September 11, 2017

Movin’ On Up: From the Back of the Class to the Very Front

As the doors of Middlebury College open to students on September 11, 2017, it commemorates the beginning of my career, journey, and exploration as an assistant professor in computer science. Today is also Patriots Day, a day which we remember the tragic events which took place on September 11, 2001 in New York and Pennsylvania, where the innocent lives of nearly three thousand people were taken. Sixteen years later, memories of this day are still so vivid. I was a freshman in high school. We were supposed to take pictures for our identification cards on this day. I was wearing my best Polo shirt and jeans. But we never got a chance to take pictures that afternoon. Classes were cancelled. We were all sent home. No one really knew what was going on. There was no Facebook. No Twitter. No Instagram. No SnapChat. Smart phones weren’t a thing yet. No Apps. No notifications. Texting was difficult, if your phone could even receive text. All we knew was that America was under attack and we needed to go home. I was scared.

To be honest, this past week or two I’ve felt a little scared, too, though the conditions are much different sixteen years later. While I wasn’t nervous that a commercial airplane would be taken over by adversarial forces (and maybe I should be), I’ve been a little nervous about preparing to step into the classroom with my students. There’s a lot at stake here, for them and for me.

But, over the past few days, things have started to change, and now I can say, in the words of the late Bernie Mac,

“I ain’t scared of you ************!”

Imposter syndrome is a thing. You’ve probably heard about it by now. If you haven’t, let me direct you to a definition here and TED Talks here. I’ve never been a valedictorian, salutatorian, or even finished in the top ten percent of my class. I don’t have inductions into fancy, prestigious honor societies. I was never a winner of a National Science Foundation fellowship. Not a Rhodes Scholar, NDSEG, Sloan, or Ford Foundation Fellowship Recipient (though I once earned Honorable Mention). I haven’t finished my PhD as of yet, and by most metrics, I should have. Yet, today I begin my academic career at one of the finest liberal arts institutions for higher education in our country. Now you see it… #imposter#impostersyndrome #ImNotReady #hashtag

Friday, September 8, 2017, I attending my first faculty meeting at Middlebury College. As Andi Lloyd, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty, read the names of the 34 new faculty members joining Middlebury this year, I heard my named called just like everyone else.

“Jason Grant, Assistant Professor of Computer Science”

There was no asterisk. No sidebars. No additional points of discussion. I stood up. I waved. I acknowledged I am a member of the faculty at Middlebury College. The end. Ok, it’s not actually the end, so keep reading, please 🙂

The following day the president of the college, Laurie Patton, welcomed back faculty and staff at a garden party at her house. As I got to know more and more faculty members, I began to feel more and more comfortable in my shoes (a pair of navy blue wingtips my sister gifted to me for Christmas last year). It was later that evening that I hung out with other members of the faculty and we watched several stand-up comedy routines, includes a few from the late, great Bernie Mac. In his famous “Def Comedy Jam” special, he greeted members of the audience with an iconic phrase, “I ain’t scared of you ************!” He doesn’t say it just once, twice, or even three times. Every time he finishes a joke, BAM! Now, some may say this is obsessive and obscene. It would be hard to disagree with you. However, a part of me thinks he said it until he believed it. According to recounts of the story in his documentary, “I Ain’t Scared of You,” the crowd was a bit rowdy, having boo’ed the previous performer off stage, and “Def Comedy Jam” was a premier opportunity for up-and-coming comedians. From my point of view, Bernie Mac was not going to let someone else steal his opportunity. He said it until he believed it. So confidently, they believed it too. Likewise, today I assert myself and say, “I AIN’T SCARED OF YOU ************!”

Last evening, new students of Middlebury commensurated their undergraduate careers during Convocation. In a very symbolic tradition, first-year students lined the long path leading up to Mead Memorial Chapel and faculty members marched in full academic regalia from the bottom of the hill into the chapel. Students cheered and applauded the faculty for the entire duration of the processional. (When they graduate, the opposite occurs with faculty lining the sidewalk, cheering and applauding the students). If there was ever a defining moment of affirmation, it was here and now.

I’m not sure if one will ever be completely ready or if the jitters will completely go away, but today I feel good. I belong. Today is a new beginning. Today, I am a member of the computer science department of Middlebury College.

There are students to educate. Time to go to work.

Jason Grant is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Middlebury College and a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. He completed his undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he was a recipient of the Meyerhoff Scholarship.

About the title. As a junior in high school, I sat in the back row in Physics class. This was not by choice, but by alphabetical index. It was then I discovered I needed glasses because I couldn’t see the equations on the board. Two days later, I tried to get my learner’s permit from the Maryland MVA. I couldn’t read below the required line. It was a scene from “Martin” (the episode is titled D.M.V. Blues if you need/want a refresher). Anyway, I will always remember sitting in the back of that class because I couldn’t see. However, there were several other days I sat in the front of classes and still felt like I was in the back. That’s a topic for another day. Today, I’m holding the chalk. I’m standing in the front. And I’ll have to admit, it feels pretty good.

*Note: This article first appeared on LinkedIn.com*

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Jason Grant

Jason Grant is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Middlebury College. His research areas include computer vision and biometrics. Outside of the office you can find him at the gym, on a mountain or in the woods with his dog, or playing the piano.

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