Professor reflects on his time as Honors Faculty Fellow: “Don’t hesitate”

After serving as an Honors Faculty Fellow for eight years, Perry Alexander, the AT&T Foundation Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science and Director of the Institute for Information Sciences, has concluded his honors tenure.

We talked to Dr. Alexander about his time in the program, the relationships he forged, and the memories he made in this special role. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Detail your history with the program.

Well, I came [to KU in 1999] after I had spent six or seven years at the University of Cincinnati. I effectively came home. I decided that one of the things — maybe even the one thing — that I was going to put my time into was [the honors program]. I started teaching an honors tutorial, then I was the University Scholars instructor; I proposed a course on Alan Turing. After I did that, I applied to be a faculty fellow, and was very honored and happy to receive that. My term was coming to an end about a year ago, and with the rest of my university obligations, I decided it was time to step away.

Mary Klayder initially drew you to the program. What was her pitch to you?

Well, really, it was the students. We had a couple of students that were quite interdisciplinary. One is the chief data scientist for Moderna, Andrew Giesel. I don’t know that I ever had Andrew in class, but he did invite me to be a guest DJ for the Friday evening hip-hop show on KJHK. That was a lot of fun, and it certainly would have never happened without Honors.

Is there a seminar that stands out to you?

The title of my tutorial was “A Just Machine.” That comes from a lyric from a song called “I.G.Y.” by Donald Fagen, about finding a just machine that was programmed by fellows with compassion and vision, and it would make decisions for us. My tutorial was about how that was not going to happen. What I was teaching was computing in the abstract. I don’t think that anyone taking the class had any idea what we were going to cover when we started, but I think it was clear we weren’t going to talk about computers.

Did you find that the program helped you connect across disciplines?

I did an art exhibition called “Cryptograph” with Steve Goddard and Kris Krishtalka in celebration of Alan Turing on what would have been his hundredth birthday. I think that would have happened regardless, but it certainly mixed with my interdisciplinary work at Honors.

What lessons would you impart to our newest Honors Faculty Fellows?

If I could go back and do something I ended up doing later, it would be to stop hesitating. If you have a neat idea, go talk to people about it. You need to find people who are not in your discipline. It helps keep you sane, it helps keep you fresh, it helps keep you learning. The other thing I would say: Become involved with the students. No time with students is wasted — ever.

What is an aspect of the program that you hope never changes?

There’s a spirit to it. Nunemaker’s a unique place in many ways. The doors are open. There’s a couch. You can go hang out on the couch. That kind of investment in students as individuals, that interaction with students as individuals, that can’t change. It just can’t.

How will you stay involved in the program?

I still very much want to mentor students. I’m always happy to visit with students about things that I’ve learned over the years that I think have helped make me successful — things that no one’s going to tell them in a classroom. Very simple things. One of my favorite things to say is just “be kind.” I look at my career, for example, and I see the number of things that have happened professionally because I was kind, or someone else was kind. I’m where I am because people were kind.

What do you want to say to our alumni?

I know they’re awesome, but these students are more awesome. They are more thoughtful than we ever were about others and about the world that they live in. So I guess the same advice I had for faculty I would give to alumni: Don’t hesitate. Find out. Come see us.