Interview with Jim Roberts

Jim Roberts

You all know his face and recognize that consoling voice…now come and discover the man behind the teacher, advisor, and mentor. Jim Roberts is his name, and living life to the fullest is his game…

You must love interacting with the undergrads—or I suppose you wouldn’t keep doing it---why do you love it so much?
You start out with the hard questions first! It’s a hard question to answer, it really is. I’m basically a teacher—I’ve been teaching for most of my life. As a teacher, I get to work with some really great students. The problem in a setting like a university is that you work with students for one semester, and then they go away. One or two might come back and see you, and one or two might remember you at graduation, but I think all of us in this hallway who work as teachers would prefer to have some longer term relationships with students. We would like to get to know our students on a more personal basis. And so I think by being the advisor, I can continue working with incredibly gifted and talented students and get to know them a little better than I would as a teacher—I get to know them in more dimensions than just the one academic area in which I am teaching. I am able to interact with a very interesting group of people, get to know them better, work with them, and hopefully, help them.

Basically the way it runs at SCS is that you teach/advise the freshmen, and when they get promoted to sophomore status, they get a new advisor in Mark Stehlik. This way are you still able to maintain contact with a lot of them?
Well, you’re here! I know your name, you know my name! Currently I don’t teach as many freshmen majors as I used to—Mark and I used to team-teach, but the overhead got to be more than I could manage. It was too difficult to do the advising and teach two different programming courses well. In talks with Mark, we basically decided that he would do the 111 and I would do the 100. This means that I don’t see as many freshmen academically as I used to—I see them all in the Immigration Course [15-128, Freshmen Immigration Course]—so I do not get to know many freshmen as well as I used to. They do come by the office to talk about various topics and that is good. A surprising number of non-freshmen stop by just to talk—they’ll be waiting for Mark, and he’s busy, so they’ll come down and chat with me, or they’ll come down here to look up some information. I write letters of recommendations for scholarships or jobs, so I keep in contact with a number of them—not as many as I would like, but certainly a lot more than I would if I were just teaching them for one semester.

What’s your favorite part of your job?
[Laughs] Oh, this is going to get me in trouble, but my favorite part of the job really is the teaching. You can’t really “teach” what we do—if you walk over into the Herb Simon park, the quote they have there basically says that it’s our job to put our students in situations in which they can learn. I’ve told my students for years that my course is closer to piano than physics—I can come in and do a mediocre presentation on how to solve a particular type of problem, and most of the class would be able to do the problems; but if I were a great pianist and a great teacher, and I talked to you for an entire day on how to play the piano, you would not be able to play the piano when I left. I think what we do in programming is closer to playing the piano and what we strive to do is to create interesting and challenging situations in which our students can learn. A little bit of frustration, a lot of hard work, and they learn on their own. And so the challenge is building those particular arenas in which they can learn.

I doubt you foresaw this job years ago as a young student—can you give a little history on how you came to be here?
I started out as a music major, and at the end of my first year it became very obvious that I was never going to make it! I wanted to be a musician, but not a music teacher, because I wanted to play professionally. But when it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to play well enough to play professionally, I hoped that I could be a music teacher, and then it became clear that I wasn’t even going to be able to do that. To quote my clarinet instructor, “You need to be able to count, hear and play”—if you do three of those you might be a professional, if you do two you might be able to teach, and when I asked how many can I do, he politely said, “none of them!” I went back to the academic field that I liked, biology. But you can’t get very many jobs in the world with a bachelor’s degree in biology, so as a back up I picked up a teaching certification. I sort of fell into teaching, and I taught for a year which was a pretty bad experience. Then I went into the army for 3 years. It was in the service where I really learned to love teaching, and when I came back I was a public school teacher for 13 years—I taught in Philadelphia and I taught in the Pittsburgh area—and during that time, I also taught topographic map reading, backpacking, cross-country skiing, white water canoeing, CPR, First Aid, and a few other things. In 1967 I had taken a programming class in college, which was a FORTRAN course, and it was a horribly taught course, and I dropped it. Then in the early 80’s I took a sabbatical and went back and took as many computing courses as I could, and at the end of that time I came here, and I talked to the person who was in charge of the teaching group, and I told him I would like to working in the environment here to see how it was done at Carnegie Mellon. He gave me all the assignments they did in the first course, and had me do them and critique them. I spent a summer here doing it, and he called me back and asked me to TA for a couple of evening sessions. I taught for two semesters and also in the summer, and my students did ok. In January of around ‘84/’85, a position opened up (one of the lecturers left), and they offered it to me full time. I did a master’s once I got on board here. This has been my 19th year. Basically I spent about five years as a straight lecturer with full teaching duties, four years as the Associate Director of the teaching group, and this is the 10th year I’ve been the freshmen advisor. The 10th freshmen class is here now, and I’ve been the advisor for all of them.

