Ellen Spertus interview: Selected quotes

Ellen Spertus

On a separate page: Overview page for this interview

Kids controlling grown-ups (and computers)

In high school I tutored some children in math and computers. I remember teaching LOGO to a little boy, he was like six or seven. He’d say something like “Forward 10” and I’d walk forward or turn right. I think it’s a kick for a kid to have a grown-up or a teenager following his instructions, and of course doing it on the computer.

Quote from interview with Ellen Spertus
  • Transcript lines: 136-140
  • Audio clip [about 36 seconds] located at about 14:07 in full audio of interview

Pretty / smart and male-female ratio

[M]y father was delighted when I went to MIT. I think my mother didn’t know quite what to make of an engineer daughter and when I came home from MIT freshman year with the freshman picture book that had pictures of all the students and their names, my mom looked through it and said, “Some of these girls are pretty!” So she didn’t expect that for women from an engineering school. I think she was more of the “don’t show boys that you are too smart or they might not like you” school. But, of course, worrying that your computer scientist daughter won’t be able to find a husband is about the stupidest worry you could have with the male-female ratio in that field. I never had problems finding boyfriends from the math and computer community.

Quote from interview with Ellen Spertus
  • Transcript lines 193-201
  • Audio clip [about 1 minute 8 seconds] located at about 20:05 in full audio of interview

Everyone’s in the top half

Something like the majority, I don’t know if it’s a majority, but a large percentage of MIT students were valedictorians and, as I told you, I wasn’t. And I’ve heard … this is probably apocryphal … that they surveyed MIT students and asked if they expected to be in the top half of their class and 98% said they did. I thought I’d be about average at MIT and instead I was one of the top students.

Quote from interview with Ellen Spertus
  • Transcript lines 247-250
  • Audio clip [about 40 seconds] located at about 26:50 in full audio of interview

Just three months out of six years

I was very happy to be at Mills. At the research universities I interviewed at I’d hear things like “Don’t spend any more time on teaching than you have to until after you get tenure.” And I didn’t think I’d be happy at somewhere like that because I’d be seeing the students every day, or several times a week, and I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t doing a good job. Plus the junior faculty worked so hard. I thought I might want to have children. I asked one college president, “Can a woman have children and still get tenure?” He said, “I don’t see why not, it’s just three months out of six years.” Our joke is that if [my husband] had asked, he would have said, “It’s just 15 minutes out of six years.”

Quote from interview with Ellen Spertus
  • Transcript lines 549-556
  • Audio clip [about 50 seconds] located at about 62:35 in full audio of interview

Enthusiasm in teaching

I’d say one of the major characteristics of my teaching is great enthusiasm. Something … I also learned from my students was to always give them the big picture, not just have a bunch of details where they didn’t know how that fit in. In the computer architecture class … at the beginning I’d tell them that they’d learn, all the way down, how computers work, that there’s … that almost everybody uses computers, some people program them, but very few people know how they work all the way down to the transistor level, and that my students would be part of that select bunch. They would build a computer and know all the way down how it worked. … These students didn’t have high self-confidence. I think a lot of them probably didn’t believe me that they would understand this. But by the end of the semester they did. … I found the course very exciting and communicated that enthusiasm to students. At the end of the semester, when each student got her lab project working, I’d take a picture of her with it and I’d give the students the pictures. It was something we were all excited about.

Quote from interview with Ellen Spertus
  • Transcript lines 596-602; 604-605; 612-619
  • Audio clip [about 2 minutes 27 seconds] located at about 68:54 in full audio of interview

Interdisciplinary programs and unique combinations

[W]ith our interdisciplinary computer science program, we get students who feel like they are remedial in computer science because their undergraduate degree is in something else. They are a little apologetic. I tell them not to be, that computer scientists are a dime a dozen. But someone who has their background in another field … so someone who was a teacher, or a nurse before, or a political scientist … that if you take that knowledge and add the computer science that they’ve been learning at Mills, you get a unique combination. With their thesis they can do something that someone who is just trained as a political scientist couldn’t do, something that someone who is just trained as computer scientist couldn’t do, and me with my MIT Ph.D., I couldn’t do it. But because of their unique skills they can do something that nobody else in the world can. And so communicating that to the students.

Quote from interview with Ellen Spertus
  • Transcript lines 645-654
  • Audio clip [about 1 minute 9 seconds] located at about 74:17 in full audio of interview

Do dream jobs stay dream jobs?

[While discussing Ellen’s expectation that she would have some tough career decisions in the next year] [M]aybe it’ll be like with my thesis, where it will all turn out better because of something going differently from how I planned. But it is always harder when you are in the midst of it. But I had thought that once you get tenure you live happily ever after. Or that if something is your dream job, it stays your dream job. But it changed. When I got there, it was during the boom. We had more students and more support from the administration. Now we don’t have the students and we lost the support, although there is a new Provost who seems wonderful. But it may be too late for me. I’m not sure.

Quote from interview with Ellen Spertus
  • Transcript lines 747-753
  • Audio clip [about 50 seconds] located at about 85:04 in full audio of interview