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.

 

Trip report: GHC 2016

I’m writing this post on the plane ride home from Grace Hopper on Friday afternoon. Unlike previous years, I escaped the conference early: a compromise with my kids since I was at a conference last month and will be at a workshop next month. Still, it feels like I managed to squeeze about 10 days into 3, so while on one level I’m sad to be missing the last keynote and tonight’s party (and dinner with Carleton folks present and past!), on another level I’m just done with conferencing.

It’s been several years since I’ve done a proper conference trip report — I used to do them semi-regularly (see here, for example), but in the past few years life’s gotten in the way. But I wanted to honor my time at the conference this year, so I’m resurrecting the trip report tradition.

I should come clean first, though: After last year’s conference, I swore up and down that I wasn’t going to attend this year. I’m not a fan of Houston (sorry, Houston!), and logistically last year was kind of a pain. Plus I knew I wanted to attend Tapia and wasn’t thrilled about going to 2 conferences so close together. But then I was tapped to be Posters Co-Chair, and it sounded like too good of an opportunity to pass up. And then since I was going anyway, I agreed to speak in the CRA-W early faculty career track and volunteer in the Student Opportunity Lab. On top of that, I had my LACAFI booth organizing/setup/wrangling duties.

Apparently my conference motto is: If you’re going to attend, be busy!

The days and weeks leading up to the conference were busy: working with my co-chair to select and assign ACM Student Research Competition (SRC) poster and finals judges; working with my co-presenter on our slides and role-play scenarios for our CRA-W session; stressing over whether we had enough people to cover the booth during the Expo hours. (This year a lot of our usual booth-staffing suspects took GHC off, either because they were at Tapia and/or they’re going to SIGCSE. We missed you, intrepid volunteers!) Then there were receptions and breakfasts and meetups to keep track of. I actually had to put everything on my calendar and set multiple alarms so that I knew exactly where I had to be and when. It was looking very likely that I was not going to make it to any sessions that I was not leading or speaking at, so I didn’t even bother to look at the program.

To add more excitement to the mix, I realized a few days before the conference that my constant desire to sleep and my low-level ever-present funk was not due to recovering from the marathon I had just run, but was in fact my depression flaring up. Good times. I was worried, because I knew I’d have to be “on” a lot of the time I was at GHC, and was starting to dread going. I decided to give myself permission to skip out on anything that was not absolutely necessary if need be, to be a hermit when I needed to, and to escape the conference when possible, to recharge and try and keep the depression at bay. I’m happy to say that my strategy worked, and I was able to cope and function at a decent level. The knowledge that I was leaving the conference early also helped. This meant that I didn’t seek out people I knew to the extent that I normally do, but it was worth it for self-preservation.

I arrived in Houston on Tuesday afternoon, along with what felt like half of the 15,000 attendees of the conference. I was hoping to have some time to relax before attending the HP Inc reception as an NCWIT member that evening, but a longish wait for my luggage and a taxi meant I had enough time to quickly unpack and then head to the reception. The reception was at a really cool place, and I spent a lot of time chatting with someone I haven’t caught up with in a while. It was weird to be at an HP reception, given my former life as an HP Labs post-doc, but it was neat to hear about what HP’s up to now and to share stories about my time there. All of the HP women there were so friendly and welcoming, and it was a lot more fun than I expected.

I skipped the keynote on Wednesday morning, sadly, to set up our LACAFI booth. I had to get more creative than I intended with our limited space, but I made do. Once the Expo opened, our swag disappeared quickly, so we’ll definitely have to bring more next year.

I knew that the afternoon/evening would be crazy full, so I escaped the conference for a while to recharge and grab some cheap Tex-Mex food. Once the Expo opened, I came back to check on our booth, then wandered around the Expo. I kept running into alums, which was awesome. I promised some of them I’d find them later, a promise I did not keep. (Sorry, alums! Nice to see you briefly, anyway!) I also randomly ran into my posters co-chair, whom I’d never met in person, so we chatted for a bit. She is awesome, and I hope I get to work with her again someday.

