A benefit to stubbornness

I just got back from the 2014 International Conference on Frontiers in Education: Computer Science and Computer Engineering (FECS) held in Las Vegas every year. I’ve previously written about my mixed feelings toward the conference, particularly with respect to the different culture from the ACM conferences. This year I concluded that their approach to organization just makes it too hard to meet people, especially since the breaks this year were very poorly attended. I’m not sure I’ll be going back to the conference.

But I have to say that the conversation inspired by the second of my talks, entitled “Building a Linked-Courses Learning Community for Introductory Development Majors,” was a high point of the conference. There was a miscommunication on the part of the conference organizers so that on the last day of the conference the program posted didn’t list my talk. I made a big fuss, and they responded nicely making sure that it got changed. As it turns out, I traded with another speaker so that there were plenty of people in attendance when I spoke. One of the people attending the talk was one of the organizers, and he asked a lot of questions afterward about the broadening participation aspects of the project. It surprised me a bit that he, and the rest of the audience, knew little about the literature, but I was happy to discuss it.

One of the things I discussed was girls’ attitude toward failure, which is highlighted in a recent CNN opinion piece provocatively titled “Why Do Women Fail”. Reading the article on CNN and recalling the conversation I had with the organizer and other members of the audience reminds me that I am gifted (cursed?) with a large stubborn streak. I only minored in computer science in college, and my computer science classes were my hardest and earned me the lowest grades. But I didn’t hesitate for a minute to go to graduate school in CS rather than math because I thought it was more fun. I’m sure that the same phenomenon was at work when I learned to climb despite being desperately afraid of heights. The things I find hardest also inspire me to push myself as I stubbornly refuse to give in to early failure. Of course, it also makes me nearly impossible to deal with at times, as the people closest to me know too well.

Give me flexibility or give me death

The middle of July has rolled around, which means it’s finally starting to feel like summer for me. Yes, I have a lot more work to do this year than during previous summers, including multiple conference presentations, conference organization, and work on at least four research projects, but I’m also doing things like blowing off an afternoon to watch the World Cup. A couple of things have recently reminded me how much I prize the flexibility I have in the summer.

First, I had a meeting with someone from the company where I have my retirement accounts. They have wealth management services, which is as near as I can tell is a way of checking that you’re not delusional about your retirement saving plan, and I finally made the time to schedule a meeting. During the meeting she asked me if I consulted and she also asked if I taught during the summer. The answer to both is a clear no, mostly because I have no interest in burning valuable summer hours on things other than research and important service projects. She was sympathetic, although I suspect that was mostly her doing her job of being charming.

Then yesterday I had a meeting that couldn’t be made virtual, so I had to head downtown. I was so resistant to this. The only way I found to make it tolerable was to bring my daughter, who has a gift for turning ordinary experiences into fun adventures. Without her I would have spent the entire time being resentful of the fact that I was commuting or having to be in the office, which is a huge overreaction to a commitment that was in total four hours long. That experience was yet another sign to me that having the ability to decide when and where I do my summer work is the absolute biggest benefit of my job. I’m also reasonably sure that it means I will never (ever) take an administrative position.

Thanks for doing the right thing

As anyone who stands still long enough to hear knows, I’m serving as a program co-chair for SIGITE/RIIT 2014 this year. While it’s a ton of work, it’s been a great experience so far. Seeing the entirety of submissions for two conferences gives me a lot more perspective on how conference programs are put together and on the type of research that’s being done in IT and IT education. I’m glad I volunteered to do it.

Of course there are aggravating things too, as anyone who’s helped with conference organization knows, and my latest annoyance is reviewing. Anyone who submits to conferences has their favorite story about the horrible and/or contradictory reviews they’ve gotten, but my current issue isn’t even that. I don’t think anyone but a member of a program committee knows how many people simply don’t do their reviews. It’s such a known problem that almost all conferences have a pool of emergency reviewers to handle the spillover from the slackers. But this year we’re adding meta-reviewing to the conferences, so many of the people we would have used for emergency reviews are already signed up to do that. As a result we as the program co-chairs are having to do an almost absurd number of reviews, which would have only been worse if the SIG chair hadn’t sacrificed part of his vacation to help us out. I think I’ll volunteer to recruit reviewers for the conferences next year to make sure the next program chair has an easier time of it.

But the biggest thing I’m taking away from the experience is a sense of gratitude for all those people who do the right thing when it comes to the small things in our jobs. I have a new appreciation for people who sign up to help with conference reviewing,  the reviewers who complete their work on time, and even for the colleagues who answer their email in a timely fashion. The small things are easy to not take seriously, but it makes my life (and many other peoples’ lives) easier when someone does. So thanks to all of you who do the right thing. I hope it helps to know that someone is paying attention.

Disagree with me

I returned from ITiCSE 2014 last week, but this is the first chance I’ve had to catch my breath. Jet lag combined with a nasty allergic reaction and piles of work that greeted me when I landed have conspired to keep me from thinking much about the conference. But my allergy is calming down and I’ve adjusted to the time change, so I have space to think about the conference a bit.

I had two main things to do at the conference. The first was participate in a working group, which I had never done before. The group I chose was the one on computational thinking in the K-9 curriculum, and my group was fantastic. We worked together well, and while our report still needs some edits I think we’ll have something nice to send to the reviewers by the end of this month. It was a good stretch for me to think about CT in the context of elementary education, and I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to collaborate even after our report is done and published.

