A vast gulf that speaks volumes

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a Facebook fan. I lurk on the site as I work most days, and I post way more than I should. One of the things I like about it is the fact that it makes me aware of small news stories, ones that haven’t had a chance to make a big splash in the mainstream media yet. And, no, I don’t rely on Facebook for my news, but it’s a fun side aspect to something I use for other purposes.

A story I saw yesterday upset me a great deal. In it, a biochemist who is also a Nobel laureate suggested that labs should be single-sex environments because female scientists cause problems for male scientists. In particular he said:

Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.

He has since issued a “sorry but” response that actually begins to get at the issue. In his response he said: “I certainly did not mean to demean women, but rather be honest about my own shortcomings.” And, yes Dr. Hunt, if you see an issue over and over and the only common thing is you, you may be the problem. Apology or not, the whole thing left me feeling depressed about STEM, gender, and public personalities.

So I was thrilled to find a story about Tim Cook, Apple, and diversity in my ACM news this morning. There are so many amazing quotes from Tim Cook that I’m going to have to restrain myself from posting them all. The highlights include this one about diversity initiatives and programs:

Some of this costs money some of it doesn’t. Mostly it’s a way of thinking. And so if you believe as we believe that diversity leads to better products, and we’re all about making products that enrich peoples lives, then you obviously put a ton of energy behind diversity the same way you would put a ton of energy behind anything else that is truly important.

He also commented on speaking out about diversity and its importance:

“The problem, as Dr. King said, is ‘the appalling silence of the good people,'” Cook insists. “I try to look at myself in the mirror and ask myself if I’m doing enough. And if the answer is no, I try to do something more. And sometimes you do things that don’t work and sometimes you do things that do work. Somehow we’ve got to get enough people to believe how important it is, and see how wrong it is not doing it.”

Yes, Mr. Cook is a CEO of a company that is concerned with being profitable, and this story is a PR dream. I’m sure those two facts aren’t unrelated. But at the same time, what he had to say and what Dr. Hunt had to say are so widely separated in terms of their consciousness of the impact of a lack of diversity on science, business, and society as a whole that it’s hard to believe they live on the same planet. And I would prefer to live on Mr. Cook’s planet.

The impact of interdisciplinary work

In the past week I’ve had a lot of reasons to think about the computational thinking project I worked on between 2008 and 2012. My collaborator Ljubomir Perkovic and I went into it believing that computational thinking isn’t something that should be done by computer scientists in isolation but instead is something that is best done in context and significantly involving the people who know the field in which it’s being applied. We recruited a diverse set of people from a variety of disciplines to work with us, and seeing the great things they produced was one of the most satisfying things about that project.

In reflecting back on it I think the most beautiful work to come out of it wasn’t done by me or Ljubomir but instead by one of the historians on the project. Brian Boeck is a Russian historian at DePaul, and as a part of our project he worked to include exercises asking students to examine bias in history books. The talk he gave on his work is something I still try to show people, and if you’ve never seen it it’s worth the download and the 15 minutes it takes to watch. Brian produced some excellent work, and I’m happy I had a chance to be associated with it.

Today I saw a video that reminded me of our project and Brian’s work, although none of it is directly related to what we did. The video is a data visualization of the death toll of the Second World War. In a careful way the narrator steps you through various visualizations of the military and civilian losses of the war, adding photos and historical context where appropriate to understand certain aspects of the data. What’s impossible to convey is how moving the video is. To give just one example, on paper a number like 8.7 million Soviet soldiers sounds terrible but watching that number rapidly scroll up on a screen a thousand-person symbol at a time is horrific. You wouldn’t think that a bar graph could bring you to tears, but this video has several that did just that to me. In the end the message of the video is hopeful, so don’t let my description prevent you from taking the time to watch.

Thinking about all of this today has made me wonder what future things have yet to be created by people in history, cinema, or some other field who also happen to know about computing. The excitement of that prospect is precisely what I need to get me through the last tough week of the quarter.


Rapport with students is crucial

The spring quarter is ending on an unhappy note for those of us in the School of Computing. A long-time colleague of ours died suddenly last week. While he had been sick for a while, he was very private about his health so it came as a shock to almost all of us. Unfortunately there’s another week left in the quarter, so three of us had to step up and agree to take over his classes. I was one of the volunteers.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to take over a class for a colleague in the middle of the quarter. During fall 2013 a colleague had a medical crisis, and I had to take over his class around midterms. One of the first things I did with that class was determine what they’d learned and write an exam on it, which I didn’t expect would bode well for our relationship. Surprisingly they reacted well, and that class turned out to be one of my best. They never quite caught up to the other section, but I think I got them through the required material in a reasonable way. And I bonded with them more than I expected, perhaps because things had been rocky even before I picked up the class and I was able to make the rest of the quarter very stable for them.

Sadly, I’m learning this time that ten days just isn’t enough time to bond with students. The situation is a bit different since their instructor left under sad circumstances and time is very short, but I had hoped that like the previous class we would come to understand each other. I’m not getting the feeling that’s going to happen. I’m very different from the previous instructor and we don’t have much time to get to know each other. While I don’t think they dislike me, they’re not particularly warming up to me either.

