Matt asked me what kind of school I'd like to teach at once I get out of grad school. I hadn't given this any thought before (I haven't even gotten into grad school yet) but it's a good one. Here's a stab at it. Braindumping.

I know what I don't want.

  • A school that measures me solely by my research output and treats teaching as second-class - or worse, an annoyance that one has to put up with in order to DO RESEARCH!!! (Don't get me wrong; research is awesome, and I enjoy it and look forward to doing more of it - but it's not the end-all-be-all of my existence, and can never be.)
  • A school that won't let me be an engineering prof who does research on education. I want my engineering education research to count towards any "research" requirement I may have as a faculty member.
  • A school that does not give its students the flexibility to design their own courses and paths of study. I need them to have room to move in order for me to help them move in it. And possibly past it.
  • A school that does not value efforts (on my own part, if need be) to improve my teaching.
  • A school that relentlessly hounds me to get more grant monies in.

Hm. This is starting to sound like the inverse of an "I do want this" list.

  • Somewhere that values teaching ability - evaluates you based on it, at least in part (student evaluations, actual teaching effectiveness - not a popularity contest, but whether they learned stuff - I realize no metric and no instrument will ever be perfect for this)
  • Somewhere I can do cool research, cross-disciplinary research, collaborative research with other faculty outside my own department, education research... somewhere other professors won't be averse to me studying them and their classes for my research, too!
  • Somewhere with flexible student paths, and students who can and will take advantage of the design-your-own-path option.
  • Somewhere that will let me travel, present, take sabbaticals, consult, etc... and keep on working on awesome open source and education stuff. Perhaps as part of classes or research - this doesn't have to be separate - but... it has to be there.
  • It would be nice if this were somewhere in or near a city. Maybe this will change as I grow older, but I need the city right now, need the exposure, the stimulation I craved for so many years and finally got to experience in my late teens. Cities are a push experience. You can't help but see things there. I haven't been exposed to enough yet to be able to have a good pull experience out of the city - I don't know what to look for, what I should be pulling in.
  • A place with colleagues I want to grow up to become. I'm not sure how easy mentors will be to find as I run helter-skelter further down this quirky path I seem to be drawing out (barely ahead of where I'm running), but I want teachers too!
  • And quite honestly, a school I would want to be the President of someday. Not that it will happen, or that I want it to (I tend to run away from titles and positions of power, in general) but it's a good litmus test for an institution as a whole; is it an institution I would want responsibility for? I can't just go to a school based on one department and think that I'll be able to insulate myself in there. The whole dang institution has to be a place where I can move, or I'll get stuck fast.

Stuff that I actually don't care about:

  • What country it's in. (I love the US, but I don't have to teach here all the time - maybe another continent might be more receptive.)
  • I struggle to say this, and I'm not convinced I don't care about it yet, but I don't think I should: prestige. Yes, it would make a lot of things easier. But part of the point I want to chase down is that you don't have to be part of $famous-university to make a big difference. That other types of schools are better, even, for doing certain types of Awesome. That there are different types of schools, not one giant number line with "good" schools on one side and "lesser" schools on the other.
  • How "smart" my students are.

That last bit needs some explanation. I mean... well, here. I want them to be smart! But I love teaching students who are much, much smarter than they think they are. I can't do much with kids who know they're smart and strut around proving it (they're all set, aside from learning to tone down the cockiness and work with people - and I can do that, but it's not the best use of my time). And I can't teach students who are so stuck in their ways of thinking, or so apathetic, or so... self-promotion-seeking (there must be a better term) that all they want is to check off a bunch of boxes and get a piece of paper, thank you very much, goodbye.

But I can teach frightened newbies (this is very far from what I want to say, but it's the closest English phrase I can produce right now). They're the ones I've historically been the best with - uniquely the best with, in the sense that kids I worked with well, nobody else had found a way to really help them before and other folks saw them as not worth the bother. The quiet ones who wouldn't do stuff anyway - the ones who have to be asked. Asked, coached, persuaded of their own awesomeness, applauded when they start taking initiative, pushed hard, and loved.

Kids like me. I feel like I just barely made it through on a wing and a prayer, that there were so many chasms I could have fallen into along the... geez, has it been 17 years already? of my education, that... by all means, I should have slipped through the cracks and really not be anywhere near where I am now. I won't list the many reasons here, but you can probably guess a bunch if you know me. I often see people frustrated, stuck, behind, confused, failing... and look at them and think that there but for the grace of God go I. And then I think "well hell, if I barely made it, how many people didn't? How much potential are we wasting? If I managed to make it through and N others like me didn't, don't I owe it to those folks to make sure that the value of N diminishes like crazy - diminishes until it's 0?"

I don't know how much this helps in figuring out what kind of school I want to teach at, Matt - but this is what I'm thinking now.

I also don't have to teach. I don't have to be a professor. I'm running towards it because it's the best way I can see to get the stuff I want to happen to happen. Nothing else I've seen comes close. But there's a lot I haven't seen.

What I want to happen is for the kind of learning that goes on in open source communities to be as valid as the kind that happens in universities - particulary with the engineering stuff - and I want it to happen by the two things becoming the same, and if these changes can happen better with me in a different role than I'm planning now, or even without me, then that is what I will do. I want that legacy before I die, but it doesn't need to be my legacy. Doesn't matter who does the job so long as it gets done.

I hate credentialism, and know that it may be the case that I would learn to be more effective in these areas by investing my time in things other than going to school. My goal in going to grad school is to be the last person who has to get into the ivory tower to make these kinds of changes within it. Some doors are most effectively unlocked from the inside. However, if I can be convinced that I'm more effective unlocking those doors from not-the-inside, I will do that instead. It's just... the door of academia seems like it's locked so tightly, built so thick, placed so high-up - what effect will any things I work on have within the ivory tower if they can't get into it in the first place? If I become part of the gatekeeper, perhaps I can open the gate.

It's not the only way to do it, sure. But it's the best I know of so far. And I'd love to be corrected.