By Steve Koppes
Lloyd DeGrane

The challenge is always to find that sweet spot between getting … [students] to work harder than they thought they might be able to, but not so hard that it’s just insane”
—Anne Rogers

Sometimes Anne Rogers’ students surprise themselves.

“I can write a thousand lines of code now. I never would have guessed that I could write a thousand lines of code, one student wrote in reviewing Computer Science with Applications 2, which Rogers taught during the 2010 winter quarter.

When Rogers read those words, she thought, “Yes! That was the goal.”

Such teaching prowess has made Rogers the fourth Computer Science faculty member to receive the Quantrell Award in the last five years, following Stuart Kurtz (2009), Janos Simon (2008), and László Babai (2005).

“Teaching is important to me, and it’s nice to be recognized,” Rogers says. “I am really thrilled.”

Recent Quantrell recipients in Computer Science all make their students work hard, she says. “The challenge is always to find that sweet spot between getting them to work harder than they thought they might be able to, but not so hard that it’s just insane.”

Enthusiasm in Her Teaching

Enthusiasm is also important, Rogers says. She regards Jon Bentley, one of her undergraduate professors at Carnegie Mellon University, as a yardstick of her own performance in this respect.

“If I could be half that good, I would be happy. He was a fabulous teacher. He transmitted enthusiasm. He didn’t just convey it. You walked out of the room excited about what he was doing.”

She learned another important teaching lesson from Robert Sedgewick, a colleague at Princeton University. “He hammered into me that you always have to remember that details are important, but the big picture is what you really want them to walk away with, she says.

Rogers taught at Princeton for six years after receiving her doctorate from Cornell University in 1990. Then she conducted software systems research at AT&T Labs in Florham Park, N.J., for five years before joining the UChicago faculty in 2002.

Computer Science Coursework

This quarter Rogers is teaching Networks and Distributed Systems, which includes both undergraduates and graduate students. Chicago undergraduates know Rogers from a variety of other courses as well, including Computer Architecture, Introduction to Computer Systems, and Computer Science with Applications 1 and 2.

The latter courses are designed to introduce computer science to students majoring in quantitative fields. All of the assignments are based on problems from fields other than computer science. “I think every student at this university needs to have a course like that,”Rogers says.

What she likes most about teaching is “the opportunity to nudge students in a direction that is really positive.” She experienced how positive her influence could be as an assistant professor at Princeton. Rogers had told a computer science major, “You’ll be boring,” if he didn’t take some humanities courses to supplement his technical training.

The student went on to take Japanese, minor in East Asian Studies, and spend a year in Japan as a Fulbright Scholar. The incident taught Rogers to be careful when talking to students. “They actually listen,” Rogers says.

Originally published on June 14, 2010.