It’s magic

This week I’m at SIGITE/RIIT 2014 in Atlanta. I’ve been at the SIGITE conferences continually since 2010, but this is the year that I served as program co-chair. The work of putting together the program ate a large portion of my summer, and the exhaustion that I’ve complained about so much recently is directly related to that. In my exhaustion I have to admit that I wasn’t looking forward to attending the same way I have in the past.

Now that the conferences are taking place and I’m attending sessions and roaming through the poster session, I’ve discovered something amazing. I first got to know this work in July, at which point all of it was just text on the screen. My fellow co-chair and I shaped all the submissions into sessions, found chairs for the sessions, and set the authors to work finalizing their submissions. In the months between when we constructed the program and now, the memory of it faded a bit. As I now attend the sessions, it feels like a dream I had coming to life. Watching the session chairs and authors work together to present the work and seeing people stand by posters with incredibly familiar material is astonishing and deeply satisfying. None of the work is mine, but I feel an incredible connection to all of it. I’ve never been so engaged in any conference as I am right now. And I have to say that watching it spring to life is worth every minute I’ve spent.

I used to like October

For a very long time October was my favorite month. I think it started when I began at the University of Chicago in the early 90s, where the fall quarter didn’t even begin until October. The month meant fresh starts, cooler (but not cold) weather, and new energy. Even after I moved to DePaul where the fall quarter begins in September, October was still a happy time for me. Halloween is my favorite holiday, I love walking on brightly colored leaves, and while the amount of sun is waning it’s still bright enough for me to feel cheerful.

But somehow over the past four years, October has become the month of crushing pressure. It started when I attended the SIGITE conference for the first time in 2010, the same year I was first elected to the SIGCSE board. The SIGITE conference is always in October as are the SIGCSE board meetings, and traveling twice in a month automatically makes it stressful. Once I started on SIGITE conference organization and became the SIGCSE treasurer, the workload grew. Add in research projects, midterm exams, academic progress reports, and advising, and suddenly the month of October is a pressure cooker. Even the smallest additional tasks, like Academic Integrity violations or recommendations, is enough to make it feel like I can’t possibly get it all done. To be fair, I almost always do finish everything in October. But it’s draining, and with the stressful summer I had I’m finding it hard to maintain anything remotely resembling a positive attitude.

So I’m making a vow to try to find a way to make October fun again. I’m not sure that 2015 will be the first year I can implement this plan, given that we’re hosting the SIGITE conference in Chicago. But I will work to find ways to relieve the pressure or at the very least to be more prepared for the push. I want my favorite month back.

A little experience goes a long way

For at least the past decade my main teaching focus has been introductory programming. The language and context have differed as our curriculum and the courses I taught shifted, but I primarily spend my time teaching relatively inexperienced people to program. For the most part I love it. There is something special about being a student’s first programming instructor, which is partially why I think many of my students are so enthusiastic when they see me in the hallways or at events. It’s also a challenging enough task that I don’t ever find myself bored, which means I’m generally quite happy about what I do.

But I also have to admit that developing and teaching the accelerated Python course was a revelation for me. It has been historically unusual for me to teach people who have successfully learned a (different) programming language before, and there were a lot of things I didn’t anticipate about it. To begin with, they always get and laugh at my jokes, which seems trivial but is in fact a lot of fun. More significantly, they pay rapt attention to more esoteric things like a discussion of how Python treats objects and memory. They really want to know why it is that an assignment of a variable to a list acts differently than an assignment of a variable to an integer, and you can see it in their eyes and their body posture when you draw pictures of the representations on the board. It’s also easier to give them general hints on assignments and have them run with your vague ideas to produce working solutions. Perhaps more importantly, when they get working results they get genuinely excited about it. For example, I made a suggestion to a student about modifying a nested loop on this week’s assignment, and I got the following response:

Ohhh okay, thank you! I just sat and fiddled with it for awhile after getting it to work in order to fully understand what was actually happening after your hint, and when I realized that the range in the second for loop was getting smaller as the first for loop iterates I kind of exploded. That’s so coooool!

People learning their first language are a little too overwhelmed to experience giddiness rather than relief, so seeing a student so happy about discovering why and how his solution is working is such fun. I enjoy teaching novices too much to completely give it up, but having a class where I interact with more experienced programmers is a good balance and something about which I’m grateful.

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  service 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.


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