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November 15, 2016

Uncommon Interview: Borja Sotomayor, CS Lecturer and Campus Personality

CS Lecturer Borja Sotomayor.

CS Lecturer Borja Sotomayor.

Brooke Nagler / The Chicago Maroon

The Maroon sat down with senior lecturer in computer science and Overheard at UChicago personality Borja Sotomayor last Tuesday to discuss his experience as both a UChicago alumnus and current faculty member. Sotomayor recently published a satirical article critiquing the administration’s decision to organize diploma ceremonies by residence halls.

Chicago Maroon: Where are you from?

Borja Sotomayor: I’m originally from Spain, specifically from Bilbao, which is a city in the north of Spain, in the Basque country region. But I’ve been living here in Chicago since 2004. I moved here for graduate school; I got my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. I go back to Spain about once a year or so, but Chicago feels like home at this point. It’s funny because now…. It kind of goes by cycles. After I’ve been in Chicago for about a year or so, I start yearning like “I need to go back to Spain. I need to go back to the people and the food and everything.” And once I’m there for a couple of weeks, I’m like, “I miss Chicago, I want to go back.”

CM: I have to ask: last week the administration announced that diploma ceremonies would be organized by residence hall. You responded with a satirical essay on Medium, writing that “dividing the ceremony by dorms is a clueless and ham-fisted solution” and that it should be organized by academic divisions instead, if it were to be restructured. Why do you think the administration made this decision, and do you think the diploma ceremony will ever be organized by division?

BS: I can’t speculate about their actual motives, but the way it seems, from the outside looking in, is that there’s sort of been this push to build up house culture at the University, which I actually think is a very reasonable goal. If they want to build up a greater sense of community, a greater sense of pride in your house, your dorm, et cetera, I think that that’s great, but they’re taking a hatchet at it instead of a scalpel.

But like I said, it’s sort of like a ham-fisted approach. They’re taking a top-down approach and imposing this new model, without first trying to organically build up house culture and a sense of pride in your dorm. A shift to holding Convocation by dorms should happen because students clamor for it and feel so strongly about house culture that they can’t imagine Convocation any other way. Instead, I get the sense that this is being thrust upon them. They’re being told, “You should be really happy and enthusiastic that you get to graduate with your dorm!” when students weren’t even consulted on this. Someone on Overheard suggested that, at the very least, they could’ve rolled in this new model in 2020, so the incoming class can warm up to it, and start seeing their dorms as the communities they will graduate with, but allowing the other classes to graduate under the current model.

The way that the current student population is, it feels like, it would be much more natural to have them graduate by division. Again, I’m not saying they couldn’t make the by-dorm model work, but I think you can’t do it by fiat, you can’t say “From now on you will feel pride in your house and graduate with your house.” I think if you want to do it, it has to be a much more organic and thought-out process. Again, I can’t really speculate on their actual motives, but that’s what it looks like from the outside looking in.

CM: Okay, let’s go back to you. When did you first become interested in computer science?

BS: I’ve been interested in computers since I was a little kid, and so far back that I can’t even remember when exactly. I always liked tinkering with computers; I probably must have been nine or 10 years old when I got my first computer. My parents bought me a computer, I had some relatives who bought me books on using computers, programming computers, and stuff like that. I really took to it. It sort of developed into “Okay, I really want to study this, I really want to go to school for this.”

The aspect I most enjoyed about it was the problem solving. I usually tell students in programming classes I feel like I have the kind of job, the kind of skill set, where I get to work on solving puzzles all day and I get paid for it. I’ve talked to a lot of programmers, software developers, et cetera, and that’s the way that they describe it. They sort of say “I’m moving from one puzzle to another.” And it’s fun, it’s legitimately fun. It actually feels like a really fun thing to do. But it’s one of those things where it was very clear from an early age that “Okay, this is what I’m going to study. There’s no debate.”

CM: Do you remember what model your first computer was?

