Conversation killer

One of the stereotypes of people working computing is that they aren’t great at socializing, and I have to say when I was young that was very true for me. As a shy child I had difficulty striking up conversations with strangers or even responding when people would try to talk to me, which is partially why I admired my mother so much. She could talk to anyone and everyone and seemed to be constantly engaging people in conversation. Happily, as I’ve grown older I’ve become more like my mother when it comes to socializing. It’s now comfortable and easy for me to engage strangers in conversation, and it’s a rare day when I don’t talk to someone when I’m out and about in the city.

I find, however, that some of the typical subjects of conversation don’t work well. For example, it’s very common for someone (a store clerk, someone on the train, etc.) to ask me what I do for a living. The conversation then tends to go something like this, taken from an actual encounter in a clothing store yesterday. As a note, I was getting a “teacher” discount at the store from someone at the store who knew I worked at DePaul. So the person I was talking with already knew I was in education:

Friendly stranger (in this case a store clerk): So where do you teach?

Me: DePaul University.

FS (surprised look on his face): Oh. <pause> What do you teach?

Me: Computer science.

FS (visibly taken aback): Oh. <much longer pause> How long have you taught there?

Me: Since 1996. <continuing as his jaw drops> I just love it there. …

The poor clerk decided to cut his losses and run soon after I finished talking about DePaul. Given that I prefer to shop without interference from clerks, this wasn’t a terrible thing. Still, he was pretty persistently friendly until that point.

This kind of conversation occurs over and over when I talk about what I do, and there are two points that always cause the shocked expressions: 1. that I teach at the college level, and 2. that I teach computer science. The first might be explained by the fact that most people hear “teacher” or “teach” and think about K-12. In that case you would assume they would do a quick mental switch and be fine. But they don’t. The only theory I have is that I don’t look like a college professor, although I’m not sure why.

But the much bigger sticking point is the fact that I teach computer science. People more often than not have absolutely nothing to say when I mention CS. And I mean they have absolutely nothing to say: there is no bigger conversation killer than being a computer science professor. This puzzles me so much. What is it about teaching computer science that inspires absolutely no small talk? I’m fine making small talk with people who do things radically different than what I do. In fact, the more different someone’s profession is from my own the more I’m inspired to ask questions. There’s clearly something I’m missing here, so feel free to share any ideas you have. I’d rather not have so many casual conversations be sacrificed to my profession.

In praise of imperfection

Anyone who has spent more than about five minutes around me knows that I have a problem with being a perfectionist. I’m incredibly hard on myself when I make mistakes, and I tend to focus on the negative things I’ve done or said even when the positives vastly outnumber the negatives. I also know that I’m not alone in this trait, although from the stories my mother tells I’ve suffered from it more severely and for longer than many.

I don’t like being this way, and in the past decade I’ve actively worked on trying to embrace my imperfections. Having a daughter has helped enormously in that, both because I have many more opportunities to screw up and also because she suffers from the same trait. Watching her struggle with it has helped me to see it more clearly in myself. I’m also very forgiving of her imperfections, which makes my standard for myself seem extreme.

Somewhere in the past decade I’ve also come to see that being imperfect (and recognizing it) makes you a better teacher and mentor. Making mistakes can make you more compassionate with people, since it’s hard to distance yourself from someone doing something very familiar. When you share a mistake with someone you also have a good idea why they may have done it, which improves your understanding and forgiveness.

On that note, I’m happy to report that I was nearly an hour late to a Skype research meeting today. The fact that the person involved was scolded by me about two weeks ago for being only 20 minutes late to a meeting was not at all lost on me, so I opened by telling him he needed to scold me. Being the nice man that he is, he declined the opportunity, which of course only made me feel worse. But I am happy to report that my mistake and his patience have given me some much-needed perspective, and for that I thank him.

