Brilliant ideas from my students

One of the best perks of working in an academic institution is that I’m surrounded by people who are so driven by learning that they spend their entire day focused on it. While you might think that I’m talking primarily about my colleagues, in the vast majority of cases that also describes my students. In fact, I could argue that some of my students are more focused on learning than some of my colleagues. If you come to see yourself as the source of knowledge rather than as the convener of a learning situation you can easily disconnect from your own personal development. I’m happy to say that I don’t think that’s the case for most of my colleagues, and it’s most certainly not the case for me. My students help me to learn not only about myself but also about computer science, and I’m grateful for that.

Sometimes in the process of taking a class with me my students share ideas that stun me with their brilliance, making me wonder how I didn’t see the idea in the first place. To give the most recent example I need to explain the collaboration policy in my classes. Academic Integrity violations are a huge problem in the introductory Python courses, in part because Python has simple syntax, because students are accustomed to being allowed to look up answers online, and because there are so many sites that publish code even for problems that are clearly homework. To discourage students from copying code from online sources and also to allow them to benefit from collaboration, I’ve developed a policy that allows students to work with a small number of their classmates. The catch is that they have to document the collaboration, and in a fairly detailed way. “I worked with person X on problem Y” isn’t sufficient. Students hate doing the documentation. Every assignment I have to nag someone about a missing or insufficiently detailed description of their collaboration.

On the most recent assignment one of my students had a brilliant, and yet completely simple, solution to the documentation. At the top of the file he wrote a couple of sentences describing the people with whom he worked. Then in his code he wrote comments surrounding the code on which he had collaborated with someone. The comments were in essence markers indicating the start and stop locations for the code that he developed in collaboration with others. In looking at it I had a perfectly clear picture of the extent and level of his collaboration, and yet I think it was also fairly easy for him to put it together. I have absolutely no idea why I never thought of this approach, but now that I’ve seen it I plan to direct every student who collaborates on their assignments down that path. The idea is simple but completely transforms something that I’ve struggled with for years. And I am fairly sure I will never forget the student who showed it to me.

So proud

I’ve written before about the increasingly parental relationship I have with my students. So it’s natural when one of them receives national recognition that I get excited for them, and I’m happy to say that happened this week. One of my former Python students was recently named as an awardee of the Scholarships for Women Studying Information Security (SWSIS). The 2015-2016 awardees and their bios were made available this week. I couldn’t be more proud of Cindy and her accomplishments.

Yes I do

I’ve written several times in this blog about the attention I pay to attendance and the effect it seems to have on students. I even came up with a theory about it: because I track it, students understand that I value it. Yesterday I got an email from a student that lets me know that my current bunch of students is still hearing the message loud and clear. It started with this line:

I know you take attendance seriously, so I wanted to let you know I will be about 45 minutes late for class tomorrow …

This is from a student in my accelerated Python class. In that class attendance counts for 0% of the grade — there is absolutely no consequence for their grade if they don’t show up. But the student who wrote the above is correct: I do take attendance seriously. And I’m glad he knows that.

An open letter to the students who care

Dear students,

I’m writing this to let you know how much it meant to me that you showed up to office hours yesterday. Your questions about the assignment showed me that you had been working hard on it and that you were interested in learning what the assignment was about, not just in getting full points once it’s graded. You then went on to ask me about programming in general and broader questions about computer science, and answering those questions was the best part of my day. That those questions even occurred to you shows me that you love computer science as much as I do, and that’s a wonderful thing to see.

What you didn’t know is that I had an awful meeting with a student just before you came in. That student showed me in all that he did that he wasn’t interested in learning. He simply wants to get his points on the assignment and move onto the next class. As an instructor I sometimes focus too much on those students, partially because it’s too easy to focus on the negative and partially because it’s discouraging to try to teach people who don’t want to learn.

But your visit snapped me out of the funk, and I was grateful for it. I’m also grateful for the student I met earlier in the day who is excited to be working on a research project that’s been lying dormant for a year. His energy and our meetings are keeping me focused in a way that’s difficult when you’re working alone. I’m also looking forward to working with three students on a new research project in the summer, picking up a problem I haven’t considered in a decade. I probably wouldn’t make the time to tackle that problem again if it weren’t for your suggestions. And finally I’m grateful for all the students who enthusiastically greet me in the hallways or even on the trains when I see you again after weeks, months, or years. It makes me happy to hear how you’re doing and that you take the time to stop me and talk, even for a minute or two. I’m going to try to remember to focus more on you, the students who care, since you’re the ones who make my job so enjoyable.

Best,

Amber (aka Dr./Professor Settle)

Yes, I have become a mother figure

I’ve previously written about the widening age gap between me and my students. And in that post I suggested that as the age gap has grown, my students have come to think of me more as a mother figure than anything else. I’m happy to report that I have the first direct evidence of this.

