Still together

It’s registration time at DePaul, and that means that I get to see all of my advisees again. Every year I get (almost) all of the people in my learning community assigned as my advisees, mostly because my collaborator is an administrator and advises a very small group of students. It tends to make my Octobers crazy since all first-year students must meet with their advisor before registering, and thirty times 30 minutes is a lot of advising hours. But I’m willing to do a lot for our learning community project.

Today I had an appointment scheduled with one of the students from last year’s learning community. When he showed up he brought two of the other students with him. Just like when they were in the learning community they had decided to share an advising appointment because they have the same major and are taking all the same classes at the same time. I helped them to pick classes and talked about how things were going. It was the best advising appointment I’ve had all week. It was great to see that they’re still together, are still as much fun as they were when they were my students, and are still coming to me for advice. Things with the second cohort got bumpy at the end, but seeing those three reminded me of all the things I enjoyed about them. And it made my heart happy to see that they’re still together.

The best email ever

This morning I received an email from one of the people behind PyPy. He said that he had read our ICER paper “Some Trouble with Transparency: An Analysis of Student Errors with Object-oriented Python” and that they had improved an error message in the language. The exact phrasing of the new error message is: “Did you forget ‘self’ in the function definition?” Our paper had found that students were most likely to forget the self parameter when writing classes in Python, and we observed that the error message in Python wasn’t helpful in this regard. That someone actually read our paper, apparently agreed with our observation, and made a change in an implementation as a result has me so excited!

The best kind of questions

One of the things I like most about working on scholarship in the area of computing education is that in the end it’s about improving how we interact with students. Yes, there are lots of people who do computing education research that is (often far) removed from classroom activities, but eventually research about almost any topic in computing education ends up impacting teaching in some way. To me that kind of research makes a significant difference, and it makes me happy to contribute in the small ways that I do.

Recently though I’ve observed something interesting. The longer I work in computing education, the more I think that my scholarship has changed me. To give a particular example, I’ve written about the learning community project that a colleague and I have run for the past three years. And I’ve observed that my approach to students has changed, in that I’ve become more attached to my students. The more I think about it, the more I think the learning community project and the change in my interaction with students is connected. Next week I travel to Boston for SIGITE 2016 where I’m going to present our latest work on the learning community project. In that paper we discuss results that show that students in the learning community feel less isolated post-quarter, something that we don’t see in the general CS1 population at DePaul. What the data we have so far doesn’t capture, and what we hope to formally investigate in the qualitative work we plan next, is the feeling I get from the students. They seem more connected to me and each other, and experiencing something like that has changed me. I interact differently with all my students as a result.

Last week something small happened that concretely showed me how my relationship with students has evolved. A student who was enrolled in the CS1 class associated with the first cohort of the learning community, but not in the learning community itself since as a transfer student she wasn’t eligible, emailed me. She had an interview scheduled and needed to get some pants altered in preparation. She asked me where I would recommend she go for alterations. I congratulated her and told her where I would go for alterations. Thinking about it later I realized that those are precisely the kind of emails I want to get from former students. It shows that she trusts my judgement and wants my advice for things that go well beyond which classes to choose. Those are the best kind of questions, and I hope I have a lot more of them in my future.

When it doesn’t feel like work

Yesterday was my first Friday of the quarter, which for us in the College of Computing and Digital Media means meeting day. Since we don’t teach any classes on Fridays everyone knows that there are no conflicts for meetings, so the day tends to be a gauntlet of appointments. Yesterday I was scheduled from 12 – 9 pm between various meetings and events. Anyone who knows me even slightly knows that I’m not a fan of meetings, so Fridays tend to make me grumpy. Happily yesterday was an exception to the rule.

It think it helped that it was the first time I was seeing many of my colleagues this academic year. I got to hear a lot of stories about the summer break, from encounters with bears to the woes of trying to sell your house. We spent a lot of time joking with each other during an advising event, something that seemed to puzzle the students around us which only made it more fun. One of my colleagues gave one of my students/advisees an autographed copy of the Python textbook as a birthday gift before pledging to coax me into climbing sometime this fall. Much to my surprise almost everyone asked about my trip to New Zealand and Australia, and it was fun to share some stories about that. I pulled a muscle in my arm sometime during my trip to Australia, and another colleague offered a heat patch as a remedy. And there was plenty of sarcastic commentary during the long hours of the meetings, which is crucial for your sanity. The day reminded me that when you’re surrounded by people who are also your friends, it doesn’t feel like work.

The small things make a difference

Thanks to my travels, today is the first day of the fall quarter for me. I’m as excited and nervous as is expected, particularly for the learning community class. According to my team, there appear to be some challenges associated with this cohort, and I hope I can handle them well.

Fortunately, I also got a boost this week in the form of an email from a former student. She was in my accelerated Python class, and she wrote to say hi for the start of the term. Part of what she wrote is below:

I never properly thanked you for all of the motivation and confidence you have given me. I truly appreciate it. I hope that we can keep in contact in the future, because I really do look up to you and strive to accomplish at least close to what you have in your career. Again, thank you for everything, I probably wouldn’t still be in Computer Science if it wasn’t for you, and for that I am so thankful.

To say that this made my day would be an understatement. It also surprised me since I didn’t really do much for her. I just emailed a couple of times when she seemed especially down to tell her that I thought she was doing well and to encourage her. Remembering that just a few words can help a student so much is something useful to have in mind as I head into another academic year.

It’s all about the people

I’m writing this post from Melbourne, Australia, where I’m attending ICER 2016. This is my second ICER, and it’s been a great experience. However, this post isn’t about ICER, or at least it’s not directly about the conference. Before I arrived in Melbourne for ICER, I spent a week in Auckland, New Zealand. The combination of the dates for ICER and for our first quarter this year meant that I was going to have to miss the entire first week of classes to attend the conference. So I decided to use the last of my summer break to extend the trip. I knew some people in Auckland, and I made that my first destination.

What surprised me was how much more I looked forward to the Auckland part of the trip than the Melbourne part of the trip. At first glance it doesn’t make any sense because both are lovely cities with plenty of things to see and do. The gap in my enthusiasm continued until I arrived in Melbourne when I finally realized what was happening. On the first night I went out to dinner with an American colleague I only see at conferences. On the second night I went out to dinner with two collaborators who live in Melbourne but whom I wasn’t expecting to see much because they’re involved in ICER organization. By the end of the second night I was as happy to be in Melbourne as I had been to be in Auckland. And the answer to the gap was easy: for me visits to cities are mostly about the people. Yes, I like to see and do things in new places. But mostly I enjoy doing those things with people I like and with whom I want to spend time.

Realizing this has made me all the more grateful to have so many wonderful colleagues and collaborators in various places around the world. Experiencing their home cities with them is one of the joys of my life.

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.