I was honored to be asked to speak at Bob’s memorial service. Here are my comments.
I met Bob Frost in a meeting of the Informatics planning group right after I was hired. He asked me two questions. First he said, ‘so you have a Phd. in Computer Science…’. I knew exactly what he was asking so I answered, ‘I have always been far more interested in how we use and apply technology rather than the study of how we build basic technology.’ Then he asked if I liked teaching undergraduates and I told him that I loved teaching undergraduates and in particular I loved teaching classes where I could try to find a way to get students excited about technology instead of being frightened of technology.
He smiled broadly – I had passed his test.
Because of our shared interest in undergraduate education our offices have always been near each other so I could watch the steady stream of excited undergraduate students on their way to and from his office. He always had time to talk to undergraduate students, do special projects with them, and encourage them to explore information more broadly. He seemed to have an unlimited amout of time and energy for his SI110 students.
We worked together building the emerging Informatics concentration. We built a curriculum and then started building classes like SI182, SI301, and SI124. Inventing courses and scheduling rooms was the easy part. The hard part was recruiting students for these classes – particularly when they had never been taught before. Our marketing plan was simple. Go to Bob’s SI110 class and give a 10 minute pitch about the new class right before registration opened up. After I would give my pitch about the new class, (like Amazon.com) Bob would say ‘If you like SI110, you will love SI301’ – and that was enough. We would have 20-30 students the next semester. And it was not just the students in SI110 at that moment – students would walk out and tell other students to take our brand new course. The SI110 Social Network as it were.
When I visited Bob’s class I always stayed for the whole lecture. You never wanted to miss a Bob Frost lecture. The slides or even audio recordings don’t really capture the experience of being in his class. SI110 was called ‘Introduction to Information’ but it might have been more apt to call it ‘The Secret Life of Information’. In Bob’s class, information was alive, it was moving all the time, and it had purpose, and goals and there were many unintended consequences of information.
Bob had a way of bringing information to life and making you see information from a whole new perspective and connecting so many past present and future threads of ideas together. I know many students registered for SI110 because it seemed like a pretty interesting way to meet the Social Science distribution requirement. But what many students got out of SI110 was much more than that. For many of the SI110 students Bob gave them a gift that resulted in a permanent adjustment to the arc of their learning experience and their life.
While it was fun to listen to and learn about what Bob was teaching in SI110, his greatest gift to me was what I learned while I was watching how he taught. For Bob, the syllabus, reading materials, course outline and even his lecture slides were just starting points. They were simply triggers for Bob to go off on a verbal journey of reflection and critical thinking. No two lectures were the same and no two semesters were the same. Each was a unique experience for Bob and his students.
What I learned sitting in Bob’s classes was that when we are teaching courses, we are not just responsible for presenting the useful information for consumption. What is far more important is for the teacher to let the students know who they are, how we think, and to share opinions, feelings, passion, and frustration to put the knowledge being presented into the proper context.
Watching Bob teach showed me how joyful it could be sharing who you are as a human being along with sharing the knowledge that you have to offer. One of the founding tenants of the study of Information is that to fully understand information, we must know the source of that information.
Bob Frost was a source of information and inspiration for all of us. He taught us all so much by sharing both what he knew and more importantly who he was. It is honor to be his friend.