The advantages of time

Academia has a weird way of warping your sense of time. To start it’s a constant barrage of crunch times big and small for everything from homework and exams to paper deadlines. Then there’s the fact that we as faculty and staff slowly grow old whereas our students remain in roughly the same age bracket, something I’ve written about before. Maintaining perspective in this bizzarre world where everything and nothing changes at the same time can be a challenge.

But there is a big plus to existing in a different time frame than your students, something I’ve only recently begun to appreciate. One of the jobs that I’ve taken on during the past five years is the Python course mentor. We offer 30+ sections of introductory Python classes each year, and it’s important to have someone to keep an eye on them making sure that nothing goes wildly off track. The Python classes are also a rarity at DePaul in that we have extra labs for them, and teaching assistants oversee the labs. One of the things I’ve drifted into doing is hiring and supervising the group of 2-3 Python TAs we require each year. Finding TAs at an institution where they aren’t the norm can be tough, and some years I have struggled to find the right candidates. It doesn’t help that I only teach undergrads, but I’m restricted to hiring graduate students as TAs.

But at DePaul we offer a combined degree program. In the combined degree program undergrads sign up for a graduate degree and then take three graduate classes as an undergrad. In a flash of insight I’ve taken to putting an idea into the head of any student who took my Python class(es) (and did well) and who applies for a combined degree program. I’ve been suggesting that they should apply for an assistantship once they become graduate students, selling the (many) benefits. Yes, this strategy isn’t likely to bear any fruit for 3-4 years, but that time frame is just a blip on a faculty member’s radar. So I’ve been enthusiastically doing it, and I have hopes that sometime in the near future I won’t struggle to find good TAs anymore.

A lesson worth learning

I teach mostly freshman and sophomores, which means that I get to watch them for three or four years as they progress through their degrees. It gives me a broader perspective than I might have if I had met them when they were older, and it also lets me see how they take the lessons they learned in my classes and apply them elsewhere.

Most recently I got an email from a student who struggled in one of my programming classes. I’ve written about him before, because he showed a persistence that impressed me. He became my advisee after he left my class, and he’s now ready to graduate. He wrote the following:

From being a sophomore to being a senior you taught me that even if things take a turn for the worst in a course that if you work hard enough and put in the effort you can come back from any failure.

In just one sentence he showed me that all those hours he spent in my office helped him to learn something very valuable. I hope that sometime five or ten years from now he checks in again because I expect he’ll be doing great things.

Embracing my aging

I’m going to admit up front that I’m nervous about writing this post. It’s going to bring up an uncomfortable topic, and I worry a bit about how it will be perceived. But I feel like it’s important to get it out there, so I’m writing it anyway.

Recently a friend bought me a T-shirt that says: “Never Underestimate An Old Woman With A Computer Science Degree.” You can see the image here. I love this shirt, and I posted a picture of it on Facebook. More than one of my friends questioned whether the phrase “old woman” applied to me, and I’m appreciative of their sentiments. And, yes, I’m 48 and not everyone would consider that old. But some would, and I happily use the label for myself. The Facebook post and the various reactions to it got me thinking about why. Today I think I have an answer.

I’ve written previously about the fact that I’ve become a mother figure to my students. But what I didn’t say in that post or any other is why I like that, or, more clearly, what situation that has removed from my life. When I was closer to my students’ age, it was difficult for me to express my appreciation and enthusiasm for them. When I first starting teaching I was less than five years older than my students. That’s a small enough gap that we were essentially contemporaries. And most of my students have always been men. And heterosexuality is the most common sexual orientation. The combination of those things meant that an enthusiastic response to my students could, by some, be interpreted as a sexual advance. Whether my students were interested in me sexually, that’s an uncomfortable and inappropriate thing to have in the classroom. So I unconsciously/subconsciously held my students at a distance. It was only once I got older, became a parent, and started to see my students as my children that I changed my behavior. By then I was so much older than them that there was little room for misinterpretation. The age gap has put me in a situation where I can safely feel closer to them, so it’s no surprise that I embrace it.

What recently dawned on me, and is the inspiration for writing this post, is that the same thing doesn’t hold for my colleagues. I’m equally enthusiastic in my reactions to colleagues, but there is no guaranteed age gap to remove ambiguity like there is with my students. And most of my colleagues are men, and heterosexuality is the norm. So I can sometimes tell that colleagues aren’t sure how to interpret my happy, silly, and teasing reactions to them. To their credit most of them assume that my intentions are purely platonic. But there are a few who aren’t sure, and it makes me unhappy to have any discomfort between us. Of course, short of switching to a field that is majority female where the assumption of heterosexuality would shield me or changing the kind of person I am, there’s no real solution. But it does help me to understand how I might perceive aging to be a good thing.

ITiCSE working groups: a love letter

I’ve often talked about how much I love my job, and the people I interact with are one of the best things about it. I’ve written over and over how much I love my students, but my colleagues are also great. Attending conferences especially reminds me how lucky I am in my choice of career, since during that time I get to see some of my favorite people. The ITiCSE conference is the one where I notice this the most. It’s the conference I’ve attended most frequently (2016 was my ninth ITiCSE), and it’s the place I get to see the majority of my international colleagues.

