For some reason this summer I spent a lot of time talking to people about what I teach. Part of it was that I went to several conferences, which naturally involves meeting new people, but I also spent time this summer catching up with old friends. Conversations with both groups involved discussing my current teaching. Whenever I’m asked about it, my answer is that I teach introductory development classes, which lately means Python. As much as I love teaching intro programming and Python in particular, I can’t help but feel an implied disappointment when I share the information. Almost no one is rude enough to say it out loud, but the feeling of “that’s it?” lingers in the air. I think there’s a stigma to intro classes, an implication that they are something too fundamental for a senior faculty member to be teaching.
So I was heartened today when I read two separate things that reinforced my belief that I’m doing something valuable with my time. The first is a study, reported on by Mark Guzdial in his blog, that shows a student’s choice of major is most influenced by the quality of the professor in the first class in that major. The article reports:
Many of the students indicated that they made judgments not just on the professor or his or her discipline, but entire branches of disciplines — with a bad course in any science field, for example, leading students to write off all science.
The article specifically noted that talented senior faculty should be teaching introductory courses in the major and commented on the stigma associated with doing just that.
The second thing I read today that reinforced my resolve was a blog post written by a mother of a female student who had a bad experience in a high-school programming class. She described a situation in which her motivated and tech-savvy daughter was harassed in her first programming class, noting:
I spent 16 years raising a daughter who had all the tools and encouragement she needed to explore computer programming as a career. In one short semester, you and her classmates undid all of my years of encouragement.
While I don’t teach a high-school programming class, I do see that having a supportive environment can have a big impact on students’ decision to continue in computing. I give at least one pep talk every quarter to someone who isn’t sure whether they have what it takes to be in computing, and it’s not just the women who need the encouragement. It makes me happy years later when I see those students walk across the stage at graduation with a degree in technology. So, yes, what I do is valuable, and, no, it’s not a disappointment. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than get novice programmers off to a good start.