Computer science professor named Faculty Member of the Year 2020
March 30, 2020 / by Ryley McGinnis
Early in his career, computer science professor Jeff Offutt learned some valuable lessons about teaching that he’s still using today.
One of those is respect. “I started at Mason in 1992, and at the time I was mainly teaching graduate students,” says Offutt. “A colleague of mine told me to remember that they are adults, many of them have jobs, and we should treat them with respect. While undergraduates are different in many ways, I believe it is important to treat them with respect.”
It’s insights like this that explain why he has recently been named 2020’s Faculty of the Year by George Mason University's Alumni Association.
This award recognizes faculty members who exemplify a commitment to teaching and scholarship, and Offutt has shown both in his time as a professor in the Department of Computer Science.
In 2013, he received one of Mason’s Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning University Teaching Excellence Awards, and in 2019 he was one of two Mason faculty members who received the Outstanding Faculty Awards from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV).
Even with all the recognition, he is still learning, he says. Along with other important teaching ideals and methods, Offutt practices compassion and understanding with students. “College is supposed to be hard, learning to program and absorbing complicated ideas is meant to be the difficult part. Balancing extra jobs, families falling apart, and sickness isn’t meant to be the hard part, and we have to be understanding about personal issues,” he says.
Offutt recounted a few times when he has had students come to him with difficult life situations that kept them from class, and he says it’s important to understand and help if you can.
Other important characteristics Offutt stresses are adapting to changing technology and helping students build resilience. “Not only has technology changed, but the way we build software has changed too,” he says. With that in mind, he redesigns his classes as necessary about every year or two.
With coding and software building, staying resilient is important, says Offutt.
He organizes his classes so that students are predominantly doing tasks as opposed to listening to him, and they have time to ask questions about what they’re struggling with. “Just with the nature of the work, when you write a computer program, it usually takes five, 10, or even 20 tries to get the software to compile, and then another five, 10, or 20 tries to get it to do what you want,” he says. “It can be pretty disheartening, and we have to try to help students build the resilience it takes to view those as learning lessons, not failures.”
One way he does this is by not telling the students that what they’re learning is easy. “I’ve been doing this for a while, so I know it, but that doesn’t mean it was easy for me back when I was learning it. Telling them it is easy can be very frustrating, and they wonder what they’re doing wrong when in reality it is just the nature of the work.”
Offutt says students should “stay persistent. It’s hard, but when you get it right it is rewarding.”