Wednesday afternoon was the poster session and the first part of the SRC. Hilarity ensued (only hilarious now in hindsight) when the first poster judges came back to tell us that they could not find the poster numbers we assigned them — turns out we had posters listed by submission IDs, but they were actually numbered by position in the hall, and there was no easy mapping between them. Whoops! Luckily our judges did not revolt, and were super patient as we figured things out. (We joked that we gave them an encryption problem to solve before they could judge the posters.) Judging took way longer than we expected, but we finally figured out the finalists from the judges’ scores and got that info to our awesome ABI contact. At this point, my co-presenter for the CRA-W talk showed up so we could go over our slides and plan for our talk the next morning, after which we headed to a reception for CRA-W scholars. The reception was a great end to the day, but I was totally wiped afterwards, and collapsed into bed as soon as I got back to my room.

Thursday morning began with our CRA-W talk on balancing teaching, research, and service in academia. The talk was way better attended than I expected given the early hour and intended audience. And the role-plays we planned (my co-presenter’s idea) were a hit! The audience was game to participate, asked great questions, and offered great tips and advice to each other.

Afterwards, I met up with my colleague David, who was wrangling the students this year, and chit-chatted about sabbatical and department stuff. While I’m really enjoying sabbatical, I do miss the day-to-day encounters and conversations with my colleagues, so it was nice to reconnect. I then escaped for a bit to recharge, then headed back to the Expo to snap up some swag for my kiddos and chat up some people at the booths.

Thursday afternoon was as tightly packed as the previous day. We had the undergraduate and graduate SRC finals back-to-back, one of my duties as posters co-chair. The talks were fabulous and our judges were simply amazing and thoughtful. (One of my regrets for missing the Friday keynote is that I was not able to see these six incredible finalists receive their awards.) My co-chair and I then headed to one of my favorite annual events, the NCWIT reception. I met new people and caught up with some colleagues from liberal arts schools, took a picture with the rest of the CRA-W speakers, and got to hear a surprise speech from Megan Smith, the US CTO, who stopped by the reception. I always love what Megan has to say, so that was a fabulous treat. By this point, I was exhausted and my brain was mush, so I again collapsed (after stopping for gelato on the walk back to my hotel — priorities!) as soon as I got back to my room.

Friday started early with the CRA-W scholars breakfast. I sat with my posters co-chair; a colleague I see every year at GHC, SIGCSE, and NCWIT’s Summit; and some very enthusiastic students. If I have to be at something that early, it’s worth it when the conversation is that fabulous. I then went to an actual conference session (on motherhood in academia), then volunteered at the Student Opportunity Lab talking to students about how to get into undergraduate research, in somewhat of a speed-dating format. One last check of the LACAFI booth and the handoff of exhibitor’s credentials and I was on my way to the airport and back towards home.

My relationship with GHC has definitely changed over the years. While I think the conference is now way too big and way too career-fair focused, and while I think these are detrimental changes, I’m still surprised by the ways in which the conference rejuvenates me. What I get out of the conference now is very different from what I used to get out of the conference, and changes every year. This year, I definitely felt like my role was to mentor and give back to the community, but in giving to others in this way I was immensely fulfilled. I networked less, but felt more fulfilled by the interactions I chose to have. This year’s conference reaffirmed that GHC does still hold relevance to my professional life — maybe not on an every year basis anymore, but definitely within a rotation of conferences.

By the numbers

As chair, I spend quite a bit of time with numbers of various sorts. There are budget numbers and enrollment numbers. There’s the number of sections of courses per term and per year. Relatedly, there are FTE numbers, or how many warm bodies do we have to teach courses and how many courses are they teaching at any given time….you get the idea.

