In Appreciation of Greg Wilson

As he moves on from his role at R Studio Education, a few words of appreciation for Greg Wilson.


March 14, 2021

As a baby professor there is a lot that causes me to wake up crying during the night. But the main reason is teaching. Having largely spent five years alone in an office working on projects by-myself, the idea that I should stand in front of (or Zoom to) one- to two-hundred students and competently teach is still a tad surprising. Greg Wilson is the only reason that I no longer wake up wracked with concern about at least this aspect of baby professor life.

Greg established and, until recently, ran instructor training at R Studio. This involved putting together and teaching a two-day course about the Tidyverse (there’s also a Shiny version that I didn’t do). After the course, Greg assessed you on a one-to-one basis and when he was happy he certified you.

The training assumed that you already knew R (essentially to the level of R4DS). It’s not about R, it’s about teaching you how to teach R. We covered an awful lot, but some highlights include:

My guess is that none of this is pedagogical rocket science, but it’s not something that I knew, or even thought about, before Greg’s course. More important than any specific aspect, Greg provided a foundation for my teaching on which I can iterate and evolve. There’s the famous Cheshire Cat quote in Alice in Wonderland about needing to have a destination before it matters in which direction you go. Greg provided that destination. I don’t know whether it improved outcomes for my students; but it certainly reduced how worried I was about teaching.

That all said, I think that the most important thing that I learnt from Greg is ‘Be kind: all else is details.’. Greg taught us this through his example.

By my rough count there are something like 200 R Studio certified Tidyverse instructors. A lot of them are similarly professors who will teach large classes of undergrads, smaller classes of grads, and directly supervise PhD students, who themselves will teach… If Greg caused even a one per cent improvement in the quality of the instruction of those folks, then the potential impact that he’s had is enormous.

I don’t know anything of the circumstances surrounding Greg’s departure from R Studio, and it’s none of my business either way. Greg holds a CS PhD and spent a few years as an assistant professor at the Toronto CS department a few years back. He founded Software Carpentry. In an ideal world we would find space for him at the university. But regardless of what happens, I’ll always be grateful for his teaching, his example, and most importantly, his kindness, and hope to emulate that in my own teaching.

If you’d like to learn more about what Greg taught us you should look at his book Teaching Tech Together: It’s all good, but even just skimming ‘The Rules’ is worthwhile.

A month or so ago, Greg stopped by the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto and taught a class about ‘How to Run a Meeting’. If you’d like to see the recording of that you can do so here:

A bunch of other folks have written more about the training and you can read some of them here: