Praised by students for his empathy and his ability to make difficult topics understandable, Abhishek Bhattacharjee, Associate Professor of Computer Science, is the winner of this year’s Ackerman Award for teaching and mentoring.
Bhattacharjee fosters a classroom culture where students are eager to take on even the thorniest material and feel supported in their efforts. It’s one of the many reasons he has been selected to receive the 2022 Ackerman Award for Teaching and Mentoring. Made possible by a generous gift from SEAS alum Robert W. Ackerman ‘60, this annual award, which includes a $5,000 cash prize, recognizes outstanding teaching and mentoring as evidenced by the faculty member’s impact on students.
A recurring theme that came up in nominating letters involved how Bhattacharjee’s dedication made the “notoriously difficult” CPSC 323 (Introduction to Systems Programming & Computer Organization), a required course for computer science majors, accessible to his students.
“Despite how intimidating the curriculum could be at times, he made it a priority to make students feel comfortable asking questions,” one student wrote. “In fact, he was very adept at pinpointing areas of confusion and helping explain concepts in different ways.”
And when classes were taught remotely, Bhattacharjee was able to maintain the same encouraging classroom environment.
“When COVID arrived, the lab meetings and one-on-ones continued virtually, with no loss of enthusiasm,” wrote another student. “Throughout the whole pandemic, Abhishek continued to make time to chat to me almost daily, either virtually, or in-person when conditions have allowed.”
Bhattacharjee said his own experiences as a student helped him develop his approach to CPSC 323.
“I remember taking classes like this one myself as a student, and I always had an eye on the things that I would do differently,” he said. “Teaching this class at Yale has allowed me to implement some of those strategies.”
He gives a lot of credit to the teaching fellows and the undergraduate learning assistants on his staff. In particular, he said teaching fellows Karthik Sriram, Richard Habeeb, and Ketaki Joshi have “helped me tremendously.”
Because of the nature of the class, he said, it’s inevitable that there’s a “degree of discomfort.”
“If we can accompany the students through that, we can get them to appreciate the material and find it rewarding.”
In the end, he said, the work that goes into the course is worth it.
“Real computer systems are highly complex, with many moving parts that must act in concert to deliver on performance and power efficiency without sacrificing functional correctness. It is vital that we train students to understand the power of future-proofed abstractions and well-defined interfaces to tame this complexity,” Bhattacharjee said. “Getting all computing layers working correctly is a function of both theoretical knowledge and actual practical implementation - and you need a class that trains students on this blend of topics.”
Despite its reputation as one of the most challenging classes in Computer Science, and therefore a “must take” for core computer science majors, he said CPSC 323 has a lot of value for others as well. This includes anyone interested in studying general principles of good design, whether it is in building computer systems or beyond.
“There are so many parallels with any kind of natural system and how humans think about that kind of complexity to try to tame it in some manner,” he said.
His goal for CPSC 323 is to bring in students from other disciplines.
“Can we make sure that this class continues delivering on quality, but can embrace the Yale community in a wide way and have a far-reaching impact? I think we can do that,” he said. “I would like this to be the most rewarding class at Yale, and I see no reason why it can’t be.”