A good start

We’re three weeks into the Fall quarter at DePaul, and as is typical for the first term in an academic year I’m finding myself energized and enthusiastic about my classes and students. No doubt over time I’ll get more tired and/or my students will do something silly or worse to annoy me, but for now I would like to share all the things that my students are doing that I love:

  • Showing up to class: I have for the most part perfect attendance right now. And today one student was particularly dedicated to coming to class on time. His train stalled between the Lincoln Park and Loop campuses, and he got off the train and literally ran to class to be on time. He showed up out of breath and a bit sweaty, which is how I was able to get the story. I feel like I should get him some sort of treat for that level of dedication …
  • Participating in class: I use cards to call on students randomly, so I force a bit of participation. But students in both my classes are particularly engaged this quarter. I still get passes, of course, but even those include more explanation than usual. And when I get a bunch of passes in a row and ask for volunteers to help with a more detailed explanation of a concept, I have a lot of hands that go up.
  • Coming to office hours: I’ve had more students come to office hours so far this quarter than the entirety of Spring quarter. While it means I’m busier, I really like it.
  • Asking questions by email: I always tell students at the beginning of the quarter that I’m a rare creature who actually answers email and that they should contact me if they get stuck, but some quarters the number of students who contact me remains small. That is not true this quarter, and although it (also) makes me busier I am enjoying it.
  • Asking questions in class: I have a reasonably large bunch of students in each class who ask great questions. It’s so nice when that happens because it makes the class more dynamic and fun.

Let’s hope that all of this continues. I would enjoy an entire quarter like this!

Where do we go from here

Next week classes start at DePaul, and I’m working this week on preparing my classes. I stuck to my resolution this year about taking a genuine break from almost everything work-related during the summer, so it feels good to start thinking about the students I’ll meet next week. I love teaching, and it will make me happy to see students again.

The start of this academic year brings with it a new president for DePaul, and one can’t help but be curious about what that will mean for us. As a result, I’ve been paying close attention to the emails he sends. I was surprised to get an email today reporting on the “Perceptions of Campus Climate” survey that went out to faculty and staff in May 2022. The fact that the results are being reported isn’t surprising, but what the president said in his message was. Among other things he said: “The 2022 climate survey results show declining trust in our leadership, concern about our path forward, a yearning for a more networked community, and a desire to define a new standard of work-life balance.” He then concluded with: “Where we are now does not need to be our future reality.” I don’t recall receiving such a blunt message from a DePaul president in a long time, if ever.

Curious, I went to the linked PDF for faculty results and saw something very validating: I am not alone in how I feel. If you look at the results broken down by college, you see that faculty in the College of Computing and Digital Media (CDM) rate the categories “leadership – deans”, “collegiality”, “general experiences”, “reward and recognition”, and “leadership – executives” as a “disagree” on a 5-point Likert scale. The rest of the categories barely reach into the “neutral” category. CDM faculty rate nearly every category lower than the other colleges at DePaul. The overwork, lack of appreciation, and unhappiness with leadership I’ve increasingly felt in the past couple of years are things my colleagues also feel.

As validating as that is, I actually agree with the new DePaul president that the current situation doesn’t have to be where we stay. Not only do we have a new president, but CDM has a new (interim) dean, and the School of Computing has a new director. I know the new dean and director well, and I trust them to do their very best to make things better. I don’t know the new president so I can’t say I feel the same way (yet), but the directness of his message is encouraging. And I’d really like things to get better. I have about 15 years left in my career, and I’d like to regain the feeling I used to have that what I do matters to the administration. I love my students and my colleagues too much to simply give up and try to ride out my remaining time. I don’t know where we go from here, but I’m hopeful that it will be better than where we find ourselves now.

A time of transition

As I write this I’m finishing my first month of retirement from the SIGCSE Board which after 12 years of service is a significant transition for me. It’s not the only transition going on right now, since my son moves out of our house into his own apartment on August 1st and starts college at DePaul in September. I don’t think I’ve had this much change in my life since my son was born more than 18 years ago, and each of these things simultaneously brings a moment of sadness and a reason to celebrate.

What I don’t think I had completely appreciated until the past few months is how much turmoil the transition from high school to college brings for a person. Since I spent my last year of high school as an exchange student in Germany, I experienced my significant transition at an earlier age and the process of going to college felt calm and smooth as a result. But that transition is anything but calm and smooth. As I watch my son grapple with taking on adult responsibilities and cope with the stress and anxiety that new situations like this naturally create, I have renewed sympathy for first-year students at DePaul. The vast majority of students I teach are in their first year at DePaul, and many of them, like my son, are fresh out of high school. I suspect that my new perspective may help me to understand some of the quirks I see in new students once I go back into the classroom after this summer of transition.

A rare break from work

Final exams ended last week at DePaul, and earlier this week I posted my grades. It’s this time of year when I start to think about what I’ll do with my summer, something I’ve written about extensively. This summer is a bit different than most because I’m coming to the end of my time on the SIGCSE Board. I’ve served on the Board for 12 years, and it’s been both the most fulfilling and most exhausting thing I’ve done in my career. Stepping away from the SIGCSE Board will be a big change for me.

