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.


Random thoughts for a Friday afternoon

  • Our summer high school program ended today in a whirlwind. Poster session + meeting parents + lunch + filling out evaluations on my 11 students + 3 weeks of intense work = exhaustion. But happy exhaustion. 
  • Would I do this again? Absolutely. I have a longer post on this, but it will have to wait until my brain functioning returns. 
  • My experience with this program will definitely help me structure my first-year seminar (on the same topic) better. And help me understand the abilities, maturity level, attention span, etc of my class. So participating in this program was a win on many levels.
  • I am going to miss my students. Some more than others, obviously. I sincerely hope I see some of them at Carleton in a year or two. 
  • I am taking a much-needed break next week. Let’s see if I can go an entire week without checking my email. This is essential, I feel, for me retaining any sense of my sanity. And also essential because the craziness will start up again a week from Monday—just looking at my calendar for the end of August gives me hives.
  • My research students’ last day is also today. They completely surpassed my goals for the summer. We have more preliminary data for the grant application I plan to resubmit. (Also, because they completely surpassed the goals, I will have to completely redo the timeline. Trust me, this is a good problem to have.)
  • Juggling my research mentoring obligations with the summer program was very challenging. Would I do it again? I’m not sure. On the one hand, by the time the summer program started the research students were very much working independently. On the other hand, not having me around to answer questions and bounce ideas off of was a detriment to the project. I’ll need to give this some more thought.
  • And on that note, there is a pint of cider at a local pub that is calling my name. Happy Friday everyone!

Summer program midterm evaluation

We’re halfway through our inaugural summer program for high school students. I am happy to report that I am surviving so far (some days, barely) and mostly having a great time.

I talked a bit about the program in a previous post, but to recap: 31 students, divided into 3 groups. Mornings are class time: each week they take one class for 3 hours each day in a different specialty (this year: human-computer interaction (HCI), robotics, and evolutionary computation), rotating among the specialties each week. In the afternoons, they do research with faculty. So I teach HCI for 3 hours every morning, and in the afternoon I have 11 students doing research with me in HCI. So far the program seems to be working rather well.

It was hard for me at first to figure out how to structure my course and research for the high schoolers. I have zero experience with high school students, so I went into this with more questions than answers. How much did they already know? How quickly could they learn? How would they compare intellectually to Carleton students? What could I realistically expect them to do research-wise in 3 weeks?

I decided to assume that these students would be on par with Carleton students (after all, these are students that we hope will come to Carleton), and structured my curriculum appropriately. I set up my class meetings similar to how I would set up a Carleton class (well, similar to 3 class meetings rolled into one day), with similar content and similar activities. I figured it would be easier to adjust down than adjust up if necessary. One major change: more lecturing, since I couldn’t count on them reading the appropriate material before class. I’m not totally comfortable with that aspect, but consider it a necessary evil.

The research was trickier. I wanted them to do actual research, as in research I’m actually working on right now. But I don’t have time to instruct them in all of the necessary background knowledge, and again, it was unclear to me how their backgrounds would translate into ability to contribute meaningfully to a research project. Also, as I’ve mentioned, my current project is brand-new and I don’t fully understand all aspects of it yet! I settled on having them create visualizations (via web pages) for some of the data we’re currently collecting, and presenting this data in a way that our target demographics would understand and that would teach them about how the system works. I figured they would be able to get at least something up and running by the end of the 3 weeks.

So, how is it going so far?

My instincts were correct for the classroom portion: intellectually, the students are on par with Carleton students. They are bright, engaged, and (mostly) delightfully wacky. They are doing the same level work in class, by and large, that my college students do. The one key difference: it is harder to keep them on task. So, for instance, my college students can typically stay on task for 25-30 minutes, whereas for the high schoolers it’s more like 10-15 minutes. This probably has something to do with different developmental stages. At any rate, as long as I factor this in to my daily class plan, I’m good.

Content-wise: well, it’s always hard to boil down an entire field into 15 hours of class instruction, but I think I did a good job for the most part selecting content. I’d definitely jettison some activities next time and refine others, and choose what to lecture about differently. The beauty of this program, though, is that I repeat the same class 3 times, so I have the opportunity this week to fix the things I didn’t like about how class went last week, and things are already going more smoothly.

The research portion is also going well. I made one major tactical mistake: I decided to give a brief overview of the computer networks portion of the research so that they could concentrate on the HCI aspect. By Thursday of last week, though, it was clear that my high school researchers were struggling in developing visualizations because they didn’t really understand what they were visualizing and why. So I spent all of our research time on Friday afternoon doing Networks 101 and giving a more detailed overview of the project. I told them they could ask any question, no matter how stupid they thought it was—and of course, there were no stupid questions and a ton of excellent questions. We covered a ton of ground, and by the end of the day they felt much more confident about what they were doing and why.

The other issue I’m facing is that I may have underestimated what they are capable of doing. Many are getting a little bored of the prototyping tool and so we decided they should learn HTML and actually code up the sites they’ve been prototyping. That’s been a big hit so far. Some of the groups may also end up doing some more with the raw data than I originally intended, which is also great. I had my undergraduate research students come in this afternoon and “consult” with each group, which I think both my high school students and my undergraduates enjoyed.

The whole experience has been fun and enriching and ultimately is helping me become a better teacher and better research mentor. That said, it is EXHAUSTING. This week is a bit better than last because the research is underway and I’m repeating last week’s curriculum, but it’s still very busy and very packed. Fitting all my other responsibilities, as chair and faculty member and research mentor, into these packed days has been quite the challenge. But at this point, even with the mental and physical exhaustion and the challenges, I would definitely do this again next year, and in fact am looking forward to doing this again next year.