty to come in and interact, both with students and other faculty, and a class is an anchor for all sorts of interaction. But a lot of our faculty were on sabbatical in the spring last year, so I was able to do it.

The reward for the work last semester is that I'm not teaching this semester. I still find I'm coming in, in part because there's a lot of administrative things that have to get done (especially the first few weeks of the semester), and in part because it's often not productive to work at home with a small toddler there. But I'm enjoying having the time available that comes from not having to teach.

The question is what to do with that time. I've had a good research summer, including finishing off a number of journal versions that had been lying around, and I certainly could just keep going forward on a number of research projects. But it feels like I've been given a few months of opportunity, and I should find a way to use it. I have a couple of ideas for books, and I feel like (after I finish off a few more dangling research projects) I should motivate myself to start one of those. I know a book is a big project, so even with this opportunity it will take some mental discipline to get started.

For those who are faculty, what would you do with a semester off of teaching (where you can't go away on sabbatical)? Anyone have any suggestions on what to do with the gift of time?


Adam Smith said...

I'm teaching a large undergraduate course with very little support (one TA / 100 students) this semester, so I've been fantasizing about free time recently. Here are my top picks:

1) Write. Books are good. But what about a CACM article on either a technical theme or, perhaps, the intricacies of theory/systems collaboration? Huge audience, but lots of pain making something readable by all of it.

Your "TCS for high-schoolers" project also seems ripe for resurrection.

2) Learn a new (sub)field. For example, I'd love to spend a month learning some (more) complex analysis and analytic number theory. That is probably crypto-specific, of course.

3) Pick a hard problem and think/read about only that for periods of one or two weeks. Bliss.

4) The usual: Hang out with your kids, take up a new hobby, read a novel or two...

Anonymous said...

Books are old technology. Start a wiki on your favorite subject (say hashing), and let other people contribute. A wiki can contain survey of previous work, links to all related papers together with a comments area (annotated bibliography), open problems, exercises, slides for teaching, etc. Before you know it you'll have a "textbook" on-line which is always kept up to date by others.

Anonymous said...

Spend time advising graduate students?

bill gasarch said...

Over the summer I was not teaching and I WANTED TO
read 5 books (Goldreich's
complexity, Arora-Barak
complexity, and the three
I ended up writing a paper instead AND fiddling with it AND making up slides for it AND...

Personally I would rather read a good book then write a bad paper
(which is not to say the paper is bad--- actually I think its pretty good).
if I had the time.
I am sure there is stuff you always wanted to learn about but never quite had the time, NOWS the time.

miguel said...


Whatever you do, just write it up! (preferably in your blog so others can profit from your experience).

Although at a different stage in my career, I'm also enjoying the benefit of free time these days. After having worked several years as a s/w engineer, I left my job early this year to finish a long standing (part-time) PhD. Now that it's written up (and while waiting for the VIVA, and before embarking on a long around the world trip to celebrate ;) I have plenty of free time. I found that maintaining a strict work log has been really useful to manage my time and keep disciplined; and mostly to see how far I got and how bad I am at planning. Funny to see that what I thought I had planned was not really what I had planned :)

Like the previous comments, I also choose to read... several things from Knuth's 'recent' Volume 4 of TAOCP to a few other areas that I haven't touched recently (including a book called 'Probability and Computing' by a certain Mitzenmacher... you may have heard: he has a great blog!)

And if you decide to go for the high school book, may I suggest you enlarge the audience! People in social sciences and other areas are quite often interested in learning about the science of computing and may benefit from it as well (hey, maybe some s/w engineers could use it too).

Miguel Branco

PS: An anonymous said that books are old technology and wikis more useful. I sort of agree with it... There has to be a more appealing way to spread knowledge than boring black-and-white characters... Not that I have studied the subject but reading and parsing someone else's english doesn't seem to be the same thing as reasoning... and I still don't know how to do the second without getting exhausted doing the first.

editor@nonpretentious.com said...

If you have time, we're looking for submissions for a new column on our site. With your experience last semester, you probably have some good pieces.

The column is a parody - an imagined exchange between TAs and undergrads.

Grad Student/Undergrad Student Exchanges

If you don't want to write for it, I'd still love to hear your feedback, if you have time!