Voices from the past

As tired as I am, the start of the fall quarter has felt more discouraging than usual. Normally the energy I feel from being back tends to dissipate any unhappiness from watching students struggle with programming, but this quarter it’s gotten to me much more. It’s been painful to watch my some of my students drop the course as they decide that it’s not right for them. And to be fair, a lot of them are doing really well. But when I’m tired, I’m more negative and less able to see the bright side of things.

So the timing of two comments from former students couldn’t be better. Yesterday I had an advising meeting with a former student. When he was a first-year student there were many fewer sections of the Python courses since computer science majors were the only ones taking them and the CS enrollments were smaller then. As a result, I taught nearly all of the people majoring in CS for their first two programming classes. We talked about what he needs to do to graduate, and near the end of the meeting he told me that he and his classmates often say to each other that they wished I was there to teach them whatever it is that they’re learning. It was such a sweet thing to say and so spontaneously shared that it made me very happy.

Then today I got an email from a student who took the accelerated Python course with me last year. He wrote:

I just had to say: thanks again for being a great professor. The skills I learned in your class have stuck with me, and are really helping me in CSC 300. In particular, every time I start to solve a problem, I always think about the special cases first — it really helps!

That he took the time to contact me and specifically mentioned my technique for tackling recursion is so great.

I don’t know whether they realize it, but these two have given me the energy to get through another week. That’s so valuable to me right now.

Yes kids, I’m old

Although I have an account on the site and regularly get requests from students and colleagues, I don’t consider myself to be an avid LinkedIn user. But the site has caught my attention recently. A reminder to people that my work anniversary was here must have gone out, and for some reason it’s caught on with my connections. I’ve had several people congratulate me on it, which I suppose makes sense given that 18 years on the job is somewhat impressive.

At the same time, the number didn’t mean much to me until the start of this quarter. I usually give a brief biography of myself on the first day of class, typically telling them where I got my various degrees and when I started teaching at DePaul. When I gave this little speech to my Introduction to Computer Science course, which consists almost entirely of first-year students, they looked visibly shocked when I told them I had been teaching at DePaul since 1996. Doing the math in my head I realized that I had been teaching at DePaul as long as most of them had been alive, hence the surprised looks. So I followed up their shocked looks with the comment that I was in fact old, which I’m sad to say didn’t get even a laugh since I’m sure they all firmly believe it.

I’ve written before that the increasing age gap between me and my students is a good thing, making me into more of a mother figure. But I recently realized that in another 18 years, which I”m sure will fly by before I know it, I’ll be more of a grandmother figure to them. I plan to bake more cookies and tell them stories about the bad old days when I had to wait fifteen minutes for my program to compile on the mainframe at the University of Arizona. I can’t wait!

I quit

It’s the start of the fall quarter, which means it’s time for my annual selection of committees. One of the best things about the College of Computing and Digital Media (CDM) is that we don’t have departments. It’s a highly flexible and freeing system that allows anyone with an interest in a particular curricular area to participate. But like most good things, it has a downside, which in this case is a dizzying array of committees. Every fall faculty are asked to specify in which committees they would like to serve, and it’s such a monumental process that we have an automated system for it.

I’ve always tried to be judicious in my choice of ┬áservice work, but it’s difficult since there are so many great committees and organizations for which I would like to work. Even my careful selection has left me feeling overworked, no doubt because serving as program co-chair in 2014 and conference co-chair in 2015 for SIGITE/RIIT is a huge undertaking. So I’ve found myself in the past few months looking at my typical service commitments with a very critical eye. In May I resigned from an editorial review board for two journals on which I served since 2007. I just didn’t have the time or energy anymore for it. I’ve toyed with the idea of resigning from the other editorial advisory board to which I currently belong, although I haven’t yet pulled the trigger there.

With all this in mind, I decided to not rejoin a CDM program committee on which I’ve served for the past decade. I’ve enjoyed the committee, and I’m still interested in the work they’re doing. But I will have so much to do in the next year that I just won’t be able to put the time into that it would need. It’s hard to quit, but it’s probably for the best. The good part is that if I miss it, I can always rejoin next year. I do love my college.

Change overload

The fall quarter starts tomorrow, and typically this time of year has me excited for the fresh start. Stepping back on campus after 2-3 months away and seeing a new batch of students usually makes me giddy and nervous all at the same time. Unfortunately this year I’m feeling less than energized about the new quarter. Part of it is no doubt due to a too busy summer in which I wrote five papers, took three work-related trips (plus two trips for fun), and helped put together the program for an international conference (ok, two, but they’re happening at the same time). Summer wasn’t restful, so new starts don’t seem as appealing as usual.

But I don’t think that explains it all. In fact, I suspect that I’m suffering from change overload. I’ve written before that change is one of the things I like about being in computer science education, and I stand by that. I think I would be bored if things stayed the same all the time. It’s just that recently I’ve experienced a lot of changes, both in my personal and professional life, and it’s tiring me. Most of the personal changes (a cat dying, another cat in the hospital, favorite restaurants and the spa I’ve gone to for ten years closing) and professional changes (starting four new research projects, finally having to switch web editors, moving to a new system for one of my classes) are small. But the accumulation of a bunch of small changes has me feeling stubborn and resistant. I feel like yelling: “Stop with the changes already!”

