15 Faculty Hot Shots: David Malan

Standing casually in the hallway of Maxwell Dworkin’s third floor, bespectacled and wearing a basic brown sweater, David J. Malan ’99 explains why he thinks computers are sexy. “I think that once you’ve become sufficiently acclimated to the world of computer science, you do begin to see sexiness in lines of code and an elegance that someone who hasn’t taken a class like CS50 would never notice,” says Malan. When asked what he thinks the sexiest thing about working on computers is, he laughs: “We don’t really talk in superlatives.”

As the instructor for Computer Science 50, Harvard’s introductory Computer Science course, Malan is on a mission to catapult computer science to the forefront of students’ academic interests. “He has this motivation to enroll as many people as possible into the course,” says head teaching fellow and former student A. Cansu Aydede ’11. The CS50 fair, which took place this year and allowed students to showcase their final projects to the larger community, is evidence of this mission.

Malan says that his motivation to broaden CS50’s appeal stems from his own experience with the class when he was an undergraduate at Harvard. Originally a government concentrator, he didn’t take CS50 until his sophomore year. “It was reputed even among the geeky circles I was already running with that it was a scary course, that it was supposed to have a lot of work,” says Malan.

Since he began teaching the course two years ago, Malan has sought to dispel this stigma. He’s brought in LOLcatz, physically ripped a phonebook in half to demonstrate binary search, and even debuted a clothing line of CS50 apparel. His former Mather House Master, Sandra A. Naddaff ’75, is hardly surprised by these endeavors. “He has a very entrepreneurial spirit as well as real intellectual creativity and he’s not afraid to use it in the classroom,” says Naddaff.

Professor and Associate Dean for Information Technology Henry H. Leitner attributes increasing enthusiasm for Computer Science to Malan’s dynamic approach. “Malan has almost single-handedly been responsible for significant increases in the Computer Science concentration,” says Leitner.

Although he is focused on innovation, Malan’s energy remains targeted at students. “He does a good job making people feel involved with lots of interactive demonstrations, and always being accessible,” says Gregory D. Brockman ’12, one of Malan’s students.

Creating podcasts and holding weekly lunches for students, Malan seeks to be a pioneer in ways that extend beyond the material he teaches. He is breaking new ground by making the course available online to people outside the Harvard community, holding virtual office hours that enable students to communicate with him or a Teaching Fellow via the course Web site.

Malan, who was first appointed a lecturer at the Extension School during his senior year at the College, says that he aims to constantly change and improve. Yet in spite of the praise he has received from students, Malan characterizes his path to teaching as sort of a fluke.

“I never imagined that I would be doing what I’m doing right now. I started teaching because I wanted to get better at public speaking,” says Malan, “My junior year of college I ran for the UC, lost miserably, and realized painfully during that process that I had lost or never had a very good knack for public speaking.”

Since then, he has worked to improve those skills, and hopes to keep them in use. “I will teach CS 50 for as long as they will let me,” says Malan, “It is what I love. “