Thoughts about ITiCSE 2020

Today was the second and last day of ITiCSE 2020, originally scheduled to take place in Trondheim, Norway. Thanks to the pandemic the conference switched to a virtual format a few short months ago, something that produced a huge amount of work for the organizers. As grateful as I was to the organizers for making it happen at all, I headed into it worried about how it would feel. ITiCSE is my favorite conference (2020 is my 13th ITiCSE), and I didn’t know how it would translate to a virtual format. I’m happy to report that my worry was completely misplaced: ITiCSE 2020 was an amazing experience.

While the time for the first sessions each day seemed early when I looked at the program (2 am on Wednesday and 4 am on Thursday), in practice it wasn’t that bad. Travelling to Europe is exhausting and I typically don’t sleep well at conferences, so having an early wake-up on two days wasn’t much of a stretch. It helped that my partner was as supportive as always and bravely woke up to make me coffee on the first day. Of course, it also helps that my office is in the basement far away from where people sleep in my house. I know at least one attendee in a studio apartment who had to keep things quiet and dark so as to not wake up her husband.

The program was as excellent as always, and I enjoyed the shorter format for talks more than I expected. I didn’t present though, and I’m sure that it was hard for the speakers to try to condense their significant work into only 10 minutes plus 5 minutes of questions. But I felt like I got to see more because the presentations were shorter. I also felt more connected to the speakers, perhaps because I could see them and their slides so much more clearly than in a big lecture hall. Asking questions was different in a good way. There’s something enabling about the Q&A feature on Zoom webinars — it feels less intimidating somehow. It was intriguing how the chats became a way for session attendees to carry on their own conversation, and those conversations were often a great add-on to the formal presentation. Someone described it as whispering to your neighbor, except that everyone could hear what you’re saying. In real life that would be annoying, but in this case that was definitely a plus. The format also elevated the importance of session chairs. Good ones improved the session with the way they handled the questions and the speakers, and I was appreciative of their work.

I love to say that SIGCSE is about the people, and I wasn’t sure how socializing would work virtually. Again, I didn’t need to worry. While you couldn’t see anyone other than the session chair and the speakers in the webinars, the open discussion sessions were a great way to see and talk to people. I just wish I would have discovered that before the end of the first day! I augmented the conference with heavy use of social media (mostly Twitter but also Facebook a bit), which turned out far better than I would have predicted. I got to “meet” several people who were attending the same session as me thanks to their tweets, even seeing pictures of their very cute dogs. Several people who had said they were going to have to miss the conference due to reduced travel budgets were able to make the virtual conference, and I was delighted to interact with them through the various platforms. While I didn’t have any one-on-one conversations, which is something I prize at conferences, I did exchange messages with people who were also attending which was close enough to leave me happy.

Do I want to get rid of face-to-face conferences after this experience? Definitely not! I missed the breakfasts, dinners, excursions, and random walks with other conference goers, something that my family and cats simply can’t simulate. But I left the conference with the excitement about computing education and the computing education community that is the hallmark of a SIGCSE conference. I’m so grateful to the 2020 conference committee for everything they did to make this happen.

A thank-you to my students

The Spring quarter ended for me last week when I finished grading final exams and submitted my grades. The Spring quarter started at the very end of March, which meant that it was the first full quarter that DePaul switched to emergency remote learning due to the pandemic. Arranging the logistics of that meant an early end to my research leave, but as it turns out those remote classes were my lifeline to getting through the uncertain and sad months of April and May. I owe a debt to my students, and this is my thank-you to them.

Thank you for showing up. I recorded and posted each Zoom class session since I didn’t want to assume that you could attend, but many of you came anyway. Seeing your names, and in some cases your faces on the web cams, helped me to have a sense of community. I suspect from the chat logs that some of you felt the same way. Reading the jokes and kudos that you provided to each other in the chat was a fun way for me to spend the time waiting for our recordings to convert.