A student from one of my winter-quarter classes asked me whether I had any research projects he could work on with me. We found one that interested us both, and this quarter we’ve been working on it. In the first few meetings he’s continued to call me Professor Settle. I finally sent him an email saying that he really needed to call me Amber because I prefer to be on a first-name basis with my collaborators. When he showed up today for our latest meeting he still hadn’t mastered the name change, so I gave him a hard time. In response he told me that he successfully transitioned to calling a friend’s mother by her first name, so he was reasonably sure he would manage it with me.

I’m not positive that he realized he was placing me squarely into the mother box, but that’s most certainly what he did. And it makes me quite happy. Yes, the relationships my students have with their mothers can be fraught, and I get to see more of that now. But it also gives me more license to show them that I care without worrying how they’ll interpret it.

Embracing chaos

The first class I ever taught was a Lisp programming class at the University of Chicago. When I showed up that first day in October 1993 I had prepared what I wanted to discuss fairly well, but as I quickly discovered I hadn’t practiced everything. The technical details of getting things to display were tricky, and I learned that I was terrible at improvising. After that first class in which I felt completely embarrassed, I learned to over prepare. That guided my teaching for years and years afterward.

What I have recently discovered is that I’m getting better at improvisation. I will never be like my colleagues who can just show up with an idea in their head and work out all the details right then and there, no matter how much I admire that in them. But I can handle a bit of chaos without collapsing.

For example, this quarter has had a bumpy start. We had a power outage (granted, one that we knew about approximately a week in advance) in the first week of the quarter that took out all sorts of things we needed. My daughter is traveling during her spring break, and there were lots of things to arrange for that. I have three research papers to write in the next six weeks. Both my partner and daughter have their birthdays in April. In short, there’s a LOT going on right now. All of this has left me under prepared for class, by which I mean I print out my (long-ago written) notes and dash to class without looking at them. Most of the time during lecture I don’t look at my notes. And, yes, these are classes I’ve taught multiple times, which makes that much easier, but I have found myself making mistakes because I’m under prepared.

And I’m mostly recovering from those mistakes. I haven’t even had to postpone something because I couldn’t work my way out of it during class, which is my go-to technique when chaos pokes it head out during my classes. Again, yes, it helps that I’ve done the Python classes so many times. But I also think that it’s a sign of progress in my development as a teacher that I don’t freak out when I realize I’ve gone off track.

When the stereotype fits

DePaul is in the middle of spring break, which is the official description of the week between winter and spring quarters. A colleague of mine recently called it “spring prep,” a phrase that better describes the experience for faculty and staff. But while I am spending a lot of my time grading winter-quarter classes and preparing for spring-quarter classes, I am getting to do all of that work from home this week and that most definitely feels like a break to me. Spending my days in my home office and not having to commute is a definite rest, even if I’m still working fairly hard.

My joy at getting to stay home and spend the majority of my day alone also reminds me that in some ways I do embody the computer science stereotype. I like being alone. Working by myself is fun and relaxing. I can easily lose myself in things for hours on end before I manage to look up and remember that I need to eat or drink or deal with something beyond whatever is staring at me from my computer screen. Given that the most prominent part of my job is teaching, which involves standing in front of large groups of people for hours at a time, I sometimes forget that I enjoy the quieter parts of my job just as much.

I also forget that the behaviors I see in my students are ones that I also possess. There are two recent events that remind me of this. On the last day of the quarter last week I finished teaching my first class a bit early which I typically never do, and as a result, I made it to my second class early. As I was sitting in the room preparing for class, students slowly filtered in. One of them was busy on his phone trying to cancel a newspaper subscription. It started a conversation about ways that companies require consumers to interact with them, and I forcefully exclaimed that nothing annoys me more than starting to make an online purchase and then having to talk to someone on the phone about the purchase. I finished by saying that I’m buying online because I don’t want to talk to people, causing one of the students there to laugh either because he agreed, because it’s a geek stereotype, or both.

Also last week I held an end-of-quarter party for my students, which primarily consisted of me reserving a conference room and buying them donuts. I have to admit I was stunned when over a dozen of them showed up. They sat around chatting with me before the donuts ran out and I had to go get more. When I got back they had put some music on the sound system in the room. At one end of the room a bunch of them were on their laptops making music and working on games, and at the other end of the room a bunch of them were playing a card game. Only a small group in the middle were still talking to each other without other distractions. I laughed about it and pointed it out to the middle group, causing one of them to protest that some people were interested in conversation.

What didn’t dawn on me so clearly at the time since I’m realizing it only in retrospect, is how completely comfortable that room felt to me. Hanging out with people who find it acceptable to distract themselves with games or their laptops in the middle of a party just feels right to me. Acknowledging that feels important to me, but it’s something I’m not sure I do a good job of conveying to my students. Given that my daughter has embraced her geek identity, I probably don’t do a terrible job of talking about the ways that I’m a geek. But I think I need to be more conscious the ways that my behavior mirrors that of my students and also of the messages that I send about those behaviors.

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