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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Henry MacKay Walker

Part of an ongoing series about the people who teach and learn at Grinnell, and the many additional people who support them in those endeavors.

Tomorrow evening we begin the 2016 CS affinity reunion. At that reunion we are celebrating three things: ten years of a Computer Science department [1]; twenty-five years of a Computer Science major; and Henry Walker's transition to Senior-Faculty Status [4]. As Henry transitions to SFS, it seems like an appropriate time for me to profile him.

Until moving to SFS, Henry was one of the three most senior regular faculty at Grinnell [6]. Given his long tenure at the institution, it shouldn't surprise you that Henry taught some of the first CS courses at Grinnell (perhaps the first) and was instrumental in creating the CS major and the CS department.

I think the CS department is pretty special, and not just because we have such awesome students (and faculty) (and curriculum). I regularly hear from colleagues in other departments that CS is considered one of the most collaborative and collegial departments on campus. Henry build the department, and deserves the credit [7].

Let's consider what makes our curriculum awesome. We use workshop-style teaching. Henry pioneered [8] that. I think his first workshop-style CS course may have been for Fortran. He'd already been doing it for awhile when I came to Grinnell. We have a multi-paradigm curriculum. Henry and John (and, possibly, Emily) decided on that. We teach Scheme in our first course. Henry and John created that curriculum, and we still use many parts of the curriculum they created [9]. Our curriculum is one of only four "Curriculum Exemplars" in the ACM/IEEE Computer Society Curriculum 2013 report, and each of our introductory courses appear in that report. Henry wrote the descriptions of the introductory courses, and made sure that the department mapped out our whole curriculum so that it could serve as an exemplar [10]. So, as far as I can tell, Henry is directly responsible for every awesome part of our curriculum.

Our curriculum has evolved over the years. However, as I look back to the original major of twenty-five years ago, a lot has been retained, including the awesomely long-named "CSC 341: Automata, Formal Languages, and Computational Complexity" [11]. At the same time, a lot has changed. Henry has build a collaborative and thoughtful department that regularly revisits the curriculum. We've rearranged the intro sequence (and added courses). We've created alternative math paths through the major. We've eliminated requirements for courses that we all love [12], but that may be less essential to our student learning.

Henry also instituted three practices that I think make our department stronger. First, the policy on assigning courses is typically "Let the junior faculty pick first; the older folks will pick up whatever is left." Now, it's not quite that extreme, since we discuss everything. However, we really do try to make sure that we prioritize the needs of the early-career faculty. Second, Henry has always said "The next person we hire should be better than we are." Some folks would be threatened by people who knew more. Henry knew that we benefit from new perspectives and new strengths [14]. Third, Henry pushed for us to be a department in which each faculty member is able to teach most of the curriculum [15].

Henry has had a huge impact at the College beyond the CS department. I know that he was responsible for some aspects of the College calendar, but I'm not sure which ones. He's served on the Committee on Academic Standing for many years, and, in that role, helped formulate a lot of our policies and approaches on academic honesty. He also did a great deal of work on Personnel. He was the faculty liaison for Noyce Phase II (the building project that included the CS floor and much much more).

Henry's also had huge impact beyond the College, particularly on CS education. Let's see ... I'm pretty sure that he's written about a dozen textbooks. He's written a regular column for our professional newsletter for about as long as I've been at Grinnell [16]. He's served as treasurer and chair for our professional organization. He's chaired the primary conference of that organization. He's written (or co-written) influential papers on computer science at liberal arts colleges and the role of mathematics in computer science. He's served as an external reviewer for something like a hundred CS departments [17]. I've almost certainly left out a lot. There's a reason that he was the second recipient [18] of the ACM [19] Distinguished educator award and has received a lifetime service award from SIGCSE [23], the professional society of computer science educators.

I hope that the many things I described above give you a sense of Henry's important characteristics. He's thoughtful, observant, and committed to collaboration. He works much too hard. I didn't mention it above, but he also makes many too many puns and jokes [24]. He's one of the few people I know who writes even longer memos than I do [25].

I feel very lucky to have worked with such a fantastic educator for the past twenty years, and I look forward to five more years of collaboration. I'm glad that Henry feels a very strong attachment to our department. While I appreciate that his attachment has led to a forthcoming award for our top CS graduates, I even more appreciate that the attachment has built us into an excellent place.

