Experiences that make you a better person

When I was a college student I had a variety of part-time jobs that I took to help pay the bills. I was fortunate that for four years of college I had a full-tuition scholarship and that my mother paid for books and my last year of tuition (since I got both a B.S. and B.A. and didn’t finish in four years). But I lived away from home, and there were other things I needed to buy. So among many other jobs (secretary, programmer), I worked for a while at McDonald’s. It was horrible. I’m not gifted at managing the public, and there are a lot of people who get really angry about not getting their food as quickly as they expect. The number of times I was yelled at was astonishing, and I didn’t last more than two months. On the other hand, the experience made me a better fast-food customer. Yes, sometimes people serving fast food don’t do a good job. But for the most part yelling at them doesn’t make anything better, and I resolved that I would never contribute to the abuse that fast-food workers receive.

I believe I have now discovered the academic equivalent of working at a fast-food restaurant: organizing a conference. No matter how well you attempt to do things, something always goes wrong. People have trouble registering. People don’t see information you’ve carefully posted on the web site, registration confirmation, email announcements, etc. People believe that they’re entitled to special treatment or consideration for whatever reason and are miffed when you (politely) disagree or fail to comply. And most importantly, the vast majority of people have no idea how difficult the job is so they don’t think to express appreciation.

Like the McDonald’s situation though, I’m convinced that the experience is making me a better person. Having seen what a horror conference organization is (although I’m sure there are many horrors yet to come since there are more than three weeks left), I have become a more appreciative conference attendee. I thank conference organizers profusely whenever I can, and when I have something to discuss regarding the conference I attempt to raise the issue in the most polite way possible. As is usual, the most difficult situations are the ones in which you learn the most. So I thank SIGITE for giving me this opportunity to learn.

Computer science as enabler

Although I haven’t written about it, even on my relatively private Facebook page, this August brought me a personal crisis. I don’t want to go into too many details, so suffice to say that I realized some of my current behavior is due to past experiences that are (happily) no longer relevant. Some of my behavior has included clinging to perfectionism and being unable to ask for help, things that I am now ready to let go of. But the experiences were painful, so facing them and then moving past the behaviors has also been difficult. In all of this I’ve had the support and love of my family, and for that I’m grateful.

In what seems like an unrelated situation but likely isn’t, a blog post about embracing my imperfections led a colleague to suggest that I read a book. “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown is proving to be a particularly useful thing for me as I move past my crisis. Earlier this week I read something in it that I need to share:

In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and, today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic. Heroics is important and we certainly need heroes, but I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics is often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting ourĀ vulnerability on the line. In today’s world, that’s pretty extraordinary.

She goes on to talk about the connection between courage and compassion and other topics that are relevant for the book. But the idea that speaking honestly and openly, even about your weaknesses, struck me as something important, no doubt because it’s related to the personal work I’m doing now.

Today I started preparing my classes since our quarter starts next week. With all of this bubbling in my mind, I suddenly realized that my reluctance to show vulnerability has unfortunately been enabled by my choice of profession. Anyone who has spent time in a programming class, at a programming contest, on a forum where people ask questions about programming, or at a variety of other venues recognizes the odd combination of showing off and bluffing that computer scientists tend to do. “Asking” questions that are more about displaying your knowledge of an area than learning information; belittling someone who knows less than you do about some CS topic; exaggerating your accomplishments or abilities, often to make you compare favorably to someone else: all of these are things that computer scientists have seen, or done, at one point or another. And women (and other underrepresented minorities) are especially in a bad place with respect to these behaviors since they’re more likely to be perceived as not belonging and therefore more likely to need to “prove” that they are “worthy”. In this environment someone who courageously shares their lack of knowledge or lack of confidence isn’t likely to receive positive feedback.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t share your vulnerability, even as a female computer scientist. But it does mean that you have to have a level of confidence about who you are and your fit with computer science that eludes many people new to the area. So as I go into a new academic year, one of my goals is to show the type of courage that Brown speaks about above. As a more senior faculty member, I’m at a place where I know I belong in computer science and where I can model a healthier approach to being a computer scientist for my students, and perhaps even some of my colleagues.

The seven stages of the end of summer break

September is here, and with it comes the last throes of what I’ve decided to call the seven stages of the end of summer break. (Note that if you’re at a semester-based school or live in the Southern Hemisphere the timing of these stages will be different. But I’d bet large sums of money that you go through the same stages, even if the timing is off).

  1. Shock & denial: This typically hits with about a month left in the break, which for me is the beginning of August. I initially am stunned that I only have a month left and then avoid the issue by not thinking about it.
  2. Pain & guilt: Once my mind returns to the subject, usually two weeks later, I feel terribly guilty that I either haven’t done more or that I haven’t relaxed more or both.
  3. Anger & bargaining: Just after the guilt wears off, or sometimes while I’m still feeling guilty, I start to get upset at myself and others about all the things I said I’d do this summer that stole away my time. I also start to bargain with myself about what I’ll do differently next year.
  4. Depression & reflection: Once it sinks in that the term will be starting again no matter how guilty or angry I am about it, I start to get sad. I think about what I did this summer, both good and bad. See my “what I learned this summer” post for an example.
  5. The upward turn: I usually get here once I start to prepare my syllabi. I remember that teaching the classes I do can actually be kind of fun. I’m still fairly grumpy though. I may cycle back through the other stages before moving to the next stages.
  6. Reconstruction & working through: Typically I get here once I prepare my first lectures and assignments. Barrages of email from students and colleagues can temporarily set me back, but I rebound more quickly. Commencement usually happens during this stage.
  7. Acceptance & hope: Labor Day or the Tuesday after it is a typical time for this stage. I’ve had to start waking up earlier to get my daughter to school, and I now remember the positive things about the routine during the quarter. I begin to wonder what my students are like and look forward to meeting them.

What I wonder is whether I can shorten any of these cycles by agreeing to do less. For example, will I experience fewer stages once I’m not doing conference organization? It’ll be interesting to see.

What I learned during my summer break

The start of the fall quarter is still more than three weeks away (I hear that groan semester-based academics, and I feel exactly the same way every May when you’re talking about your final exams and I’m six weeks away from summer break), but now feels like a good time to reflect on what I learned this summer:

  • I treasure unstructured time above all else. Yes, having some structure does help me to stay organized, but both in my work and personal life there is absolutely nothing better than a day without a single plan or required to-do. I’m going to aim to have more of these days in my life.
  • Structured time doesn’t have to be stressful. I usually resist coming downtown during the summer, but thanks to a project with some students I had to show up quite a bit. And it wasn’t terrible or stressful. The key is simply to make sure that you have a reasonable to-do list on days when you have lots of meetings, a lesson I hope to carry forward into the academic year.
  • Conferences where you don’t have a million things to do are more fun. At ITiCSE I was in a working group and had to present a paper. At ICER I helped with talk practice, but I was otherwise not involved in the presentation. And I left ICER feeling more relaxed than I had ITiCSE. I think at least one conferences every year needs to be about hearing what other people have to say and less about trying to present my own work.
  • Staying home during the summer is the best of all. Unlike last summer I had four full weeks when I wasn’t traveling. I loved it. Chicago is a gorgeous city. I love my family. I’m productive when I work at home. I’m going to try to remember this one above all others when planning future summers.

My summer wasn’t as stressful or busy as last year, but there is definitely more room for improvement. I think it’s fair to say that my summers are a work-in-progress.

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.


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