BS: Yes, my first computer was a Sinclair Spectrum +3. It was a computer model that was actually fairly popular in Europe, it wasn’t well-known here in the U.S., and it’s an odd kind of computer because when you look at it, it looks like it’s just a keyboard and it has a disc drive attached to it.

That was actually considered really fancy at the time, because the Sinclair Spectrum models that most people had would actually load programs and games from audio cassettes. So you actually had to load an audio cassette and wait 20 minutes for it to play and load up. I had discs and those would load really fast so friends would come to my place because they would say “Oh, we don’t have to wait for the game to load if we’re just loading it from a disc.” But that computer actually allowed you to do some programming. You could enter an interface where you could actually write your own programs.

An aunt of mine who was really into technology at the time—this is like mid to late ’80s—gave me a book on programming so I was like “Oh, I’ll just play around with this.” So I sort of learned the basic concepts of programming that way. The next computer we had was a traditional PC, and year after year more powerful PCs. But the first one was the Sinclair Spectrum.

CM: Did you always know that you wanted to teach?

BS: I don’t know if I would say I always knew I wanted to teach, but I remember the first time I enjoyed teaching and got a sense of “Oh, this is something that I might want to do.”

When I was in college, a couple of students and I organized some free summer courses where we would teach a very condensed curriculum over the course of a week, so learn the basics of programming over a week or learn the basics of something or other over the course of a week. I remember teaching that and finding it immensely gratifying. I had been doing some web development on the side, even before I was in college, and sharing that knowledge was really nice, it felt like the right thing to do.

I was also part of a hacker group in college that was very much imbued in the hacker ethic. When people talk about hackers, the popular definition of a hacker is someone who breaks into computer systems, and within the computing world a hacker is just someone who feels very passionately about programming, about computers, about problem solving. Someone who approaches computing not as a means to an end, like “Oh I’m doing this because it’ll get me a good job and good salary,” but as an end in itself, like “Oh, this is actually legitimately fun.”

So you approach programming and approach working with computers with a sense of fun and play. The people who I went to college with were all like that, they all sort of felt the same way. The hacker subculture, within computing or within technology, has a number of values…So there’s this book by Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, from 1984, and he talks about what the hacker ethic is. Hackers go all the way back to the ’60s and ’70s.

They’re the people who built the first operating systems and built the current Internet and the worldwide web, and stuff like that. Some of the values that pervade this hacker ethic are sharing, openness, and decentralization. I think there’s a couple others, but if you ask anyone who considers themself a hacker, those are three very important values, that you should be sharing knowledge, that you should be open, you should not be opaque, you should be transparent. And an inherent distrust of authority, which is why hackers tend to prefer decentralized kind of models. I think that’s why I enjoy teaching so much—it embodied a lot of those values. I had this knowledge, and I shouldn’t be sort of selfishly keeping it to myself. I should be sharing it with others and I should be teaching others.

Just to provide a little bit of context, this was the late nineties, when web development was in its infancy. People knew very little about it, so you couldn’t just go online and find a class, or take an online course, or anything like that. I sort of felt like this is something I should be doing. I’ve learned all this on my own because I was just doing a lot of web development on the side when I was in high school and early in college. I should be sharing it. The act of sharing it with others and finding that they would then take that knowledge and use it themselves or even share it with others just felt really, really gratifying.

I think that’s what made me think, “Huh, maybe this is something that I can actually do for a living.” At that point in college, I could go be a software engineer, maybe go off and do research, stuff like that…But I think that’s when I was kind of bitten by the bug and thought “Oh, I really enjoy this and I could make a living out of it.”

CM: You are very active on Overheard at UChicago, both as someone who posts and someone who is often posted about. What is it like to be a professor involved in the online culture of the student body?

BS: I joined Facebook in 2005, when I was still a student, and me being active on social media just carried over when I became an instructor.

I don’t believe that there necessarily needs to be a huge barrier or wall between the students and the faculty. Actually one of the things I really like about UChicago is the faculty, by and large, is happy to help students, is always happy to provide individual attention, et cetera. I think it’s actually one of the legitimately really great things about the University of Chicago.

