The story of final exam notes

We finished final exams at DePaul in the second-to-the-last week of November, but thanks to a ridiculous pile-up of work, I didn’t finish grading finals until last week. Anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I am not a fan of grading, but I discovered something amazing during my time grading finals: I really missed looking at my students final exam sheets during the pandemic.

For background: I allow students a relatively generous set of notes during the final exam. It’s not open notes, since I think there is value in curating what they bring to exams, but it’s pretty close. In my second-quarter programming classes it can be up to 40 pages of notes. My view on this is that memorizing syntax is pointless and that having examples we’ve done in class can be helpful (and calming) for the students. I also like to view the notes that they use because I find it’s interesting to see what they view as valuable. And this quarter’s students did not disappoint in that regard.

One student demonstrated her incredible organizational skills, providing tabs on her final exam notes to allow easy access:

Another student added some commentary about the subjects in the class:

And a third student, whose facial expressions during class were a source of constant delight for me, took the opportunity to share his feelings with me:

Looking through the note sheets after the final exam reminded me just how much I missed the full interaction with my students that I get through in-person classes. Their final exam notes tell me a story about who they are and how they feel, and I love it.

All of this only made me all the sadder that DePaul will spend (at least) the first two weeks of the quarter online again. I think I spent a good 36 hours being depressed after that announcement earlier this week, and I have my fingers crossed that it’s a momentary thing and not a sign of yet another quarter spent online. I simply miss seeing and being with my students too much to happily head back to remote teaching.

Names matter

Learning my students’ names is important to me, and something that I strive to do within the first two weeks of the quarter. With the DePaul mask mandate in place this quarter, that was a harder exercise than usual. But it is crucial in my view so I worked hard to achieve it, and I’m happy to report that I was successful.

I’ve heard it said that you perceive who you are, which is something I confirmed with respect to student names this quarter when two students came to my office hours. On the way they found a dropped UPass outside the stairwell next to my office, something that the student it belonged to would miss desperately when she tried to get on the train the next time. So I took it and volunteered to try to track her down. A quick search showed me that her major is animation, and there is a classroom right outside my office used almost exclusively for animation classes. I left my students in my office and walked over to the classroom. I went up to the instructor, handed him the UPass, and said that I had found it outside the room and was hoping to find out if the student was in his class. I expected him to look at it, read the name, and confirm that she was in his class. Instead he looked at it, read the name out loud, and asked if the student was in his class. She was, and she came up to get it. I walked out of the classroom stunned. This instructor, in the eighth or ninth week of a ten-week quarter, had no idea if that student was one of his. And he certainly couldn’t connect her name to her face. And, yes, I’m sure there are lots of explanations for this, some of which are probably even reasonable. But it was so outside my experience with my students that I was in a state of disbelief for several minutes.

This week I experienced something personally that further confirms my conviction that knowing and using the right name is important. This year is my 25th anniversary at DePaul, and the university holds a luncheon for people who have achieved that milestone. I decided to go, sent my RSVP, and submitted the requested information to the organizers. This week, two days before the luncheon, I was contacted for the pronunciation of my name. For my particular name that’s easy, but I appreciate the effort. What I didn’t realize until I heard back from them is that they weren’t using my preferred name. Amber is my middle name, not my first name, and is the name my parents used for me from the time I was a baby. But the organizers had consulted HR without looking into the DePaul system that contains preferred names and had my legal first name in the program. Being called by my legal first name is jarring and uncomfortable for me, as it is a name only used by telemarketers and other people who don’t know me at all. Going to a luncheon celebrating my long history at DePaul where that name would appear over and over significantly diminished the enjoyment I expected to experience at the event. So I told the organizer that I had changed my mind about attending. I also pointed out to her that not checking preferred names would mean that transgender colleagues were in danger of having their dead name appear in the program, which is much worse than my situation. I did not get a response from her about either point. The sadness that I feel over this situation stiffens my resolve to continue my dedication to getting names right.

