Context matters

As a professor, one of the ways I measure the success of my teaching is the “news article frequency”:  the frequency with which my students send me links to news stories that relate to something we talked about in class.  Lately, my news article frequency has been quite high.

I can’t imagine teaching computer science without context:  without bringing in real-world examples that relate to what we’re learning.  There are so many good stories in computer science, so many neat applications, so many people and organizations doing interesting and novel things with technology!

My big experiment this term in my intro class involves centering the entire course around context and applications, rather than around concepts.  It’s been a real mind shift approaching computer science in this way, but I’m finding that, so far, my students are grasping the more complex concepts faster than they’ve done in previous, more traditionally-focused intro sections.  And of course, it gives me an excuse to play around with fun problems.  🙂

Last week I had the students in the lab implementing different encryption algorithms.  Today, in class, I discussed properties of strong encryption mechanisms and demonstrated how easy it was to crack a password, using simple “brute-force” (i.e., try a bunch of passwords until you find the one that works) methods.  Along the way, I told stories about the Cold War and discussed a bit about human nature and how this impacts our ability to choose good passwords.  This clearly piqued the interest of the students, and we had an interesting in-class discussion.  But I knew the topic was a winner when I received an email from a student linking to an article about bad passwords, covering the same ideas we’d discussed in class!

Perhaps the biggest success indicator, though, is when students continue to send me links to related stories even after the class has ended.  Last term, my students in my upper-level elective sent me news links faster than I could keep up with them, and a subset of students continues to send me news links related to the course, well after the course has ended.  I still occasionally get a link to a news story from someone who took my computer security elective last spring, too.  I like that my students are continuing to think about the course concepts  after the course has ended, and that they are using their critical thinking skills to evaluate outside sources.  (One student who sent me a link even critiqued the technical content of the story for me!)

One of the ways in which I’d like to improve as a professor, post-tenure, is to improve my story-telling.  I’d like to come up with a wider repetoire of stories to intersperse into class meetings.  I’d like to make sure that the examples I’m using are compelling, interesting, and challenging.  I’d like, when all is said and done, to keep that news article frequency high.


A (belated) anniversary, of sorts

With all the excitement and busyness that was December, I missed an anniversary:  the 10-year anniversary of earning my PhD.

Wow.  Was it really 10 *years* ago?  Seriously?

It’s funny, because some days I feel as green as a new PhD.  It’s sometimes hard to picture myself, or take myself seriously, as someone who Has Experience, who Knows Her Stuff, who is a Real Professional.  I sometimes feel like that grad student who doesn’t know anything, who needs guidance, and who’s the least experienced in any group.  (Um, impostor syndrome, anyone?)  Maybe this is because I went straight from grad school to a post-doc in a different subfield, so not only was I the most junior person by far, I was also the most inexperienced, at least in that subfield.  And then I went from there to an academic position, and again to being the most junior and most inexperienced person in my department.  Our self-perceptions die hard, apparently.

A lot changed in those 10 years.

When I graduated, I was not very confident in my own abilities.  I was a decent researcher, but not very good at publishing, or publicizing, my work.  I was good at finding interesting problems, but not very good at figuring out how to narrow those problems down—and I didn’t have a strong clue as to the type of problems I wanted to work on.

Now?  I am solo-authoring papers (and if all goes according to plan, I might have a solo-authored journal paper later this year) as well as publishing *with students*, and running *my own lab*.  I keep finding interesting and innovative problems to solve.  I’m mentoring people.  I’m teaching classes in subjects I formerly knew next to nothing about (like Computer Security).  I now feel like I Know Stuff (although I also more keenly realize how much I do not know!) and that perhaps I might have accidentally become a Real Professional.  And oddly, other people seem to think that I Know Stuff too, and apparently that I know what I’m doing/talking about.

So maybe I’ll celebrate by breaking out the old dissertation and giving it a read-through (hopefully without too much cringing).  Or maybe I’ll get in touch with my dissertation advisor and express my appreciation for his guidance (although I’m not sure how much he’ll like being reminded of it—if it’s making me feel old*, it will probably make him feel ancient 🙂 ).  But I will enjoy the sense of accomplishment that the last 10 years have ultimately brought.

* Case in point:  some of the applicants for our job opening started college *after* I finished my PhD.  How’s that for making one feel old?

My Moodle wish list

Here at Carleton, we use Moodle as our course management system.  It’s open-source software, and it does a lot of things really nicely.  And yet, I am a power-user of Moodle, and a computer scientist, and so of course I’m going to be critical of a lot of Moodle things, from functionality to interface.  This is front and center in my mind today, because I spent a few hours last night fighting with Moodle creating labs and assignments and posting them on Moodle, am spending a chunk of my time today on Moodle posting course content and whipping the course calendar into shape, and spent a bit of time last week hearing some student complaints about Moodle.

