Remembering John Carlis

Everyone wants to belong, and for a young man from a small town in southwest Minnesota who went to a small liberal arts college as an undergrad, the U of M can be a pretty intimidating place – a real “pair a dime” shift if you will. I remember waiting in line OUTSIDE of Amundsen hall, and slowing working my way up several flights of stairs to try to get into courses that were still open once I got to the registration counter. I may not have the name of the building right, but as John would say “never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” I remember going to classes and rather than seeing a small number of students, most of whom were my friends, all I saw was a sea of unfamiliar faces.

Fortunately one of the courses that I did register for was Introduction to Database Systems, taught by John Carlis. Shortly after classes started and we were well into discussing herds of cows and various creatures and their skills and creating LDSs I found myself searching out his office to ask him some question about homework. Once in his office we started talking, and then he made me a cup of coffee. The conversation went well beyond drawing LDSs – we discovered that we both liked to sing – and he invited me to stop back again. Soon I was stopping in his office just to chat and get a cup of coffee. Research meetings and a TA position followed. John became my advisor and my friend and he gave me the gift of a sense of belonging. As I look back, I wonder if I would have stayed without the cups of coffee and conversation in John’s office.

When our first Child was born, he gave us a present. He had cut out and painted the letters to spell our daughters name in his shop. We talked about his own daughters and the challenges and joys of being a father.

Even years later, after I had shifted my focus to Grouplens, and started a company, he always welcomed me back. He was still on my PhD committee, a thing he liked to remind me of frequently, especially when he wanted me to review something. “Can you do this? I’m still on your committee right?” He would say with a grin.

I learned about building a fence around your thesis, and writing a one-draft draft thesis. When I decided that teaching at a small college was in my future he gave me a copy of Mager’s book and we talked about instructional objectives and how to become a good teacher.

Before I left for Luther College he gave me another piece of advice that I will never forget. “Write a text book,” he told me. At a small college that is a good way to publish and it will tie directly to your teaching. Two years into my time at Luther I asked my department head, “would you like to write a book with me?” He agreed and we found ourselves publishing the first data structures textbook using the Python programming language. After that we wrote an introductory book on programming with Python.

As I prepare to leave Luther and move into a new project of building a sustainable small business around the Runestone Interactive textbook project I can trace the evolution of this research and writing right back to John. The project now serves over 20,000 students a day around the world, and I frequently hear the echo of his advice in my head as I work on designing new chapters and writing new examples, and building new lessons.

Thank you John, for all the advice, the coffee, and the friendship! More students that you will ever know have benefitted from your wisdom and hospitality.