Computer Science

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With so many great opportunities on campus, it’s easy to think there are more than 24 hours in a day. For example, I’m going to eat sushi with my roommate and his girlfriend in the Square for lunch tomorrow. Yes, anytime I can eat sushi is a great opportunity. Perhaps a more Harvard-relevant (and actually great) opportunity is that I’ll be attending a Q&A Session with Mark Zuckerberg on Monday evening. I’ll be sure to post about it. But back to the point of me mentioning these things. I budgeted my time pretty poorly this week. It’s official–I pulled my very first all-nighter on Thursday, November 3, 2011.

I’m taking Computer Science 50, which, in my opinion, is one of the quintessential Harvard courses. It’s one of my favorite that I’m taking this semester. There’s a cult-like following on campus, and it’s designed for both concentrators (“concentration” is our word for “major”) and non-concentrators alike. The course is actually available online for free. If you’re even slightly interested, check out the first lecture. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

I’m usually on schedule (thanks, GCal!) but I think everyone’s allowed a freebie in having a lapse of judgment when it comes to managing time. Thursday just happened to be mine, but I was in great company and super productive. Now, don’t get me wrong, some hours were more difficult to get through than others, but time was flying by as I coded away. Aside from talking about things I’m really passionate about with friends (equal rights, inequities in healthcare, volleyball, X-Men, cheesecake…not necessarily in that order), programming is probably one of the most intellectually stimulating things I’ve taken up since being here. There’s a very methodical thought process behind it, and it requires you to think both logically and critically. I’ll admit that it’s wicked frustrating when you have an error that you can’t seem to spot, and if you look at your computer screen long enough, everything just ends up looking the same. It’s kind of like when you say a word over and over and it suddenly morphs into incoherent jibber-jabber. Luckily, I was surrounded by friends who were all working on the same problem set. We were all very determined and it was a great, collaborative atmosphere. If one person was having an error, someone else was able to help him or her through it.

My favorite part of the evening came towards the end of our marathon, around 6 AM, when we all decided to go to Weeks Bridge to watch the sunrise. Even with morning practices and lift when I was on the volleyball team, I had never been awake early enough to see the sun come up. We all agreed that it was beautiful, and I really regretted not having my camera on me (…then again, I didn’t plan on staying up all night…). Standing there overlooking the Charles River and watching the sky change colors made me realize that I should try to set my alarm to catch a sunrise every so often. Whether or not that will actually happen is another story–but it’s a nice thought.

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First off, congratulations to all of the newly admitted students! Students on campus are really eager to meet all of you for Visitas, Harvard’s prefrosh weekend.

There’s been a good amount of discussion around a recent article from US News & World Report (and a rebuttal published as a staff editorial in The Crimson representing the opinion of many students on campus). The debate surrounds the issue of student and faculty interaction at Harvard. I remember having questions on this myself before coming to Harvard, having heard both sides of the debate then. Thus, I thought I’d provide my perspective on the question, “Do Harvard students and faculty interact?”

The Good:

There are plenty of opportunities for student-faculty interaction, hands down. Just last night, six students and I invited the three professors of my Computer Science course on Privacy and Technology to my house’s faculty dinner: FAS Dean Michael Smith, Prof. James Waldo, and Prof. Latanya Sweeney. The course is just 30 students, and with three professors, we’ve been able to really get to know the professors and vice versa; in such a small setting, they get to know us by name. Over dinner, we talked about the work they’ve done in research and their career; for example, Prof. Waldo was involved in the creation of the Java programming language while Prof. Sweeney has been involved in a number breakthroughs in demonstrating holes and privacy issues surround common security practices in technology and biometrics. They also got to know us and our interests.

Beyond faculty dinners, there are also plenty of opportunities to get to know faculty members. We can take any faculty member to the dining hall at no charge for any meal. Almost all hold office hours just for students to get to know them. There are plenty of small classes after the introductory courses, which give you more opportunities to meet faculty; my research tutorial this semester has just ten students. Of course not all course are small, but there are plenty to choose from for those who are interests including plenty taught by senior faculty and about 130 Freshman Seminars just for first-years (mine was On the Origin of Morality, Rights, and Law with renowned Prof. Alan Dershowitz). Research and departmental jobs on campus also provide opportunities to interact with faculty in an alternate setting. And finally, every senior is offered the opportunity to write a thesis of original research (or creative work in some departments) under the close supervision of a faculty members; my concentration, Social Studies, actually requires this and is one reason why I’m excited for next year.

The Challenge:

I came from a small, nurturing high school. My largest class was about 20 students. It was hard not to get to know the faculty members just because of the close environment. Harvard, like any university of its size, is certainly different.

Instead of having teachers come to me, at Harvard I had to take the initiative to go seek out professors during their office hours or make a consorted effort to get to know them. As a freshman, this was certainly intimidating; it’s natural to question why someone who won a Nobel Prize or who worked as the President’s top economic adviser would want to take time to speak to an undergraduate who certainly knows very little on their subject of expertise. But once I realized that they’re at here in part because they want to work with students and it’s part of their job, it became easier. Last semester, I took a course on econometrics with about 200 students. I met the professor for lunch a few times, went to his office hours, asked for his advice on my post-graduation plans and on research, and by the end of the course felt we got to know each other. I would feel comfortable going to his office hours in the future to just chat, and I could say this for all the professors I’ve had for larger lecture courses where I made an effort to meet them outside of class and for all the professors I’ve had for smaller courses and seminars.

Certainly, it’s hard to meet every single one of of your professors between course work, extracurricular activities, and other time constraints; not all students necessarily see this as a priority amongst the other on-campus opportunities. However, if you make an effort to get to know at least one or two faculty members a semester as I was advised freshman year and have tried to do, you have the opportunity to see inside some of the brightest minds and gain access to ideas, opportunities, and friendship from a set of people who really care about students.

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