I miss them more

I adore working with students, something that I’m sure surprises no one. They delight me, challenge me, and give me reasons to get through the parts of my job I don’t enjoy like grading and meetings. Students are the biggest reason that I cannot imagine ever accepting an administrative position. The idea of spending less time with them than I do now makes me deeply unhappy.

What has surprised me in the past few years is how much more attached I’ve become to my students. One of my theories about this is that the increasing age gap has let me be more of a parent to them, which enables me to express my fondness for them in a clearer, less ambiguous way. But I’m less and less sure that’s the complete explanation. I’m now wondering if it has to do with an internal change in me and my way of interacting with students.

One piece of evidence for the change being internal is the time I spend outside of class with students. It used to be rare that I would interact with students outside of class, office, or advising hours. The Discover Chicago classes I taught were the notable exception to that, but that’s not unusual for any faculty in the First Year Program. When a colleague and I created our linked-courses learning community, we included extracurricular activities at our houses as a part of the project. But beyond special programs like that, I’ve rarely gone out for a meal or coffee with students, and it’s been even more unusual to have students over to my house.

That makes it notable that during this academic year I’ve had former students over to my house for dinner three times. The meals were all great fun, involving my daughter and partner, and I would happily do it again with the students who joined us. The most recent invitation was completely my idea, inspired by a particularly fun conversation with the students during my office hours. And it was the most enjoyable dinner I’ve had in a long time. I was sad to see them go.

So I’m not sure why my interactions with students are changing, although I don’t think it’s a bad thing. The only downside is that I miss them more now that I’m closer to them, which makes letting go all the harder.

Leaving things undone

For a while I used to receive page-a-day calendars every year for Christmas. I find them fun, and I used to save some of my favorite pages and put them on my wall. One of the quotes that came from a long-ago calendar is turning out to be highly relevant this quarter:

The whole point of getting things done is knowing what to leave undone.

Sadly, I don’t know exactly to whom to attribute this quote since an Internet search reveals two names, only one of which is listed on the page I have on my wall. Suffice to say it was a wise person.

And, as this quarter has revealed, I absolutely suck at leaving things undone. My resolution for spring quarter was that I wouldn’t work any weekend, and so far, except for one day a few weeks ago, I’ve stuck to that. But every Friday I face a list of to-dos that I haven’t finished and a set of emails messages that are yet to be answered. I know I don’t have time to accomplish them before the weekend, and yet I want to stay strong in my resolve to take time off. So I do the triage I can, letting people know that I’ll get back to them on Monday. And then I tear myself away, feeling slightly guilty, and head to my weekly Friday date night. Luckily by the time dinner is over the guilt is usually gone. But it’s really difficult to do this, way more difficult than I would have imagined. And, yes, that probably means it’s a good exercise for me.

Another reason to talk about gender and computing

A couple of weeks ago in my Java bridge class we ended up having an interesting digression during class. We were talking about the debugger in Eclipse, and it suddenly occurred to me to ask them if they knew where the term “bug” came from. Making me proud, one person did and that led to a brief conversation about early computers and programs. I mentioned that the earliest programmers were nearly all female and said that the process by which the field became male-dominated was an interesting one. I wanted to return to the subject of Java, so I invited anyone with an interest to talk to me about it offline.

As it turns out, one of my students wrote her seniors honors thesis on women in computing, and she stopped by to talk to me about a week later. After a reasonably long conversation, she asked me why I liked to talk about women in computing. I was a little surprised because no one has ever asked me that question before, but I answered that it’s a subject that is both of interest to me personally and in terms of my research. She seemed happy enough with the answer, although I have to be honest I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my own answer. Why do I like to talk about the subject so much? Is there any benefit to doing so?

Then today I was reading the Facebook commentary on a blog post Mark Guzdial wrote about men in STEM who when presented with hard evidence of gender bias fail to believe that it exists. Several of the comments noted that bias only becomes real when someone knows an individual who has experienced it, rather than being presented with aggregate data. It was further suggested that we might want to find ways to make the bias stand out in individual cases. Both the idea that people need to know someone who has been impacted and need to care about that person made me realize that speaking about my personal experiences as a woman in computer science is important in a very real way.

SIGCSE members: please vote

I think that anyone living in the U.S. (or even outside of it), is completely burned out on the word “election” thanks to the U.S. presidential election. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t spend a couple of minutes asking all the SIGCSE members who read this blog to participate in another important election, namely for the SIGCSE Board. Unlike the U.S. presidential election there are no fireworks to be found in the candidate slate, instead just great options for each position. If you’re a SIGCSE member you should have already received the email with instructions on how to vote. Please do so before May 31, 2016.

Computing education expertise

Let me start this post by saying that I firmly believe one of the best changes I made in my career was to re-focus my scholarship on computing education. It’s led me to difficult and interesting problems and introduced me to a fabulous community of colleagues. I would make the same switch again in a heartbeat. But it’s also presented me with a recurrent situation that up until now has annoyed me to no end. I think, however, that I’ve had an insight that will let me move past the irritation.