Thank you for your enthusiasm. When I called on you randomly during class I nearly always got an answer (right or wrong) and not a pass, something I’ve only rarely seen in person. You asked great questions about the material and why were were learning what we were, both during class and by email. I was even inspired to post a recording about object-oriented design based on one of our assignments thanks to the multiple people who tried to optimize code reuse on that question. That kind of engagement isn’t something I always see, and I was appreciative.

Thank you for your passion for learning. It was clear that you really wanted to understand what we were doing. As far as I could tell very few people bent or broke the rules about collaboration, even though the remote format made it easier and more tempting to do that. The number of you who took the final exam once it become optional and even though it couldn’t improve your grade (“for practice” as one of you said) was inspiring. Teaching people who want to learn is a joyous experience, and you provided that to me over and over.

And thank you for your compassion. Some of you showed up early every session to chat with me and others. Many of you supported each other with positive comments in and out of the class sessions. And the pictures of your dogs, cats, and other pets was a fun distraction for me precisely when I needed it. You are an extraordinary group of people, and I was lucky to have been a part of your time at DePaul.

A silver lining

While 2020 has brought much to be unhappy about, I noticed this week a small silver lining to the current pandemic. As an academic on the quarter system, May and early June tend to be a tough time for me. I’m usually tired since it’s the end of our academic year. At the same time nearly every other academic I know, and I know a reasonable number of them, is at a semester-based institution in the Northern Hemisphere which means that their academic year is over. Watching each of them post on social media about the start of their summer tends to leave me feeling envious.

This year while the “it’s over” postings on have sprouted on schedule, I don’t find myself being envious. It probably helps that I had a research leave this year so that I’m not quite as tired. But I think a much bigger part of it is that my (remote) interactions with my students are an absolute highlight of my week. Talking to them, answering their emails, and having a twice-a-week Zoom sessions with each class is one of the reasons I feel I’m able to handle the state of the world and the continuing Illinois stay-at-home order with some measure of calm. I find myself sad at the idea that the quarter will end in early June, since that feels too soon. I will miss this group of students very much.

The little things

I just finished my third week of teaching remotely. Overall I still wish I could be in the classroom with them, but I was right to think that doing this is way better than not being with my students at all. Just today my students did four things that absolutely made my heart melt:

  1. One of my students mentioned before class that some of the restaurants in Chicago with Michelin stars are starting a cheap take-out program. I insisted that he mention it on the recording once class officially started so that everyone could benefit from the wisdom, and he laughed and did.
  2. My daughter joined me for my classes, and when I embarrassed her by mentioning her birthday (tomorrow!) the students in one class responded by wishing her happy birthday. It made her day.
  3. A student emailed me excited about the idea of adding a length method to the queue class we did today. He was stuck on how to do it and wanted input. It has nothing to do with any assignment and is just a sign of his enthusiasm.
  4. In the chat window for the Zoom call today one of my students wrote: “darn, this is the only class I have that doesn’t last long enough.” We ended today about 2 minutes early when we’ve typically gone right up to time or over, so I think he was being serious.

My best days are always my teaching days, and that is not a coincidence.

A return to teaching, done remotely

The first Monday of the Spring quarter at DePaul was yesterday, and with that my research leave came to an end. It was a productive leave, and given the pandemic facing the world right now, incredibly well-timed. I managed to visit New Zealand and gather enough research data that it will take us the rest of 2020, if not beyond, to analyze and write about it. And I did all of this just weeks before the world shut down, making me feel that I expended all of my luck for 2020.