At this time of year, when sophomores declare their majors, I hyper-focus on numbers related to the sophomores. This includes the number of students who’ve declared as computer science majors, the difference between the size of this year’s class and the previous few years’ classes, the percentage of women and underrepresented minorities, and the “yield” from certain courses, among others. Looking at these numbers gives me the opportunity to assess the state of the department on a mini-scale: a quick way to determine if we’re where we want to be and heading in the right direction.

In many respects, our numbers are excellent. My quick and possibly inaccurate sampling of the usual suspects indicates that we are now the largest department on campus in terms of majors in the sophomore, junior, and senior classes (tied with Biology), and that we have the largest number of majors in the sophomore class (followed by Biology and Economics, who if memory serves are tied). At the time of this writing, we have 50 majors, which is right in line with the past 2 classes (55 in the current junior class and 54 in the current senior class). I suspect we will stabilize in the mid-50s once the double majors declare—there are some omissions from our current list that I’ve already talked with about double-majoring, so I am just waiting for them to come to me with forms in hand at some point over the next few weeks.

There is one number of which I am insanely proud: I taught a first-year seminar in the fall of 2013 on Human-Centered Computing, and 7 of the 16 students in that course (who are now sophomores) declared as computer science majors. I was hoping for a good yield from that course, but frankly I was stunned at just how high the yield was! What an argument for the importance of teaching courses outside the major sequence. (Note to self: remember this when putting together the 2016-17 schedule!)

There are some numbers that concern me. Our major population is diversifying, but we could definitely be doing much better in this regard. Also troubling: after 2 years of 30-35% women majors, our sophomore class is just 20% women. Again, these numbers might creep up a bit once the double majors declare, but the percentage is not going to change significantly.

The decrease in the percentage of women has me pondering the possible reasons. Has there been a culture shift in the department? Are we doing something differently in Intro or in our “first-tier” required courses (data structures, math of CS, organization and architecture) that we weren’t doing 3-4 years ago? Are the larger class sizes off-putting more to women than to men? Are there things that we’re neglecting to do, now that we’re swamped with students, that we used to do, to foster community? (For instance, I used to send short, personal emails to Intro and Data Structures students encouraging them to take more CS courses, but I don’t always remember to do that to the same degree as I did in the past. What effects does this have on retention in the major?) In short, what’s changed?

Another factor I pondered on my walk across campus to class today: what effect does having senior faculty teach some of those “key” courses have on recruitment and retention? Now, we have a vibrant cohort of assistant professors and visitors who are doing a fabulous job, and many of them are teaching those key courses. But I think it’s important, for many reasons, to have us old fogies the senior, tenured folks at these entry points, too. And that’s the problem: we are so busy and so over-committed as a senior group that we’re teaching many fewer courses. For instance: There are 4 tenured professors in my department (2 full, 2 associate). The normal teaching load per tenure-track professor is 5 courses a year (2-2-1 or some variation). So among us, we should be teaching 20 courses. Next year? We are teaching 11. One person is on sabbatical all year, one is essentially teaching half-time because he was elected faculty president, and two of us have a course release (me for being chair, another colleague for chairing a large campus committee). And two of us are leading senior capstone groups as one of our “courses”, which means that we’re teaching 2 fewer “classic” courses. And because of scheduling and expertise constraints, with maybe 1-2 exceptions we’re teaching all upper-level courses.

So what are my take-away points, after this navel-gazing romp through the numbers?