Some new habits

We are nearly through seven (out of eleven) weeks of the Fall quarter at DePaul in the first term since the pandemic started and shut nearly everything down. I’ve written about all the things I missed during the pandemic, and I’m thrilled to be back teaching in person. Yes, October is still my busiest month, and there have been too many 12-hour teaching days. But overall being able to interact in person with my students and colleagues makes all of the annoyances worthwhile.

What I’ve discovered though is that the pandemic shook up my work routine enough that I’ve developed a few new habits:

  • Most of my advising hours are scheduled remotely, using Zoom. I have about an hour that can be in person on my teaching days, but the other two hours per week are on a day that I work from home. As it turns out, students prefer Zoom meetings over in-person meetings. Even on my teaching days, all of my advising appointments have been virtual. And I love being able to spread out my work over more days, even if it hasn’t reduced the length of my teaching days in October.
  • Zoom-enabled classrooms have allowed more participation from sick students in my in-person class. I’m not sure that the experience they’re getting is as good as what I delivered when the entire class was on Zoom, and it’s certainly not as good of an experience as the in-person students are getting. But they use it and participate, and I think we all benefit from the flexibility of it.
  • I provide test cases in my code templates during in-person exams. During the pandemic students had access to the PDF with the test cases, and they often copied and pasted the text when developing their code. Now that the PDF is a hard-copy in front of them, I didn’t want them wasting time retyping the test cases. Honestly, I can’t believe I didn’t think of this sooner, but when you’re used to a certain way of doing things it can be hard to break out of that thinking.
  • Although it’s not really a new habit of mine, I’m also delighted that committee and faculty meetings are entirely virtual now. I have much more productive Fridays as a result, and I hope that this change lasts indefinitely.

I’ll have to see if any more habits change as a result of my new perspective. I’m grateful that some good things were able to come out of the awful that is the pandemic.

A teachable moment

As it typical for the end of the third week of the quarter (when the second assignment is due), I’m struggling with a rash of cheating cases. Having as many as six Academic Integrity violations to file is killing the buzz I had from being back in person, but fortunately today in my first class I had an experience that reminded me how much better things are now that we’re back.

I gave the students a short exercise to do in class. The back row of students is particularly engaged, and they enjoy discussing things among themselves. At some point one of them got the program to work and exclaimed: “I fucking love it when it works!” The rest of the students, seeing me nearby, glanced at me and the student who said it, no doubt wondering how I would react to the swearing. I simply turned back to them and said that I agreed. I then walked to the front and told the whole class that you weren’t really programming if you weren’t swearing at least once.

The incident caused everyone to laugh, of course, but I think it was an important point to make: programming can be frustrating and swearing is a natural reaction to that. Acknowledging that is part of my job, and it was something that was much harder to do when I was teaching Zoom classes. Even with all the annoying moments, I’m grateful to be able to be inside a classroom again.

So happy to be back

This morning marks the start of the third week of the fall quarter at DePaul. As expected, things aren’t the way they used to be before the start of the pandemic, even with DePaul’s cautious approach of required vaccinations and masks. The building is more deserted than usual, and there are colleagues I haven’t seen yet and likely won’t see at all since they’re teaching solely online. Recognizing my students’ faces, and memorizing their names, is tougher with masks. I dislike having to scold students who don’t wear their mask over both their nose and mouth, although I do it to protect everyone’s health. And it turns out that drinking water while I teach is something I really like and definitely miss.

But even with all that, being back in person is everything that I hoped and more. I’ve been able to see colleagues again, and I even got to go out to dinner (outside) with one of them earlier this week. Teaching through a mask isn’t hard at all, although it is hotter especially in the stuffy room I have in the late afternoon. Even my commute is pleasant since it appears that most offices in downtown Chicago aren’t requiring people to be back yet, leaving the trains very empty even at prime commute times. Having an hour to read every day on a nearly empty train is much more fun than I remember.

