Daily Archives: April 30, 2011

The Island of Misfit Toys – Informatics Graduation Remarks – 2011

These are my remarks from the 2011 Informatics Graduation.

Good morning. I would like to offer my welcome and congratulations from the faculty and staff of the Informatics concentration. Welcome graduates, parents, friends, and family members. I love graduation ceremonies. It gives us all a chance to get together and celebrate what we have learned from each other over the past few years and in particular we can spend time together and there will be no homework assignment.

Today you are graduating with an degree from the college of Literature, Science, and the Arts from the University of Michigan with an Informatics concentration.

According to Wikipedia,

“The term liberal arts denotes a curriculum that imparts general knowledge and develops the student’s rational thought and intellectual capabilities, unlike the professional, vocational, and technical curricula emphasizing specialization. The liberal arts denotes the education worthy of a free person.”

The traditional liberal arts curriculum is defined by thousands of years of tradition and prepares students to participate as members of our free society while the professional schools like law, medicine, business and engineering are very much focused on the here and now and in preparing students for well-defined career paths and well-defined fields.

Informatics was founded at the border between the Statistics and Math departments in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA) and the professional College of Engineering and School of Information.

Students coming from high school to a university must choose a college and a major. They must pick between a professional degree like engineering or business or a broad LSA degree. Many students make a choice based on their high school guidance counselors or simply come to school and choose to be the same major as their parents. With no prior experience, I think that it is rare that a student chooses their first major based on their own interests, talents and goals.

I think that one of the most wonderful and strongest aspects of an Undergraduate Education in the United States is the ability to change your major part-way through as you meet new people, are exposed to influential teachers, and learn something about who you really are. One of the greatest benefits of coming to a university like Michigan is that we don’t just have a few world-class majors, we have a lot of world-class majors. So if you come to Michigan, you know you will be getting a world class education even if you change your major a few times.

When I went to college, I thought I was going to be a Biology teacher because my favorite class in high school was Biology. In college, I was encouraged to take a computer science class because it was the newest thing. And while I did not do very well in that class- by the end of the class, I had found my life’s calling. When my daughter was off to college she had no idea what her major was going to be. She thought she wanted to be in Criminal Justice and do crime scene analysis because she had watched a lot of television programs on the Discovery Channel. I told her that searching for hairs on a car mat was probably not the job for her and she should just go to college, hang out in the cafeteria, and sooner or later, her major would come and find her. And it did. She is graduating next week with a degree in special education.

I am going to guess that nearly all of the students in this room have a similar story as to how they chose their major and found their way to Informatics.

Some of you chose LSA as your starting point and others chose professional schools like engineering or business as your starting point because you had to choose a starting point. You had to start somewhere.

But for some of you, as time passed, somehow your starting point did not feel quite right for you. Perhaps you were in the college of engineering as a Computer Science major and you did not enjoy playing their reindeer games. For those of you familiar with the movie “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer”, reindeer games involve a lot of competition and showing off and are hardly games at all. Reindeer games are really a form of exercse and training in flying skills and other skilles that a reindeer/computer scientist will need when they grow up to pull Microsoft or Morolorla’s technology sleigh on Christmas eve. In Engineering they don’t call them ‘reindeer games’ – they call it the ‘autograder’. No matter what they call it, if you were a little reindeer with a red nose, you quickly learned that reindeer games were not your cup of tea.

Or perhaps you were an Economics or political Science major and it started to dawn on you that the only thing that the people in these major wanted to do was make toys. All the time. Everything was about toys! The teachers talked about toy making techniques incessantly. The other students would practice making toys and showing them to you. You even made in-class presentations where you sang songs about how much all of the students loved making toys and how you were going to joyfully dedicate your whole life to making toys.

But you were quietly hiding the fact that you really did not want to make toys at all. You might have sat in the cafeteria asked a fellow student in the major why all the obsession with making toys in this major? Their answer was that you should not question the making of toys. Making toys was a tradition. And to be part of the field, you needed to follow the tradition like everyone else.

And you sitting there in your little green elf hat and pointy shoes, you did not have the courage to tell the others that you actually did not like making toys. You quietly had to live with the fact that instead of making toys, you want to be (of all things) – a dentist. What? A Dentist? That was not the tradition – it was not your birth right – toy making was your destiny.

So both the reindeer and the elf that did not fit in, moped around for a while and decided to run away and ran into each other in the woods, ran away from the abdominal snowman (during Winter semester) and to get away they ended up on a ice floe floating across the ocean to almost certain failure. But just when things seemed like there was no hope, in the fog, they bumped into something. They bumped into land.

And when they got off, they were surprised by a sentry who challenged them. The sentry was a jack-in-the box who was not named ‘Jack’ instead he was named ‘Charley’. Since he had a Phd in Computer Science – they called him ‘Dr. Charley’.

Dr. Charley informed them they had arrived on the ‘Island of … Informatics’. The Island of Informatics was a place where King Moonracer (a.k.a. Kerby Shedden) had gathered faculty members from all over the university who just did not exactly fit into their home schools and departments. The faculty of Informatics saw things a little differently. Students did not have to have to make a stark choice between a traditional liberal arts education and a modern, relevant professional education. You could learn about both and by doing this, both be well-prepared as a member of a free society and be well-qualified to get a good job in an increasingly technology-savvy job market.

So you decided that you had finally found the place that you belonged and declared yourselves to be Informatics concentrators. We found you a place to stay for a while, and you learned some important lessons from the various misfit toys you encountered and realized that you were not wrong to think differently. As a matter of fact your unique approach, interests and skill set was an advantage not a disadvantage.

But this is the sad part of the story and you all know how it ends. Since you are not a misfit toy, you cannot stay on the Island of misfit toys forever. Only misfit toys can stay here forever and you need a Phd. to be a real citizen of the island of misfit toys.

We the faculty and staff of the island of misfit toys have greatly enjoyed having you as guests on the Island and we have all learned much from each other these past few years.
So today, you must leave the island of misfit toys. But we need to make sure that you know that you are always welcome to come back and visit. Who knows, perhaps you will come back and meet our next generation of immigrants to the island of misfit toys and tell them what the real world is like. Or perhaps you will decide that you really truly don’t want to leave the island of misfit toys quite yet so you are pursuing a masters or Phd degree. If you go to school long enough, you can become a faculty member yourself and then stay on the island of misfit toys forever.

But today it is time for you to leave the Island of misfit toys and go back to the real world.

And actually, the real world needs you and needs your talents. There are a lot of problems and a lot of crises (like a foggy Christmas eve and an abominable snowman with a toothache). The world needs you to lead it going forward with your unique blend of knowledge and talent. Even though you decided not to play reindeer games nor studiously make toys, it turns out that your skills are what they world is waiting for. You are what the world needs. You are the leaders and the best.

For your reference – here are some background materials :)