A tale of mismatched goals

The end of the quarter is coming up, and as things have eased up a bit I’ve been trying to take some time off to do things I enjoy. This week a new book in one of my favorite series came out, and I binged on it yesterday. In the book they mention the principle of least effort, that is, that people will generally put the minimal amount of effort into things to achieve the goal they wish to reach. It’s a perfectly logical principle, and certainly one that I find myself applying regularly.

As I was grading today I encountered some “magical” solutions from students, by which I mean sophisticated solutions from students who have been doing fairly poorly in the class. Normally these magical solutions contain some sort of syntax that we haven’t used yet, which is a dead giveaway that I have an Academic Integrity case on my hands. But these just used things we had done in class, and a search to find the code online didn’t turn anything up. I spent a few minutes sitting there being aggravated about what I believe to be a plagiarism case that I can’t do anything about before I posted the grades.

And then suddenly I realized that the aggravation I’m feeling is because the students who I believe copied code don’t have the same goals I imagine for them. I always assume that students are in my class to learn, and copying code doesn’t help them learn. But I think that the reality of the situation is that students who submit magical solutions aren’t trying to learn: they’re trying to pass the class. And submitting a solution taken from some place else is the last effort thing to do to reach that goal. So while this doesn’t make me feel any better about what they’re doing, it does make it easier to understand. Somehow that helps a bit.

They break my heart

Here at DePaul we’re in the eighth week of the quarter. There are only eleven weeks overall, including final exam week, so the end is almost here. Today is one of my work-at-home days, and I’m spending part of it grading. And the number of students who completely checked out on this assignment boggles my mind. Yes, I know the quarter is grueling and the post-midterm time is the toughest. Yes, I know this assignment was tougher than previous ones. But some of them didn’t even include the code I provided to them in class as a start on one of the problems, which frankly means that it’s not just this assignment but the class overall that they’re neglecting.

The worst part is that I see this every single quarter. There are always students who slide into not doing assignments, consistently handing in work that’s substandard at best and nearly incomplete at worst. And I feel like there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve tried emailing them, talking to them in class, and other methods of pestering. But the motivation has to come from them, and in some cases it’s just not there. The most heartbreaking cases are the ones who’ve taken my class before, failed, and are back at another try. To see them slide into neglect again just kills me. I wish I had a magic wand I could waive to give them the drive to start the assignments early, ask me questions, and really give it a solid try. If any of you have a wand like that, let me borrow it sometime, ok?

Moments that make it all worthwhile

The past six months have been an exhausting time for me. Between organizing SIGITE/RIIT 2015, serving on the SIGCSE board, attending conferences, doing my research, and trying to keep up with my classes, I’ve had little rest and even less free time. The months of September and October especially seemed like an endurance run followed by an all-out sprint, and all the work has gotten me down at times. On top of everything else, we organized a second cohort for our linked-courses learning community, an effort that took months of preparation and that has meant extra work during the beginning and middle of the quarter when I had almost no time to spare. Last year we had a few bright moments, like female bonding during events and some evidence of a long-lasting connection between students, but it was also tough at times. More tough work wasn’t something I was relishing.

As it turns out though, the group this year has been a breath of fresh air for me during my hard times. They’re interactive, pay attention to what I say, are serious and yet playful, and overall are a great bunch of students. Today was the gaming party to celebrate the end of midterms, and while there was grumbling earlier in the week about attendance, more people than I expected showed up. A few of the pictures from the event are below:

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What isn’t conveyed well from the pictures is the sheer number of people who showed up (18 or about 2/3 of the class) and how much fun they had with each other. The last people didn’t leave until an hour after the official end of the party, and they clearly had a blast with each other. They even joked with me and the other faculty member involved in the community, making us feel like a part of the fun. In almost every interaction with them I’ve enjoyed myself (the exception being when they grumbled about showing up on a Saturday), and thinking about them makes me happy. They’re like the second child who makes everything easier than it was the first time around. If this keeps up I’ll be hard pressed to say no to a third cohort, which is something I would never have predicted this past summer.

Organizing a conference is like having a baby

I’m happy to report that SIGITE/RIIT 2015 is over. Those who have been following my blog have heard a lot about the SIGITE conferences since in 2013 I was sponsorship co-chair and in 2014 I was program co-chair. This year it was my turn to be conference co-chair, and there’s good news to share. The conference had 155 registrations, which is only two shy of the all-time registration record (curse you, Newark).  I haven’t looked at the conference evaluations yet, but we had a lot of positive feedback from attendees. It certainly feels like the conferences were a success.