There are a number of things that I wish Moodle would do, or would do better, that it doesn’t currently do, and it strikes me that at least some of these would not be that hard to implement individually:

  1. Show all calendars associated with a user under a single view. If I’m teaching more than one class, Moodle does not provide me with a way to see both class calendars.  (You can see both calendars from Zimbra, our mail/calendaring system, but it would be nice to log in to Moodle and see everything that’s posted to any of my Moodle calendars.)  So when I’m figuring out due dates for assignments, or test dates, I’m constantly switching back and forth between my course pages.  More importantly, there are some events that are common to both courses:  office hours, for instance.  I have to post office hours, or dates I’m going to be out of town, or whatever, separately for each course on each separate course calendar.  I should be able to specify that a calendar event should apply to all courses for which I am an instructor.  Similarly, students should be able to log in to Moodle and see all of their due dates, etc. in one place—from what I understand, they currently also have to go to each course individually to see this information.
  2. Better HTML editing. I use the Assignment module for lots of things:  HW, labs, other in-class activities.  I also like to post other course content as web pages as well, to give me more control over layout and formatting.  The HTML editing in Moodle, frankly, sucks.  It does weird things with tags—even if I manually edit the tags, it will sometimes decide that it knows better than I do and change the tags!  More annoyingly, the editing window is maybe 5 lines tall.  Now, I’m a very visual person, and when I’m creating a document, I need to see as much of the layout as possible—it helps me organize my thoughts.  I’ve now resorted to composing my content in a text editor, manually adding the tags, and then posting the content into Moodle’s HTML editor.  (Which then tries to change my tags! So I end up re-editing my content after putting it in Moodle anyway.)  It would be lovely if the HTML editing window, at the very least, could be expandable.
  3. Have default font size as a course-wide setting. Moodle’s default font size is stupidly tiny.  I like it bigger.  I can’t set a default font size for the course—I have to change the font size for every element.  And if I go back and edit something I’ve already posted?  Moodle sets the font size back to “stupidly tiny”—which means some of my postings go from normal font to smaller font and back again.
  4. Retain layout preferences across courses. I’ve used pretty much the same layout for every Moodle page since the beginning.  I figured out a layout I like that makes sense for me.  I should be able, when I import a previous course, to retain that course’s layout.  Nope!  I have to reinvent the wheel for every. single. course.  Alternately, I should be able to create and save a layout template and use that for any course.  Nope, can’t do that either.
  5. Be smarter about importing content from a previous course. Let’s say that I import a previous course—say, last spring’s Intro—into my current course.  I want to reuse, say, all of my labs.  I can do that.  BUT.  If any of those labs have links to course files, those links get hosed in the import.  Which means I have to go in, find all the links to course files, and change each link.  Now, I have a lot of course files:  sample programs, images, graphics, documentation, etc.  This means I spend a lot of my time hunting down and updating links.  And really, the only part of the link that changes is the course number!  Why the import process does not take the simple step of changing the course numbers in file links (which is a simple global search-and-replace operation) is a mystery to me.
  6. Inconsistency within modules. The Assignment module, for instance, has four different types of assignments (upload a single file, upload multiple files, offline activity, online text).  One of them—upload multiple files—has the really great feature that you can post the assignment, but have the actual text hidden until a certain date.  This way, the students can see that, for instance, in Week 3 they will be doing a code-breaking assignment, and that the assignment is due that Friday before class, but they won’t be able to see the rest of the assigment until the end of Week 2, after we cover the necessary material.  Neat, right?  Except the other three types don’t allow this option.  This makes absolutely no sense to me at all.  Sometimes I will use the assignment module for in-class activities where the students don’t have to hand anything in, but if I don’t want the page to “go live” until classtime, I have to use the “upload multiple files” assignment type.  I then have to field all sorts of questions and confusion about “what do we have to hand in?”, because Moodle includes an upload link at the end of the assignment.  Grrr.  If all four types are part of the same module, they should exhibit the same behavior.  This is Bad Programming 101.  And don’t get me started on the god-awful Lesson module….

Moodle should make my life easier, not harder.  I do appreciate what it allows me to do—post course content without having to fashion an entire course web page on my own, include RSS feeds from other sources, have one central location for grades and hand-ins and such—but I feel that sometimes it is more lacking for power users than for beginners.  Good software should accomodate beginners, advanced beginners, power users, and experts equally well, and in this sense Moodle fails.

Theme for 2010: “Defining”

Around these parts, we don’t do new year’s resolutions—we do new year’s themes.  A new year’s theme is kind of like a guiding principle for the year.  A theme allows for reflection, for more thoughtful goal-setting, and hopefully for more meaningful day-to-day decisions.

I’ve been doing this for a few years now, with varying levels of success.  In previous years, the idea for the year’s theme came easily to me.  This year, I struggled a bit to come up with just the right theme.

In reflecting on what I want 2010 to be for me, it struck me that I’ve spent my entire career, from grad school until now, jumping through other people’s hoops.  My entire career has been defined by others, whether that’s when to defend (grad school), what to publish (grad school and postdoc), what topics to work on (postdoc), what to do in the classroom (current job), how to partition my time (current job), etc.  This job offers a lot of freedom, but pre-tenure, I had to think very carefully about everything I did.  I took risks in the classroom, but not to the extent that I would have liked—because I needed great teaching evaluations.  I did not take as many risks in my research, because I needed publications.  I didn’t always speak up when I wanted to, because I couldn’t risk pissing off my colleagues.  External forces defined how I did every aspect of my job.

Now that I’ve been recommended for tenure, I get to set my own rules.  I get to define my own hoops.  I get to determine what risks I want to take, where I want to spend my time (within reason!), how I want to teach my classes, where I want my research to go.  I’ve never had this luxury before!

So with that in mind, my theme for 2010 is DEFINING.  This year will be all about defining what I want my career to look like, what my priorities are (in teaching, in research, and in service), and where I want to concentrate my energies.  I know that tenure will bring new opportunities and new responsibilities, so I want to make sure I’m ready to make smart decisions about what I take on.  I also want to make sure that I define smart boundaries between my work life and my personal life, so that I make time for all of the important things and people in my life too.

What’s your theme for this year?