Part of me wonders if it’s a side effect of aging, since older people tend to be less willing to change. But then I remember that my students are resistant to change too, with the funniest (and most common) example being the student who suddenly switches seats during the fifth week of the quarter and then endures the nasty stares from his/her classmates. Typically once I get over being resistant, I usually find that the change isn’t so bad. The new web editor has much nicer features than the old one, the interface on the new system is better than the old, and the new research projects are incredibly fun. I’ll try to remember that when the next change comes along, although I make no promises in my current state.

Walk a mile in my shoes

My busiest summer ever is about to end, which has me thinking about one of the tasks that took a large chunk of my time. 2014 is the year that I’m serving as program co-chair of the SIGITE/RIIT conference, as a warm-up for co-hosting the conference in Chicago in 2015. I knew it would be a lot of work, but some aspects of it took more time than I expected. We didn’t recruit enough reviewers so that my fellow co-chair and I ended up doing an absurd number of reviews. We added meta reviewing this year, which pushed a lot of the deadlines to their limit and complicated matters. And the conference submission system was fussier than I expected. While I got through the experience, it was bumpy, which I suppose every program chair ever would probably also say.

What strikes me looking back, since the tasks for 2014 are almost done, is that I learned a lot about what goes into conference organization. Someone justifiably called putting together the program as “sausage making,” something I can’t disagree with. Although it’s not surprising, I didn’t realize that faculty are just as bad about deadlines as students. All people procrastinate, but when you’re caught between the publisher and the authors it’s even more frustrating than when it’s just between you and the students. Trying to organize coherent sessions once you’ve picked the papers can be a challenge, but accepting a paper just because it plays well with other submissions doesn’t seem like a good solution either. You don’t make friends when you reject papers, regardless of what the reviewers have to say about the submission. Yes, you have to keep the acceptance rate low, but that isn’t something you should say to authors because it’s no comfort at all. Being a program chair after the notifications are out is not a way to feel popular.

The experience has put my complaints about conferences into perspective. Yes, I did try to do things that would make the experience better for authors and reviewers, but some things are just an unhappy part of the process. It has given me a lot more sympathy for anyone who serves as program chair, and I’m hopeful that it means I’ll be less grumpy about future conferences I attend. In some ways it reminds me of my short-lived job as a cashier at McDonald’s. That job was stressful and customers were awful, and since the day I quit that job nearly 30 years ago I have done my absolute best to be polite and civil with restaurant workers no matter how incompetent they may seem. Learning the same lesson for my adult career seems well worth the many hours I spent this summer.

Confession: I like research meetings

I have a confession to make that will shock anyone who knows me even slightly: I like research meetings. Why is this shocking? Because meetings are the thing I hate most about my job, even above grading. In the vast majority of cases having a meeting feels like punishment to me: I have to come sit in a small room with a bunch of people who are typically there because they are trying to get me to do some work. As a result I lose one or more hours of my life (plus commute time) at the same time as I gain yet more work.

So what’s different about research meetings? To start with, a large portion of the people I’m having the meeting with are usually in a location (southern Illinois, New York, Finland) that makes an in-person meeting difficult, so typically everyone is pleased with the idea of a virtual meeting. This automatically means I can not commute, wear yesterday’s clothes, not shower, etc. without offending anyone (other than my cats). Being a research meeting, we are also talking about one of my favorite aspects of my job which moderates the whole having-a-meeting thing. But, most importantly, the people I’ve been lucky enough to work on research projects with are just loads of fun. They’re silly, funny, and irreverent, sometimes all at the same time. If we did live closer (or for those who are local, if we had more time), I would want to have dinner with them or hang out at a bar and have a beer or glass of wine. Having a meeting means I get to spend some time with them, and that’s a reward not a punishment.

Gender and our inner five year olds

It’s been a crazy summer for me. Between June 10th and August 9th I never spent more than two weeks in a row in Chicago, and the majority of those trips were for work. But one of the most rewarding experiences I had was at the ITiCSE conference, where I participated in my first working group. My fellow working group members were intelligent, hard working, and a lot of fun, and it was absolutely worth the time away from home to start what I hope will be a longer-lasting collaboration with them.

The topic of our working group was computational thinking in the elementary and middle school curriculum, something I hadn’t explored previously. Because of the targeted grades for our work, the letters “K-9″ appeared in the working group title. At one point our working group leader contacted me about the title, asking if I felt that K-9 conjured up any associations other than the lower grades. I admitted that once she mentioned it I could see the issue, but that I felt it was clear enough from the context. She took my word for it, since English isn’t her native language, and we kept the title.

It was only once I got to the conference that I understood why she was concerned. More than one person mentioned dogs when we were discussing our work, which was annoying to say the least. I was eventually reminded of the behavior I used to see in my daughter’s classmates, where one or two children find the most annoying thing they can mention about something and then bring it up over and over, stifling giggles along the way. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to tell them to restrain their inner five year old, but I plan to the next time someone mentions it.

Reflection after the fact has led me to a bigger question. Two pieces of information are relevant: (1) All of the people struggling with their inner five year old were male. (2) A majority of our working group members were female. Now I don’t believe that the people mentioning the title were targeting us because so many of us are women. I know all the men involved, and I don’t think that any of them have more gender bias than anyone else. But the behavior of mentioning something annoying over and over is something that disproportionately targets children who can be singled out for some reason: their hair, clothes, name, behavior, whatever is different from everyone else. And women are a small minority in computing. So I have to wonder how often it is that women end up being on the receiving end for these things, simply because they do stand out.

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