What’s your favorite aspect about Computer Science?

Teaching it! [Laughs]

A very popular part of the immigration of the freshmen class is the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show put on by you and Mark. Where did the concept of the Squirrel and Moose originate? Why Rocky & Bullwinkle?
We have space on Andrew for web pages for courses. There were hassles in reassigning rights, etc. for the various volumes when we changed section designations from semester to semester. I wanted an identifier out there that I could claim as my own but one that wasn’t tagged to a section letter or my name. When Mark and I were talking about this, he said what about Moose and Squirrel? I said, who gets to be the moose? And he said, “Guess…”
This was long before the Rocky & Bullwinkle movie came out and we have not found any reason to change it.

The numerous pictures and artifacts in your office make it clear that you’re a fan of traveling—what places have you seen and what’s been your favorite place?
I don’t have a favorite place, though there are very few places I wouldn’t go back to.
I went to 9 different schools the first 9 years I went to school; when I was 37, I had moved 37 times. I’ve been here longer than any place I’ve been in my life. So I’ve lived in a lot of places—a number of states within the country—West Virginia, Nebraska, Mississippi, New Jersey, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Texas, Pennsylvania; Countries: Canal Zone (Panama); just passing through and visiting Germany, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya; I spent 8 months in Vietnam; and more recently have visited England, Canada, Mexico, Belize, Italy, India, and I’ve been to a number of the islands.

Where are you from originally?
I don’t know! My father was in the military, so we moved around a lot. The place I was born no longer exists—it was a little town in Ohio that got gobbled up by a bigger town and it’s gone. It was annexed and disappeared! I remember nothing from Ohio because my father was transferred from that area to another area before I have any memory of life. The high school I attended has been torn down and the first school in which I taught is also gone.
My dad was in the military, I was in the military, then I moved around for my wife’s training [as a physician] so I am not really from any place in particular.

Have you had any exciting/near death experiences in your journeys?
No, we’re pretty safe! We’ve done some very demanding trips—we’ve been to places one could call “risky,” but we’ve done them in very intelligent, reasonable ways. When we’ve have to charter small planes, we’ve contacted people who’d used those services and asked if they were safe—when we’ve had to hire guides, we’ve contacted people who’d done the trips and got names of guides (we’ve never just gone on the web and found a guide and said, ‘We’ll go with this guide’—we’re not that crazy).
Near death experiences, none really – we are very thorough and careful in our planning. But if you want one .. well.. once we were sea kayaking in an area of Alaska called Misty Fjords, and we had put ashore and were hiking in a very mountainous area. The forest service had built very narrow trails, and in some of the swampier areas they had put split logs down to form a narrow walkway. We walked down to the end of this one trail, turned around and came back, and on a piece of this wooden trail that we had walked on only 5 minutes before was a large fresh steaming pile of grizzly bear droppings. Maybe you could call that a close-call, but we never saw the bear, we just saw the bear droppings.

Are you married and do you have kids?
Yes and no. I will have been married 33 years in a couple of months. My wife’s a physician, she’s a general internist, in solo-private practice. I met her in fencing class in college. I have no children—well, actually, I’ve got 135 children every year to chase after!

When’s your birthday?
August 30…

And you aren’t going to give me the year
’46! I just turned 57 two weekends ago.

What’s your favorite color?
Probably green.

And your favorite food?
Probably a steak. A good old fashioned steak. (that’ll shock some people!)

If you didn’t go into a technical field, what would you have done in another life, and why?
Assuming I could do it well, I would like to perform—dance, drama, stand up comedy, play an instrument—I really would love to do those things, if I could do it!

What hobbies or passions do you have outside of work?
We basically do three things—we do cycling, sea kayaking, and hiking. Recently I’ve gotten back into fencing; and my wife does ballet.

Where’s your favorite place to go in da ‘Burgh?
Probably the Benedum Theatre—there are a lot of good performances down there.

Do you ever wish you could perform on stage with them?!
Yes! I took ballet and jazz classes for 3 years and I was incredibly horrible. Probably the only thing worse than my clarinet playing was my attempt to do ballet! Basically, I’m not an artistic person—I can’t draw, I can’t paint, I can’t sing, I can’t act, I can’t dance, I can’t play an instrument—yet those are always the things I find myself trying to do! I am not a good watcher. I think I’d rather do something badly than just watch it being done. This is not to say I don’t enjoy watching something being done well, but I find that I enjoy it much better and have a better appreciation of the work if I have tried it myself.