Before the extent of the pandemic became clear I was excited about getting back to the classroom and my students. I love teaching, and I get an energy from it unlike anything else in my life. So I was disappointed when it became clear that the Spring quarter would be done remotely. I’ve done online classes before and been very happy about the experience, but those classes were always constructed thoughtfully and with loads of planning and resources behind them. I could also include some in-person elements when I deemed them to be important for the learning goals of the class. Teaching under the current circumstances is instead a forced emergency, and unlike any online class I’ve created before, something that others have written about more eloquently than I could. That said, I would rather teach under these circumstances than not teach at all, so I approached the start of the quarter as positively as I could. I tried to use as many best practices from previous online courses as I could in my emergency adaptations and moved forward.

I’m happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised after the first day to discover the following things:

  • Those first-day jitters? They’re still there even (especially?) when you’re teaching synchronously online.
  • Students are still fun to interact with, even when you can only hear their voices.
  • It’s likely going to be harder to get to know my students, but not impossible. Zoom conveys more information than you might expect. And, yes, I could have probably done without seeing that unmade bed behind one of my students, but it’s no worse than pjs/bed-head/unshaven faces/etc. that I sometimes see in my physical classes.
  • I love teaching, a lot. Even remotely under terrible circumstances.

Best. Research leave. Ever.

With the start of March I’m coming to the last month of my research leave, and it has been a great one. I spent three incredibly productive weeks in Auckland gathering enough data that our research team will likely spend the rest of 2020 trying to analyse and write about it. I’ve had a chance to get back to reviewing papers again, something I gave up when I was elected SIGCSE chair. As hoped, I spend my days thinking and breathing research, which I haven’t done since my last leave in April – June 2008. I need to remember to take a leave more than every 12 years, since it’s been a real boost to my energy and enjoyment.

As suspected, taking a leave in the middle of an academic year turned out to be a stroke of genius. I have spent at least the past three years, if not longer, being incredibly stressed during Winter quarter. Not only do I have the regular teaching load but recruiting kicks into high gear and my external service is at its peak. This year I’ve been completely disengaged from both teaching and recruiting. On top of that my external service is also significantly decreased, which has meant two months of relative calm and peace. At the same time knowing that I’m going back to teaching at the end of March has helped me to maintain a steady pace of work that I struggled with during my last leave.

There are a few small downsides. I won’t know any of the new colleagues who will be joining us next year, which is a bit sad. I didn’t have the experience of students following me from the introductory programming course to the subsequent one, which can be quite enjoyable. And I’ve been a bit solitary, disengaging even from writing in this blog. But I’m very happy with what I’ve accomplished, and I’m looking forward to spending one more month with my research before I return to the usual duties.

In praise of a Winter leave

I’ve been quiet for a couple of months now on this site, something that I’m going to work to remedy in 2020. Being SIGCSE chair was exhausting and recovering my energy for writing has been slow. Happily I’m on a research leave that lasts until March 30, 2020, and I’m hopeful that will go a long way toward restoring me professionally.

I took the leave because the project I’m working on involves a summer-school class offered in the Southern Hemisphere. I can’t say that I would have otherwise chosen the Winter quarter for a leave over the Fall or Spring quarters. In my head I always reasoned that it made more sense to have a longer period of time away from teaching, and both the Fall and Spring provide that with nearly six months away from the classroom. But this leave has already surprised me in terms of the sense of restoration it’s given. The Fall quarter felt less stressful because I knew I would have nearly four months away from teaching and advising after I finished it. And yet so far I’ve maintained more energy for the work of the leave because I’m taking it in between two academic terms. I’ll have to see if this continues, but so far I’m happy about the choice to take this leave now.

Happy New Year to you all!

Brave enough to fail

Earlier this year I wrote about an experience I had using randomized cards to call on students.  Using a practice recommended by NCWIT, I create a deck of cards with a picture of each student on it. I shuffle the cards and then use them when I want to get feedback from my students. Students can answer the question, ask a significant question in response to mine, or pass. After the experience I had in the Winter quarter of last academic year, I’ve been more dedicated about using it. I also sort not completely randomly since those with fewer check marks, who have thus been called on less, are put at the front of the deck. I’m happy with the results of my new technique and my increased dedication to using it.

