An open letter to my colleagues in academia

Dear colleagues,

This week, I had three different students visit my office hours (or "student hours", as the trendy schools are calling them these days).   By itself, that made this a remarkable week, as I rarely have that many visitors during my office hours.

But that's not what is compelling me to write this letter.

Each of the three students began our conversation with more-or-less the same statement:

"I'm sorry for waiting so long to come and see you.  I didn't have my question worked out well enough in my head.  I was afraid that I would be wasting your time."

Three separate times in one week.   Almost word-for-word.

My dear colleagues: if this is what we are teaching our students, then we are failing miserably at our first duty as teachers.

My knee-jerk reaction is to cry out, "How do students get this idea?".   And then, I pause, and I know the answer.   Because we --- collectively --- are teaching our students to fear us.

"Not me", you cry in response.   And, if you've read this far, I will say to you "yes, not you."

But as I type this, I can see clearly in my mind's eye the face of a colleague.   This colleague explicitly tells students not to come to office hours unless they've first tried all sorts of other things to solve their problem (read the textbook, do the homework, visit the tutor lab, etc.).  Only then will they have done enough groundwork to "earn" the right to come to office hours with their perfectly-formed question.

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In sixth grade, I was a student in Mrs. Fitzpatrick's class at Harrison Elementary School in Inkster, MI.

One day, substantially into the year, we received a new set of workbooks for our math textbook.   Each workbook had a label at the top of the textbook where Mrs. Fitzpatrick had typed our name.

Except that this time, Mrs. Fitzpatrick had gotten a little silly, and decided to give everyone a nickname along with our given names.    She read off everyone's name and nickname as we came forward to claim our workbooks.   

I don't remember anyone else's nickname.   I don't think any of them were mean-spirited or otherwise problematic.   (Of course, I was in sixth grade, and I wouldn't have been mature enough to notice if they wer.)

My nickname was "perseverance".   

I had absolutely no idea what the nickname meant.   It's not like that was a word that any of us in sixth grade (in the 70s) were tossing around on the playground.   So my first ask was to find a dictionary and figure out what that meant.

Apparently, I made quite an impression on people, even at that age.

Thinking about those days a lot today, as my "namesake" makes history.



I miss harmony.

(Warning, long, self-indulgent, emo post.   Read on at your own risk.)

Several years ago, as my patient family will attest, I fell into a YouTube rabbit hole of barbershop quartet videos.   I couldn't get enough of them.   I'm not sure how I stumbled into that.   I think I had been looking for musical theater videos to show to my kids (to broaden their cultural references), and then I stumbled into this one:

And then I followed link after link of barbershop songs.   Some of it was a little familiar, having been exposed to barbershop singing from my high school choir (one concert, our men's select chorus had an exchange of songs with the local SPEBSQSA chapter) ... and in recent years, having been invited to sing in a pick-up barbershop choir at SIGCSE.

I was pretty sure why I'd fallen down that rabbit hole, and I didn't mind.  (More on that later.)   I still dive down there from time to time ... usually when the annual international championship performances are posted to YouTube.  (Except this year, sigh...)

And then this past month, I discovered a different rabbit hole:

Sea shanties.

But not just any sea shanties.   Tik Tok shanties.

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Thoughts on Yom Kippur, from an American Christian

Today, I've been noticing a number of posts on my social media feeds from my friends who are observing Yom Kippur.   Many of them posted versions of this poem (whose authorship appears to be unknown):

To those I may have wronged,
I ask forgiveness.
To those I may have helped,
I wish I had done more.
To those I neglected to help,
I ask for understanding.
To those who helped me,
I thank you with all my heart

I have been struck lately by how much the American Church --- or, at least, the corner of which I inhabit --- has to learn about the fullness of God.

Aside: one lesson the Church has had the opportunity to learn about over the last six months is the role of lament.   Lament is a part of the historical Christian experience.   (My goodness, there's a book in the Bible named "Lamentations"!)  But lament hasn't been a part of the common worship experience of most Christians.   (As a church worship director, I've noted this any number of times while trying to find meaningful music to pair with certain sermon topics.) 

Of course, we've had plenty to lament over during the last six months, and some folks (like me) have re-discovered this part of the Christian experience.   We've had to learn from those who've learned the lessons of lament all too well (Black Christians, for example).   I've found that experience extremely helpful.

But back to the original topic.

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On Teleconference Backgrounds and Privilege

Today, a number of interesting thoughts about pandemic life collided in my head.   So .... here I am, dusting off this ancient blog, to write and think about them.

Most of us who have been thrust into online conferencing and teaching over the last six months are aware of "the camera issue".   We're all on Zoom, or Google Meet, or whatever, and one of the first question becomes: do you turn the laptop camera on, or not?

For student instruction, the general consensus (at least among my friends) has been that, as much as it hurts, students shouldn't be required (or coerced) into turning on their cameras.