  • We have a vibrant department. Our enrollments are healthy and strong, and this is translating into majors. And our majors are awesome—I’m very excited about our newest class!
  • We need to continue to prioritize “outreach” in terms of first-year seminars and similar courses. It’s definitely worth it, even it if means offering one fewer course for our majors per year.
  • We need to take a closer look at our culture. I’d like to informally talk to students to get a sense of what’s happening “on the ground”. In particular, I want to chat with the leaders of our 2 student groups, particularly our Women in Computing group, and our SDAs (student departmental advisors) and get their thoughts on what we’re doing well and what we might do differently.
  • Similarly, we need to individually look at what we’re doing as faculty to encourage our students to explore computer science, and make sure all those best practices we’ve honed over the years are still in play.
  • Frankly, I’m not sure what to do about the overcommitted senior faculty issue. I sense this issue is not going to go away anytime soon—to be honest, I’d be shocked if one of us old fogies is not tapped for an administrative post in the next 3-5 years. But are there ways we can work with the faculty affairs committee, for instance, to ensure that we can both serve the college *and* staff our courses appropriately? (For instance, could this committee check with departments before allowing a nomination for a major campus position to move forward, to make sure they are not inadvertently causing a staffing crisis for that department? In short, could opportunities be timed better for *all* parties involved?)

The CS department is a totally different place now than when I first arrived. We worked hard as faculty to grow what we hope is a welcoming, open, fun culture. I am confident that we can continue this moving forward, but just as it took lots of energy and commitment to get us here, so too will it take energy and commitment to keep us here. I hope we’re up to the task.

Male allies, trusting the system, and tone deafness at GHC

Every year, I look forward to attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. I enjoy being in a space with so many other talented technical women at all stages of their careers, from students to CTOs, where I can network, meet new people, meet up with old friends, hear about some cool research, get advice, and learn new things. One of the aspects I most enjoy is the “safe space” aspect—it’s nice to be in a space where I am not “other”, where women’s voices are heard and cherished.

When I first looked at the program a couple of weeks ago, I noticed an increased male presence on the program. Which, ok, fine, involving men in the discussion about diversity in tech (or the extreme lack thereof) is in theory an excellent idea, and can be done well and thoughtfully in practice. But there are many, many ways in which these conversations can be executed poorly, and I’ll admit to some trepidation about some aspects of the program.

Unfortunately, these conversations at Grace Hopper were executed poorly, with a level of overall tone deafness that I find astounding. (I’m not surprised at the tone deafness itself, but rather at the level of tone deafness exhibited.)

First, there was yesterday’s Male Allies panel. Full disclosure: I did not attend this talk, but you can read about it in all its spectacular train wreckiness. One of my students showed me a filled out Bingo card from the event. The only positive thing I can say is that at least the most egregious things on the card were not checked off, but other than that….ugh. If these are our male allies, then we’re in big, big trouble.

But wait, there’s more! This morning’s keynote promised “Satya Nadella [CEO of Microsoft] in conversation with Maria Klawe [President of Harvey Mudd College].” In reality, it was “Maria Klawe [the flippin’ President of Harvey Mudd College, let me remind you!] Asks Satya Nadella Questions from the Twitterverse.” Yeah. It wasn’t all a train wreck, I suppose. Until Satya made a comment about how women should trust the system and not ask for raises. Yes, that’s right, women in tech, if you just work hard enough then the universe will recognize your contributions and you’ll get your due, so don’t make a fuss and put your head down and get back to work, sweetie!

Yep. Tone. Deaf.

Frankly, I am disheartened, and most of all disappointed, in the Anita Borg Institute and the program committee. Is it important to involve men in these discussions? Yes. Is it important to have panels on male allies? Absolutely. But for the love of all that is good and holy, let’s make sure that those allies actually act like allies and have a clue. Let’s make sure those discussions don’t continue the stereotypes and tired tropes. Let’s get people who actually know what they are talking about, who follow and promote best practices, who don’t put all the burden/blame on women (and who understand the very real consequences that women experience when they do choose to speak out and speak up), and most importantly, who know their blind spots and are willing to listen and learn and improve.

Let’s let Maria Klawe and Satya Nadella have an actual, substantive, and frank conversation about how the culture in tech is not all that it could be and discuss concrete ideas for how that might change. Let’s have women on the male allies panel, or better yet, have a male allies workshop and better equip men to be effective allies. Let’s vet these things better, for pete’s sake!

Please, just please, organizers of GHC, let’s not have a repeat of the train wreck this year. I expect much better from you.