All posts by Ruth Chabay

Moving to High Point University

Starting in January 2017 I’ll be teaching at High Point University, in North Carolina. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to teach small classes, and to work in an institution that places a strong emphasis on undergraduate education. The physics department at High Point is innovative and willing to experiment with new approaches to teaching, so this will be exciting!

Phlogiston Software

Seeing an outline font recently reminded me of my first business cards, on which I was president of a not-quite fictitious company called Phlogiston Software.  At the time (early 80s) I was freelancing and writing educational software on Apple IIs.  My experience in the PLATO project had taught me a lot about the minimum requirements for educational software.  Most microcomputer software at the time violated all these tenets — for example, it let users get stuck with no way to retreat or move on, providing neither hints nor help nor a way to retreat to a table of contents.  My basic goal was to produce software that established a baseline for usability and educational utility.  (The end product, co-authored with the late Stan Smith, was called “Introduction to General Chemistry”, published by a company initially called COMPress and later Falcon Software.  It ended up doing significantly better than setting a baseline, winning one of the first EDUCOM  / ENCRIPTAL Higher Education Software Awards.)

I invented Phlogiston Software when I discovered that nobody in the Bay Area, where I was living, would give me the time of day if I tried to explain that I was freelancing, but my background was…  On the other hand, “This is Ruth Chabay from Phlogiston Software” was a magical phrase that opened doors and provided invitations to talk to AI researchers, participate in university seminar series, and embark on new projects.  I filed for a fictitious business name, so the “company” was actually legit, but I remained bemused by the power of a corporate name.

One of my favorite incidents was an encounter with a well-known science educator at a conference.   Peering at my nametag, he said “Oh yes, of course, that’s where you are.”   I managed to keep a straight face, despite having made up the name only the previous day.

I still keep a few of the business cards, to remind me how much perceived status plays a role in success, not just in business, but in higher education and the scientific research community.  Getting a chance to tell your story matters.