There are very practical reasons for that stance.   Not everyone has a functioning webcam (even if it is built-in to most laptops these days).   And not everyone is participating in their online sessions with stable networking and high bandwidth, in which case turning off the camera can help to improve the stability of such connections.

But even if those practical concerns aren't an issue, there are issues related to equity and privilege that come into play.   Not everyone has a fantastic environment in which to participate in online conferencing.   Some folks are uncomfortable sharing their surroundings with other viewers.   Some do not have the ability to "conference alone", and turning on a camera would violate the privacy of those with whom they are sharing space.    

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On human achievement

This week, of course, is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.   I've been watching a number of the documentaries that have appeared on cable all week long.   I've found them incredibly fascinating --- I've long been fascinated with the space race, for a variety of reasons.    But my thoughts keep turning to a memory from some years ago.

Somehow, since I became a "grownup", I manage to find my way to Washington, DC, every few years or so --- sometimes on vacation, sometimes on business, sometimes a bit of both.   My memory is from one of those early trips.

I found myself on the Mall with a day (or at least an afternoon) free for whatever I might choose to do.   As many tourists are want to do, I wandered over to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and spent a couple hours there.   My highlight was viewing the Apollo capsule on display there.   It amazes me that three people could live in a space so small for that long, while achieving the amazing feat of making it to the moon and back safely, with less computational power than I carry around in my pocket today.   It was clearly a technological achievement --- possibly one of the greatest achievements of humanity.

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SIGCSE 2019: public accountability

What, nine months since my last blog entry?   Well ... read the previous entry to read why.

Seriously, though .... my annual trip to the SIGCSE 2019 Symposium just concluded.   And I'm going to head back to the office on Monday, right into the middle of a campus-wide fight (sigh), find the pile of grading that I need to work on, and forget about all the interesting ideas I encountered.  The pile of paperwork I collected will end up in a corner of the office, only to be encountered a year from now when I clean the office and have long since lost the opportunity to put some of what I learned into practice.

Will that happen again?   Yeah, probably.   But maybe I can do something to help with that.

So, in what follows, I'm going to capture the ideas I ran across, mostly from the little notebook I picked up in the exhibit hall (thank you, SIGCSE 2020 organizers), and what I'd like to do about them.   Maybe publicly speaking the words into existence will make it more likely that something will actually happen with them.

If you like, feel free to ask me about these ideas in the coming months, to hold me accountable.   Or, if CS education topics aren't your speed, go ahead and move on to the next item in your news feed.

Last chance to bail out ...

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  • Current Mood
    pensive pensive

Words matter. Positive words matter more.

I'm sitting home watching this epic Wimbledon semi-final that simply won't end.   (Currently 24-24 in the 5th set.)   You know what I'm noticing the most?   The chair umpire, who quiets the enthusiastic crowd down by saying "Thank you", rather than something more directly aggressive like "Quiet, please".   

It's probably something distinctly British.   But it's also an interesting pattern of using a positive statement instead of a negative one to achieve a purpose.   

I've read this before in a number of contexts.   I remember knowing about this even in college, when I was tasked to write a statement about email etiquette for a group in which I was a member, and took pains to write statements positively rather than negatively.   But I've been reminded of this more lately.

  • In the video of The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch recounts the story of talking with one of his advisors, who said to him "It's a shame that people perceive you as arrogant; it's going to hurt your ability to achieve your goals."   Pausch's remark after-the-fact: "Wow, what a nice way to tell someone that they're a jerk!".
  • Staying with The Last Lecture: in the book, Pausch recounts a story that he learned from his time working for Disney.   If you ask a cast member at Disney what time the park closes, they'll tell you that "the park is open until 9pm" (or whenever).   Note the switch: it's not that the park closes at 9pm, it's that the park is open until 9pm.
  • I saw an article come across my newsfeed awhile ago that points out that people who are perpetually apologizing can, instead, say "thank you", and achieve a better purpose.

Can politeness and courtesy and positive affirmation achieve more than criticism?


Thanos (Still) Demands My Silence

I admire young people on social media.

Yes, young people are ... um, young.   Sure, they post freely, without much self-censorship.   They post ideas that aren't well-formed.   They lack experience to understand many of the implications of the ideas they post.

They live their lives out loud.

But you know what happens as a result?   They learn.   People respond to their ideas and point out the flaws in their arguments.   And then the original posters point out the flaws in the counterarguments.   A dialogue results.   The net result is the development of better ideas, and intellectual growth.   (That last one is particularly of interest to me, given my chosen vocation.)

I wish I could live my life out loud.   But I can't.   Because I'm surrounded by people who demand my silence.

I have a whole list of things that I'm not "allowed" to talk about.   I'd list them here, but ... well, I'm not allowed to talk about them.   Because someone will tell me that it's "inappropriate" for someone in my "position" to speak about that issue.    

And, no, that's not theoretical; I've had that conversation any number of times over the past year.

(Yeah, I'm vaguebooking.   That's the whole point, if you haven't noticed.)

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