A rough return to teaching

I’ve spent the past few summers (minus last summer when I was on sabbatical) teaching in a summer high school program. The program consists of 3 weeks of morning classes and afternoon guided research with a faculty member. I really, truly enjoy it. Teaching high school students is an interesting challenge. And by and large the students have been thoughtful, engaged, creative, and eager to learn. (It’s also very gratifying to see some of them as Carleton students post-high school!)

So when my colleague approached me last fall about teaching again this summer, I agreed. The program, I reasoned, would give me the opportunity to ease back into teaching before returning to the classroom in the fall. Plus I already had curriculum and research projects ready to go. What could possibly go wrong?

Suffice it to say that my envisioned triumphant return to teaching was anything but.

The actual mechanics of teaching? That went easier than I anticipated. The rust fell away quickly, much to my surprise. Being in front of students felt natural to me, and I found my teaching groove in short order. Pacing was still tricky at times, but pacing is always a bit of an inexact science.

What I didn’t anticipate, and what was roughest about re-entry: the small but active minority of students in my research group who decided early on that what I was teaching, human-computer interaction (HCI), was not Real Hard Core Actual Computer Science Because We’re Not Programming 24-7. And the undercurrent of disrespect for my authority, and for my RA’s authority (also a female computer scientist).

Now, I should pause and make it crystal clear at this point that THIS IS NOT NORMAL FOR THIS PROGRAM. The vast, vast majority of students are respectful and open to learning, and to expanding their ideas of what computer science is. I can count on one finger the number of research students I’ve mentored in this program who have been actively disrespectful of me and the subject matter. Sure, I’ve had some students in the past who were openly or less openly skeptical about the merits of HCI as a computer science field, but by and large those students at least came to appreciate what I was trying to teach them in the end, even if in the end they decided it wasn’t quite their cup of tea. And I’ve had some really interesting conversations with the objectors that have not only strengthened my framing of my material, but have also led me to reflect on what material I choose to include and how I include it. Both of which make me a better, more effective teacher in the end.

I spent a lot of time and energy during the program reflecting on where this particular strain of disrespect originated. Part of it likely relates to the HCI = Not Real Computer Science attitude, which is certainly not limited to the students in my class (and is still somewhat pervasive in the field, unfortunately). Part of it also likely relates to the general bro-ness and toxic masculinity that has always surrounded computer science, something that’s come into sharp focus lately with any number of recent news stories. Why did it emerge in force this year, and not in previous years? That, I’m still trying to figure out.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve had to deal with this level of disrespect in the classroom. I’ve been at Carleton long enough that I’m part of the fabric of the department — I am “accepted”. Gaining seniority (in age and in status) over the years increased my credibility with the students, giving me more authority in their eyes. The close-to-gender parity we have in our faculty also helps quell at least some of the disrespect. So I was caught off-guard.

Once I recognized what was going on, I went into damage control mode. I summoned up my Authoritative Teacher persona from the depths — she hasn’t been around much since my pre-tenure days. I blinded them with science — or, at least, hit them hard with the scientific basis for every psychological or design principle we discussed. I randomly threw out my credentials, just to remind them that Yes I Do Know What I Am Talking About As I Have A PhD In Engineering And Years Of Experience. I occasionally let out my Inner Bitch and used my Evil Mom Stare with abandon.

But I also second-guessed almost everything that I did, and said. I put up my guard in ways I haven’t had to do in a very long time. Teaching, and every single interaction in this program, took up at least twice as much of my mental and emotional energy. Teaching in this program is normally draining, but this year, at the end of the day, I truly had nothing left in my tank. And that was not fair to my family or to myself.

Lots of people have asked me if I’ll teach in the program again next year. I honestly don’t know. On the one hand, I still believe strongly in this program. I have met and worked with so many incredible teens and young adults in this program. By and large, my students are thoughtful, creative, eager to challenge themselves, whip-smart, and funny. Most of my students did outstanding work on their research projects, and embraced the experience and challenge from start to finish. And I enjoy serving as a role model to high school students, both as a female computer scientist and as an HCI researcher. But on the other hand, this summer exacted a huge toll from me. I was exhausted, and bitter, every single day. Why does it feel like it’s just my responsibility to hang in there, fight the good fight, and change their minds? How productive, and happy, would I be if I didn’t have to deal with this crap?

Hopefully, I won’t experience anything like this in the fall when I return to the classroom full time. Or, if I do, at least I’ll be prepared to recognize it and deal with it. That, I suppose, is the sad silver lining in this experience.



6 thoughts on “A rough return to teaching

  1. That sounds like an extremely frustrating experience. How many students gave you this type of opposition? Did you have a sense of the social dynamics .. did one or two very vocal ones pull others with them, or did a certain subset just decide to turn for whatever reason?

    Also, how were these students placed in your topic? Did they misunderstand something when signing up, or are they assigned based on available space?

    I’ve long wondered about a reasonable system for educators to turn away disruptive students to the benefit of other students. “Back in my day” and back in my old country it was not unheard of for a 4th grade teacher to tell a student to leave the class room if they were being disruptive. This was usually (shamefully) tolerated by the parents and order mostly prevailed in such classes. I don’t know how that would work today, but the idea has stuck with me. If your students abhor what you’re trying to teach them and are ruining it for others, then what exactly is keeping them in the room? It shouldn’t have to be the teacher for sure.

    A minimum tolerance of knowledge should be expected before entering a classroom in my opinion.


    • These are great questions. My sense is it was 2-3 students who pulled others with them. All of the students take classes in all of the research areas, so I end up teaching all of the students in the program. So what happened was 2-3 in the first week of class, who were also in my research cohort, poisoned the well for those in the other research areas. And it snowballed.

      I’ve thought a lot about framing: how we frame the HCI section of the program, how I frame things in class, etc. The thing is, we are pretty clear that CS != programming, and I hit this point pretty hard and pretty often starting Day 1 in class and lab. But of course, there are always things we could do better, and we’re looking into that for future years.


  2. I’m really sorry to hear about your experience. That sounds like a rough return to teaching. I hope the fall goes better and you have a little time to recuperate from this draining experience beforehand.


  3. I’m so sorry to hear, but it sounds like you handled it very well. You should feel good about that. It’s possible that you just changed the careers of a few young men and a pyramid scheme full of interactions they could have over the coming years. I do wonder when the time will come when programs like this need to talk about gender dynamics and the rising bro-ness of C.S. I had it at Stanford and startups. I’ve had it in IT departments, even with the nicest of guys who just don’t get the micro-aggressions of questioning a comment or interruptions, etc. They don’t see them unless we hold up a mirror and name them. I have picked the moments to talk about it very carefully, and role modeling as you did is fantastic as well. But it seems to me that you did all the work – intellectual and emotional work. I hope they appreciated it. I do.


    • I’m hoping that, if they don’t appreciate it now, they will appreciate it at some point!

      I’ve also found, in my experience, that sometimes the “nicest” guys, the ones who would call themselves allies, etc — have the biggest blind spots in terms of microaggressions and other problematic behaviors. Very frustrating!


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