The best kind of questions

One of the things I like most about working on scholarship in the area of computing education is that in the end it’s about improving how we interact with students. Yes, there are lots of people who do computing education research that is (often far) removed from classroom activities, but eventually research about almost any topic in computing education ends up impacting teaching in some way. To me that kind of research makes a significant difference, and it makes me happy to contribute in the small ways that I do.

Recently though I’ve observed something interesting. The longer I work in computing education, the more I think that my scholarship has changed me. To give a particular example, I’ve written about the learning community project that a colleague and I have run for the past three years. And I’ve observed that my approach to students has changed, in that I’ve become more attached to my students. The more I think about it, the more I think the learning community project and the change in my interaction with students is connected. Next week I travel to Boston for SIGITE 2016 where I’m going to present our latest work on the learning community project. In that paper we discuss results that show that students in the learning community feel less isolated post-quarter, something that we don’t see in the general CS1 population at DePaul. What the data we have so far doesn’t capture, and what we hope to formally investigate in the qualitative work we plan next, is the feeling I get from the students. They seem more connected to me and each other, and experiencing something like that has changed me. I interact differently with all my students as a result.

Last week something small happened that concretely showed me how my relationship with students has evolved. A student who was enrolled in the CS1 class associated with the first cohort of the learning community, but not in the learning community itself since as a transfer student she wasn’t eligible, emailed me. She had an interview scheduled and needed to get some pants altered in preparation. She asked me where I would recommend she go for alterations. I congratulated her and told her where I would go for alterations. Thinking about it later I realized that those are precisely the kind of emails I want to get from former students. It shows that she trusts my judgement and wants my advice for things that go well beyond which classes to choose. Those are the best kind of questions, and I hope I have a lot more of them in my future.

When it doesn’t feel like work

Yesterday was my first Friday of the quarter, which for us in the College of Computing and Digital Media means meeting day. Since we don’t teach any classes on Fridays everyone knows that there are no conflicts for meetings, so the day tends to be a gauntlet of appointments. Yesterday I was scheduled from 12 – 9 pm between various meetings and events. Anyone who knows me even slightly knows that I’m not a fan of meetings, so Fridays tend to make me grumpy. Happily yesterday was an exception to the rule.

It think it helped that it was the first time I was seeing many of my colleagues this academic year. I got to hear a lot of stories about the summer break, from encounters with bears to the woes of trying to sell your house. We spent a lot of time joking with each other during an advising event, something that seemed to puzzle the students around us which only made it more fun. One of my colleagues gave one of my students/advisees an autographed copy of the Python textbook as a birthday gift before pledging to coax me into climbing sometime this fall. Much to my surprise almost everyone asked about my trip to New Zealand and Australia, and it was fun to share some stories about that. I pulled a muscle in my arm sometime during my trip to Australia, and another colleague offered a heat patch as a remedy. And there was plenty of sarcastic commentary during the long hours of the meetings, which is crucial for your sanity. The day reminded me that when you’re surrounded by people who are also your friends, it doesn’t feel like work.

The small things make a difference

Thanks to my travels, today is the first day of the fall quarter for me. I’m as excited and nervous as is expected, particularly for the learning community class. According to my team, there appear to be some challenges associated with this cohort, and I hope I can handle them well.

Fortunately, I also got a boost this week in the form of an email from a former student. She was in my accelerated Python class, and she wrote to say hi for the start of the term. Part of what she wrote is below:

I never properly thanked you for all of the motivation and confidence you have given me. I truly appreciate it. I hope that we can keep in contact in the future, because I really do look up to you and strive to accomplish at least close to what you have in your career. Again, thank you for everything, I probably wouldn’t still be in Computer Science if it wasn’t for you, and for that I am so thankful.

To say that this made my day would be an understatement. It also surprised me since I didn’t really do much for her. I just emailed a couple of times when she seemed especially down to tell her that I thought she was doing well and to encourage her. Remembering that just a few words can help a student so much is something useful to have in mind as I head into another academic year.

It’s all about the people

I’m writing this post from Melbourne, Australia, where I’m attending ICER 2016. This is my second ICER, and it’s been a great experience. However, this post isn’t about ICER, or at least it’s not directly about the conference. Before I arrived in Melbourne for ICER, I spent a week in Auckland, New Zealand. The combination of the dates for ICER and for our first quarter this year meant that I was going to have to miss the entire first week of classes to attend the conference. So I decided to use the last of my summer break to extend the trip. I knew some people in Auckland, and I made that my first destination.

What surprised me was how much more I looked forward to the Auckland part of the trip than the Melbourne part of the trip. At first glance it doesn’t make any sense because both are lovely cities with plenty of things to see and do. The gap in my enthusiasm continued until I arrived in Melbourne when I finally realized what was happening. On the first night I went out to dinner with an American colleague I only see at conferences. On the second night I went out to dinner with two collaborators who live in Melbourne but whom I wasn’t expecting to see much because they’re involved in ICER organization. By the end of the second night I was as happy to be in Melbourne as I had been to be in Auckland. And the answer to the gap was easy: for me visits to cities are mostly about the people. Yes, I like to see and do things in new places. But mostly I enjoy doing those things with people I like and with whom I want to spend time.

