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!

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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.

Comments to the rescue

I returned a couple of days ago from the 2017 SIGCSE Symposium in Seattle. A lot happened there, and I’m sure when I get the energy I’ll write a post or two about it. But for now I’m exhausted and drowning in both laundry and grading. The latter is particularly tough since this is finals week and being away for six days put me behind in homework grading.

Fortunately, at least one of my students had a great sense of humor when finishing his final assignment. He used the comments in the file to joke around with me. For example, I use comments to indicate which part of the code they need to write. He amended one of those comments as follows:

# Write this class – Well, if you insist!

I also try to let them know which parts of the code should be left as I wrote them. Again, he amended those comments. The first one:

# Do not modify this function – I’m tempted, but I will restrain myself.

And even better:

# Do not modify this function – I… I really want to though. For science.

It’s the small things that help me get through grading despite my continued sleep deficit, and my thanks go to my students with a good sense of humor.

Some intriguing news

For the past two years Winter quarter has brought incredible levels of stress. Not only do I teach an extra half class every Winter, but I also have tons of preparation for the SIGCSE Symposium which happens in the late Winter each year. But occasionally something will drag me out of my work haze, and yesterday that something was a CRA report on the latest computer science enrollment boom. Titled Generation CS, the report summary starts:

Across the United States and Canada, universities and colleges are facing a significant increase in enrollment in both undergraduate computer science (CS) courses and programs. The current enrollment surge has exceeded previous CS booms, and there is a general sense that the current growth in enrollment is substantially different than that of the mid-1980s and late 1990s.

I have to start by admitting that I haven’t read the whole report, although I certainly plan to as soon as Winter quarter ends. But the authors have done a great job in breaking things up so that you can dive into the pieces that interest you. And there were two of them.

First, it appears that non-major enrollment is CS is booming. They provide a lot more details in the relevant section, but in short, in every level of course except for the upper-level courses, non-major enrollment growth is outpacing growth in enrollment by majors. This is much different than in previous booms. For those of us who are convinced that there is real innovation to be done by people in other disciplines who know something significant about computing, this is exciting and welcome news.

Second, the worries that many have had that another boom would result in yet more drops in diversity in computing isn’t without merit. The report states:

The CRA Enrollment Survey shows that the percentage of women has grown in all three of the CS major courses surveyed from 2005 to 2015 for both doctoral-granting and non-doctoral granting units.

But the growth in underrepresented students isn’t uniform, and it lags in some places, for example in upper-level courses for women and in certain institutions for minorities. I think we need to all stay cognizant of the idea that approaches to handle this boom need to be constructed to not negatively impact underrepresented groups.

There is much more there, of course, and I haven’t even adequately summarized the two sections that I mentioned. So you should definitely read the whole thing. I know I will as soon as Winter quarter loosens its grip on me.