The small successes

It’s been a particularly difficult quarter for me. Fall quarter is usually busy, but I’ve had two or three fairly significant service tasks added to my already full plate that pushed me into a bit of overload. What little research I’ve done is also on tough things like teaching programming and student retention, which at times can feel more discouraging than inspiring.

Luckily, twice this quarter I got notes from students that helped boost my morale. The first was a thank-you note from a student who recently graduated. I found in my mailbox when I finally checked it this quarter after a long summer away. His note is below:


The second morale-booster was a note that one of my programming students wrote on her final exam notes yesterday:


Obviously, reading these two notes is wonderful. But what is especially helpful for me is that I don’t recall doing anything special for these students. In both cases I think I was just doing what I normally do when I teach, and yet it so positively impacted these students that they wanted to let me know. When I get discouraged it helps to think that while I can’t make a difference for every student, I can help some.


We need to talk about our failures

Although the majority of my advisees are now undergrads, I still have an occasional graduate student advisee. As it happens, I met with one of my advisees this week who is in the Masters program in computer science. He and I have met multiple times, mostly before he started taking classes at DePaul, and I’ve enjoyed our conversations a great deal. During our meeting yesterday we talked about the algorithms class he’s taking. Like a non-trivial number of our Masters (and, frankly, undergraduate) students, he’s struggling with algorithms. It was clear in our meeting that he’d done a lot of soul searching about what had gone wrong and what he could do differently next time. But it was also clear that he needed a little reassurance, since this was the first graduate-level (e.g. not introductory) class he’d taken.

So I told him that a lot of students struggle with algorithms. It’s abstract and difficult, and it makes sense that people find it challenging. I also told him about my big failure as an undergrad, which was with architecture and assembly, not algorithms. That was the only class in which I failed a midterm. I did much better in the latter part of the class, but the poor midterm made it one of two classes in which I earned a B as an undergrad. I told him that struggling with one area of computer science doesn’t mean anything about your ability in the field. It just means that you have to work harder at that topic, as I did with architecture.

I think it had the intended effect, which was to encourage him in his efforts to pass the class, either this time or the next time he takes it. He wrote the following in an email after our meeting:

Thanks for today’s conversation. I honestly was a bit embarrassed and had a hard time to admit my experience in [the algorithms] class.

I especially appreciated your sharing your own experiences with your Architecture class, and other students’ experience with Algorithms.


The experience made me realize that talking about my failures in computer science can, at the right time, be something encouraging for others. I wonder how often computing educators do that. Whatever the answer, I think we need to do it more.

ACM TurC 2018 Symposium

While at SIGITE 2017 at the end of last week, which was great as usual, I learned that SIGCSE China will be holding the ACM TurC 2018 Symposium next May in Shanghai. I attended the 2017 TurC Symposium and had a wonderful time, so I encourage all of you to consider submitting to the 2018 TurC Symposium. SIGCSE China has lots of active and energetic members, and you won’t regret having a chance to meet them and to spend time in Shanghai.

A huge compliment

As I left the office today, two colleagues (both assistant professors) got off the elevator. When they saw me the following conversation took place:

Colleagues: “Oh! There you are! We were just talking about teaching.”

Me: (laughing) “And I’m the embodiment of teaching.”

Colleagues: “You laugh, but, yes, you are.”

I was a bit startled, until I realized that they couldn’t have paid me a higher compliment. I love teaching and spend a lot of time trying to do it as well as I can. And I’ve structured almost all of my scholarship and service around teaching and learning too. That colleagues I don’t know particularly well see my face and think of teaching means that I’ve not only dedicated myself to teaching, but I’ve done it so publicly that everyone else knows about my dedication. What a great way to start the weekend!

A new teaching experience

It’s no surprise to anyone who reads this blog regularly or knows me even slightly that I love teaching. Part of the reason I love teaching is that I enjoy interacting with students. It’s rewarding and challenging and the reason that I feel I have the best job in the world. You might think though that after 24 years of teaching I would have experienced all the things I possibly could with my students. As it turns out, you would be wrong.

