Favorite memes as an inconclusive experiment

Most of the time I’m happy to report that my interactions with my students are very positive. Sadly, this quarter I’m having a problem I don’t understand. In one of my classes it’s frequently the case that students don’t use the examples I provide in class when completing their assignment, even when I explicitly say that the example will be useful on a particular assignment. It’s been puzzling me why students would disregard code that has been identified as useful by the instructor.

One of the theories I developed was that the students weren’t looking at the examples. So I ran a test this week. I posted a document with the title “Read before November 7th.” In the document I said that everyone submitting their favorite meme by the start of class on November 7th would get two points extra credit on the next assignment. I wanted to see if not reading posted materials was part of the problem.

Sadly, I only had three students respond. Their submitted memes are below:

In retrospect I can’t decide whether that means only three people read the document or that only three people felt printing a meme was worth getting two points of extra credit. I hate it when I don’t think through my experiments …

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Fun with midterm notes

It’s midterm season at DePaul, which means a fresh round of midterm notes for me to read. I let students bring notes to their programming midterms so that they don’t have to memorize syntax. I don’t restrict the contents of the notes, only the size and number of pages. When I talk to students about the notes I say that they can include anything they like, including code we’ve done in class, information from the book, and even memes or images that make them happy and calm.

I’ll typically get a few students who include something other than Python or tables/charts, but this quarter my introductory programming students went above and beyond on the pictures and cartoons. So for your enjoyment, I give you pictures and cartoons from the introductory Python midterm notes:

An answer about names

Sometimes in this blog I write about things that puzzle me. For example, back in 2014 I wrote about how important it is to me to learn students’ preferred names and yet how difficult it is to get them to give me the name they prefer. It turns out that an article I saw today gave me a partial answer to that question.

The article discusses the importance of teachers learning students’ names, including the correct pronunciation of those names. It talks about the negative consequences when students are called by the wrong name, which is somewhat obvious. But the less obvious point that it makes is that students who have a “difficult” or unusual name may feel like their name is a burden on the instructor. Deferring to whatever the instructor calls them is a way of minimizing that burden. The article also notes that the power dynamic between teachers and students makes it hard for students to broach the topic.

I readily admit that I’m terrible at pronunciation, but this is an important issue. So it looks like I’m going to be dedicating myself to work harder on this.

I have to believe it will change

In the past several years stories about harassment, particularly of women, have popped in and out of the headlines, both in the U.S. and other countries around the world. At the same time there has also been increasing attention paid to the lack of women in computing and the things that might be done about that. This week a story appeared that brings these two topics together.

The New Yorker reported that Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux operating system, is stepping aside from overseeing the collaborative, open-source project that maintains the system. The articles goes on to describe decades of abuse that Torvalds has unleashed on contributors to the project, including emails that tell people to “Please just kill yourself now. The world will be a better place.” While his abuse was shared broadly with both male and female contributors to the project, the article makes a reasonable case that the abusive atmosphere has done quite a bit to discourage women from joining the project. The article also interestingly points out that such an approach isn’t necessary, noting that Guido van Rossum, the creator of Python, is a self-described feminist who has actively encouraged female developers to join the Python development community.

That stories like this appear and receive attention is something I appreciate and applaud, because understanding what’s happening is the first step toward changing it. And I have to believe that things will change. It’s simply too discouraging for me to think anything else.

A little off-topic but worth the digression

For the most part I try to keep this blog focused on computing, meaning either my teaching, research, or service or broader articles or topics from the field. But today I have to stretch things to include something about astrophysics.

NPR had a story today about Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the discoverer of pulsars. As the article notes the discovery earned her thesis advisor, who initially dismissed her findings, the Nobel Prize in 1974. She was excluded from that prize, something that she is remarkably sanguine about. Instead the article reports that she was just given a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, which carries an award of $3 million dollars. That alone would make the story worth reading, but the reason I’m writing about it are the things Bell Burnell says in the article.

First, she says that she made the pulsar discovery because she had imposter syndrome: she was so worried about being kicked out of Cambridge that she worked harder than anyone. She also says that she’s donating the $3 million to the U.K.’s Institute of Physics to fund graduate scholarships for people from under-represented groups to study physics. She also has an amazing attitude about being excluded from the Nobel Prize: “If you get a Nobel prize you have this fantastic week and then nobody gives you anything else. If you don’t get a Nobel prize you get everything that moves. Almost every year there’s been some sort of party because I’ve got another award. That’s much more fun.” Her admission about imposter syndrome, her funding of scholarships, and her incredibly positive attitude make her one of my new heroes.

A new book

One of the great things about working on scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) service projects around my university is that my colleagues come to associate me with SoTL and send me notes when they see something they think might be of interest to me. Just today one colleague sent me a notice about the increase in female and minority AP CS test takers and another colleague sent an excerpt from a new book. While exciting, I’ve read a lot from friends about the AP CS news, so I’ll spend a minute talking about the book.

The title of the book is “The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: A Guide for Scientists, Engineers, and Mathematicians” by Dewar, Bennett, and Fisher, and the excerpt I was sent was the introduction. In the introduction the authors talk about several notable STEM researchers who didn’t start out doing work in SoTL but eventually drifted into it and made significant contributions to education in their discipline. These include Hans Freudenthal (mathematics), Miles Pickering (chemistry), Richard Felder (engineering), and Carl Wieman (physics). The authors then go on to argue that “doing SoTL can be rewarding for anyone in the professoriate.” I especially like their quote from Schulman that says that SoTL “helps us avoid […] ‘pedagogical amnesia,’ the many things about our teaching we forget from one semester to the next.” (And, yes, I’ll forgive their use of semester here). It’s encouraging to me to hear another voice promoting SoTL for all faculty.

Minority vs majority experiences

In North America most schools have either started again for the next academic year or will very soon. It’s an exciting time of year for us, since the start of a new academic year brings lots of new energy, hope for things that will come, and that shiny feeling that comes from a fresh start. The excitement that I get this time of year is also a sign that I’ve found the right career for me.

This time of year is also a continual reminder for me to watch myself in making assumptions when I’m in the majority. For example, I started this blog post by clarifying that my experience is based on the fact that I live in the Northern Hemisphere. While I know many fewer academics in the Southern Hemisphere, starting a blog post assuming that everyone is experiencing the start of a new academic year would be off-putting to them. This isn’t something I’ve always been careful about, and I thank my Southern Hemisphere friends for their patience in correcting me when I assume that everyone starts their academic year in August or September or when I use seasons to describe any point in time. (Hint to other computing education researchers: cut out the seasons thing when you write papers or give talks. It’s really annoying).

I’m in the majority among my peer group when it comes to the hemisphere in which I reside, but I am most certainly not when it comes to the type of term at my academic institution. At DePaul we are on the quarter system, and that is a rare thing indeed. It’s so rare that I have gotten numb to people, even at DePaul, calling our terms “semesters”. But this time of year always feels like a fresh reminder of my minority status when it comes to the organization of our academic year. Email after email and post after post from publishers, other academics, and even students use the word “semester”. And while it’s a small thing and a single word, it makes me feel invisible. When the terms used by the majority don’t include you, it highlights your minority status. So I take the slight discomfort that I feel when I hear someone refer to my “semester” and try to use that to inspire me to watch my language when I’m in the majority.