Hal Abelson Interview: Selected Quotes


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Things happen in life for pretty random reasons

[Interviewer: Well, during this period of time you were thinking about college, obviously. How did you go about that thinking and making the decisions that you did?] Well, the usual way. You ask somebody you think you know. I think the guy who was tutoring me in calculus. And you say things like, "Well, what sounds like a good school?" And they say, "Well, I don't know. Princeton sounds like a good school." So I figured I'd apply to Princeton. Applied to a bunch of places. But mostly again, you don't know. It's very ... the thing that people need to understand is that this is all very random and you don't plot things out. Most things that happen in life happen for pretty random reasons."

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Teaching is also about the personal style you set

There was an enormously ... is an enormously influential professor, a guy named Ralph Abraham, who was sort of ... I guess in those days you would have said a kind of "hippie" professor. A little too much for Princeton. But he had a tremendous personal influence on a bunch of us because he, to me, showed that it really is not about the content of what you teach. It's about the personal style that you set as a faculty member and the role model that you choose and the notion that you can be dedicated to the intellectual life.

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Showing students what matters

[Ralph Abraham] really stood out as an example of how as a teacher you have to show people who you are. You have to have a personal life; it's just not ... it's not just about standing up in a classroom and explaining the material or even explaining it very well. It's about really being a person and showing people that that matters. And that had an enormous influence on me.

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A random elevator ride starts a career

I wandered over to the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and heard there was going to be a presentation on this thing called Logo by a guy named Seymour Papert. So I went to this talk and it just blew my mind about what an incredible wonderful thing it was. And I went off thinking about that. And I was wandering more about the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and got into the elevator of the building. And the door sort of opened two floors higher and in walks Papert. And I said, "Gee, hi! I'm a new graduate student at MIT, you know, looking around for a job." And he said, "Oh, do you know who you're working for?" And I said, "Well, can I work for you?" And he said, "Yes, you can work for me." So that's how this whole thing started, as a very sequence of random events. And I think it's worth really appreciating the importance of randomness. So that's pretty much how my work that became my actual career started.

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Developing a teaching repertoire

But what I found really is as a teacher it's effective to have a repertoire. And by that I mean it's effective to consciously know a couple of different styles. Some of them are ... like Fred was saying, you shut up and do problems and that's very good. Some of them you really do want to impart information. Because, despite the fact we are all on the Net right now and everybody can get information, it is useful to have a personal experience with you and a group of 25 students, where you feel you're creating some kind of cohort that's doing something very, very special. And often in classes like that you say things that you specifically would not want quoted outside the class, so there's this feeling of intimacy. So that's another style. And, you know, there are other styles, which are really working problems. There are other styles, which are trying to have a real class discussion. And I found what's important is to have that repertoire of styles, but to not be confused yourself about which style you're going to do. So when you start a semester, you say, "I really am going to run the class in the following way." And it's very important to kind of set the style the first meeting, the first two meetings, because it's almost impossible to change in midstream.

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Critical to experience class as a student

It's tremendously important to take a course as a faculty member. I should have mentioned before when we were talking about teaching. You lose, especially as you get older -- and here older can be like 25 -- you lose what it actually feels like to be a student sitting in a class. So one of the things that I did -- gosh, now four years ago -- I decided to take first-year Mandarin, of which I know nothing. And my hearing ... on top of the fact that I'm not particularly good in languages, my hearing is actually pretty bad. So everything that the professor said in Mandarin sounds like "jjhh." And this was being taught by an instructor -- here I was a full professor at MIT -- and I just remember even feeling intimidated, sitting in class, by this instructor who was way, way junior to me and in any kind of MIT formal thing I would be way the senior professor and he's just the instructor. But I remember what it feels like, to be sitting in the class and be intimidated that the professor's going to call on you. And you do all the things that you see students do. You know, you look at the floor and things. And I think it is really critical to continue to have that experience if you want to be a good classroom instructor.

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Doing homework at 1:00am

The other thing that I learned from that is that I and everyone -- all of us make the joke about students doing homework at 1:00 a.m. Somebody even said it ... Fred even made it today. Well, you know, I went through a week of when I had to work for a week. And then every night you had homework in Mandarin. And I'm sitting there and I go through my stuff. And suddenly it's midnight and I say, "Oh gosh, I've got to study Chinese for tomorrow!" So just like everybody else, I'm doing it at 1:00 a.m. And I've learned to not be critical of that.

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Wisdom and mentoring

[T]here's some people who are just wise. I've been fortunate enough to know a couple of people. Most people I think don't ever meet anyone who's wise. So I've maybe met three. And they've just had tremendous influence on me. People who ... you remember the experience of the world just not making sense and you talk to somebody and they give you a perspective from which the world makes sense. And I think that's kind of important to do. I think as a mentor that's kind of what you have to do. It's not quite ... it's not that you tell people what to do. It's that you give them some sense of perspective. Let people make their own choices. So that's kind of what I try to make guide me.

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The obligation to preserve human values

I would say that computing has now in a real way become the environment in which we live. In which we live as individuals and in which we live as a society. In which we ... we carry on what's important to us and in which we do our interactions with other people. And once upon a time, computing was about numbers and it was about stacks and disk structure and it was all these boring things. But what computing is now is that it is architecture; it's the architecture in which we live, the environment in which we live -- not ... I was going to say our intellectual lives, but our whole lives -- and I think as someone going into computing, you have not only the opportunity to shape that, but the obligation to shape that in a way that preserves human values and, in particular, preserves values of freedom and self-expression and individual empowerment.

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Shaping computing as a reflection of your own humanity

Computing was always very important. It was important in the 1950s, in the 1960s, in the 1970s. But I think it's gotten to a place of importance where it really is critical to the future of how we are going to see ourselves as human beings. And I think, going into computing, you should not lose sight of that. It's easy to lose sight of it because of the details. But at the end of the day the way you shape computing is going to be a reflection of your own humanity and you have an obligation to keep those human values.