Small ways my students make me happy

The past six months have been a tough time for me, both at work and personally. I suspect most people are aware of the work challenges since I’ve talked about the stress of organizing SIGITE/RIIT 2015, serving on the SIGCSE Board, working to keep my research moving forward, and teaching a new preparation as an overload. I’ve told many fewer people about the personal stress, mostly because it involves me working through some unhappy events from the past and changing behaviors that developed from that. The combination has left me seeking quiet, which is partially why my blogging has dropped off a lot in the past few months.

During this time one of the things that’s stayed stable, much to my relief, is my teaching. Too much stress has diminished the fun of just about everything a bit, but if there’s anything that I consistently enjoy it’s interacting with my students. And especially this quarter I’ve realized that my students cheer me up in ways they probably don’t even realize. So as a thanks to them, I list some of small things they do that make me happy:

  • Ask my opinion about instructors for other classes: Registration for spring quarter is just around the corner, and some of my students have asked me whom I recommend for follow-on classes. That they value my opinion about other instructors means a lot to me.
  • Ask me what other classes I teach: The only thing more flattering than asking me about other instructors is when students make it clear that they would be happy to have me as instructor again.
  • Joke with me about my cats: It’s common for me to use my cats’ names in examples when I write code in class, and there are some students who both know that those are my cats and think it’s as amusing as I do.
  • Ask my advice about internships/jobs/their future career: Not only does asking me about their future mean that they value my opinion, it also lets me share in their hopes and plans.
  • Enthusiastically greet me outside the classroom: There is nothing better than seeing a current or former student who is clearly happy to see you in an unexpected context.

I am not their mother

I have an interesting mix of students this quarter. The students in my two Python classes are very different, with one group seeming to be much more mature than the other. And the Java class, like all brand-new classes, is an adjustment for both me and my students. The diversity of students and topics has me reflecting on my relationship with the students, hence this post.

Two years ago I realized that the increasing age gap between me and my students had led me to become somewhat of a mother figure to them. As I noted, that shift had some positives associated with it. But I think I’ve now discovered that being a mother figure has its downsides too. When I became a mother, I found myself giving students advice more often. I tried to remind them about stumbling blocks, give them hints about tackling the language and assignments, and overall serve as their guide. While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to do that, I have finally realized that handing out advice while also being a mother figure can be a bad thing. Even my own attentive pre-teen daughter tends to tune me out when she hears something that could be interpreted as a nag, and my students don’t care for me the way she does.

This quarter in particular my students are doing a terrible job of listening to me. In previous quarters that would have inspired me to remind them more about things, but I’ve decided that fewer reminders and suggestions may in fact be a better approach. Yes, if they ask about how they can do things differently, I will certainly jump in and give suggestions. But I think there may be more benefits to being the kind of mother figure who sets boundaries and then simply expects them to be maintained without any sort of commentary. Because I’m not their mother, and even if I were, they probably wouldn’t listen. Stepping back from that role a bit will give me more patience, and that will likely benefit my students more than any nags I could provide.

The joy of familiar faces

The winter quarter started a week ago, and it’s going to be a challenging one. I’m teaching a half class overload that happens to be a brand-new class, which I expect will leave me struggling each week to stay on top of my work. As you might imagine, I wasn’t looking forward to this quarter. And then last week I walked into the first session of the new class and made a happy discovery: a majority of the students in the class are either ones I had in the introductory Python course last quarter, or are also enrolled in my second quarter Python class this quarter, or both. I had forgotten how much better it makes teaching to have the class full of people you know. I don’t get that experience very often anymore, and I plan to savor it.

A new book about failure

If you’ve read much that I’ve written in this blog, you know that failure and the ability to overcome failure are among my favorite topics. In the past I’ve written about telling students that failure is normal, the benefits of stubbornness in overcoming obstacles, and my puzzlement about how to get students to embrace failure as part of the process of being a computer scientist. Well today I happened to be driving around doing errands when Science Friday came on NPR. They had an interview with Stuart Firestein who is the author of Failure: Why Science is So Successful. In the book Firestein argues that failure is crucial to the process of doing science. They also included Helen Snodgrass in the segment, who is an AP biology teacher previously featured in the Washington Post discussing how encouraging students to see failure as part of the process is crucial for learning. I can see that I have yet another book I need to read because this topic fires me up like few others.

Stop anticipating the worst

One of the best things about working at DePaul is the December break: final exams for the Fall quarter end during the last weeks of November and the first classes for Winter quarter don’t begin until very early January. Given that December is a whirlwind of holiday activities, the break is timed nicely. Of course, as I’ve written (many times) before, December always feels like it’s going to be longer than it actually is. After two decades, I’ve finally gotten to be better about judging how much work I can reasonably get done between the Fall and Winter quarters. I’m not having to do the kind of triage I usually do on my December to-do list this year.

But there’s one thing that I’m still working on conquering during the December break and that’s the awful feeling I get when I don’t make progress on the things I’ve identified I should do. Many (many) times in December I feel horrible about not making as much progress as I should on my tasks, and my mind goes into overdrive about how terrible life will be if I don’t finish the paper/prepare the new class/finish the review/get that service work done. Part of that feeling is based in rational reasoning since time away from teaching is precious and needs to be used effectively. And many of the things I want to do often take more time than I expect (class preparation and paper writing I’m especially looking at you). But the awful feeling pretty consistently ruins at least part of December, and I don’t like that. So I’m actively working this month on trying to be calm about what I’m doing. I’m specifically focusing on enjoying the time spent on the tasks and shutting down the critical part of my brain that tells me I’m not doing enough. Because December is a precious month and spending even part of it feeling awful is no fun.

Intrinsic motivation and academia

Today is the start of December, which is typically a time for me to spend at home working on either class preparation for the winter quarter, research, or both. As a result I usually love December, even when I routinely fail to complete my rather long to-do list. But unfortunately I’ve started this December in a funk. We had a two-hour faculty meeting yesterday, something that should never occur during the winter break. To add insult to injury it was frustrating, with an agenda full of controversial and upsetting topics, which led to unhappy discussion with my colleagues. Then this morning I looked at my course evaluations to discover that my ratings for the introductory Python course, the one that was a part of the linked-courses learning community for which I worked so hard, were the lowest I’ve had in years. While I recognize that neither of these things are the end of the world, it’s left me feeling down.

Part of the problem is that this was a good, if exhausting, quarter for me. I started the quarter by receiving a research award. Then the conference organization for SIGITE/RIIT 2015 went well. At the end of the quarter I was honored as one of the 2015¬†Women of Spirit and Action. The public kudos this quarter were far more frequent than during any quarter in the recent past, and I’m grateful for that.

But the past few days also remind me that the kudos are enjoyable precisely because they are so infrequent. Most of the time I go about my job with almost no feedback. Positive comments are for the most part few and far between, although to be fair, complaints are also unusual. It’s not that I think my students, colleagues, and administrators are callous. I just think that most people, myself included, simply don’t think to share positive comments with each other. You’re much more likely to get feedback about something when you fail in some way than when you succeed.

The dearth of positive feedback is precisely what makes intrinsic motivation so important. You have to do your job because you want to, not because you hope to get some external reward for it. In some ways, although certainly not all, academia is particularly bad in this respect. Sometimes you don’t even get a cost-of-living raise for your work, typically due to financial circumstances rather than merit considerations. So I plan to spend part of December reminding myself why I do what I do and that external praise is nice but also fleeting.

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.


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