Essay questions

To help students write across the curriculum, computing teachers can give students essays to write as assessments. The following questions could be given for such an assessment.

For each question, we provide the following information:

  • The title, which gives the topic and identifies the interviewee
  • The context and essay question
  • The quote from the interview that inspired the question
  • The audio clip and the line numbers from the interview transcript

The obligation to preserve human values

Essay Question: Hal Abelson emphasizes the importance of having computer scientists remain focused on preserving human values while developing new technology. What are some examples of how scientists in general, and computer scientist in particular, can keep this goal in mind and have a positive influence on society?

I would say that computing has now in a real way become the environment in which we live. In which we live as individuals and in which we live as a society. In which we … we carry on what’s important to us and in which we do our interactions with other people. And once upon a time, computing was about numbers and it was about stacks and disk structure and it was all these boring things. But what computing is now is that it is architecture; it’s the architecture in which we live, the environment in which we live — not … I was going to say our intellectual lives, but our whole lives — and I think as someone going into computing, you have not only the opportunity to shape that, but the obligation to shape that in a way that preserves human values and, in particular, preserves values of freedom and self-expression and individual empowerment.

From the interview with Hal Abelson
  • Transcript lines: 1151-1160 in PDF of interview transcript
  • Audio clip [about 1 minute 10 seconds] located at about 72:15 in full audio

Being told to “wake up”

Essay question: Winifred Asprey was told by Grace Hopper, “I’d been waiting for you to wake up.” And so, says Dr. Asprey, “I became a pioneer.” If you were Dr. Asprey and your professor / teacher told you these words, what would your reaction be?

She [Grace Murray Hopper] and I kept in touch: oh, a letter at Christmas-time; or we kept meeting in airports — and both of us believed in getting to airports early — so we suddenly would have an hour to be with each other and catch up. We did that two or three times, and not planned at all.

But then … but she gave me her telephone number. And she, at this time, had risen to a lofty spot in the Navy. And so that … you couldn’t get through just by calling her. But she gave me her private number, at home and also how to get through to her at the Navy. And so I had access to her any time. So one evening, I was thinking about things in the department of math and I thought that … more and more, IBM was a strong influence. And what should Vassar itself be doing about a computer. So, I phoned her and asked her, and said, “Should we get into the business?” And her answer, which I never forgot, was, “I’d been waiting for you to wake up.” And I woke up. So, that is why I became a pioneer: it was Grace that got me into it!

From the interview with Winifred (Tim) Asprey
  • Transcript lines: 923-935 in PDF of interview transcript
  • Audio clip [about 1 minutes 11 seconds] located at about 62:51 in full audio

“Tenure is syntax, the real work is semantics”

Essay question: In his interview, Matthias Felleisen reflects on having told his department chair at Rice University that he viewed tenure as syntax, while the real work he wanted to do was semantics. At the university level, tenure refers to having earned a permanent position as a professor; once tenure has been granted to a person, the position can only be terminated under extreme circumstances called “just cause”.

Based on what you know about programming languages, explain what you believe Professor Felleisen meant by this analogy. Contrast this view with other approaches to working. Use this analogy to describe how you can or should approach the tasks that you need to carry out as a student.

I did tell Ken Kennedy when he hired me that I considered tenure syntax and my real work semantics, meaning I wanted to see tenure and all those things as things you don’t really care about, something you have to do but it is not what matters. What matters is good results, good impact on the people that you are with. He said it was the first time ever that somebody had said this to him, but he hoped it would work out for me. And it did. So I worked only on problems. I only focused on my graduate students from Day One. I love teaching in the classroom.

From the interview with Matthias Felleisen
  • Transcript lines: 693-699 in PDF of interview transcript
  • Audio clip [about 36 seconds] located at about 50:39 in full audio

“Why high school?”

Essay question: Judith Gal-Ezer’s father said, “Why go to high school?” He wanted to her to start working. Part of his reasoning was that she was going end up as a housewife anyway, so why study further? If someone (parent, teacher, or another adult) said that to you, what would your reaction be?

[Question: Were you given the same educational opportunities that your brother had?] Maybe, the same opportunities — no, not even the same opportunities. There was not the same support. When I graduated elementary school my father thought that I should go working, go learn something like being a secretary or whatever. Why should I go to high school, I’m going to be a housewife anyway? So this was his attitude. He never believed it. I told him after years that this is what he said, but he never believed that he said it. [both laugh] I have to confess, that one reason, I must say, was also that we weren’t very well — my parents didn’t have the money to send me to high school — it was pretty expensive. So this is one of the reasons, I must say. But there was also this philosophy that I’m a girl and I should stay at home. So I asked one of my elementary school teachers, my music teacher, to come home and convince my father that I should go to high school, because I was a very good student. So I finally joined high school.

For my brother it was obvious that he would go to high school and that he would go to the Technion, the Technical Institution of Israel. And it wasn’t at all obvious that I would go on and continue at the university.

From the interview with Judith Gal-Ezer
  • Transcript lines: 74-90 in PDF of interview transcript
  • Audio clip [about 1 minute 38 seconds] located at about 5:09 in full audio

“What influence of technology?”

Essay question: In both her interview and her video, Susan Gerhart shares the story of how the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union influenced her choice of careers. What technology today do you think will most influence your own choice of careers? What new technology today do you think people will look back on in 20 years or 40 years as an important catalyst for their own career choices?

I just took to programming. I had that introduction and then whatever problems were assigned were ones that were interesting enough and hooked me. And we got our hands on a machine … I don’t remember … it must have been punch cards … and we ran our programs and we were hands-on. That was the defining moment, probably, in my career. And from that, when I went to college, then it was natural to move on to math, being the closest thing. So, that was an important … the most important point … the defining point … And that goes back, I think, very interestingly, to the effects of Sputnik and then to start up of these National Science Foundation Summer Programs and then having some college teachers drafted into, or given the opportunity, to teach those courses, and having the availability of the computer.

From the interview with Susan Gerhart
  • Transcript lines: 309-317 in PDF of interview transcript
  • Audio clip [about 1 minutes 24 seconds] located at about 21:52 in full audio