But most of all I’m appreciating seeing and being with my students. On Monday in my late afternoon class I gave them a programming exercise to work on. Before I called time one of the students suddenly clapped his hands together, obviously happy that he had correctly completed the exercise. It’s been 21 months since I’ve been able to see something like that, and it was a delight. I quietly thanked him for letting me experience it. The energy I get from being in the room with students is amazing, and I think they’re as happy as I am to be there.

The end of a balanced summer

The end of my summer comes next week when I return to teaching at DePaul on September 8th. When I sat down to write about this summer I did a quick search to see what I had previously written about summer breaks, and I’m sure it will surprise no one to hear that it’s one of the most frequent subjects on this blog. I’ve discussed everything from ideas to improve the relaxation I feel to the frustration and disappointment I feel once the summer comes to a close. I don’t think I’m alone among academics in having a fraught relationship with summer breaks. If you’re lucky enough to have a break from teaching, you typically feel a lot of pressure to do other activities that are neglected in the crush of the academic year. But at the same time refreshing yourself so that you can go at full speed while teaching is important. It usually results in a muddle where you feel you haven’t done any of it right.

All of this makes me happy to report that I have finally come to the end of a balanced summer. I kept the habit I started last year of taking long weekends, with most weeks compressed to three days of work. Because of the pandemic I didn’t travel at all, so that I had lots of time to binge watch, cook, play with my cats, and do other relaxing things at home. Before the delta variant caused a Covid-19 resurgence I got to socialize with vaccinated friends and eat several times at restaurants, a first since March 2020. At the same time, I had several weekly research meetings, and I made good progress on a couple of projects. I also kept up with my SIGCSE service, including putting together a committee for the 2022 election, and I handled the advising and admissions activities that are typically more intense during the summer. I’m left feeling both productive and relaxed, something I don’t think I’ve achieved since I started working at DePaul in 1996.

Next week I return to the classroom for the first time since November 2019, and I’m both excited and nervous. I can’t wait to see the students in person again, but the delta variant will no doubt make things complex even with all the precautions DePaul has in place, which fortunately include both mandatory vaccination and masking. I have doubts that I’ll make it to the end of the term in person, but thanks to this summer I have the energy to try. And that is never more precious than at this point in time.

There is so much I miss

It’s the middle of summer for me, and I’m going my best to emulate my European colleagues and take my break seriously. While I’m doing some research and service during my summer break, I’m also trying to make sure that I reserve plenty of time for rest and relaxation, and so far I’m doing well. I’m especially proud that I’ve stuck to the three-day workweek that I set out for myself at the beginning of the summer.

But I can’t help but think a little bit about the fall quarter, especially now that there are indications that vaccine hesitancy combined with the delta variant of Covid-19 is pushing the end of the pandemic in the U.S. further away. At the moment all of my classes in the fall quarter are scheduled in person, but I’m starting to wonder if that will hold. Thanks to a particularly well-timed research leave and the pandemic, it’s been 20 months since I taught a class in person. In fact, I haven’t seen the inside of my office since November 2019. While there are things I’ve appreciated about the pandemic, including no commute time and virtual office and advising hours (which I plan to keep whenever I get back to the office), I want to teach in person again. I miss the energy I get from interacting in person with students, and nothing I can do in Zoom or via asynchronous interactions can recreate that.

If I’m honest though, I miss more than teaching in person. I miss bumping into my colleagues randomly in the hallways and hearing how their weekend was. I miss seeing the cashiers at the coffee shops that I used to frequent when I was downtown. I miss observing what everyone is wearing on the trains during my commute. But most of all I miss in-person conferences. Virtual conferences have allowed research to continue, for which I’m very grateful, but a virtual conference is not the same as an in-person one. Even on the best virtual platform, it’s tougher to interact with other attendees and it’s nearly impossible to capture the feeling of looking around the room and seeing people you know. And as I discovered at the 2021 ITiCSE conference thanks to their genius idea of having virtual tours of a museum, I miss getting the local flavor of the country and city hosting the conference.