As a result, I’ve decided that this is the first summer since I started graduate school at the University of Chicago in 1991 where I will take a break from work. There are a couple of tasks that simply cannot be avoided. Ignoring my advisees for an entire summer isn’t possible, so I will answer emails from them. I review course waivers for all of the incoming computer science Masters students, and preventing new CS Masters students from choosing classes for the Fall quarter also isn’t an option. But otherwise I will simply step away from my job. I won’t work on any research projects, and I won’t agree to any service tasks.

That said, I’m going to be plenty busy. My son is starting college in the Fall, and he wants to move out. Finding him an apartment is already proving to be a challenging task thanks to the current rental market. We’ve also never moved since he was born, so I will no doubt have to coach him through the purge and pack that is associated with moving. But seeing him go off on his own should make the work fun, and I’m looking forward to it.

Even though I won’t be spending the entire time resting and relaxing, the idea of a (mostly) work-free summer feels revolutionary to me. And after 31 years, it’s probably long overdue.

2022-2025 SIGCSE Board

The results of the election for the 2022-2025 SIGCSE Board has been announced. My congratulations to all the winners:

Chair

Alison Clear
Eastern Institute of Technology
Email: aclear@eit.ac.nz

Vice-Chair

Brett A. Becker
University College Dublin
Email: brett.becker@ucd.ie

Secretary

Dan Garcia
University of California Berkeley
Email: ddgarcia@berkeley.edu

Treasurer

Jill Denner
Education, Training, Research
Email: Jill.Denner@etr.org

At-Large Member

Rodrigo Silva Duran
Federal Institute of Mato Grosso do Sul
Email: rodrigo.duran@ifms.edu.br

Yolanda A. Rankin
Florida State University
Email: yrankin@gmail.com

Judithe Sheard
Monash University
Email: judy.sheard@monash.edu

My thanks also go out to the people who agreed to run for the election. We had a strong slate for this Board, and it’s a testament to SIGCSE that so many people were willing to step forward for this important role.

And my thanks again to the members of the 2022 election nominating committee:

Your help in recruiting and vetting the candidates was so important.

Attention former students

I became aware today of the CSGrad4US Fellowship Program which is available for students who have an undergraduate or Masters degree and want to pursue a Ph.D. The information about the program is pasted below in case any of my former students who read this blog are interested:

The benefits of CSGrad4US Fellowships are:

  • A year-long preparation program, in which individuals selected for the Fellowship will receive mentored support in identifying a graduate program, finding a research mentor, and applying to graduate programs; during this year, the individuals will also have opportunities to form a network with one another and with faculty advisors;
  • For those who enroll in an accredited doctoral degree-granting program at an institution of higher education having a campus located in the United States, its territories or possessions, or the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, an annual stipend of $34,000 for three years out of five; and
  • Cost-of-education allowance of $12,000 per year for the three years noted above to the institution of higher education.

WHO IS ELIGIBLE?

CSGrad4US Fellowship applicants must meet the following eligibility criteria:

  • Be a U.S. citizen, national, or permanent resident;
  • Intend to apply for full-time enrollment in a research-based doctoral degree program in a CISE field no later than Fall 2024;
  • Are not currently enrolled in a degree-granting program;
  • Have graduated with a bachelor’s degree in a CISE field or otherwise demonstrated CISE core competency before June 30, 2021;
  • Never enrolled in and have no pending application for a doctoral degree-granting program for a CISE discipline at the time of the application; and
  • Have never previously accepted a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

See the CSGrad4US Dear Colleague Letter for full eligibility requirements. NSF seeks candidates from a broad array of backgrounds and strongly encourages women, African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Native Pacific Islanders, and persons with disabilities to apply.

Finding joy

We have now hit the hardest part of the academic year for those of us on the quarter system. While most academics I know are complaining about grading final exams, I face another four weeks before I can do the same. And now that Chicago’s weather has finally improved, staying motivated will be a battle for all of us at DePaul.

So as usual this time of year I turn to whatever I can to keep me going. As it turns out this quarter, my morning class is one of those things. In a weird twist that I cannot explain the class has more than a third non-majors and 40% women, including nine people from the College of Communication. I can’t remember ever having a group like this, and some of the things they do make my heart very happy. First, they pay attention much more carefully in class than the usual students. It’s typical that when I’m talking at least a third of the students are actually looking at me, which almost never happens in classes taught in computer labs. They’re also great at asking questions and following the one-hour rule, which makes it much easier to gauge how well they’re understanding things and adapt to it.

But I think the thing about them that makes me the happiest is the personality that they bring to things. They write me comments in their assignments, occasionally make jokes, and put some fun things on the midterm notes they could use during the exam. My favorite has to be someone who included a pet scolding function we wrote in class (demonstrating string processing) and drew an associated picture. I’ve included it below.

(Note that I told them Annika is one of my cats). I laughed out loud when I saw this and shared it immediately with my family who loved it as much as I did. I think when things get hard this week as we (finally) have warm days and less reason to want to be inside working, I’ll come back to this photo for a giggle.