During the post-mortem meeting I was asked if I had anything to say about the experience. I told them that it was a lot like having a baby: you think it’s a great idea at first, come to realize it was a horrible mistake but only after it’s too late to change anything, and then ultimately end up feeling like it was worth it. While that got a lot of laughs, I suspect no one took me seriously. And there are a lot of things in common between the two experiences.

So I give you the stages of organizing a conference/having a baby. Note that I talk strictly here about my own experience which didn’t involve adoption. I invite those who have adopted children to comment on how things are similar/different from organizing a conference/getting pregnant and giving birth:

  1. Dreamy excitement: In this stage you first decide that organizing a conference/having a baby would be a great idea. You think about all the conferences/children you’ve known and dream about the things that you’ll do the same or differently with yours. To conclude this stage you agree with whomever is relevant that you will move forward with plans to make it happen.
  2. It becomes real: During this stage your plans are set. You are named as the conference organizer/get pregnant. Your excitement peaks as you realize your dream is going to come true.
  3. Dawning nervousness: As conference plans move forward/you begin to get morning sickness, you start to realize that it may be more difficult than you expected. Still, there’s not a lot of work yet, so the excitement from the previous stages endures.
  4. Things develop: In this stage things start to get uncomfortable. You have to file paperwork, create the registration system, put up the web page, and overall do more things that you were expecting months before the conference takes place. This is like the last trimester of pregnancy in which the positive hormones start to be balanced out by your growing girth. Doing ordinary things like teaching/walking gets more and more difficult, and for the first time you’re looking forward to having it all be over.
  5. This was a horrible mistake: At some point a month or two before the big day, you begin to think it was a horrible mistake to have agreed to organize a conference/have a baby. You feel uncomfortable and tired and crabby. You have no idea how you’re going to get it all done/get the now-very-large baby out. And yet you know that it’s much too late to change your mind. This doesn’t help the situation.
  6. Just get it over with: At some point all the suffering pushes you to the point where you’re just ready for it to be over, no matter how horrible the day/days are going to be. Deal with 150+ people for 3 days? Push a 7-pound baby out? Sure! As long as I can go back to being comfortable and having a semblance of a normal life again.
  7. So tired you can’t think: Congratulations, everyone has arrived for the conference/the baby has been born! You’re happy that the day has finally arrived, and yet you’re so tired that you can barely put one foot in front of the other. You wish you could enjoy things more, and maybe you would if you could get more than a few hours of sleep at a time without someone demanding something from you.
  8. You can think fondly about the experience: Sometime after it’s all over and you go back to sleeping more than a handful of hours a day, you begin to have some positive memories about what happened. As hard as it was, there were some good things about the experience, and you’re able to remember those. That doesn’t mean that you’d want to do it again, although there are people who organize more than one conference/have more than one child. But you’re just glad you did it the once.

Praise them whenever possible

With SIGITE/RIIT 2015 looming imminently it’s been a tough start to the fall quarter. I don’t recall a time that I’ve been so stressed in the first week of classes. But two things happened yesterday that can’t wait until things calm down for me to write about them.

First, I had an advising appointment with one of the students from my spring quarter programming classes. He was an excellent student in the class, and as stressed as I was it was good to see him again. We reviewed what classes he has left until he’s done, and at some point he made a remark that suggested he thought computer science might not be a perfect fit for him. I was stunned and told him that I absolutely felt that he belonged in computer science. We discussed it further, narrowing in the fact that solutions to problem take a while for him to develop. I told him I thought that made him a better computer scientist since the first solution isn’t always the best one, and that having the ability to see and weigh multiple options was important. He said he was relieved to hear me say that I thought computer science was a good fit for him and seemed more cheerful when he left.

Then I came home and chatted with my daughter. She has a new science teacher this year, and she’s been concerned about the teacher and the class. She’s been anxious and stressed, so much so that we decided to meet with the teacher during the open house in two weeks. Suddenly yesterday everything was different. My daughter was going on about how confident and happy she was in science, which caused me to ask what had happened to change things. And she told me that her teacher had praised her once in class and then called her by a sweet nickname as she was leaving the class later. The teacher had also commented that mistakes are ok since the teacher makes them all the time. Reflecting on it my daughter said she now believed that the teacher liked her and that she wasn’t worried about the class anymore. The difference in my daughter’s attitude and anxiety level was like night and day, and all because of two or three simple comments her teacher made.

