Letter To The Editor

Courage through the coronavirus

By Bram van Heuveln May 13, 2020

Dear Rensselaer students,

Now that finals are done, I want to give a big shout out to all of you!

Please let me explain. In the years that I have taught here, I have always known you to be a smart and hard-working group of individuals. You take your studies seriously and do good work. And, while you know all this, you are never smug or pretentious about it. Indeed, when talking to some prospective students and parents last month, I told them how down to earth and helpful you are, and how you have always made it such a pleasure for us educators to work here.

However, over the past month and a half, I have discovered something else about you.  You have more than adapted to having to go online. Indeed, you not only exhibited a high degree of resilience and “stick-to-it-ness,” but you went beyond that and have really taken advantage of the potential of these new communication formats. I got more one-on-one office hours than ever before—many of them while both of us were wearing pajama bottoms I am sure. Through screen-sharing, I felt we were more productive on projects and independent studies like never before. The quality of final projects I received was the best out of any year ever, as you did some really inspiring work.

Here are some of the things I did over the past two weeks while grading these final projects: I played with your interactive interfaces on logic diagrams and musical games. I perused your beautifully constructed website on animal cognition and neural networks. I listened to your highly professional recordings of critical analyses on topics ranging from the coronavirus to wartime presidencies to flat earth conspiracies. I watched your attempts to memorize a dance routine. I read your well-written and well-researched presentations on Stoic Logic, Paraconsistent Logic, and Epistemic Logic. I saw your automated theorem provers, your virtual robots, and your Connect Four AI’s perform their magic. I explored your YouTube libraries on collective intelligence and brain hemispheres. Through your headcam recording, I got a first-person perspective of what it would be like to have a ruler as a hand for a day. Wow! Just wow!

Moreover, all this time I did not hear a single peep or complaint about going to the online format. Only during the very last few days did I hear from some of you about your difficult circumstances, from having to share your one family computer with the rest of your family to losing your laptop while being quarantined for two weeks in China. I am sure there were many more of you for whom this transition was difficult, not just technically, but also socially. Some of you may have lost some acquaintance, friend, or even family member to the coronavirus, so I can only imagine how difficult things may have been, emotionally. And yet, you did it! Well done.

I am sure that most faculty will have had similar experiences, and feel the same way I do. It was a challenge for us to move our courses online on such short notice. But it was you, the students, who kept us driven to do what needed to be done. You kept us sane, focused, and motivated, but most of all, you kept us inspired. Thank you!

To those who are graduating: Now that I know of your resilience and creativity, I can assure you that you will do well. I understand it is a difficult time to start a career, but your talents and work ethic will get you where you want to be. You will probably forever be known and recognized as the “Class of Covid-19” that came together even in isolation. I am sorry for not being able to see you one last time during our normal commencement, but I wish you the best of luck! Congratulations!

To those who will (hopefully) be returning in the Fall: please know that, painful as it was, you have gained valuable experience. You have learned something about yourself, how you can cope with difficult situations, and rise to the occasion. You have discovered you had skills you didn’t know you had before. You will be stronger, and I am sure you will have no trouble finishing up at RPI.

From the heart, 

Professor Bram

Cognitive Science