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Call him Andy: CS's innovator

Andy van Dam, professor of computer science, is not your typical educator. When you walk into his class, you might witness a spoof of "Snow White" or a music video from "The Lion King." Even better, you can call him by his first name. And he can't seem to shake those rumors that one of the main characters in "Toy Story" was named after him.

Van Dam, who has been part of computer science at Brown since 1965, is one of the department's co-founders. He also served as the department's first chairman.

"We convinced the administration to departmentalize us," he said.

He mentioned that the department was very countercultural when it started, especially since the department had undergraduates serve as research assistants and teaching assistants — something few universities did at the time.

Ending ‘artificial differences'

Van Dam said the department still cares a lot about undergraduates.

"That may seem like a totally obvious thing, but I can assure you that at the time I started teaching undergrads, a lot of other universities didn't teach computer science to undergrads," he said.

Stephen Poletto '12 is one of van Dam's head teaching assistants for CSCI 0150: "Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming and Computer Science." Poletto's duties include attending class lectures, holding his own office hours, running lab sections, grading assignments and staging interactive skits for the class.

Van Dam's teaching assistants play a large role in the course's content.

"There's also a lot of course development year-to-year," said another head teaching assistant, Nabeel Gillani '12.

The computer science department is one of the University's most independent departments. For instance, members of the department have e-mail addresses at the domain.

"We're independent, because it's part of our field to work like that," van Dam said. "It's good for the computer science department to be on the leading edge."

The computer science department is known for a more casual vibe — the department's professors traditionally wear casual dress to class and their students often call them by their first names.

When van Dam came to Brown, he "never liked, for example, the engineering tradition of calling people by their last names," he said. "I thought it was stuffy and undemocratic."  

Allowing students to call him by his first name became a habit for van Dam early on in his career, he said.

"I always felt that formal address puts a distance between people. That difference is not helpful," van Dam said. "You know you treat people with respect, and it goes both ways … but you don't have to be called ‘professor.' Modes of address can create artificial differences."

Adding to this more casual atmosphere in his classes, van Dam incorporates skits with silly themes into his lectures –– a tradition that goes back to the 1970s.

"The humor thing started from the very beginning, to do silly things in class to break the tension," he said. "It lightens up the atmosphere and reduces distance between the teacher and students."

Poletto and the other head TAs enjoy prepping for these skits. "When we were preparing the opening day skit, working on it over the summer and writing the script out for him to look over, there was a scene with a hipster in it. We had an e-mail thread over the summer explaining to him what a hipster was," Poletto said. "Andy really enjoys being theatrical."

Making his mark

In the early '90s, van Dam developed carpal tunnel syndrome after years of typing. He said after a while he noticed it was a serious problem. This spurred him to support department-wide policies that emphasized the importance of taking a break from typing. Van Dam has instituted the use of pop-up reminders for students to take a break on Sunlab computers and inserts stretch breaks in his classes.

"The activities were introduced for fun and to have a little bit of a break. An hour and 20 minutes is a long time. So, it just breaks things up a little and it's good for the mind and body," he said. "For multiple years, I brought in my hand surgeon to show gory pictures to show what happens. I might start doing that again," he added.

Van Dam was also influential in determining the layout of the CIT building, especially during his time as chairman of the department.

He said as chairman, he lobbied for the building and did a lot of fundraising for its construction. He requested four key features for the building: atriums on each floor, large open windows, showers and a Chinese restaurant.

He said atriums were needed to "bring as much light and space for people to congregate." For the showers, van Dam said he had to explain that many of the students and faculty within the department pull all-nighters and bike to school. Van Dam wanted a Chinese restaurant, which he described as being a total novelty at the time, because he said he is a "Chinese food fanatic."

Van Dam said he thought the restaurant would be a good moneymaker for the University, as it would attract a large clientele.

Van Dam also founded the Brown Graphics Group, the longest-running graphics research group in the world, and CSCI 1230: "Introduction to Computer Graphics" –– the longest-running graphics course, according to his website.

"Graphics is fun and graphics is interesting and exciting. People are still wowed by it," he said. "You go to see ‘Toy Story 3' or ‘Avatar' and you think ‘Wow! How do you do that?' Graphics is just everywhere."

Van Dam has been influential not only within the computer science department but also within the University. Van Dam served as the first Vice President for Research, explaining that the position was created because "the dean of grad school was also the dean of research," he said. "It was like asking the dean to do two full-time jobs."

He said the problems of fundraising and research became complex.

"There was too much to do, and so the administration and the Corporation felt the time had come and asked me to do the job," he said.

Van Dam spent four years on the job, which he said had its "goods, bads and uglies."

"I'm appreciative of the opportunity. I think I managed to do a number of important things during my years," he said.

The right values

Aside from his many roles in the computer science department and within the University, van Dam has multiple hobbies which include "outdoor sports, eating, drinking well and my grandkids," he said.

Along with these hobbies, Brown plays a special role in van Dam's life.

"It has the right attitude and the right culture. It's liberal and relaxed," van Dam said. "It's mellow, it's intense, and I don't see that as a contradiction. People work hard and are genuinely interested in what they're doing, and that's not true in every subject and every school."

Brown has the "right values in undergrad and grad education," he added.

"Brown has most of what makes a small liberal arts college work, but it has research opportunities to make undergrads excited about research," he said.

On the subject of those "Toy Story" rumors, van Dam denies that he was an inspiration for one of Pixar's most recognizable characters. Despite the many rumors that Andy from "Toy Story" was named after van Dam –– a rumor possibly fed by the fact that he shows several clips of Andy from "Toy Story" at the beginning of CSCI 0150 –– he explains that it is an urban legend.

"I can't shake it. It's simply not true," he said.

Still, if one examines "Toy Story" frame-by-frame, the influence of computer science on the field is obvious, van Dam said.

"You see our book (Computer Science: Principles and Practice) on the bookshelf," he said. "We certainly had an influence on early Pixar."

, he said it is true that Steve Jobs invited him to the premiere of the first "Toy Story" film. "He signed the special book describing the making of Toy Story with the inscription ‘you made it so'," van Dam said. "It was a really wonderful evening."

Constant reinvention

Van Dam manages to have close relationships with his students. "Andy makes himself really available. He becomes an adviser to you," Kelly Newton '11, a head TA for CSCI 0150, said. "I'm always surprised at how approachable Andy is. He was my adviser freshmen year. From the get-go he makes you call him ‘Andy.' I think he's there for anything I would possibly need."

Gillani added that van Dam's advice expands beyond the classroom. He said van Dam gives his students advice on internships and research opportunities.

"He really thinks critically about what students are getting out of his course. He's always looking to improve things," Poletto said.

And of course, computer science is dear to van Dam and his students.

"I think the fact that progress is so rapid and the bar keeps being raised" is what makes computer science so special, van Dam said.

Gillani said he feels the same. "Computer science is very much a tool for solving difficult problems in the world. The fact that there's this boundless feature of the field is appealing."

"I think I view a text editor the way other people view a canvas. It's a way I express myself artistically," Poletto added.

Still, van Dam said the field is young, and it's just at its beginning.

"We're young and vigorous and reinventing ourselves constantly," he said.


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