What surprised me this week though was what happened when I called on a student who didn’t know the answer to the question I was asking. Normally students in that situation pass, which is fine. I try to be completely neutral about the fact that a student is passing, as well as looking at it in the most positive light when they give me an incorrect answer. I will tell them in those circumstances that incorrect answers are far more interesting because they produce a better discussion. But I almost never have students who willing give an incorrect answer.

Yesterday one of my students started to pass and then stopped herself. She said she had something to share but that she didn’t think it was correct. I encouraged her to share anyway, and she did. As it turns out it did have a flaw, which we discussed. But it was useful for a harder version of the problem I had assigned to the faster students, which I pointed out. I commented it out and came back to it when we were solving the more difficult problem.

After the class was over it struck me how much courage it took that student to volunteer to give me an incorrect answer. It’s incredibly intimidating to speak up in class, which makes volunteering to put something incorrect up on a screen for 28 other people to see a brave step. And it makes me very happy that she felt she could do it in my classroom. I think it’s the best thing that will happen to me this week.

The confidence problem

The quarter started a week ago, and I’m back teaching the first Python programming classes which I haven’t done in a year. I’m doing both the first class for novices and the first class for people with some programming experience who aren’t yet ready for data structures. I’m particularly excited about this quarter because my students seem so great. They’re already interacting well with me and with each other, which has me looking forward to how things will progress.

As is typical for these classes, some of the students appear to have problems with confidence. In a particularly obvious case, I had a student in the accelerated course come with me to my office after the first class. He was questioning whether he should be in the accelerated course or whether he should move into the course for novices. When I asked him about his background he said he had taken AP CS as a sophomore in high school and earned a B. When I asked if he had taken the AP exam he said no because he didn’t think that he had learned enough and was afraid that if he passed the exam he might move into courses he wasn’t ready for. After some more conversation I diagnosed him with a confidence problem and told him that. He didn’t disagree. I’m happy to say that he’s still in the accelerated course.

In both courses we use Python Tutor for visualization, so I was particularly happy when I came across Philip Guo’s essay on silent technical privilege today. It talks about a lot of things I’ve both experienced first-hand and also seen happen with others. So I shared the essay with my students today, noting that the person who developed the visualization tool we’ll use wrote it. I suspect it’ll mean more to them coming from someone other than me.


Time for a reboot

As of July 1st I became SIGCSE’s past chair, a position I’ll hold for the next three years. I’m incredibly proud of all the work that the 2016-2019 SIGCSE Board accomplished, something that I talked about extensively in my last ACM Inroads column. My thanks again to everyone who served on the 2016-2019 Board, and welcome to everyone who joined the 2019-2022 SIGCSE Board. It’s going to be great to work with you.

I have to admit though that I’m very happy to be done being SIGCSE chair. As much as we accomplished and as much as I was honored to have had the chance to serve, it was at times an overwhelming amount of work. Just about all aspects of my life took a hit during the tough weeks, and it’s a relief to have a more manageable schedule now.

In fact, one of the delights of this summer has been planning what comes next. Yes, I took a break from a lot of work in the past two months, binge-watched Netflix, and did a long-overdue purge in our house. But I’ve also found myself drawn back into research. I currently have three papers and a panel under development, and spending my work time this summer writing has reminded me how much I love it. I have a research break scheduled January – March 2020 part of which will be spent in Auckland working on a new project. It also looks like I’ll get to travel to Ireland in December to brainstorm with someone on a new collaboration. I’ve also added reviewing back into my life, and I’m looking forward to reading other people’s research and giving them feedback on it.

I’m not sure what’s next on the horizon, but I’m looking forward to it. Oh, and I will have more work to do for SIGCSE, as past chair, as ITiCSE conference liaison, and as chair of the Travel Grant and Speaker’s Fund review committee. But it feels like a new chapter, and one I think I’ll enjoy.