I should point out that part of the annoyance I’m going to describe comes out of my graduate training. My Ph.D. work was in the theoretical computer science. A lot of people, including many computer scientists, are intimidated by theory. So it was almost never the case that people would feel that they knew enough about it to suggest that what I was doing was wrong or somehow fell short of what I should be doing. Sure, they might ask other irritating questions (“What is that used for?”), but they wouldn’t suggest that it was silly that I hadn’t just immediately solved the 30-year open problem that I was working on. In their hearts they believed that what I was doing was difficult, so it made sense to them that I hadn’t produced all the answers.

Computing education is very different from theoretical computer science. Part of this is because most computing academics engage in it nearly every day. A significant part of our jobs is teaching (unless you have enough research funding to buy out of it or you’re an administrator). When you do something on a near daily basis you come to believe, and not without justification, that you are an expert in that endeavor. For example, if you teach data structures you’ve probably spent a great deal of time thinking about how to explain linked lists because you’ve had to do it dozens of times each year.

The problem is that there is a gap (and sometimes a significant one) between being a computing educator and being someone who produces scholarship in computing education. To come back to the data structures example, it takes a lot of background knowledge, careful experimentation, and detailed analysis to show that a lecture on linked lists is less effective for student learning than a peer instruction session. It also takes a great deal of time to produce the situation where you can gather the data, analyze the results, and write the paper. Most computing educators just won’t be doing that, and that’s fine.

The problem is that many computing educators fail to see the gap between the practice of computing education and computing education as an area of scholarship. They teach computing everyday, so how hard can it be? Why haven’t we discovered the best way to teach programming (by which they usually mean lecture-based instruction) so that every student retains the information we give them perfectly from class to class? Since they’re not familiar with the literature they don’t know that the answer is that there are several very good ways, but that none of them involve lecture-based classrooms. They probably also don’t realize that knowledge retention and transfer is tricky and that keeping the cognitive load low enough so that novice programmers can build a foundation in their long-term memory is a challenge. They just believe that the students coming out of the introductory programming classes don’t know what they should, and they get upset about it. Those of us who teach the introductory programming classes must be doing something wrong. (And, yes, I’m sure we are. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not also doing lots of things that are right too).

For me the realization that my colleagues don’t see the gap between being a computing educator and producing scholarship in the area of computing education was a big one. My hope is that it will give me the ability to step back and find a way to share with them some of what I know (however little that may be) about computing education research without myself getting upset. If someone doesn’t understand that a problem is hard enough to defy easy solutions, the first thing you have to do is help them to see it more clearly.

Computing education research to the rescue

My teaching for the past decade (or more) has primarily focused on introductory programming classes. And as much as I didn’t love programming as a student, I adore teaching people how to program. Yes, it can be frustrating in some cases, but in a lot of cases it’s a joy to see the moment (or moments) when people finally understand how to tackle and solve a problem using a programming language.

What I love a lot less is the feedback that I get from my colleagues about students coming out of the introductory courses. Yes, I know that students can appear to do well in one class and move into the follow-on class and do poorly, seeming to not understand basics that they should have learned in the previous class. After all, I teach the second-quarter Python class, so I’ve seen my own first-quarter Python students do it. And, yes, in an ideal world this wouldn’t happen. But, let’s face it: it does. There are no easy solutions to information retention or worse to knowledge transfer. And instructors and students can do everything right and still have bad outcomes. But knowing all of that doesn’t make it any easier to hear your colleagues complain about how horrible your former students are at programming or problem solving. And it only gets more aggravating when the situation transforms into an indictment of student ability as a whole.

But there are those rare moments when computing education research comes to the rescue, as a recent paper presented at SIGCSE did for me this week. In a provocatively (and yet aptly) named article, two researchers at Stanford tackled an issue that appeared on the agenda for a meeting this Friday. In the article As CS Enrollments Grow, Are We Attracting Weaker Students? an 8-year study of student assignment submissions found that the quality of students during the most recent enrollment boom remained remarkably stable, something that contradicts the perception of many computing educators. They then went on to explain how such a situation might occur: with growing enrollments, the number (but not the percentage) of weaker students grows, and the weaker students are the ones who demand the majority of our time and attention. So it feels like the population is less prepared, even if the statistical analysis doesn’t support that belief. And, yes, not many of us are at institutions like Stanford, so our results may vary. But the authors made a point of suggesting during their talk in Memphis that others try to replicate their work to determine if the situation is the same at other institutions.

Being able to share that article in advance of the meeting this Friday made me very happy. I can’t wait to see how many of my colleagues read it.

A sign of the stress

The winter quarter officially ended for me yesterday when I gave my last two final exams. If you’ve paid any attention to this blog (or know me personally), you know it was a tough quarter. I started it exhausted and an extra, new class as an overload didn’t help the situation. There were weeks that I felt lucky to reach Friday with my sanity (mostly) intact.

One of the brightest spots of the entire eleven weeks was my second-quarter Python class. They were one of the most engaged, curious, and interactive groups I’ve had in at least a year and probably longer. They are the kind of students who make feel like all the hassles of academic life are more than worth it for the chance to spend time with people like them. As happy as I am for winter quarter to be done, I will sorely miss them.

As a thank-you to them, I promised I would bake them chocolate-chip cookies for the final exam. Of course, I was so exhausted and stressed that I completely blanked on baking the cookies, which I didn’t realize until ten minutes before the final yesterday. I was so sad about having forgotten that I’m going to bake cookies and try to entice the students to stop by my office on the first day of spring quarter. It would love to see them again, so maybe it will have a happy ending after all.


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