Actual Wisdom: John Kender

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John Kender

Happy Wednesday. We’re officially deep into reading week, which means you’re deep into finding ways to procrastinate on your papers. We’ve got an Actual Wisdom to help you out with that. Today, John Kender talks about onions.

Justify your existence in 30 words or fewer:

Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher. Perhaps even a great one.

Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?

Sir Thomas More: You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that.

Claim to fame (what makes you special)? I’m one of the founding members of the Computer Science Department, and the only tenured CS faculty member who regularly teaches Intro. (I was a dean for a while, too, but I found that the job required a marathon runner, and I am built more like a sprinter or a hurdler.)

What’s your most valuable or unexpected college experience? In my junior year, from a professor of English, Thomas Porter: “Your problem, John, is that you think that literature is like an onion, and that if you peel away the layers you will find a pearl inside.” Me: “Well, yeah. What else would there be in there?” Porter: “More onion.” We named our first son after him.

What’s changed since you came to Columbia? Two new buildings for Computer Science; three boom-bust cycles in the field (the PC, the Internet, the mobile/social waves); five times as many professors now in the CS Department. First Pascal then C then Java then Python. More women in CC, but less women in CS. Paperlessness—except for change-of-grade forms!—and libraries becoming study halls. Restaurants that came and went at the same rate as PhD students. First express mail then FedEx then web submissions—but nothing changes; people still wait until the last minute. And, personally, the disappointment that Artificial Intelligence now actually works (Deep Blue, Watson)—but it gives no insight as to how we work.

What’s the craziest student excuse / extension story you’ve heard? I caught a student cheating on an exam, off her quite brilliant boyfriend. Not a hard call: she had managed, on a left hand page of the blue book, to copy a perfect second half of a computer program, leaving the first half blank. He hadn’t realized what was happening, and had never gone back over his answers to gave her the opportunity to copy the first half of the program that was on the hidden opposite side of the page. And she wasn’t brilliant enough to tear her own half-copy out. In my office, he defended her: “We studied together so much that our brains were synchronized.” Not the only such story I could tell about the high cost of young love. As far as I could find out, they graduated as a couple, but I was not invited to any wedding.

Would you rather give up oral sex or cheese? Cheese. It helps, though, to know that I am lactose intolerant. Not sure what you would call the analogous intolerance to the other, but so far I haven’t shown any symptoms.

Three things you learned at Columbia:

  1. Computer Science majors are the hardest working majors at Columbia. And they get the jobs that prove it.
  2. Our students are blessed with great talent and determination. For example, one student to whom I taught a 4000-level course became president of Google China, and another—in the very same class!—won two Academy Awards for his work on computer graphics in movies.
  3. Everything at Columbia and in Manhattan runs at near capacity, and is always on the verge of breaking down, and sometimes actually does. Space and time are squeezed beyond reason. To survive, you have to think of both CU and NYC as a kind of virtual reality game.

What’s your advice to students / academics / the human race in general? Hard to say much new here. On Life: “Love and work”, says Freud, who cut and pasted it from Tolstoy. And: “Be compassionate to one another”, says Jesus, who cut and pasted it from Leviticus. And: “You can’t have it all,” says Spar, who cut and pasted it from Shklar. On Science: “The time will come when our successors will be surprised that we did not know such obvious things”, says the Roman Seneca, who probably cut and pasted it from the Greek Zeno.

(The quote in question 1 is cut and pasted from “A Man for All Seasons” by Robert Bolt.)

Intense lecture via Kevin Chen

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  1. Oooh  

    kill 'em:
    "Computer Science majors are the hardest working majors at Columbia. And they get the jobs that prove it."

  2. yes  

    This is just great. Thank you.

  3. CW  

    I have class directly after one of his, so I always see him talking to students. Always seemed like an alright guy, but after reading this I'm an even bigger fan… Not that I will be taking a CS class anytime soon. Also, I appreciate that he wears a jacket and tie everyday.

  4. Anonymous

    Kender is brilliant. I'm upset that as a senior CS major I'll graduate without ever taking one of his classes.

  5. this man changed my life  

    the White Wizard speaks!
    all hail!

  6. Anonymous  

    Found on a random bulletin board in CEPSR:

  7. Anonymous  

    He is just amazing. The best professor at Columbia hands down.

  8. anon  

    His 1007 class was the hardest cs class I've ever taken and I have a PHD in it

  9. CC'15 CS Major  

    Thank you, Prof. Kender. I really needed this.

  10. anon  

    I had Kender for 1007 back when it was required, and he was such a good teacher I took another class with him. His style is a little different than most, but in a good way.
    They tend to give the earlier intro classes to unprepared teachers (like Hershkop, exception of course to Cannon), so I respect him for continuing to teach it, since the foundation is so important.

  11. Anonymous

    "Everything at Columbia and in Manhattan runs at near capacity"


  12. kenderphile  

    On Prof.'s Home Page:

    "Be careful of what you ask for"

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