In Actual Wisdom, Bwog pays homage to both our Senior Wisdom feature and our bold, fearless faculty. As long as our academic heroes are willing, a new wisdom will be up every day during finals, perhaps to inspire you, but more likely just to help you procrastinate more. Next up is Stephen Edwards, of OfficeHop, McDonald’s, and Computer Science fame. 

Professor Edwards after his brief modeling career

Justify your existence in 30 words or fewer: I personally ensure that no other other Computer Science professor has to shoulder the burden of being the most nerdy.

Claim to fame: What other SEAS faculty member has video arcade games in his office, has modeled for McDonalds, flown a helicopter, won an assembly language programming contest when he was 12, reconstructed a computer from his childhood, and can tell jokes about the Lambda Calculus that his students can actually understand?

What’s your most valuable or unexpected college experience? I took two classes that defined the details of my career.  As an undergraduate, VLSI (computer chip) design was so fun that I would deliberately take longer to do the work and often give myself extra problems so I could avoid doing work for other classes.  In graduate school, a compilers class had the same effect on me: based on what I learned from reading ahead in the text, I implemented my own very primitive language and compiler in the first week of class. My research combines these: I do compilers for VLSI. 

I’ve told this story to students many times; when a class or topic unleashes such passion in you, pay attention and try to steer your career toward it. It may not make you rich, but at least you’ll be happy.

What’s the craziest student excuse/extension story you’ve heard? A student explained his mouse was acting up, causing him to click the wrong answers on an online quiz and could he take it again.

Would you rather give up oral sex or cheese? I have children; the choice is not mine to make.

Back in my day… A megabyte was a lot of memory and computers cost money.  Today, people give away 2 gigabyte memory sticks as party favors and a computer once came in my breakfast cereal.

Three things you learned at Columbia:

  1. Few students realize just how unique they really are. In every class of 60, one or two students constantly email me questions that everybody else is able to figure out on their own, another two who ask for an extension on every assignment, one who always lets a friend copy from him, four who think they know the material very well but really don’t, and two who should probably be teaching the class. 

    Oddly, every one of these students thinks everybody else in the class is doing about the same thing.

  2. Tests are at least as stressful for the professors as they are for the students.  For years, I had the usual anxiety dreams about showing up for a test and not having prepared, showing up late for one, not being able to find it, etc. 

    Two years ago, I stopped having those nightmares. Instead, I have anxiety dreams about not having prepared a test for my students, showing up late and finding all the students waiting for me, not being able to find the place where I should be giving the test, etc.

  3. Koronet gets really crowded after 11 PM.

What’s your advice to students/academics/the human race in general? A central goal of your life should be to figure out what you’re truly passionate about and how to translate that into a fulfilling career. If you’re not doing what you love, you’re not going to do it very well and you’ll be miserable. Success is more about thoughtful perseverance than intelligence, skill, or luck.  If you have the former, the rest take care of themselves.

So ask yourself the most difficult question I ever ask students: what are you good at?  What do you love doing?

Filet-O-Fish via Prof. Edwards