Last weekend, I went cross-country skiing for the first time ever.  My husband, who XC skiied a handful of times as a kid, offered to teach me the basics, so we went out together on some trails near our house.

I should mention that my husband is a talented athlete.  He’s one of those annoying people who pick up new sports and skills with ease.  He’s also somewhat fearless:  his philosophy is that you learn, and get better, by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone—sink or swim, to use another sports analogy.

Left to my own devices, I probably would have taken a few spins around the green (easy) trail, until I felt confident in my technique, and then MAYBE ventured out onto the blue (moderate) trail.  Instead, I found myself following my husband from the green trail quickly to the blue trail (seriously, I think we were on the green trail for all of 5 minutes), and onto, I discovered after the fact, the black diamond trail.  (Him:  But you were doing so well!  I knew you could handle it.)  And I actually was very proud of myself for how well I did, tackling the hills with, well ok not ease, but confidence that I could get up and get myself back down again.  Letting myself enjoy the moment and the challenge.  And now that I know that I can do a black diamond, I feel more confident about going out onto the trails again—it’s a great motivator for me.

We all need people who are willing to push us out of our comfort zone, “challengers” as I like to call them.  Sometimes being uncomfortable is the only way we’ll learn a particular lesson, or get better at some particular thing, or gain the confidence we need to tackle a bigger task.

It occurred to me, on reflecting about my ski adventure, that I currently lack a challenger in my professional life.  Sure, I do a passable enough job challenging myself, whether that’s applying for a competitive grant or sending out my work before I think it’s completely ready or trying risky things in the classroom.  Feeling uncomfortable is a great motivator for me.  But I think I need someone who will push me further.  Someone who will push me not just to submit my work, but to submit it to the highest tier conferences (which I’ve mostly avoided out of…fear?).  Someone who can get me to think more pie-in-the-sky about my research and take more risks with that.  I’m in a bit of a holding pattern, especially in my research, right now, and I need a good swift kick in the pants to get me not just out of my comfort zone, but way out of my comfort zone, to move out of this holding pattern and either fail spectacularly or make some real progress.  (actually that doesn’t have to be either-or, since some of my spectacular failures have led to great progress as well.)

So in the coming weeks, I’m going to try to identify a challenger, most likely within my existing mentoring network, but possibly a new not-yet-a-mentor contact—maybe I need some really fresh thinking as well as a kick in the pants!

Do you have a challenger?  If so, what role does s/he play in your professional life?


2 thoughts on “Challengers

  1. Your “real life” computer science blog is so refreshing!

    Here’s a challenge. If you are already doing this, a post on your experience would be helpful to others inside and out of CompSci. If not, and you can reconcile the time and effort with your research and teaching goals, then consider this:

    Are there any barriers in your lab, department, university, that reduce the career opportunities of students with disabilities? Take “legally blind” as a criterion, for example.

    1. Are all textbooks available for students in the best current readable form? in their hands at start of each course? ditto all handouts and Blackboard or other course management systems?

    2. Are pedagogical computing tools usable by students via a screen reader? Do you understand the differences in using these tools, sighted, partially sighted, or totally blind?

    3. Have you found ways to conduct lectures, labs, and discussions that fully integrate visually impaired students? both them as people and their unique experiences as domain knowledge?

    4. Are your research products universally designed? including warnings about sensory or cognitive skill requirements?

    These questions should apply both to CompSci majors and all students who require Computing as a 4th R for their futures?

    This challenge can be viewed as compassion, equity, or legal compliance. But, following Bill’ Wulf’s 1998 argument about “pale, male engineering”, consider as well the opportunity cost. One obligation is to educate students who can then produce the computing and communication products that serve 100% of the consumer and citizen population. Another opportunity is to utilize different skill sets and reasoning methods that could well be innovative in problem solving and product design. Then there is the chance to interact with the fun-loving spirited blind technical community to engage more students at large in the computing field. And, scientifically, the above are all “computational thinking” at its richest potential.

    Again, I suspect you are doing well in these areas, but computing as a whole is less open. I’ve asked on the ComputingEd blog and to SIGCSE, how it is possible to propagate introductory languages like Alice and Scratch which did not, and may still not, provide accessibility and meaning using only a keyboard and audio.. Computing organizations also show remarkable indifference to simple standards that could make their websites more usable.
    I’ve amplified this manifesto at in “Will Computer Science Meet Accessibility in 2011??”, “Beyond universal design”, and “Grafting accessibility onto computing education”. Comments are welcome.

    Is this enough of a challenge? Pass it on, please.


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