Excellence in Teaching: Jakob Eriksson
Each year, UIC honors some of its most dedicated and outstanding teachers with the Award for Excellence in Teaching. The winners, who receive a $5,000 salary increase, are selected by past recipients of the award from nominations made by departments and colleges.
Associate Professor of Computer Science
Years at UIC: 13
What does it mean to win an Excellence in Teaching Award?
Although I am a tenure-track faculty member, which means my research duties are officially at least as large as my teaching duties, I’ve always felt that teaching is the most important thing we do. The award means a great deal to me, as it in a way validates the effort I’ve put into teaching over the years.
What do you teach?
I teach a variety of courses relating to computer systems in the department of computer science. More specifically, my courses focus on understanding how various aspects of how computers work, in great detail. For example, what exactly happens when you press “save” in a text editor? How does the application learn that you pressed the button? What specifically does it mean the text to be “saved?” Given a file name, how specifically does one find the saved text later? Given a name like “www.google.com” what are all the steps and bits and pieces involved in bringing up the webpage on your screen?
How do you engage students in your courses?
My focus has always been on learning by doing (in-depth, engaging homework) accompanied by live demonstration. Often, I will spend half the lecture demonstrating how to write a program to do a particular task, how to identify and fix a problem, etc. I never used slides. Instead, my lectures are inspired by old-school math teachers, who will prove a theorem, ideally without notes, using just chalk and a blackboard. Only my tools of choice are a text editor, a Unix command line and a web browser.
What do you enjoy most about teaching at UIC?
While I enjoy the act of teaching itself, to me the best part is the confidence it gives me that I have made a real contribution. So much of research is tentative — one can easily spend an entire career publishing papers on research that in the end turns out to be futile. It is delayed gratification in the extreme. Teaching is a great hedge against these high-risk bets. Teach a good class, and you know almost instantly (a single semester) that you’ve made a lasting contribution that you can be proud of, no matter how the research turns out in the end.
What are your research interests?
My research revolves around topics closely related to my teaching, although the focus is of course much more narrow.
I’m broadly interested in making computer systems more efficient: executing programs at the same speed, using less resources, or faster using the same resources, and making it easier to write efficient (and correct) computer programs.
What is your advice to students considering a teaching career?
Try it first, and as soon as you can. Find opportunities to get in front of the classroom, and create your own lectures as well as assignments. Serving as a teaching assistant is a great first step. If you ask, most instructors will be happy to give you some time in the classroom — leading a discussion or giving a guest lecture.