I don’t think the fact that I suddenly became an instructor now precludes me from participating in those kind of forums. I’m not as active as many students might be in that group, and there are definitely times when I will overhear something and I’ll bite my tongue like “Uh, I better not write this.” Also, I got into Overheard when it really was about overhearing things. The spirit of the group was very lighthearted and comedic in nature.

Now there’s obviously still a lot of that, but occasionally you’ll get these huge dumpster fires on Overheard. When that happens, I’m like “I want no part of this. I was just here to read funny shit.” It does, however, feel like an out of body experience when someone posts about me because you sort of feel like “Oh, I was there…I know that happened!”

CM: In addition to being a celebrity on Overheard, you’re also well-known for your signature quirky t-shirts. This question comes in two parts. First, how many odd t-shirts do you own? Second, which is your favorite one?

BS: I think about a year ago, I was at one of these events that the alumni office runs called Dinner with 12 Maroons. They get some current students, some alums, a faculty member, and you get together for dinner. Someone at the time asked me “How many t-shirts do you have?” I sort of realized “Oh, I don’t know.” I eyeballed it and said “I guess I probably have maybe 50 or so?” Then I went home, and said, “Oh, how many do I have?” I counted all of them, and it turns out I had 125.

CM: One hundred and twenty-five?

BS: Yes, I mean they’ve been accumulating over the years and I’ve also had to retire many of them because at a certain point you just can’t keep on using them. I remember taking two big boxes full of t-shirts to the Brown Elephant [a Chicago thrift store] a while back and thinking “Man, I hope whoever ends up buying these actually likes geeky shirts.” I don’t think that I have a single favorite one, but I think the ones that I particularly like are the ones that require the understanding of one or more fandoms to actually get because then if someone reacts to them and actually gets them, you’re like, “Oh yeah, you get what’s going on here.”

CM: Are you referring to a specific shirt?

BS: So, for example, I have this one shirt that manages to be both a reference to Battlestar Galactica and Twilight at the same time. Someone will see it and say, “Oh, that’s a Twilight reference, but I don’t recognize the guy.” It has Edward James Olmos on the T-shirt, “But I don’t recognize that guy.” Or someone will say, “Hey, that’s Battlestar Galactica,” but they won’t get there’s a Twilight reference there. When someone gets both, I’m like, “Yessssss.”

CM: Okay, back to computer science. What are your thoughts on the CS department being moved to Crerar?

BS: The department of computer science has been growing tremendously in the last couple of years. Interest in computer science has been growing tremendously over the last couple of years. This is not unique to UChicago, this is something we’re hearing from a lot of departments around the country, which is that more and more people are realizing that computer science is not an insular discipline just for the computer geeks: that it really is a very valuable skill to have no matter what you consider your primary field of expertise.

For example, I co-teach CS 121, which is the first class in the intro sequence for non-majors. The students who take this class, for the most part, are students who are coming from a whole bunch of other majors and they’re not taking this class to check off a requirement or to just say “Okay, I’ll get some exposure to this and I’ll be a more complete individual and I’m never actually going to see or use this ever again in my life.” Most of the people who come to this class realize that this is a skill that they’re probably going to have to use if not in school, probably in their careers, and it’s going to be a valuable skill they’re going to have to have.

I think because of that, there’s a much bigger influx of students who want to take computer science, not just here but all around the country. That poses a problem in terms of being able to actually provide a good and a solid educational experience to all those students, both the ones who are non–computer science majors and the ones who are pursuing a computer science major or minor.

We’re already splitting at the seams. We recently had to overflow into Eckhart because we couldn’t fit everyone in Ryerson, so I think that the move to Crerar is going to be very positive in the sense of being able to have everyone under the same roof and to accommodate growth, because the University has actually been very supportive of the department of computer science, and supporting the hiring of more faculty, having more resources for the department…I think it’s going to enable us to grow as a department and to also provide a better educational experience to students who want to pursue a computer science education at any level, as a major or even as someone from another major who wants to learn those skills.