My sweetie jokingly compared the situation to a one-night stand, and while I see the point he’s trying to make I think it differs in one significant way. People participating in a one-night stand are making a choice to be there. And while I chose to take on this class, my new students didn’t choose to have me as their instructor. That makes it all the more understandable that they’re not connecting with me. Above all else, this situation is making me realize how much I prize my connection with my students and how much I miss that connection when it’s not there.

Celebrities and computing

One of the benefits of working on projects that focus on gender and computing is that people send me articles about the topic. The most recent article I got was entitled Karlie Kloss Announces #KodeWithKarlie Scholarship So Teen Girls Can Learn to Code. Karlie Kloss, for those who aren’t avid readers of trashy fashion/celebrity magazines like I am, is a model well known for walking the Victoria’s Secret runway (among many, many others) and being friends with Taylor Swift. What I didn’t know about her is that she took a programming class last summer and became so enamored of it that she’s now trying to encourage girls to take it. As the article quotes her saying:

Code is only going to continue to play a major role in defining our future. I think it’s crucial that young women learn to code as early as possible to ensure that we, as young women, have a voice and a stake in what the world looks like.

Yes, there are some problems with this characterization of computing. First, of course, it’s more than coding. Problem solving and computational thinking as a whole are given short shrift in any description that reads like this. That overly narrows the field, and probably doesn’t do us any favors in the end.

Still, I can’t help but be happy about this. A woman known for wearing clothes and being the BFF of a pop star is embracing something that I care about, and let’s face it, making that activity cooler with girls who might not otherwise think of it as being something for them. Well done, Ms. Kloss. I hope you make a difference.

Student work as model solutions

A couple of weeks ago I attended the DePaul Teaching and Learning Conference, where I got to hear a colleague of mine talk about her work with the Digital Youth Network. Denise Nacu is in my college and I should know more about her work, so I was happy to hear what she had to say. At one point she talked about the roles that educators can play for students and particularly mentioned the role of “promoter,” meaning someone who showcases or highlights excellent student work.She was referencing this paper in particular, which is worth reading.

I liked that she was drawing attention to the idea of promoting student work since I’ve found it to be a productive classroom technique. For a long time I’ve used excellent student submissions as model solutions for assignments. I ask students with submissions that are clear, very well done, or unique in some way if I can start a class discussion using their submission, and most of the time they’re fine with it. In fact, some of them get downright excited as witnessed by the following email response I received last week from a student when I asked if I could use his solution:

Absolutely! I was actually hoping that one of my homeworks would make the class example! Thank you :)

I do try to balance the choice of students, for example, by not picking a student too often. It also requires me to be very quick on the grading, since I need to know who has good work by the time I get into the class where we are discussing the assignment. But I like that it shows the students that their classmates are capable of producing interesting and valuable solutions, and it diminishes the idea that I’m the only one in the room with something to say.

They know I care

Two weeks ago I attended the DePaul Teaching and Learning Conference. It was the 20th year of the conference, and it impressed me even more than it has in previous years. The keynote presenter this year was Todd Zakrajsek, and he had a lot of interesting things to say in his talk. The one that got the most laughs was when he told us that it’s important to make students believe that you care about them. Once the laughter died down he pointed out that the alternative to that state is having students who don’t think you care about them, which made what he had to say simultaneously funny and profound.

Of course, Dr. Zakrajsek isn’t the first person to talk about the importance of caring when it comes to students. I’ve written previously about a study examining whether students believe that faculty care and what impact that has on learning, something I presented at a School of Computing Teaching Lunch last spring. Sadly, I didn’t find the time last summer to look at more research on caring and computer science, but maybe this summer will be different.

What I am happy to discover is that at least some of my students know I care. This week I had a student send me a link to a New York Times article discussing the role of professors and how it’s changed over time. He said he thought I would find it interesting, and I did. But what I took away from the interaction is that this student knows that I think about the role I play in my students’ lives and that I’m interested in reflecting on that role. I consider that to be a great compliment.

There is no pause button

We’re a bit more than halfway through the spring term, and this is a typical time for those of us on the quarter system to start despairing. Every other academic (it seems) is finishing final grades or celebrating graduation or has already started summer, but finals are another month away for us. (And thank you to my Australasian friends for being the exception to this). Deadlines also leave me feeling like I’m juggling imminent disaster. I’ve tried over and over to find a sustainable pace for the winter and spring quarters, and pretty much every year I fail.

This year though I think I’ve found an insight that may lead to an eventual solution. Normally at this time I’m so stressed that I start putting things off. The cat needs to get blood tests at the vet? That can wait until after finals. My dresser has fallen apart, and I need to get a new one? That can wait until after finals. Our bed has given up after more than a decade? That can wait until after finals. While this is less stressful in the immediate term, it also eats away at my peace for the summer break since spend the first month catching up on all the things I put off. About three weeks ago I made the decision that I wasn’t going to postpone things. I would just schedule the vet appointment now. I would buy that dresser and make the time to pare down my clothes to fit into the new one. (Ok, I haven’t made the time for bed shopping, but two out of three isn’t bad). I resolved that there simply was no pause button on my life.

It has made life a bit more hectic. But oddly it’s also made me feel less stressed. Not having to wait for the things I want or need in my personal life makes me happier, and a happier me deals with the stressful spring quarter better. I never expected that having (slightly) more things to do would make me feel less stressed, but it’s a nice discovery.


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