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Actual Wisdom: Stephen Edwards

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

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  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Laura Kay please!!

  • Biologist says:

    @Biologist Mowshowitz (either XX or XY, or both)

    Tristan Lambert

    1. Wow says:

      @Wow Debby would be so funny if she were asked. Trust me.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous gregory mann

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Xavier Sala-i-Martin. He won’t shy away from the cheese question!

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous ooooh sala i martin would be gold.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous mark lilla!

  • YAIL says:

    @YAIL He made significantly less ashamed of being a nerd. He’s the man.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Janaki Bakhle!!

  • gary, sunil, sam, peter, prezbo says:

    @gary, sunil, sam, peter, prezbo okihiro (revolution!), gulati (soccer king!), moyn (dry comedy! wicked smart!), kelemen (his job is to travel to the most remote parts of the world, climb mountains that others cannot, and take samples for the noobs on the ground!), the one and only (he’s faculty too! i wanna know his answer to the cheese question!)

    1. Gulati said says:

      @Gulati said he’d do one if he didn’t have to answer the cheese question. Pussy.

    2. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous yes! moyn!

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous He looks like Han Solo in the ad, ready to cut into some taun-taun.

    1. I'll cut into your taun-taun says:

      @I'll cut into your taun-taun ;)

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Liza Knapp!!!

  • request says:

    @request chris marianetti?

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous erik gray!

  • williamsfan says:

    @williamsfan Gareth Williams!

    1. Anominous says:

      @Anominous we can please have gareth williams? gdubs got his PhD at 21, if you need a hook…

  • make this happen: says:

    @make this happen: KENNETH T JACKSON

  • he has children but... says:

    @he has children but... is he single??????

    1. ?????? says:

      @?????? Adoption?????? Divorce?????? A variety of other deeply personal situations that might have affected his marital status?????? PERHAPS EVEN JEST??????

  • Depressed programmer says:

    @Depressed programmer What should you do if you’re not good at anything?

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous You’re special. You’re a generalist. Never stop learning. You will find someone who needs you.

  • CS pun says:

    @CS pun Why didn’t you ask me how to write a startup pitch that will get funded by λf.(λx.f (x x)) (λx.f (x x)) ?

    1. anthro major says:

      @anthro major hahahahahahahahahaha got it

    2. inside joke no longer says:

      @inside joke no longer For people who don’t bleed the startup scene:

      1. Stephen Edwards says:

        @Stephen Edwards Thanks for the explanation. As you can see, there’s an art to telling Lambda Calculus jokes that people can understand.

  • Soo says:

    @Soo A computer once came in his breakfast cereal… I guess it passed on the cheese

  • I CAN HAS??? says:


    1. You spelled 'Christia Mercer' wrong says:

      @You spelled 'Christia Mercer' wrong That’s okay, though, easy mistake. The keys are really close to each other, I don’t blame you.

      1. I CAN HAS??? says:

        @I CAN HAS??? Yeah she’s cool too.

      2. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous His/her mouse was acting up.

    2. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous or roger lehecka!!

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous IMPLORINGLY Request: Maximilian Schmeder, Music Hum instructor..he is an interesting guy his email:

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous John Kenney?

    2. yeah says:

      @yeah Seconded–he’d give really interesting answers to this.


    @I HAVE THE SAME EXACT PROBLEM and i can’t seem to get any better, either. i have yet to speak with anyone who has a good answer. bwog, please help anonymous and i out by asking the professors this question too!

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous what if what you love isn’t what you’re good at?

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Argh… get better at it?

  • CC'14 says:

    @CC'14 These professors are way too good at evading the cheese question.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous david vallancourt!

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous also edward mendelson, bwog!

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous love this. “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.”

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous this is awesome. marcus folch, next, please!

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous For the love of God no! That guy is on enough of a power trip as it is

    2. Torn says:

      @Torn I’d like to hear his answers, but the man’s ego is already swole.

      1. umm says:

        @umm If I looked like that, I’d be swole too.

    3. archilochus says:

      @archilochus please, please, please, Marcus Folch next. the man is a god.

  • Brett Ratner says:

    @Brett Ratner “a computer once came in my breakfast cereal.”

    Wait… what?

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Stephen Edwards is the man.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Well there are two interpretations:

      1. a computer was included in the package of the breakfast cereal
      2. a computer performed an unmentioned sexual act and achieved climax in a cereal box

      I think it’s the first one.

  • CC 13 says:

    @CC 13 i like these bowg, keep it up!

    can we make requests?

    1. Claire says:

      @Claire Of course! You ask, we imploringly email.

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