Summer break is

After a particularly stressful summer last year, I resolved to try to rest more and try to change my attitude about work. Six months into that resolution I’m doing fairly well, although the goal of resting at least one day every weekend during the academic year still needs some work. A big part of making next academic year better will be to make the most of this summer break. So I’m going to start by writing down some of the things that summer break represents to me:

  • Summer break is taking both days off every weekend without even a moment of hesitation.
  • Summer break is giving my alarm clock a rest.
  • Summer break is completing more to-dos than I create each day.
  • Summer break is moving a to-do to the next day and experiencing no consequences.
  • Summer break is walking away from my computer for several hours and not having any new emails.
  • Summer break is having the mental space to notice that the walls in the house need painting.
  • Summer break is mostly about research.
  • Summer break is a reward for all those years spent in the purgatory that is graduate school.
  • Summer break is not stressing about how I’m going to get it all done.

Thinking about at least one of these things every day between now and September should help me appreciate the summer and cope once the pressure picks up again this fall.

A little structure goes a long way

As you might have guessed by the long bout of silence, I’m roughly a month into my summer break. Summer break is a weird thing. People outside of academia imagine you on an extended vacation, and yet it’s too easy to occupy all of your time with research and service tasks that you neglecting during the academic year. It’s also always shorter than you imagine, often leaving you insufficient time to accomplish all that you hoped. In the past I’ve tried to use it as a way to disconnect from the usual routine, even if I was working frequently.

In my continuing reflection on summer break I’ve discovered something I didn’t know before but wish I had. I agreed this year to work with several students on a summer research project. This involves regular meetings, and some of those meetings are taking place in person at the downtown campus. Initially this had me a bit cranky since I usually take the opportunity to completely abandon my downtown office during the summer in order to disconnect and relax. What I’m discovering is that the structure of a weekly downtown meeting is actually more relaxing than complete avoidance of the campus. Some things are more easily handled in person, so all of those get scheduled for that day during the week. I also take advantage of being out of the house to do errands on the way to and from work. The rest of the week I focus on the things better done at home, like writing. That the meeting and errand day is typically Monday also focuses me early in the week, and that focus carries through to the rest of the week.

Now I can’t decide if I’m frustrated that it took me more than 15 years to discover this or happy that I’ve stumbled onto something unexpected. It’s probably a little bit of both.

A vast gulf that speaks volumes

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a Facebook fan. I lurk on the site as I work most days, and I post way more than I should. One of the things I like about it is the fact that it makes me aware of small news stories, ones that haven’t had a chance to make a big splash in the mainstream media yet. And, no, I don’t rely on Facebook for my news, but it’s a fun side aspect to something I use for other purposes.

A story I saw yesterday upset me a great deal. In it, a biochemist who is also a Nobel laureate suggested that labs should be single-sex environments because female scientists cause problems for male scientists. In particular he said:

Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.

He has since issued a “sorry but” response that actually begins to get at the issue. In his response he said: “I certainly did not mean to demean women, but rather be honest about my own shortcomings.” And, yes Dr. Hunt, if you see an issue over and over and the only common thing is you, you may be the problem. Apology or not, the whole thing left me feeling depressed about STEM, gender, and public personalities.

So I was thrilled to find a story about Tim Cook, Apple, and diversity in my ACM news this morning. There are so many amazing quotes from Tim Cook that I’m going to have to restrain myself from posting them all. The highlights include this one about diversity initiatives and programs:

Some of this costs money some of it doesn’t. Mostly it’s a way of thinking. And so if you believe as we believe that diversity leads to better products, and we’re all about making products that enrich peoples lives, then you obviously put a ton of energy behind diversity the same way you would put a ton of energy behind anything else that is truly important.

He also commented on speaking out about diversity and its importance:

“The problem, as Dr. King said, is ‘the appalling silence of the good people,'” Cook insists. “I try to look at myself in the mirror and ask myself if I’m doing enough. And if the answer is no, I try to do something more. And sometimes you do things that don’t work and sometimes you do things that do work. Somehow we’ve got to get enough people to believe how important it is, and see how wrong it is not doing it.”

