TITLE: Playing the Big Points Well AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: August 24, 2006 5:34 PM DESC: ----- BODY: This week I've had the opportunity to meet with several colleagues from around my college, as part of some committee work I had volunteered for. This sort of extra work is often just that -- extra work -- but sometimes it is an opportunity to be reminded that I have some impressive colleagues. Sometimes, I even learn something new or am prompted to think about an idea that hadn't occurred to me before. One of my colleagues spoke of how important it is to get the science faculty working more closely with one another at this time. He couched his ideas in historical terms. Science in the early 20th century was quite interdisciplinary, but as the disciplines matured within the dominant paradigms they became more and more specialized. The second half of the century was marked by great specialization, even with the various disciplines themselves. Computer science grew out of mathematics, largely, as a specialty, and over the course of the century it became quite specialized itself. Even within artificial intelligence, the area in which I did my research, became almost balkanized as a set of communities that didn't communicate much. But the sciences seem to have come back to an era of interdisciplinary work, and CS is participating in that, too. Bioinformatics, computational chemistry, physics students rediscovering computer programming for their own research -- all are indications that we have entered the new era, and CS is a fundamental player in helping scientists redefine what they do and how they do it. Another colleague spoke eloquently of why we need to work hard to convince young people to enter the sciences at the university level. He said something to the effect that "Society does not need a lot of scientists, but the ones it does need, it needs very much -- and it needs them to be very good!" That really stuck with me. In an era when university funding may become tied to business performance, we have to be ready to argue the importance of departments with small numbers of majors, even if they aren't compensating with massive gen-ed credit hours. Finally, a third colleague spoke of the "rhythm" of an administrator's professional life. Administrators often seek out their new positions because they have a set of skills well-suited to lead, or even a vision of where they want to help their colleagues go. But minutiae often dominate the daily life of the administrator. Opportunities to lead, to exercise vision, to think "big" come along as fleeting moments in the day. What a joy they are -- but you have to be alert, watching for them to arise, and then act with some intensity to make them fruitful. For some reason, this reminded me of how sports and other competitive activities work. In particular, I recall a comment Justin Henin-Hardenne made at Wimbledon this year, after her semifinal win, I think. She spoke of how tennis is long string of mostly ordinary points, with an occasional moment of opportunity to change the direction of the match. She had won that day, she thought, because she had recognized and played those big points better than her opponent. I remember that feeling from playing tennis as a youth, usually on the losing end!, and from playing chess, where my results were sometimes better. And now, after a year as an administrator, I know what my colleague meant. But I'm not sure I had quite thought of it in these terms before. Sometimes, you can learn something interesting when doing routine committee work. I guess I just have to be alert, watching for them to arise, and then act with some intensity to make them fruitful. (And of course I'm not only an administrator... I'm having fun with my first week of CS1 and will write more as the week winds down and I have a chance to digest what I'm thinking.) -----