TITLE: Creativity and the Boldness of Youth AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 11, 2010 5:40 PM DESC: ----- BODY: While casting about Roy Behrens's blog recently, I came across a couple of entries that connected with my own experience. In one, Behrens discusses Arthur Koestler and his ideas about creativity. I enjoyed the entire essay, but one of its vignettes touched a special chord with me:
In 1971, as a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design, I finished a book manuscript in which I talked about art and design in relation to Koestler's ideas. I mailed the manuscript to his London home address, half expecting that it would be returned unopened. To my surprise, not only did he read it, he replied with a wonderfully generous note, accompanied by a jacket blurb.
My immediate reaction was "Wow!", followed almost imperceptibly by "I could never do such a thing." But then my unconscious called my bluff and reminded me that I had once done just such a thing. Back in 2004, I chaired the Educators' Symposium at OOPSLA. As I first wrote back then, Alan Kay gave the keynote address at the Symposium. He also gave a talk at the main conference, his official Turing Award lecture. The Educators' Symposium was better, in large part because we gave Kay the time he needed to say what he wanted to say. 2004 was an eventful year for Kay, as he won not only the Turing Award but also the Draper Prize and Kyoto Prize. You might guess that Kay had agreed to give his Turing address at OOPSLA, given his seminal influence on OOP and the conference, and then consented to speak a second time to the educators. But his first commitment to speak was to the Educators' Symposium. Why? At least in part because I called him on the phone and asked. Why would an associate professor at a medium-sized regional public university dare to call the most recent Turing Award winner on the phone and ask him to speak at an event on the undercard of a conference? Your answer is probably as good as mine. I'll say one part boldness, one part hope, and one part naivete. All I know is that I did call, hoping to leave a message with his secretary and hoping that he would later consider my request. Imagine my surprise when his secretary said, "He's across the hall just now; let me get him." My heart began to beat in triple time. He came to the phone, said hello, and we talked. For me, it was a marvelous conversation, forty-five minutes chatting with a seminal thinker in my discipline, of whose work I am an unabashed fan. We discussed ideas that we share about computer science, computer science education, and universities. I was so caught up in our chat that I didn't consider just how lucky I was until we said our goodbyes. I hung up, and the improbability of what had just happened soaked in. Why would my someone of Kay's stature agree to speak at a second-tier event before he had even been contacted to speak at the main event? Even more, why would he share so much time talking to me? There are plenty of reasons. The first that comes to mind is most important: many of the most accomplished people in computer science are generous beyond my ken. This is true in most disciplines, I am sure, but I have experienced it firsthand many times in CS. I think Kay genuinely wanted to help us. He was certainly willing to talk to me at some length about my hopes for the symposium and the role he could play. I doubt that this was enough to attract him, though. The conference venue being Vancouver helped a lot; Kay loves Vancouver. The opportunity also to deliver his Turing Award lecture at OOPSLA surely helped, too. But I think the second major reason was his longstanding interest in education. Kay has spent much of his career working toward a more authentic kind of education for our children, and he has particular concerns with the state of CS education in our universities. He probably saw the Educators' Symposium as an opportunity to incite revolution among teachers on the front-line, to encourage CS educators to seek a higher purpose than merely teaching the language du jour and exposing students to a kind of computing calcified since the 1970s. I certainly made that opportunity a part of my pitch. For whatever reason, I called, and Kay graciously agreed to speak. The result was a most excellent keynote address at the symposium. Sadly, his talk did not incite a revolt. It did plant seeds in the minds of at least of a few of us, so there is hope yet. Kay's encouragement, both in conversation and in his talk, inspire me to this day. Behrens expressed his own exhilaration "to be encouraged by an author whose books [he] had once been required to read". I am in awe not only that Behrens had the courage to send his manuscript to Koestler but also that he and Koestler continued to correspond by post for over a decade. My correspondence with Kay since 2004 has been only occasional, but even that is more than I could have hoped for as a undergrad, when I first heard of Smalltalk or, as a grad student, when I first felt the power of Kay's vision by living inside a Smalltalk image for months at a time. I have long hesitated to tell this story in public, for fear that crazed readers of my blog would deluge his phone line with innumerable requests to speak at conferences, workshops, and private parties. (You know who you are...) Please don't do that. But for a few moments once, I felt compelled to make that call. I was fortunate. I was also a recipient of Kay's generosity. I'm glad I did something I never would do. -----