Michael Ekstrand

People Are Not Tasks

Published on 15 Oct 2017 and tagged with academia and productivity.

The primary text in church this morning was Romans 15:22–33 — Paul's travel plans, in which he hopes to visit Rome on the way to Spain after delivering a relief gift to Jerusalem. Our bishop is visting this weekend and gave the message, and some of the things he said got me thinking about how to live a good academic life.

Prioritize People

One of the minister's major points was that Paul put people and relationships ahead of the details of his plans, pointing out that Paul had things that he wanted to do, but it was more important to him to spend time encouraging people. He didn't give a timeline — which would have been a little difficult to do anyway cris-crossing the Mediterranean in the first century C.E. — but also, he took time to go personally to Jerusalem instead of dispatching one of his assistants to deliver the gift. People, Bishop Ken said, are not tasks to check off of our to-do lists; rather, relating to people and taking time for them should drive our lives. The tasks and plans provide a structure to invest in people.

People are a huge part of our lives as professors. For all of us, we have students and colleagues and collaborators; for some of us, our research is also heavily people-oriented. But it is increadibly easy to to get caught up in the million things we have to do and forget to take time for the student in front of us. To remember that they are a person, and worth time and relationship beyond their ability to work and solve exams.

For many of us, people — particularly students — are why we are in the academy. But somewhere between grading papers, the fourth committee meeting, and the pressures of the papers and grants we need to get tenure, it's easy to lose that focus.

Even when our research is about people, such as making sure that AI systems treat them fairly, it is easy to focus on the statistics and lose sight of the humans. But our work is to improve things for people; our tasks, if they matter, are to make the world a better place for its inhabitants.

Role Models

I have had the privilege of working with a number of academics who have modeled this for me, and whose life or memory inspires me to do better. I'd like to briefly highlight two of them.

John Riedl was my mentor and adviser up until the last year of my Ph.D. He deeply cared about each of his students, taking time to learn what makes them tick as a person and connecting with them around their interests in addition to their work. He made sure I was prepared the first time I travelled overseas, the first time I gave a conference talk. He also took time for everyone he talked with; I have heard stories of the thoughtful comments he provided around conference banquet tables and the like. I aspire to be the kind of professor that he was, and have so far to go.

Sole Pera invests an incredible amount in her students, both in her classes and our research group. She patiently spends a lot of time helping students learn the pumping lemma; she sees what her graduate students can achieve and pushes them to do it, setting high standards and giving them the support they need to clear the bar. And the time she invests in encouraging and recruiting the next generation of computer scientists is inspiring. I want to give my students the level of attention that Sole does.