Take a walk through William G. Davis Computer Research Centre (DC) and peer into room 3134. There, you will find books and papers piled from the floor to the ceiling, a rock collection, and one of 2011’s winners of the Distinguished Teachers Award for Mathematics, Professor Jeffrey Shallit. Professor Shallit has been teaching at the University of Waterloo since 1990, and has been a professor for about 30 years.
Professor Shallit teaches within the David Cheriton School of Computer Science and has taught everything from introductory programming courses to fourth-year courses on algorithms, and classes for graduate students. His favourite part of teaching is knowing that he has clearly described a difficult concept to a group of students. As Professor Shallit says, “The best feeling at the end of a course is when they give you an ovation… You feel like you did a good job”. He also uses funny comic strips to induce some humour into the classroom (one of his favourite teaching quotes is “The lecture is the process by which the notes of the professor become the notes of the student without passing through the minds of either”) and views teaching as a performance. He describes it as, “being out on a stage... you have to be extremely attentive to what is happening on the board and what is happening with the people behind you.”
Professor Shallit dedicates most of his teaching time to explaining difficult concepts and “reworking material over and over again” until he finds a clear way to teach it. Clearly, it has paid off. In his Rate My Professors ratings he is highly ranked in both clarity and helpfulness. As one student posted, “Shallit is passionate about the material and is always willing to help students”. His teaching philosophy is to “have material prepared in such a way that you can respond to every eventuality”. This is illustrated in his advice to new instructors, “Expect to spend at least ten hours preparing for each hour that you lecture, the first time that you do it. Write your lecture out… everything single thing that you will say, you will write out. As you do so, try to see what is likely to be confusing and put your mind the in the student who hasn’t seen it before. When it comes to teaching material that you have already lectured on, always be prepared to spend an additional two to three hours for every hour. Since new ideas are constantly being introduced in the world of computer science, it is important to rework the material for each lecture.”
Apart from teaching, Professor Shallit attends many conferences worldwide to present his research papers, such as in Germany, Italy, and Czech Republic. Some of his interests include combinatorics on words, formal languages and automata theory, and algorithmic number theory. According to him, “This has probably been the best year of my life in terms of research. In terms of number of interesting papers, they have been both good and numerous.”
Outside of work, Professor Shallit enjoys playing the classical guitar, spending time with his two kids, and collecting rocks. His favourite animal is the moose simply because it is “the best animal there is”. What could be better than a hard-working professor with a sense of humour?