This quarter is the fourth iteration of the linked-courses learning community offered by a colleague of mine and me. Every year there’s been something I’ve enjoyed about the learning community, and I’ve written too many blog posts about it to include references to all of them here. The students in the cohorts of the learning community have brought me a lot of joy (and some amount of pain, depending on the year), but this is the first year that I’ve experienced universal love for an entire group of students.

Yes, in the past I’ve loved individual students and even groups of students in a larger class. But this year I’ve fallen in love with the entire class. They’re serious, focused, curious, respectful, polite, good listeners, and hard workers. They’re not perfect, but I adore even their imperfections. And I honestly have no idea whether they even like me in return, mostly because they are such a polite group. I’m simply putting the best class I can out there and appreciating how well they’re responding to it. I hope that enough of them stay together in future classes that my colleagues will get to experience the joy of having this bunch as a class.

A shift in my perception of summer

Let me start off by saying that this is one of the times of the year when I truly appreciate the quarter system as implemented at DePaul. My social media feeds in early August are full of back-to-school news (or dread about the imminent back-to-school deadline) from my mostly Northern-Hemisphere-dwelling friends, which makes the more than three weeks I have left until the start of the term seem especially sweet. It also almost makes the pain of enduring six weeks of teaching in May and June while reading summer news from the same friends worth it.

But August is also the time that I come to terms with the end of my summer. And summers in at least the past five years have been busy times for me. While I don’t teach, I certainly have a lot of work to do (because no, I don’t have summers off, thank you). My service obligations in the past few years have been downright overwhelming, and the pressure to do research is constant since it gets so little attention during the year. So I end up feeling almost disappointed in what I do each summer, both because I don’t do as much work as I want and because I never feel as rested as I hope to be in my spring-quarter fantasies about it. As a result, August is almost a time of mourning.

This past week I had a revelation about why I seem to have near-constant disappointment in my summers. The pace of the academic year is ferocious, particularly in the quarter system, where deadlines are non-stop. As a way to keep going, you imagine summer as a time when the press of deadlines is gone and you have endless free time ahead of you. Except that summer isn’t like that. Yes, you have many (many, many) fewer deadlines, but they never really go away entirely. And the few that remain weigh so much more heavily on you since it’s supposed to be your unstructured time.

When I realized this I also found a new way of thinking about summer. Summer is the time when I have the freedom to be unproductive. The deadlines that I do have are looser, so while I attach dates to them those dates can move. And rather than be upset when I push a deadline from one week to the next, I should revel in that act since it’s something I can almost never do during the rest of the year. Being unproductive isn’t a bad thing in the summer: it’s the whole point. Armed with this idea, I hope to enjoy my relative lack of productivity during the rest of my summer rather than be haunted by what I haven’t accomplished. We’ll see if the idea works as well in practice as I hope.

Pushing past the pain of change

I have a confession to make that will no doubt shock and/or disappoint some of you: the vast majority of my computing-education publications have been produced using Word. Yes, I know Latex and have used it since graduate school way back in the 1990s. But many of my co-authors in computing education aren’t familiar with it, so I switched to Word when I started working in that area. And as much as I acknowledge that Latex would have made some things easier (references, for one), I didn’t have sufficient motivation to change and force my co-authors to change with me.

Then came the revisions to the ACM templates earlier this year. The Word version of the template is so much more painful than the previous template (I’m looking at you macros and fonts that have to be installed) that I gave up and switched to Latex. It helps significantly that ACM has an agreement with Overleaf, which is an online Latex tool that is incredibly easy to use. (Check it out now if you’ve never used it. You won’t regret it.) The ACM templates can be immediately downloaded into Overleaf, and the resulting documents are quick to edit and view. For the first time in what seems like forever the final version of my conference paper was accepted by Sheridan in the first round, which made the pain of switching the Word draft into Latex almost worth it.

Thanks to my sweetie for putting up with my complaints during the 24 hours it took me to make the switch. And thanks to ACM for the incentive to change.