Putting these things together this morning I realized that the switch to a maternal role has made it easier for me to praise my students. And having my daughter around, who lights up when I praise her, has gotten me more in the habit of sharing positive comments with people. I suspect all of it combined helps lower anxiety levels in my students, which makes me happier too.

Experiences that make you a better person

When I was a college student I had a variety of part-time jobs that I took to help pay the bills. I was fortunate that for four years of college I had a full-tuition scholarship and that my mother paid for books and my last year of tuition (since I got both a B.S. and B.A. and didn’t finish in four years). But I lived away from home, and there were other things I needed to buy. So among many other jobs (secretary, programmer), I worked for a while at McDonald’s. It was horrible. I’m not gifted at managing the public, and there are a lot of people who get really angry about not getting their food as quickly as they expect. The number of times I was yelled at was astonishing, and I didn’t last more than two months. On the other hand, the experience made me a better fast-food customer. Yes, sometimes people serving fast food don’t do a good job. But for the most part yelling at them doesn’t make anything better, and I resolved that I would never contribute to the abuse that fast-food workers receive.

I believe I have now discovered the academic equivalent of working at a fast-food restaurant: organizing a conference. No matter how well you attempt to do things, something always goes wrong. People have trouble registering. People don’t see information you’ve carefully posted on the web site, registration confirmation, email announcements, etc. People believe that they’re entitled to special treatment or consideration for whatever reason and are miffed when you (politely) disagree or fail to comply. And most importantly, the vast majority of people have no idea how difficult the job is so they don’t think to express appreciation.

Like the McDonald’s situation though, I’m convinced that the experience is making me a better person. Having seen what a horror conference organization is (although I’m sure there are many horrors yet to come since there are more than three weeks left), I have become a more appreciative conference attendee. I thank conference organizers profusely whenever I can, and when I have something to discuss regarding the conference I attempt to raise the issue in the most polite way possible. As is usual, the most difficult situations are the ones in which you learn the most. So I thank SIGITE for giving me this opportunity to learn.

Computer science as enabler

Although I haven’t written about it, even on my relatively private Facebook page, this August brought me a personal crisis. I don’t want to go into too many details, so suffice to say that I realized some of my current behavior is due to past experiences that are (happily) no longer relevant. Some of my behavior has included clinging to perfectionism and being unable to ask for help, things that I am now ready to let go of. But the experiences were painful, so facing them and then moving past the behaviors has also been difficult. In all of this I’ve had the support and love of my family, and for that I’m grateful.

In what seems like an unrelated situation but likely isn’t, a blog post about embracing my imperfections led a colleague to suggest that I read a book. “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown is proving to be a particularly useful thing for me as I move past my crisis. Earlier this week I read something in it that I need to share:

In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and, today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic. Heroics is important and we certainly need heroes, but I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics is often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today’s world, that’s pretty extraordinary.

She goes on to talk about the connection between courage and compassion and other topics that are relevant for the book. But the idea that speaking honestly and openly, even about your weaknesses, struck me as something important, no doubt because it’s related to the personal work I’m doing now.

Today I started preparing my classes since our quarter starts next week. With all of this bubbling in my mind, I suddenly realized that my reluctance to show vulnerability has unfortunately been enabled by my choice of profession. Anyone who has spent time in a programming class, at a programming contest, on a forum where people ask questions about programming, or at a variety of other venues recognizes the odd combination of showing off and bluffing that computer scientists tend to do. “Asking” questions that are more about displaying your knowledge of an area than learning information; belittling someone who knows less than you do about some CS topic; exaggerating your accomplishments or abilities, often to make you compare favorably to someone else: all of these are things that computer scientists have seen, or done, at one point or another. And women (and other underrepresented minorities) are especially in a bad place with respect to these behaviors since they’re more likely to be perceived as not belonging and therefore more likely to need to “prove” that they are “worthy”. In this environment someone who courageously shares their lack of knowledge or lack of confidence isn’t likely to receive positive feedback.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t share your vulnerability, even as a female computer scientist. But it does mean that you have to have a level of confidence about who you are and your fit with computer science that eludes many people new to the area. So as I go into a new academic year, one of my goals is to show the type of courage that Brown speaks about above. As a more senior faculty member, I’m at a place where I know I belong in computer science and where I can model a healthier approach to being a computer scientist for my students, and perhaps even some of my colleagues.


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