Realizing this has made me all the more grateful to have so many wonderful colleagues and collaborators in various places around the world. Experiencing their home cities with them is one of the joys of my life.

The advantages of time

Academia has a weird way of warping your sense of time. To start it’s a constant barrage of crunch times big and small for everything from homework and exams to paper deadlines. Then there’s the fact that we as faculty and staff slowly grow old whereas our students remain in roughly the same age bracket, something I’ve written about before. Maintaining perspective in this bizzarre world where everything and nothing changes at the same time can be a challenge.

But there is a big plus to existing in a different time frame than your students, something I’ve only recently begun to appreciate. One of the jobs that I’ve taken on during the past five years is the Python course mentor. We offer 30+ sections of introductory Python classes each year, and it’s important to have someone to keep an eye on them making sure that nothing goes wildly off track. The Python classes are also a rarity at DePaul in that we have extra labs for them, and teaching assistants oversee the labs. One of the things I’ve drifted into doing is hiring and supervising the group of 2-3 Python TAs we require each year. Finding TAs at an institution where they aren’t the norm can be tough, and some years I have struggled to find the right candidates. It doesn’t help that I only teach undergrads, but I’m restricted to hiring graduate students as TAs.

But at DePaul we offer a combined degree program. In the combined degree program undergrads sign up for a graduate degree and then take three graduate classes as an undergrad. In a flash of insight I’ve taken to putting an idea into the head of any student who took my Python class(es) (and did well) and who applies for a combined degree program. I’ve been suggesting that they should apply for an assistantship once they become graduate students, selling the (many) benefits. Yes, this strategy isn’t likely to bear any fruit for 3-4 years, but that time frame is just a blip on a faculty member’s radar. So I’ve been enthusiastically doing it, and I have hopes that sometime in the near future I won’t struggle to find good TAs anymore.

A lesson worth learning

I teach mostly freshman and sophomores, which means that I get to watch them for three or four years as they progress through their degrees. It gives me a broader perspective than I might have if I had met them when they were older, and it also lets me see how they take the lessons they learned in my classes and apply them elsewhere.

Most recently I got an email from a student who struggled in one of my programming classes. I’ve written about him before, because he showed a persistence that impressed me. He became my advisee after he left my class, and he’s now ready to graduate. He wrote the following:

From being a sophomore to being a senior you taught me that even if things take a turn for the worst in a course that if you work hard enough and put in the effort you can come back from any failure.

In just one sentence he showed me that all those hours he spent in my office helped him to learn something very valuable. I hope that sometime five or ten years from now he checks in again because I expect he’ll be doing great things.

Embracing my aging

I’m going to admit up front that I’m nervous about writing this post. It’s going to bring up an uncomfortable topic, and I worry a bit about how it will be perceived. But I feel like it’s important to get it out there, so I’m writing it anyway.

Recently a friend bought me a T-shirt that says: “Never Underestimate An Old Woman With A Computer Science Degree.” You can see the image here. I love this shirt, and I posted a picture of it on Facebook. More than one of my friends questioned whether the phrase “old woman” applied to me, and I’m appreciative of their sentiments. And, yes, I’m 48 and not everyone would consider that old. But some would, and I happily use the label for myself. The Facebook post and the various reactions to it got me thinking about why. Today I think I have an answer.

I’ve written previously about the fact that I’ve become a mother figure to my students. But what I didn’t say in that post or any other is why I like that, or, more clearly, what situation that has removed from my life. When I was closer to my students’ age, it was difficult for me to express my appreciation and enthusiasm for them. When I first starting teaching I was less than five years older than my students. That’s a small enough gap that we were essentially contemporaries. And most of my students have always been men. And heterosexuality is the most common sexual orientation. The combination of those things meant that an enthusiastic response to my students could, by some, be interpreted as a sexual advance. Whether my students were interested in me sexually, that’s an uncomfortable and inappropriate thing to have in the classroom. So I unconsciously/subconsciously held my students at a distance. It was only once I got older, became a parent, and started to see my students as my children that I changed my behavior. By then I was so much older than them that there was little room for misinterpretation. The age gap has put me in a situation where I can safely feel closer to them, so it’s no surprise that I embrace it.

What recently dawned on me, and is the inspiration for writing this post, is that the same thing doesn’t hold for my colleagues. I’m equally enthusiastic in my reactions to colleagues, but there is no guaranteed age gap to remove ambiguity like there is with my students. And most of my colleagues are men, and heterosexuality is the norm. So I can sometimes tell that colleagues aren’t sure how to interpret my happy, silly, and teasing reactions to them. To their credit most of them assume that my intentions are purely platonic. But there are a few who aren’t sure, and it makes me unhappy to have any discomfort between us. Of course, short of switching to a field that is majority female where the assumption of heterosexuality would shield me or changing the kind of person I am, there’s no real solution. But it does help me to understand how I might perceive aging to be a good thing.