The other task at the conference was a panel. The topic was motivation and programming, and my fellow panelists were everything I could have hoped for. I had never met the third panelist until it was time to present, but the second panelist chose (him) well and I think we gave a cohesive and thought-provoking presentation. I say this in no small part because the discussion after our panel was quite lively, stopping only when I called it because it was time for lunch. A good number of the comments afterward indicated that the person speaking disagreed in some way with what we (ok, mostly me) had to say, but that was fine. As I told people afterward who asked about the panel, I would rather have people disagree with me vocally than stay quiet. So I deem the panel to have been quite successful.

Thinking about my reaction to the discussion after the panel made me realize that I’ve come a long way in my response to disagreement. It used to be that I shied away from arguments and conflict, but increasingly I’m finding that I enjoy it as long as the person who is disagreeing with me has interesting things to say and keeps it civil. In fact, one of my new collaborators this past academic year is most notable for his tendency to constantly disagree with me, and I find that I absolutely love it. It keeps me thinking and interested, and I think I learn a lot more than if he were agreeing with me all the time. That I would learn to embrace disagreement the way I have is something my younger self would have never predicted.


I’ve finished teaching my classes for the spring quarter, with only two final exams between me and the summer break. The final stretch of the spring quarter has felt like an odd combination of a sprint and an endurance event, since I’m both jumping from imminent deadline to imminent deadline and completely exhausted. The end of a term is never easy, but since the spring quarter is the last one of the academic year there are piles of unique tasks that belong to it, like interviewing and hiring Python teaching assistants for next academic year.

Normally I tolerate the frenetic pace at the end of the spring quarter fairly well since I know that the more relaxed summer break is coming. While I’m never not working I do have fewer responsibilities in the summer and a more flexible schedule. Sadly though that’s not so true this year. I’m serving as program co-chair for SIGITE/RIIT 2014, and the majority of the work putting together the program will be in June, July, and August.  This month I’m going to a workshop in D.C. and attending ITiCSE in Uppsala. In addition to preparing a panel for ITiCSE, I’m on a working group this year and have tasks that need to get done prior to leaving for Sweden. To round out the work trips, I’ll be presenting two papers at FECS in Las Vegas in July.

The start of summer also means lots of family events, including school shows, field trips, camping trips, and vacations. So while I never learned to juggle, I have to imagine that the feeling I have right now is familiar to those who do. I have so many things in the air that it feels like one slip will cause a cascade of things to pile on top of me. I’m fairly proud that a regimented use of to-dos has so far helped me to keep it together. I just hope that I maintain the rhythm long enough for the tasks to vanish before they fall.

The magazine barometer

The end of the spring quarter is only one week away, and warm temperatures finally seem to be lingering in Chicago. The end of the academic year and the start of summer always makes me turn to cleaning up around the house. One of the things I periodically tackle is the stack of magazines that sit next to my bed. I don’t subscribe to many magazines since I most often would rather be reading books or academic papers, but I do have a few subscriptions. And I have discovered that the magazines are an excellent barometer of how busy my academic year has been. The more back issues of my least favorite subscription there are, the busier my year has been.

It would appear, given the cleaning I did this weekend, that my academic year got insane in October. And that matches my recollection: I started on two new collaborations in October, which only escalated as 2014 progressed. This may be a new record for a magazine backlog. Let’s just hope that I don’t beat it in 2015 when I’m a conference co-chair or I may have to cancel some subscriptions. Reading recipes for Christmas cookies in June just isn’t that much fun.

Caring and teaching

My biggest to-do today is to grade the last set of midterms, but before I get to that I have one more article I have to mention. It was another of those from the I-really-should-read-this-sometime stack that finally got tackled during proctoring this week. The title Do Your Students Care Whether You Care About Them? was no doubt the reason I downloaded it in the first place, and it didn’t disappoint. The thesis of the article is that there is a gap between the importance that students and faculty place on the interpersonal relationship between instructor and student. The author deftly argues that several things faculty measure, like student satisfaction and learning, are impacted by the impression that students have of faculty attitudes toward them. He then goes on to suggest ways that faculty can improve their relationship with students, without negatively impacting things like authority and learning standards. I found the suggestions he had helpful enough that I offered to present the paper next week at a newly-formed lunchtime meeting of faculty in my college.

The thing I found most interesting about the article though was the author’s suggestions for future work. He first notes that the importance that faculty place on rapport with students varies greatly by discipline:

Hoyt and Lee (2002) reported that professors from some fields generally assign relatively low importance to developing rapport in their instruction (e.g. chemistry, computer science, history), other endorse moderate importance (e.g. biology, mathematics, psychology), and some greatly value rapport building (e.g. communications, education, English literature).

That computer science is specifically mentioned as an “uncaring” field isn’t a surprise to me given other things I’ve read about the atmosphere in CS classrooms. He then goes on to ask a bunch of really interesting questions about rapport with respect to both disciplines and faculty status, including:

  • Do students consequently expect more or less care depending on the discipline?
  • Do they compare instructors within a particular field against each other, or do they compare professors across disciplines?
  • Does this suggest that students within particular majors systematically have more distant relationships with faculty members throughout their education?
  • Are female faculty members expected to care more about students than are men, and are they consequently held to a higher standard?
  • Does the need to express care differ by professors’ race and ethnicity?
  • Does rapport building by faculty of color encourage greater student trust and respect, or does it unintentionally undermine their credibility and authority given societal prejudices?

It’s clear to me that I’m going to have to spend part of the summer tracking down further research on this subject. I want to know if anyone has answered these questions!


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