CM: Okay, I have one more question. For your 36th birthday, you are fundraising for the Center on Halsted, an organization seeking to secure the well-being of the LGBTQ+ community in Chicago. You promise to match the first $2,500 of donations, having raised $1,379 so far. Last year, you did a similar birthday fundraising project for the Ali Forney Center and raised $1,731, which you also matched. What led you to start raising money for the LGBTQ+ community on your birthday, or in general?

BS: Well, there’s two aspects to that. One is that this is something I’ve been doing for a number of years now and it came from a desire to give back to the community in some way. I’ve always struggled with how I could do that. I grew up in Spain, which interestingly was one of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage, but also has a very macho culture.

Growing up as a gay kid in Spain wasn’t exactly easy. I didn’t come out of the closet until I was 19 or 20 years old. Now I see kids coming out when they’re 11, when they’re 12, or they come to college and they’re already out and proud, and that’s amazing. I feel like if I had had the kind of support network that exists now—I mean I turned out all right, but I think I probably would have had a much easier childhood, a much easier sort of figuring out the being gay thing.

I felt like I was, in a sense, very fortunate. My parents were totally cool with it, all my friends were totally cool with it, the whole process of coming out was kind of…. At the beginning you had to sit people down and be like, “I need to tell you something about me,” but then I’d hear about all of these horror stories of people who would come out to their parents and be kicked out of their homes, or they would be ostracized, or they would have to move to a different city, et cetera. I felt like I’d like be able to help in some way, and I wasn’t exactly sure how I could do that. Maybe there were volunteer opportunities or stuff like that.

Then I sort of figured, “Well, I’m sort of fairly privileged. If anything, at the very least, I should be providing financial support to all of these causes.” So that’s what led me to that form of support. I give to LGBTQ+ charities throughout the year.

I started doing it because of my birthday, and my birthday is still when I give my single biggest gift, but it’s not limited to just my birthday. Now why it started specifically on my birthday was I had a birthday party at my place in 2010 and I specifically told people no presents because I don’t want any situations where someone brings a really fancy present and someone feels bad because they didn’t bring a present or they brought a token gift or anything like that. And then someone did bring me a gift even though I said not to bring a gift and someone felt awkward because they said, “I didn’t realize we should have brought you a gift.”

So the next year I said “If you feel like you need to get me a gift, instead you should just give a donation to an LGBTQ+ charity.”

That year I chose the Trevor Project, which I fundraised for a number of years. The Trevor Project helps at risk LGBTQ+ youth; it helps with anti-bullying efforts and stuff like that. Even though I personally wasn’t bullied when I was in school, all of the stories that come out of kids committing suicide and kids being bullied for being gay just really struck a chord with me. I felt like I really wanted to focus on helping those kind of causes, so I said “If you really feel the need to get me a gift, just give to The Trevor Project and that will be your gift to me.” The first time I did it, someone showed up with a receipt and said, “Look, I paid this much to The Trevor Project.” But we raised like $200. Then I’m like “Whoa, maybe if I do a better job of organizing this, we can maybe raise some serious money.” So then it became an actual, you know…. There’s a website where I do the fundraiser called Razoo where the contributions that you give to them, even though you’re not directly giving to the specific LGBTQ+ charity, it still counts as a gift to a charity. They redirect the gift to them. I set up a fundraiser with them and throughout the day if anyone wishes me a happy birthday on Facebook, I will write a post and say, “Thank you for the birthday greetings, but if you really want to wish me a happy birthday, go give money over here.” You get a lot of small donations just like that because someone’s like “Oh, I can give $5 for this.” The small donations pile up and you end up getting this really big gift you can give to this charity. It feels like I don’t really need gifts or anything like that for my birthday. Feeling like I’m doing some good in some way makes me feel much better during my birthday than by receiving gifts of the box-with-a-pretty-bow-on-top variety.

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