Earlier this summer it made me happy to imagine that I was going to get back to most of these things. Infection rates were dropping in the U.S., and I had fun picturing myself at the office, seeing colleagues and students in person, and even picturing myself travelling for a conference next March. Part of me is still holding onto that idea, but another part of me is afraid that Americans are going to collectively blow our chance at moving past the pandemic. Let’s hope that the optimistic part is right.

A window into their lives

It’s summer break for us right now, which means I have more time for things other than work. For the most part that’s meant more cooking, more exercise, and a lot more binge-watching in the evening. But it also means that I have a bit more time to scan social media than during the regular academic year. And I had an important realization the other day.

I don’t connect with all of my students on social media, but a reasonable percentage of my connections are to former students (except Twitter for some strange reason). And over the years that I’ve been connected to them, I’ve gotten to watch as they move through their lives. They graduate. They get jobs. They move into (and out of) relationships. They get pets. They buy condos or houses. They get married. They have kids. None of this is surprising, of course.

But what struck me recently is just how much I love the window into their lives. It means so much to me to see them as they get older and experience more of life. In some ways it makes me feel old, because the teens I taught to program now have mortgages and spouses and kids. But it also makes me happy to see them celebrate their vacations and pets and milestones. Seeing the complete people whom I used to teach is one of the joys of my life. Thank you to all my former students who share their lives with me.

Sometimes they surprise me

I’m happy to report that the Spring quarter at DePaul is only two weeks away from being done. It’s been the toughest spring in memory, no doubt a side effect of the pandemic. As tired and worn out as I am, my students are even more burned out. The number of students who have ghosted my classes, by disappearing but not actually dropping the course, is higher than usual. And the ones who are still participating are clearly as exhausted as I am.

Inspired by all this I decided in one of my classes to let them vote on whether they were going to have a last assignment. If they didn’t want it, I would simply put together some exercises to help them study for the final exam. I made a one-question Qualtrics survey and sent it out, fully expecting that the majority would vote for no assignment, especially given that it would be due two days before the final exam. Much to my surprise the vast majority voted in favor of having a last assignment. This is not the result I expected, and I can’t help but be a little proud that they’re embracing the chance to get credit for their learning at the tail end of a really tough academic year.

The Spring quarter blues

It’s the fourth week of the Spring quarter at DePaul, and I’m sad to say that I’m already feeling the Spring quarter blues. Spring quarter is the toughest term for us, since it follows the 11-week Winter term with only a week “break” that is mostly spent grading and preparing new classes. Going nearly continually from early January until mid June is tough during the best of times, but I’m finding it particularly hard this year.

Part of the issue is that I’m having huge problems with Academic Integrity violations this quarter. I’ll spare you the gory details, but one of my classes has at least one student who clearly has a habit of submitting assignments to online “tutoring” sites. This week I threatened to eliminate assignments altogether in favor of quizzes, labs, and exams with shorter deadlines. I’m hoping that will discourage the behavior, but I’m not convinced. The drag of policing and scolding is getting to me.

But someone I know on social media posted something recently that really effectively summarizes the way I’m feeling. There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing was a revelation for me to read, since it so clearly describes the way I’ve been feeling since about mid-February. The end of Winter quarter wasn’t hugely productive for me, but the Spring quarter is turning out much, much worse. I was getting down on myself about it, but after reading the article I think I may cut myself a break. I’ve also, blissfully, gotten back to reading which is something I almost completely stopped once the pandemic started. It is making me feel a lot better, and I think that’s because there’s nothing like a good novel to make me reach the flow state. I’ll try to find more things that stimulate that feeling for me, in the hopes that I can make my way through the seven weeks left this quarter.