A new teaching experience

It’s no surprise to anyone who reads this blog regularly or knows me even slightly that I love teaching. Part of the reason I love teaching is that I enjoy interacting with students. It’s rewarding and challenging and the reason that I feel I have the best job in the world. You might think though that after 24 years of teaching I would have experienced all the things I possibly could with my students. As it turns out, you would be wrong.

This quarter is the fourth iteration of the linked-courses learning community offered by a colleague of mine and me. Every year there’s been something I’ve enjoyed about the learning community, and I’ve written too many blog posts about it to include references to all of them here. The students in the cohorts of the learning community have brought me a lot of joy (and some amount of pain, depending on the year), but this is the first year that I’ve experienced universal love for an entire group of students.

Yes, in the past I’ve loved individual students and even groups of students in a larger class. But this year I’ve fallen in love with the entire class. They’re serious, focused, curious, respectful, polite, good listeners, and hard workers. They’re not perfect, but I adore even their imperfections. And I honestly have no idea whether they even like me in return, mostly because they are such a polite group. I’m simply putting the best class I can out there and appreciating how well they’re responding to it. I hope that enough of them stay together in future classes that my colleagues will get to experience the joy of having this bunch as a class.

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A shift in my perception of summer

Let me start off by saying that this is one of the times of the year when I truly appreciate the quarter system as implemented at DePaul. My social media feeds in early August are full of back-to-school news (or dread about the imminent back-to-school deadline) from my mostly Northern-Hemisphere-dwelling friends, which makes the more than three weeks I have left until the start of the term seem especially sweet. It also almost makes the pain of enduring six weeks of teaching in May and June while reading summer news from the same friends worth it.

But August is also the time that I come to terms with the end of my summer. And summers in at least the past five years have been busy times for me. While I don’t teach, I certainly have a lot of work to do (because no, I don’t have summers off, thank you). My service obligations in the past few years have been downright overwhelming, and the pressure to do research is constant since it gets so little attention during the year. So I end up feeling almost disappointed in what I do each summer, both because I don’t do as much work as I want and because I never feel as rested as I hope to be in my spring-quarter fantasies about it. As a result, August is almost a time of mourning.

This past week I had a revelation about why I seem to have near-constant disappointment in my summers. The pace of the academic year is ferocious, particularly in the quarter system, where deadlines are non-stop. As a way to keep going, you imagine summer as a time when the press of deadlines is gone and you have endless free time ahead of you. Except that summer isn’t like that. Yes, you have many (many, many) fewer deadlines, but they never really go away entirely. And the few that remain weigh so much more heavily on you since it’s supposed to be your unstructured time.

When I realized this I also found a new way of thinking about summer. Summer is the time when I have the freedom to be unproductive. The deadlines that I do have are looser, so while I attach dates to them those dates can move. And rather than be upset when I push a deadline from one week to the next, I should revel in that act since it’s something I can almost never do during the rest of the year. Being unproductive isn’t a bad thing in the summer: it’s the whole point. Armed with this idea, I hope to enjoy my relative lack of productivity during the rest of my summer rather than be haunted by what I haven’t accomplished. We’ll see if the idea works as well in practice as I hope.

Pushing past the pain of change

I have a confession to make that will no doubt shock and/or disappoint some of you: the vast majority of my computing-education publications have been produced using Word. Yes, I know Latex and have used it since graduate school way back in the 1990s. But many of my co-authors in computing education aren’t familiar with it, so I switched to Word when I started working in that area. And as much as I acknowledge that Latex would have made some things easier (references, for one), I didn’t have sufficient motivation to change and force my co-authors to change with me.

Then came the revisions to the ACM templates earlier this year. The Word version of the template is so much more painful than the previous template (I’m looking at you macros and fonts that have to be installed) that I gave up and switched to Latex. It helps significantly that ACM has an agreement with Overleaf, which is an online Latex tool that is incredibly easy to use. (Check it out now if you’ve never used it. You won’t regret it.) The ACM templates can be immediately downloaded into Overleaf, and the resulting documents are quick to edit and view. For the first time in what seems like forever the final version of my conference paper was accepted by Sheridan in the first round, which made the pain of switching the Word draft into Latex almost worth it.

Thanks to my sweetie for putting up with my complaints during the 24 hours it took me to make the switch. And thanks to ACM for the incentive to change.

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.