Humans of SymSys: Andrew McCabe


"Start going through midlife (aka mid college) crises as early as possible. And really embrace them. The work you put into digging your way out of them will hopefully help you see new meaning in avenues and ways of thinking that you hadn't before [...] [and] try to catch yourself viewing the world as black and white..."

Andrew is studying at the Learning Design and Technology program at the Graduate School of Education. He majored in Symbolic Systems with a HCI concentration.

Introduce yourself: I'm a student in the Learning Design and Technology (LDT) program at the Graduate School of Education; I love what I do everyday. Never before have I been so happy to read what I'm being assigned in my classes, and never before have I connected on such a fundamental level to my classmates (like, mind-reading level) and material. Learning science and frameworks are definitely my jam. I was a SymSys undergrad with a concentration in Human-Computer Interaction. I spent my entire life prior to college as a student athlete balancing school with gymnastics and was on the varsity team here at Stanford for my Freshman and Sophomore year. While I'm happy to have had gymnastics be such an influential part of my life, I'm also happy to have left it behind to be able to focus on all the things it was distracting from. It was like this big distortion effect. I wanted so badly to pay attention to so many other things that felt so obviously more important but didn't have the time or energy or mental space to do it. Like, why was I at Stanford? What was I here to study? What was I going to contribute to after leaving? What do I do about my increasing suspicion that I can't solve the world's problems with tech even though everyone on my email lists is telling me I can? And of course: how was I going to pay off all my loans???? Spoiler: despite having quit gymnastics to answer these questions, I still don't know the answers. But I think that makes sense. These questions take a long time to answer and the longer I think about them, the more people I meet (like my great LDT classmates), the more I realize none of them are black and white.

What drew you to the SymSys major? Why did you pick SymSys as opposed to other (especially, related) majors? What was your concentration and why did you choose it?

I picked SymSys because my parents and I were always convinced I was interested in psychology growing up. Always thinking about "how people's brains work" (though it wasn't until senior that I took a class called relational sociology with Dan McFarland and realized that my psych interest was really an interest in sociology). I also found out about HCI as a field of study right before applying to college and I convinced myself that it was this amazing way to combine psychology and tech and make buku money doing it. Passion and money. It was a miracle. And then when it came down to it, SymSys just had less intense classes than the CS major and I was trying to avoid the harder engineering classes like the plague.

What’s your favorite SymSys-related class that you’ve taken so far?

My favorite SymSys class was probably Ling 1 (Jk). I'm not sure I really had a favorite SymSys course. To be quite honest, none of them really jammed with me. I guess I just wasn't very into thinking... symbolically? The SymSys courses I took were kind of just mandatory hurdles I had to get over in order to take my HCI classes. My favorite HCI class was CS247. It was a real confidence booster that made me finally feel like I didn't have to be good at thinking computationally or symbolically(?) to have a skill set seen as valid at Stanford. Nowadays I'm still trying to figure out where I stand on the ethics of the mindsets and practices that I think HCI + design thinking can foster but, like I said before, it doesn't seem like a black or white question anymore either.

Are you involved in research? If so, tell us about a project you are working on:

Following CS247 I worked in Michael Bernstein's lab with one of his PhD candidates Niloufar Salehi. She was a great mentor. Super compassionate, super supportive, and so so good at thinking critically and creatively about her work. Anyone that's interested in being more critical about the practice HCI should totally reach out to her. I think she has the critical consciousness and awareness (+ compassion) about her work that I wish we were all taught to have in our classes. Even though I don't think I was that much of a help to warrant being a co-author, I helped her write a paper detailing a crowd-work system called Huddler, which optimized familiarity of project teams.

What is one piece of advice you'd like to offer to younger students?

Start going through midlife (aka mid college) crises as early as possible. And really embrace them. The work you put into digging your way out of them will hopefully help you see new meaning in avenues and ways of thinking that you hadn't before. Also, I think this is the third time I'm bringing this up but, try to catch yourself viewing the world as black and white, Good and Bad. I'm a person that's often really easily influenced by my friends/the people around me and their viewpoints. Especially when they're really passionate and there's deep emotion behind what they're saying. As I've started to realize, this tendency has led me to adopt beliefs and stances that I haven't thought very critically about. Case in point, I'll feel really strongly about something and then when inquisitive people start saying, "Oh, that's interesting. Tell me more about why you feel that way," I struggle to give an answer that's based on much reasoning at all. And then a lot of what I saw as reality feels much less convincing than it did before. As enlightening as they are, I'm trying to avoid those moments in life from now on.

What underlying questions and issues do you hope to tackle/learn more about through SymSys?

None really. In undergrad I was most preoccupied with the question of why Connie Chan kept sending me emails telling me to work for X or Y AI/Machine learning start up and trying find glimpses of a world where working for one of those companies wasn't the only version of success.

As a diverse major with a lot of flexibility, many students struggle to find continuity across their coursework. (How) do you address this?

I'd say trust in your concentration. SymSys as a major didn't mean much to me as a whole. I didn't see the application of most of the general requirements to my life or future life. But I did appreciate the focus of my concentration. And in my Senior year I finally realized that HCI wasn't the only concentration that I could have taken that probably would have felt grounding. Given my current interests, I think I could have felt just as at home and productive (if not more so) in the Learning concentration. And for some, I'm really convinced of the application of Philosophical Foundations. I'm realizing now that just being able to exercise your mind in critical and curious ways is really an essential skill not just in any pursuit but also in being a fulfilled person. And I think if you go about it right then the philosophy track and others can be really good ways of building that skill.

What’s the coolest (loosely) SymSys-related topic that you’re excited about right now?

Learning! Find me on Stanford Who and ask me for my favorite readings and topics. I'd love to talk about learning science, educational philosophy, and frameworks and would be grateful to be pushed by any questions or insights you have.

Andrew is one of many profiles featuring selected alumni, undergraduates and graduates who are involved in the Symbolic Systems community.