Thanks Henry! You've built an excellent department, one that will continue to thrive even as you move on to new and great things. But please make sure to stay a part and to help us to continue to thrive for as long as you can!


I had much more to write about Henry, including his frustrations with the College, particularly some ways in which it's treated him and our discipline. I've detailed a few of those in my essay on microaggressions. But this essay is really intended to be a celebration, so I'm going to leave those out. I may write about them at another time, a time in which I think we can learn from those frustrations. I'll also have to find another time to write more about how he mentored me, the ways in which we've collaborated, the great stories and teaching ideas he's shared, and more. But if I try to cover all of that, I won't finish this essay until after reunion is over.


You know what? We've been colleagues for twenty years, and I've never asked Henry about the MacKay part of his name. Maybe tomorrow.


[1] Prior to ten years ago, we were a Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. We split into a Department of Computer Science and a Department of Mathematics and Statistics. Some time before then, we were just a Department of Mathematics. Perhaps in the future, the Department of Mathematics and Statistics will split into a Department of Mathematics and a Department of Statistics [2].

[2] At that point, I'm going to suggest that the College needs four divisions, rather than three. The fourth would be the division of Mathematical Sciences [3] and would include Math, CS, Stats, Econ, and perhaps Physics.

[3] Although "Sciences" isn't quite the word. Perhaps "Mathematical Endeavors" or "Mathematical Disciplines".

[4] Senior-Faculty Status is an interesting designation at Grinnell that faculty may choose to elect after a certain point. It currently carries half salary and a more moderate set of expectations, which need not include teaching (e.g., they can include scholarship). Henry is teaching a course each year [5] and working on finishing at least two books.

[5] This year, he generously agreed to teach a second section of CSC 161 to accommodate larger-than-historical demand.

[6] I believe Wayne Moyer has been a regular faculty member the longest. I also believe Henry and Jon Andelson started the same year. Of course, Jon was an undergraduate at Grinnell, so perhaps we could argue that he has the longest tenure at our institution.

[7] Henry, being always collegial, would suggest that we all share the credit. But he's been the linchpin for building our approach.

[8] No pun intended.

[9] Admittedly, it's gone through a lot of revisions. I separated the readings and the exercises when I took over the course. Ben Gum did further cleanup. Janet and I rewrote many of the readings and labs to focus on media computation. Janet, Jerod, and I reorganized the labs so that we clearly distinguished the core exercises and the extra exercises that were intended for the students who finished everything else quickly. Charlie and Titus have been making even more revisions.

[10] Henry will tell you that the curriculum map was a collaborative effort, and he'd be correct. But we wouldn't have done it if he hadn't pushed us to do so.

[11] Janet responded to the length of that name by calling our new software design practicum "Team-based software development for community organizations". I think she wins.

[12] Programming languages; Compilers.

[14] I don't seriously believe that I'm better than Henry or John, but our other faculty are pretty damn awesome.

[15] That's the tradition in Mathematics and Physics. It keeps us all fresh. However, as the reviewers from our last decennial review suggested, it is perhaps more work than we should do.

[16] Look for a book of those columns (rewritten) coming to a bookstore or the electronic equivalent in about a year.

[17] I have no idea what the exact number is. But he usually does at least five reviews a year, so it's probably at least 100.

[18] I think.

[19] In this case, ACM stands for "Association for Computing Machinery" [20], not "Associated Colleges of the Midwest". The computers had the TLA first. The professional society was founded in 1947, 1948, or 1949, depending on what you consider "founding" [21]. The colleges formally associated in 1958 [22]

[20] They let humans join, too.

[21] http://www.acm.org/about/history.

[22] http://www.acm.edu/about_us/ACM_History.html

[23] Special Interest Group in Computer Science Education.

[24] Don't you feel sorry for the rest of the department? They have to deal with both Henry and me.

[25] Do you feel sorry for the administrators who have to read our memos? Don't. [26,27]

[26] Whoops, that was a little harsh. It was supposed to be funny. Pretend that it's funny.

[27] You should, however, feel sorry for Jerod and John (and now Charlie and PM), who often get stuck editing our memos.


Version 1.0.1 of 2016-11-17.