The importance of context

It’s the middle of summer for me, so teaching feels somewhat far away right now. But the spring quarter showed me something interesting, and I want to share it.

For the past two academic years I’ve taught a Java class. The class is designed as a transition between the Python sequence and the data structures sequence in Java. While another colleague who’s taught the data structure sequence wrote the syllabus, I was the one to develop the class. It’s only two credits instead of four, so trying to fit all the Java syntax you need to write somewhat interesting programs into the first week or two is a challenge. Between the flood of new syntax and the significantly more complex IDE that the students have to use, it can be overwhelming. But that’s precisely why we created the class. We want students to be comfortable with the language and environment before they’re trying to deal with the added complexity of data structures.

The first year I taught it the class attracted very few students, in part because none of the students knew about it or why they should take it. That was probably for the best since it made it easier to manage for me. But during last academic year I did a better job of advertising the class, and I ended up with a packed class of 60 students during winter quarter. The size of the class was a bit overwhelming for me, and I struggled more to teach it. My course evaluations also showed the change — for the first time in a long time I had a course evaluation slightly below 4 (out of 5).

I spent a lot of time reflecting on what was different in winter quarter, other than the size of the class, and decided that I hadn’t done as good of a job at motivating why they were facing the fire hose of information in the first few weeks. I also added some practice quizzes, although not for credit, to help them transition from exams on the computer to paper exams. And it would appear that the two relatively small changes made the difference. Although I still had almost 40 students, my evaluations in spring quarter were back above 4.5. I always knew that understanding why they were doing things is important to students, but I’ve never had quite such a clear demonstration as during this academic year. Putting things into context just isn’t optional.

A boost when I need it most

It’s been a long academic year for me. While most of the things I’ve done have been (very) enjoyable, it has been tiring. So it’s particularly nice to end the year with the email I received today from one of my students. He’s not a computing major and is taking my Python class to learn a bit of programming before he graduates this month. That he did exceptionally well in the accelerated class with little to no experience tells you what a great programmer he is. I wrote him after grading his last assignment to let him know that he should feel free to ask for a recommendation any time. And he wrote back with this:

You have been the most pleasant and helpful teacher in my four years at DePaul. When I first started in 2013, I had an idea of who a college professor should be and act – you are just that.

Thinking about this sweet comment should keep me going through the last week of the academic year.

ACM TURC 2017 report

While this post is coming a bit late, I think it’s still important for me to write it. In early May, I had the privilege of attending the ACM Turing 50th Celebration Conference taking place in Shanghai, China. The purpose, as the name suggests, was to celebrate 50 years of Turing awards and to celebrate the work in computer science that is being done in China and elsewhere. There were three Turing award winners there, as well as a bunch of other ACM representatives. A picture of the conference banner appears below in which you can see pictures of some of the invited guests.

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I had never been to China, and I was impressed by their approach to conferences. They take hosting very seriously, and I was treated liked a minor celebrity. (I say minor because, as it should be, the Turing award winners and especially Vint Cerf, were clearly the major celebrities). My hosts arranged tours for me, both in Shanghai and in Chengdu, which I visited prior to the conference. They also made sure that everything I could possibly want was handled. It’s clear to me now that hosting a conference in China requires an entirely different set of skills from hosting in other countries, which was good to learn.

The conference program was great, with keynotes and panels from Turing winners as well as other notable speakers. Vint Cerf gave a keynote I enjoyed a lot on the problems associated with keeping digital information over long periods of time (picture below), but my favorite speaker was Kai-Fu Lee, someone I’m embarrassed to say I wasn’t aware of prior to this conference. He had fascinating things to say about quantum computing and computer science in general.

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I was invited as SIGCE chair, and in the process of attending the conference learned a great deal about SIGCSE China. Ming Zhang  at Peking University in Beijing is a big part of the reason that SIGCSE was one of the ACM Special Interest Groups represented at the conference. The sense of camaraderie among the attendees of the SIGCSE track was great to see, and I was impressed that they had their own banner!

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While it was a challenge to attend the conference in the middle of my spring quarter, it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I’m grateful to Ming Zhang, Xi Wu (my host at Chengdu University of Information Technology), and all of the many other people who worked so hard to make the trip memorable. If you ever have a chance to attend a conference in China, don’t miss it!

Email confirmation

I’m lucky in that I primarily teach small classes. It’s a rare quarter when one of my classes has more than 30 students in it. I also tend to teach novice programmers, students for whom one-on-one help can make a big difference. The combination means that I encourage students to reach out to me by email when they get stuck. In fact, I have a one-hour rule that I ask them to apply. For a long time this has worked well for me and for my students.

But as time has gone on, I’ve noticed that students are increasingly less likely to send me email. I internalized this, assuming that I was doing something differently and trying to figure out what the issue might be. Yesterday I got an email from a former student that made me think it might have more to do with my DePaul colleagues than me. This student had a Java question for me. I answered it assuming he was in one of my current classes, but then a check of my rosters showed he wasn’t. I reached out again asking which class he was in. He replied as follows:

Sorry I meant last quarter.  I was in your csc 281 online.  Thanks for the help.  Code academy is helping learn some extra code for a internship I am doing and you are the only professor who answers emails of mine.

I had a suspicion that answering email was something that only selected colleagues continue to do, partially because it’s increasingly hard to get them to respond to my email. But outright confirmation is discouraging. I responded to the student that I couldn’t decide if I was happy or sad to learn that I was one of the few who responded.

Don’t ever let me forget how lucky I am

Tonight I went out for dinner with my sweetie, and during our dinner conversation I realized that in course of 12 months (July 2016 to July 2017 to be precise), I will have visited the following places due to conferences:

That makes five different continents in a year. My job may have things that make me grumpy (grading and meetings, I’m looking at you), but getting to travel to so many amazing places to meet so many great people is definitely something that makes me happy. I’m a very lucky person.

A sort of success

The end of April is rapidly approaching, and there have been 15 weekends since the start of 2017. At the beginning of the year I made it one of my resolutions to take every weekend off from work, something I wasn’t sure I would accomplish. I’m happy to say that I’ve only worked two weekends since the start of 2017. (Ok, yes, I answer email during weekends, but that’s because I can’t leave my students without help for two days straight). During one of the weekends I was in Seattle for a conference, and I remember that I worked one other weekend day although I can’t remember now why or when. I’m frankly shocked I’ve been able to do it.

What’s been interesting is that taking weekends off from work was a hard habit to start but has gotten easier and easier as the months have gone by. It doesn’t even occur to me anymore than working on the weekend might be a good idea, which is an amazing shift for me. But the “sort of” in the title comes from the burnout that I’m feeling. I was hopeful that taking weekends off would help with it, but I’m still feeling tired and worn out by work. Of course, maybe it is helping and I would have collapsed without it. I’ll never know, and I think the burnout will make it even more important than before that I continue the experiment.

Students who know me, part 2

Today I have another entry in the series of posts about students who know me. Today a former student of mine responded to an email about something, and included the following picture as a birthday wish.

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Her version included “Happy Birthday” across the top. Needless to say I was thrilled. I think I like this new state of affairs.