When they listen

The spring quarter started about 10 days ago, and typically it’s the toughest quarter of the year. With only a week between the winter and spring terms, I’m usually tired before classes even start. So I was incredibly happy to both be assigned to classes I really enjoy as well as having one of them be an unusually small (single-digit enrollment) class. And I’ve been enjoying both of my classes a great deal. In the small class I have names memorized and can give them lots of personal attention, and while I’m still working on names in the larger class, I have a great relationship with them already. The larger class has an exceptional number of female and non-binary students (40%), and they as a group seem to take the class more seriously than I’ve seen since before the pandemic. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the fact that it’s the first morning class I’ve taught in several years or if there is something else going on there. But I won’t overanalyze and will simply be happy that they are so receptive to what I have to say and the learning opportunities in the class.

Speaking of students listening, I had a rewarding experience when I reviewed the final exam notes from the winter quarter a couple of weeks ago. In the second quarter Python course I always share with my class a story about a student who forgot, on the final exam, to call the parent constructor when creating an HTML parser. When you do that and try to run the parser, you get a weird error about rawdata. This poor student spent 30 minutes on a 2 hour and 15 minute final exam stuck on the issue before calling me over. I tell them the story to try to get them to remember how important the call to the parent constructor is, and I typically make a joke of it by telling them that it’s a story that will make them cry. Last quarter they played along with the joke better than in previous quarters, pretending to cry after I told the story. So it thrilled me when I saw a reference to that story in one of the final exam note sheets they’re allowed to use on the exam:

It may be aggravating when students don’t listen, but that makes it all the more rewarding when one of them does!

A bittersweet return

Last week I attended my first in-person conference in two years. The SIGCSE Technical Symposium is held in February or March every year, and the last time I attended it in person was March 2020. That conference took place right at the start of the pandemic and was cancelled hours before the opening session. While the conference took place virtually last year and was a good experience, it definitely wasn’t the same as being in-person and I was looking forward to getting back to it. I was also nervous about it since I hadn’t flown, or even ventured more than a hundred miles from my house, since March 2020.

Happily the conference was everything that I hoped and more. The organizers adhered to policies that made me feel safe attending, for which I’m grateful. Being able to see people I hadn’t seen in person for two years gave me such joy. As usual there were lots of great things I took away from the conference, including a vow to learn more about computing history inspired by the amazing opening keynote by Barbara Liskov. I was also reminded how productive the inadvertent meetings you have at conferences are since a hallway chat between sessions has resulted in a pending panel submission to a conference scheduled to take place this July.

I think though the most important thing I felt during the conference was a sense of closure. My badge from the conference helps to tell that story:

In 2010 I ran for the SIGCSE Board, having attended just a few previous SIGCSE conferences, and much to my surprise was elected. Over the next 12 years I attended the Symposium continuously, as is expected of people serving on the Board, and it was such a positive experience. I got to see how hard people work for the organization because they love it so much. And I learned a lot about myself in the process.

This year was the last time I will attend the conference as a Board member. Twelve years is more than enough time for any person to serve on the SIGCSE Board, and I have no regrets about what I did during my time on the Board. But I will miss being so closely connected to the people in the organization. I’m not sure what comes next for me, but it will be hard to live up to the experience I’ve had as a member of the SIGCSE Board.

A strange start to the quarter

As I write this, the fourth week of the quarter at DePaul is coming to an end. Because of the pandemic, DePaul opted to have the first two weeks of class conducted remotely, so I spend the early part of January in my home office on Zoom. Given how excited I was to be back in person in the Fall quarter, you won’t be surprised to hear that I was disappointed to be remote. My classes actually translate fairly well to online formats, but after more than a year my basement and Zoom have lost any appeal that they might have had. That said, I understood why DePaul did it, and I was supportive of the decision. I never once thought about petitioning to be in person.

Beginning January 19th my class switched to in person, and I was thrilled to get back into the classroom. But what I discovered quite quickly is that moving from remote to in person a few weeks into the quarter is a strange experience. I knew the students and yet I didn’t. The same was definitely true for them, given their faces on that first day. There were a lot of deer-in-headlight looks despite picking up with something we had talked about extensively before, I suspect because the experience of my class is very different on Zoom versus in person. I’ve also, at least in one class, retained a lot of Zoom participants. I create a Zoom session during each class for those who may be sick or are dealing with other issues, and in one of my classes about a third of the students opt for that.

One thing in particular that happened the first day back brought home to me how much different my Zoom class is than my in-person class. I ask students at the beginning of the quarter for their preferred name, in no small part because my legal first name isn’t my preferred name so I’m sensitive to the issue. Many people shared preferred names on the introductions survey I circulated, and I was using them on Zoom. But the first day back in the classroom when I was walking around taking attendance and trying to memorize faces, one of the students corrected me and told me to use a different name than her first name. She hadn’t up until then said anything about not using her first name, although she had completed the survey and I had been calling on her regularly on Zoom. There was something about having me stand in front of her that pushed her to ask for her preferred name. And that kind of connection is precisely why I hope that I get to stay in person with my classes for the foreseeable future.