One of the best things about ITiCSE, and one I didn’t experience for the first time until 2014, is the working groups. For those who don’t know about them, it’s a gathering of researchers focused on a particular topic proposed by the working group leaders and reviewed and approved by conference organizers. People apply to join the working group, and typically spend several months prior to the conference doing prep work. Then for two days before the conference starts and during (nearly) the entirety of the regular conference you and your working group members sit in a room and discuss, analyze, and write. It’s intense and exhausting, but the end result is a paper that is reviewed by referees solicited by the organizers and (hopefully) becomes a (long — 20-25 pages) conference article.

What you don’t have any sense of until you do one is how much you bond with your working group members. This year I spent not only every day with my working group, but I ate almost every dinner with them and even sought them out during breaks. Yes, some of that time we were working, but most of it we were simply enjoying ourselves. My working group members are funny, intelligent, kind, and have interesting things to say about computer science and life in general. And I would never have spent as much time with them as I did without the working group, something that makes me very grateful.

Sadly I won’t be able to join another working group until my term as SIGCSE chair is up in 2019, since I need to be more available to conference organizers and participants. But one of the first things I’ll do as past chair is examine the working group proposals carefully, because after three years I know I’ll miss the experience. And I can’t recommend it enough to all of you in the meantime.

The best kind of email

One of the things I like best about the summer break is the decrease in email. While the flow into my inbox never completely stops, the summer restricts it to the point where I’m not overwhelmed every morning when I log in. But there are some emails that simply make your day, and I got one of them yesterday. It was from a former student who took one of my Java classes about ten years ago. He wrote:

Hard to imagine a former student from an elective course should remember you, perhaps, but I fondly remember your Introduction to Java class that I took as a junior at DePaul.  I still remember thinking to myself that it was a shame I didn’t take a programming course earlier in my college career as it may have led to a minor or concentration in math and computer science rather than the actuarial math path I took.

There is nothing more flattering than a student who took your class as an elective who remembers it fondly enough to write you again and ask for advice on how to switch careers to focus more on computer science. This is the best way to start your week.

Hitting the reset button

In the five short years since I starting writing this blog, I’ve written a lot about summer. (To see for yourself, do a keyword search for “summer” and marvel at the results). I suppose it’s natural that academics are a bit obsessed with summer since it’s both the time to relax a bit from the stress of the academic year and also one of the most valuable times for getting work other than teaching done. But what I’ve learned this year is that it can be incredibly valuable to try to hit the reset button prior to reaching summer. After all, summer break is only a couple of months long, and with the ambitious to-do lists that we all produce that’s very little time.

Luckily this year my heavier than normal teaching load in winter quarter meant that I had a lighter than normal teaching assignment in the spring. I vowed to take weekends off from work, and the combination of the lighter workload and some willpower allowed me to achieve that goal. One of the things I love to do most in my time off is read, as evidenced by the sole New Year’s resolution I’ve had since about 2006 to read at least a book a month no matter how busy I am. This spring quarter I used my weekend relaxation time for marathon reading sessions, something I haven’t done since 2010 when I read 30 books in 30 days. A check of Amazon (I have a Kindle and read almost exclusively on it) shows that I purchased and read 55 books since May 1, 2016. Not surprisingly this is the first time in probably a decade that I reached the summer break not feeling like I was about to collapse. I know I won’t always be able to hit the reset quite as thoroughly as I did this year, but it seems like a good goal to aim to do it every six years or so. I bet 2022 will be a good summer too.

Java as a second language

The spring quarter ended last week, and with it the second offering of the Java bridge class came to a close. The Java class is a two-credit-hour class designed to help students make the transition from the introductory sequence in Python to the data structures classes in Java that follow. While teaching Java isn’t new for me, teaching Java to students who have programmed in another language is a new experience. I’m also finding that I enjoy it more than I would have expected.

My previous experience teaching Java was as a first language, and I found that to be tough. Java has enough syntax that a first-quarter (10-week) class barely has time to get to the point where the header for the main method can be understood. It was always a little frustrating to have to tell students “just ignore that — we’ll understand it later.” By contrast, the two-credit-hour bridge class covers almost the same syntax that two four-credit-hour classes did. Once students know what variables are, how to construct branches and loops, and the basics of function calls, it’s fairly easy to move through the syntax in Java. That doesn’t necessarily mean that students don’t struggle. For example, arrays are particularly mind-bending for someone used to Python lists. But the lights dawn sooner than for novices, and it feels like a lot less of slog for me and them.

The students learning a second programming language also seem to enjoy it more than the second quarter of their first programming language. While the numbers in the Java bridge class have been small up until now since the class isn’t required, I’ve felt that they’re overall more engaged and curious than what I see in the second Python programming class. That’s also helped to make the teaching more fun. I can’t wait to teach the class again next Winter quarter.


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