Yes, Mr. Cook is a CEO of a company that is concerned with being profitable, and this story is a PR dream. I’m sure those two facts aren’t unrelated. But at the same time, what he had to say and what Dr. Hunt had to say are so widely separated in terms of their consciousness of the impact of a lack of diversity on science, business, and society as a whole that it’s hard to believe they live on the same planet. And I would prefer to live on Mr. Cook’s planet.

The impact of interdisciplinary work

In the past week I’ve had a lot of reasons to think about the computational thinking project I worked on between 2008 and 2012. My collaborator Ljubomir Perkovic and I went into it believing that computational thinking isn’t something that should be done by computer scientists in isolation but instead is something that is best done in context and significantly involving the people who know the field in which it’s being applied. We recruited a diverse set of people from a variety of disciplines to work with us, and seeing the great things they produced was one of the most satisfying things about that project.

In reflecting back on it I think the most beautiful work to come out of it wasn’t done by me or Ljubomir but instead by one of the historians on the project. Brian Boeck is a Russian historian at DePaul, and as a part of our project he worked to include exercises asking students to examine bias in history books. The talk he gave on his work is something I still try to show people, and if you’ve never seen it it’s worth the download and the 15 minutes it takes to watch. Brian produced some excellent work, and I’m happy I had a chance to be associated with it.

Today I saw a video that reminded me of our project and Brian’s work, although none of it is directly related to what we did. The video is a data visualization of the death toll of the Second World War. In a careful way the narrator steps you through various visualizations of the military and civilian losses of the war, adding photos and historical context where appropriate to understand certain aspects of the data. What’s impossible to convey is how moving the video is. To give just one example, on paper a number like 8.7 million Soviet soldiers sounds terrible but watching that number rapidly scroll up on a screen a thousand-person symbol at a time is horrific. You wouldn’t think that a bar graph could bring you to tears, but this video has several that did just that to me. In the end the message of the video is hopeful, so don’t let my description prevent you from taking the time to watch.

Thinking about all of this today has made me wonder what future things have yet to be created by people in history, cinema, or some other field who also happen to know about computing. The excitement of that prospect is precisely what I need to get me through the last tough week of the quarter.


Rapport with students is crucial

The spring quarter is ending on an unhappy note for those of us in the School of Computing. A long-time colleague of ours died suddenly last week. While he had been sick for a while, he was very private about his health so it came as a shock to almost all of us. Unfortunately there’s another week left in the quarter, so three of us had to step up and agree to take over his classes. I was one of the volunteers.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to take over a class for a colleague in the middle of the quarter. During fall 2013 a colleague had a medical crisis, and I had to take over his class around midterms. One of the first things I did with that class was determine what they’d learned and write an exam on it, which I didn’t expect would bode well for our relationship. Surprisingly they reacted well, and that class turned out to be one of my best. They never quite caught up to the other section, but I think I got them through the required material in a reasonable way. And I bonded with them more than I expected, perhaps because things had been rocky even before I picked up the class and I was able to make the rest of the quarter very stable for them.

Sadly, I’m learning this time that ten days just isn’t enough time to bond with students. The situation is a bit different since their instructor left under sad circumstances and time is very short, but I had hoped that like the previous class we would come to understand each other. I’m not getting the feeling that’s going to happen. I’m very different from the previous instructor and we don’t have much time to get to know each other. While I don’t think they dislike me, they’re not particularly warming up to me either.

My sweetie jokingly compared the situation to a one-night stand, and while I see the point he’s trying to make I think it differs in one significant way. People participating in a one-night stand are making a choice to be there. And while I chose to take on this class, my new students didn’t choose to have me as their instructor. That makes it all the more understandable that they’re not connecting with me. Above all else, this situation is making me realize how much I prize my connection with my students and how much I miss that connection when it’s not there.


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