NCWIT Summit 2013 trip report

ImageThe 2013 NCWIT Summit wrapped up yesterday, and as always it was time well spent. This is my 4th NCWIT summit, and my 3rd as a member*—Carleton joined, I believe, in 2011. It’s always great to see old friends and colleagues from other schools and these summits are always in great locations (this year’s setting, in Tucson, was especially nice). But the main draw, of course, is that I learn so much and take so many ideas back from these summits, year after year after year.

There was so much that went on at this year’s summit, but here are a few of the highlights from my perspective:

  • NCWIT is big on “best practices backed up by research” and so every year we hear from social scientists on relevant research (stereotype threat, implicit bias, etc). These talks tend to be very powerful, and this year was no exception. On Tuesday, David Neal spoke about disrupting habits, and how our habitual self combined with familiar surroundings can make even the best intentions from the best people go awry. (He used a great study to illustrate his point, in which people in a movie theater setting would eat stale popcorn in rather large quantities, even moreso than fresh popcorn if memory serves. Here, the theater is the trigger to eat popcorn, even if the popcorn is yucky.) This of course has implications for changing attitudes and culture in STEM: even if your entire organization is on board, if your cues are the same and the environment hasn’t changed, you’ll keep doing what you’re doing, pretty much subconsciously. Food for thought…er, no pun intended. Wednesday’s plenary featured Carol Dweck, who spoke on fixed vs. growth mindsets (i.e. do you believe that intelligence is something you’re born with or something you can develop?) and how fixed mindsets can not only harm learners, but basically have the same effect as stereotype threat. It was an amazing talk, and one of her last slides was the most powerful. She showed that the more a field believes that “raw genius” is required for success (*cough* CS *cough* Physics *cough* Engineering) rather than effort, the fewer female PhDs the field has. It’s definitely made me think about ways I can give feedback to my students….and to my kids, too….that will help them adopt a growth mindset. (Hint: Focus on the process, not the outcome.) I also loved her anecdote about the Chicago school that swapped out their F grades with “Not Yet” grades, and what effect that’s had on the students *and* student achievement.
  • Speaking of plenaries, Michael Schwern, Perl developer extraordinaire, gave a truly fascinating (and often depressing) talk about his own experiences in open source, which has a notoriously dreadful diversity record. He had some great insights about how to talk about privilege with people who don’t want to hear about privilege, and in general about getting the conversation started with people who don’t want to or don’t feel the need to have these conversations. He also brought up Nóirín Plunkett, technical writer and open source contributor extraordinaire, who spoke in very real and very raw terms about her (often awful) experiences in the open source community. This was one of the more powerful talks I’ve seen recently, and unfortunately shows just how far we have to go still to broaden participation.
  • Capitalizing on last year’s wildly successful flash talks, this year also featured flash talks, and they did not disappoint. Funny, touching, poignant, funny….did I say funny? Awesome.
  • This was my first year as a project team leader, and so I got to see things from “the other side”, as it were. Our project team (recruitment and engagement) was very busy this year, running 2 sessions during the Academic Alliance meetings. We rolled out a new goal-setting initiative (our big project this year!) and kicked it off with a great panel featuring three institutions that have done some really neat things with NCWIT seed funds and resources. They were inspiring and frank. And we also got to have breakfast with the newest Academic Alliance members, which is always fun. In general, it was interesting to see how the decisions the co-chairs and project leads made about the summit in the months leading up to the summit played out (mostly fine).

I head back home today, full of new ideas and new contacts and a renewed sense of optimism about what we can accomplish. And as always, I’m already looking forward to next year’s summit!

* Genius move: I went to my first summit in Portland in 2010 as a guest (the regional women in computing conference coordinators were brought in as guests that year), and of course the whole thing was so fabulous and I learned so much and promptly went back to my institution and said “We need to be a part of this.” Smart recruiting move, NCWIT!

