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.


Why the struggle is worth it

Since the very beginning of my career, I have taught introductory programming classes. When I was still a graduate student that wasn’t a terribly surprising thing, but as I’ve advanced through the ranks my primary focus on novice programmers has become increasingly unusual.

The choice to teach novice programmers also something that I’ve occasionally had to defend. I often hear the statement “anyone can teach introductory programming classes” which is incredibly demeaning to what I choose to do, although I doubt those who say it mean it that way. But the belief behind that statement is why I’ve had to fight to ensure that fulltime faculty, and talented and motivated ones at that, are the ones put into the introductory programming sequences. It’s been especially difficult as enrollments have increased but the size of the fulltime faculty has stagnated. But I’ve continued the battle because I think it’s the right thing to do.

So it’s especially heartening when I find evidence to support the choices I’m making. A recent article in the Chronicle titled “It Matters a Lot Who Teaches Introductory Courses. Here’s Why.” looks at several studies (although not specifically in computer science) of introductory students and their outcomes.

Among other things it says:

  • “… community-college students who take a remedial or introductory course with an adjunct instructor are less likely to take the next course in the sequence.”
  • [there are] “… negative associations between the proportion of a four-year college’s faculty members who are part-time or off the tenure track and outcomes for STEM majors.”

The issues with adjunct faculty appear to be more about the lack of support provided to them and their lack of advising skills than about their teaching.

The second study cited in the article is particularly troubling for computer science, even though it wasn’t solely focused on CS. As the article says: [the study] “finds that for every 1-percent increase in the share of faculty members who work full time and off the tenure track, students’ chances of graduation drop 1.75 percent. If a college’s professors predominantly work off the tenure track, students are 1.5 percent more likely to change out of a STEM major.” Given the enrollment boom and the hiring crisis in computer science, this worries me a great deal.

But as much as parts of it worry me, the article as a whole encourages me to continue being selective about who teaches the introductory programming classes. As the article notes: “To a student who has never encountered a discipline before, the professor teaching the introductory course is the discipline … That’s one reason Chambliss advocates that colleges put their very best professors in front of as many students as possible, as early as possible. That doesn’t mean every senior professor needs to teach introductory courses, he said — it’s a matter of departments moving a few people around, and rewarding them for their efforts.”

Supportive does not mean easy

I’ve been teaching programming for a very long time (since 1993 to be precise), and in that time I’ve developed a mental picture of myself as a teacher. One of the important pieces of that perception is that I’m encouraging and supportive. And while I think those are two good qualities to have, I think that some, myself included, can come to imagine that means I’m too easy on students. I once even had a colleague, in a meeting no less, suggest that I’m not sufficiently rigorous with my students. (And, yes, I let him have it. He deserved it for jumping to conclusions based on a single student).

Today I got an email from a student that helps me to feel that while I do a lot to support students, I also do a lot to challenge them:

Professor, thanks for the opportunity to take your class. It was an intense learning experience, and I appreciate it.

There is no world in which I can interpret “intense learning experience” to mean that I’m not pushing them in my class. It’s a tricky balance to both encourage and challenge them, but I think I may be managing it.