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Fresh Faculty: Lecturer Christopher Gregg talks Navy, teaching and building his own musical typewriter


Lecturer Christopher (Chris) Gregg joined Stanford’s fast-growing computer science department in the fall. He currently teaches CS 106X after co-teaching CS 106B with Chris Piech last quarter. The Daily sat down with Gregg to learn more about his path to Stanford and his passion for teaching and education.

(Courtesy of Christopher Gregg).

The Stanford Daily (TSD): To start off, can you talk a little about your background?

Christopher Gregg (CG): I suppose I have a strange history in some senses. I graduated from college with an electrical engineering degree and then went into the Navy. I very quickly ended up in the cryptology and codes end of things in the Navy, which was a lot of fun. I lived in San Diego during part of my time in the Navy and was on a bunch of ships going out of the area. This gave me a chance to travel to the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Australia and several other amazing places. Later, I ended up stationed in Australia for two years, also in the Navy. I got to surf every day after work, and that was a lot of fun. When I finished that job, I quickly realized that I would never find another job in the Navy as good as the other one I had had in Australia, so I decided to leave the Navy and become a teacher.

TSD: How did you become interested in teaching?

CG: Part of the reason I became interested was that I had a great high school physics teacher. In fact, I had a lot of great teachers. I went to a small public school in central New York. Aside from all the drama and things that go on in high school, I genuinely enjoyed it. And you know what, I love the idea of getting my summers off, and I love the idea of influencing kids and being around students. They bring a lot of energy into the classroom and into my life. In general, I feel like I probably stay a lot younger because of all the energy they bring.

TSD:  Could you comment on the application process for becoming a lecturer?

CG: Applying to anything in academia has a lot of hoops to jump though. But it’s not too bad. I actually happened to be at conference where I met a couple of the Stanford lecturers and professors, and they said, “Hey, we’re hiring.” It came down to networking, I suppose. You always hear people say networking is important, and it really was in this case because finding out that this job was available was the biggest hurdle in that sense. The positions are publicly listed, but in my case, I just missed it. I was not really actively looking for a job at that point.

The actual process is interesting. You have to teach a class. Here, the committee asked me to put together a 50-minute lecture I had taught before, and they would pretend to be students and ask questions and so forth. Although, after teaching [for] long enough, that sort of teaching isn’t too stressful.

TSD: How do you feel your experiences in the Navy have influenced your decisions later on?

CG: I feel like I definitely got leadership experience out of the Navy. I was an officer in the Navy and still technically am trying to figure out how to retire. It’s just paperwork at this point though. I got a lot of people skills out of working with large numbers of people. In terms of making decisions, my politics have changed a lot since I have been on active duty. I am much more liberal these days. I don’t think of myself as a very military person. The cryptology and cryptography end of the Navy definitely was less “military” than other communities. In the big picture, sure, I think all our experiences influence us. Being able to travel all over the world and see different places has been influencing in many ways.

TSD: How do you like teaching here at Stanford?

CG: I love it. The classes are a bit too big, I’ll be frank. The CS department, everyone, has been extremely nice. The classes here go really fast. The students are terrific, and the section leading program is unrivaled around the world. I’m actually teaching a section myself right now. I decided to do that to see what it would be like, and I quickly realized how much grading there is. I am also involved in terms of being a lecturer, obviously. I think it’s great. At Tufts, we had very great TAs as well — mostly undergrads just like it is here. But here, it’s special. It’s self-propagating; the section leaders hire each other. I think Stanford is an amazing place. There are so many opportunities on campus. Even though it doesn’t have a huge undergraduate population, the university is amazing in the big picture.

TSD: Could you compare Stanford and Tufts?

CG: I definitely miss some of the things about Tufts. In terms of the students, they are very similar in many ways: overachievers, academically-minded undergraduates. At Tufts, the CS students all worked in one building; they had lab — section — in there so I saw a lot more of them. Here, students are all over the place. At Tufts, the classes were 300 students, but I felt like I saw many more of the them every day. That said, the students here are brilliant, and the research here is unrivaled. Being able to see professors here doing really groundbreaking research has also been amazing; there are some phenomenal people in the department here. I think it’s a great experience. You do have to have a love for teaching. If you’re going to be a lecturer, you better love teaching because that’s really our core focus.

TSD: What courses are you planning on teaching?

CG: 106X right now, and it looks like 106B in the Spring and again in the summer. At some point I may want to teach a wearable devices class. I taught that at Tufts and it was great. This typewriter thing on my desk is actually something I made.

I came up with it a few years ago. The long story is a friend of mine sent me a letter typed up on a typewriter, and I said I want to get a typewriter and write something back. The problem is there’s no editing, so I decided, as a computer engineer, I could automate this if I wanted to. Anyway, I built this whole thing, and for a while I thought it wouldn’t work, and it sat in my closet. I eventually did figure it out, put on these little solenoids and built a device to control it through an Arduino. One of the other professors at Tufts saw this and told me I should do a typewriter symphony, and I ended up implementing that as well.

This transcript has been edited and condensed.


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