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Fred Schneider

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Fred SchneiderFred Schneider really likes teasing computer security ideas apart. “In my classes, I like to be able to explain what each element contributes” he says. “I very much enjoy watching the class start to think in terms of these new abstractions and metaphors, slowly realizing the enormous leverage they can provide.”

Helping students break down concepts in this way helps Schneider come up with interesting questions to explore in his research. “Computing systems can be quite complicated,” he says. “Yet if you can do this kind of analysis, not only do things become easier to understand but you often discover opportunities for improvements.”

Schneider’s lectures tend to be quite interactive. “I am one of those hold-outs who uses a blackboard and chalk—instead of PowerPoint slides—because writing on the board slows me down enough so the students can really understand the content and ask questions,” he says. “With slides, it’s too easy for the students to think they understand when they don’t. I also value having flexibility to follow a student’s lead in class and develop the material along a fresh line.”

When it comes to problem sets, Schneider likes to make them open-ended, forcing students to interpret questions for themselves and figure out reasonable assumptions. “Questions in the real world are not well posed and often don’t have a single correct answer,” says Schneider. “I try to bring that to the classroom.”

Schneider says his expectations of students have become more realistic over time, both in terms of workload and in terms of the difficulty of problems that he assigns. But, of course, he still must deal with the occasional struggling student. “If a student wants to master the content and is making a good faith-effort to attend class, then I am happy to spend arbitrary amounts of time working one-on-one,” he says. “Also, projects in my courses are always done by groups of students; this helps create a peer group that a struggling student can leverage.”

Schneider recommends that new faculty be careful not to overestimate students. “New faculty have a tendency to teach to the top of the class. And they misestimate where the top is, using their own past experience as a guide,” he says. “By looking at past offerings of a course, you can often get a good feel for a better level.”