Random bullets of 7th week spring term

  • We’ve now officially reached the point in the term/school year where there is no schedule—there is just running from one crisis to another. I am too tired for planning anything beyond the next half hour.
  • Signs your job might be adversely affecting your family life: You joke about quitting  and your spouse says “can you? really? please?”. Uh-oh….
  • Everyone (neighbors, day care parents, random people on the streets) keeps asking me when my summer starts. This is the problem with the term system: we have 3 more weeks of classes. Heck, I just finished grading midterms! This is the tradeoff with terms: August is awesome, May stinks.
  • 2/3 of the readings in my Software Design class have been, well, let’s say not your typical textbook readings.* The tone is easy and conversational and a bit irreverent, but the content is still pretty hefty. Which is why I chose these readings—they get all the important points across in an engaging but nontrivial way. What I’m finding interesting, though, is how the students are reacting to these readings. A few off-hand comments and questions from a few students indicate that the tone obscures the fact that there’s quite a bit of substance there. This is especially true of the web usability reading. Next time I teach this course, I will make a more conscious effort to point out the theory behind the readings, but it’s been an interesting lesson.
  • We are not quite there yet, but someday (someday!) I will not find it remarkable that I have an all-female final project group.
  • Officially I don’t become department chair until July 1, but it’s kind of already started for me. Students have started coming to me asking all sorts of complicated questions about graduation and major requirements and special cases. I have a hiring meeting w/ some deans later this week. I’m already getting all manner of chair-related emails (particularly about budgets). I’ve started thinking about all sorts of processes and agendas and such. I’m glad for this transition time, but at the same time part of me is like IT’S TOO SOON! AAAARRRRGGHH!
  • One particular chair-related issue that’s keeping me up at night: We have 57 newly-declared CS majors. Yes, you read that number right. I’ll wait for you to pick yourself off the floor…. So, we need to put all these majors in project teams for Comps in 2014-15. How do we do this without completely overwhelming our faculty resources? Great question. Let me know if you figure it out.
  • Next week I’ll be at the NCWIT summit in Tucson. I look forward to the Summit every year (look for live tweets again!)—I always learn a whole bunch of new things, and it’s a great excuse to see the people I see at Grace Hopper and/or SIGCSE again (there is a lot of overlap in those crowds). This year I’ll be running a session in the Academic Alliance meeting along w/ my other team leaders. I’m excited—we have a great plan and great panelists lined up—but also nervous because part of our session involves a software demo. Trying not to panic about the many things that could and might go wrong there…yikes!

* Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think! and Freeman/Freeman/Sierra/Bates’ Head First Design Patterns

(Guest post) A Call to Action: A Student’s Perspective on Gender Diversity in the Carleton College Computer Science Department

Note: This is a guest post by Alex Voorhees ’13, a Computer Science major and Educational Studies concentrator at Carleton. The post is an assignment for EDUC 395: Senior Seminar. For this assignment, the students write and publish an editorial on some aspect of the seminar’s topic, which this year is Gender, Sexuality, and Schooling. When Alex approached me about writing a guest post, I enthusiastically agreed, because I thought it would be interesting to get a student’s perspective on our departmental culture, something the CS faculty here spend a great deal of time discussing. I encourage you to chime in with your thoughts in the comments, and hopefully Alex will engage back here in the comments as well. Now, without further ado….

Sixth-Term sophomores just declared their majors at Carleton, and the Computer Science (CS) department saw huge gains. Not only did it become the second most popular major on campus, but it garnered 55 new majors. The percentage of women CS majors for the new class is at an all-time high, 30%, and is even more than the last two years, 20% and 18% respectively.  Carleton has been tremendously successful in increasing the fraction of women CS majors, yet it remains far below the percentage of women at Carleton. Thus it is quite clear that new initiatives are needed to encourage more women to enter the field.  I am calling for more action.

I have noticed many positive changes during my past four years as a major in at Carleton’s Computer Science department. Most notable has been the faculty. When I took my first CS class as a freshman, there was only one female professor in the department. Now, in my senior year, there are now three, making up a third of the department. While this may seem small, compared to other small liberal arts school in Minnesota this is actually quite large. This larger number of female faculty has certainly helped attract women to the department. However, this is far from the only positive change. For example, a subtle change recently caught my eye: the backgrounds of the computer screens in the computer lab show pictures of famous male and female computer scientists. I think this is a great idea to show every student in the lab that women have played an integral role in the development of the field, despite being outnumbered by their male counterparts.

While these changes have been positive, there is still much work to be done. I have witnessed instances of women in the department experiencing various kinds of bias. Most of these are micro-aggressions ranging from comments made in passing to actions.  For example, I was in a course taught by a female professor and certain male students acted in a way that I am sure they would never have in a class taught by a male professor. At the end of her lecture, one of these male students literally walked out of the classroom in a clearly disrespectful manner.  I felt horribly because of how the student acted, and the fact that I did nothing about it. Overall, I think the CS department does an excellent job creating a positive culture for women. We need to not only encourage women to take CS classes, but also to work to change the attitude of some male students in the department. Moreover, the male students cannot act as bystanders when they witness micro-aggressions. When you see or hear something that might be considered a micro-aggression, do not be afraid and say something!  I think a great idea for the CS department would be to offer a class on the history of computer science to illustrate the important role of women the development of the field. With women acting as the CEO of Yahoo and the COO of Facebook, such a class is a no brainer.