Today, thanks to a post by Mark Guzdial, I discovered an article that put together so many classroom experiences for me that I simply have to share it.  “I Won’t Learn From You!” by Herbert Kohl discusses experiences in K-12 centered on race and learning, but it is absolutely and completely relevant for any female teaching computing.  It so clearly explains to me why it is that I found teaching game design to be so difficult, and I have hopes that it will guide me as the game programmers start to take the Python classes next year.  Huh, you say?

In January 2006 I began teaching a game design class for majors.  The gaming program was still fairly new at DePaul, and we didn’t have many instructors for what had become a very popular class.  The class was really an analysis of games as cultural artifacts, with a strong emphasis in the assignments on both critiquing games and on paper-and-pencil game design.  I hadn’t done anything like it before, but with lots of help from the person who developed the class I dove in.  Over the quarters I did a better and better job at the class, but I never got anywhere near the course evaluations that I had in other classes.  The students were at times downright hostile, and one of the course evaluation comments I received during one of the best classes summed it up: ” Well I guess the only weakness could be at first when some skeptical guys question a girl knowing more about video games than they do.”

That comment put down on paper what I had suspected for a long time.  But it wasn’t until I read “I Won’t Learn From You!” that I really understood the attitude I faced in the game design class.  Male computer scientists, and most especially male gamers, tend to get a lot of crap from the world at large.  In general male teens who are also geeks have their masculinity questioned on a regular basis, so a clear defense is to make what they do (e.g. gaming or coding or both) a way that they define their masculinity.  They write “hard” code, trash talk each other, put down people who can’t understand the complexities of what they create or play, etc.  And a female computer science professor, by her very existence, can be a threat to that masculinity.

Now this simplifies things, of course.  Not all male teens who are in gaming or computer science experience this sort of hazing, or react in hyper-masculine ways to it if they do, or would have a bad reaction to a female faculty member even if they did.  But I’m convinced that this explains, in part, the experience I had while teaching the game design class.  I think it also explains the behavior of some of the students I get in my introductory programming classes.  And it most certainly gives me new ideas on how to approach reaching those students without allowing them to co-opt the tone of the class, driving the women out for example.  These ideas will be crucial when the game programmers start appearing in the introductory Python classes next fall.

I’m also sure that I’m not the first person to have this insight.  Feel free to send me more reading material!