Monday, April 25, 2016

The child-led kids go to grad school

For the past few decades, there have been movements afoot in parenting that seek to "flip" the traditional parent-child hierarchy - child-led weaning, child-led toilet training, child-led education, unschooling, etc.

Children from these movements are now pursuing higher ed degrees. I have noticed several  intriguing attempts by the students to flip the adviser-advisee relationship, and faculty trying to accommodate these changes.
First, some linguistic changes. Many faculty solely refer to their advisees as "collaborators". Students say, "I collaboate with so-and-so", or "this work was conducted in collaboration with so-and-so." Rarely, are the words adviser or advisee used in the discussion. This is not good or bad, but an interesting trend.

Second, I have noticed a rise in the number of students who routinely and vehemently push back against their advisors' suggestions. Sometimes this is a healthy debate, but sometimes it can sour the relationship. For example, when a student strongly believes they are ready for a black diamond, but have not yet demonstrated mastery of the bunny slope, tension can arise.

I think part of this second issue may tie into timelines that students have internalized about what should be happening when in the process. There's a belief that if you show up and do work, regardless of its quality, you will earn a degree after n years. Perhaps to some extent pressure from various administrative bodies have reinforced these beliefs by stating that degrees are expected to be completed within n years, or funding will be taken away.

To be fair, there are deep questions about what it means to have a degree, the process by which that assessment is made, and who is qualified to make that assessment. And perhaps one way forward to addressing these questions is to relax the hierarchy somewhat to better enable students (collaborators?) to be part of the conversation. But I do not think the answer is to view advisers and committees as merely rubber stamps toward obtaining a degree.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Digitally Overwhelemed

I am a technologist who can no longer cope with technology.

I can read a news article or a book. I can watch a video. But anything else is overwhelming.

The sad thing is I am unable to do my job without email. But the volume is astounding. Even with extensive filtering systems in place, it is too much.

I am not really sure how I got to this place. I've been using email since... well, let's just say I can recite the connection tones from a 1200 baud modem. But back then, very few people used email. Mostly it was just your friends. Now it's everyone, always, all the time.

With modems, there was a physical barrier to reading email. You could only check in certain locations at certain times of day, sometimes you would get a busy signal and have to redial. You'd sit there, disconnected, reading, playing games, listening to the modem dial. Peaceful and ignorant. And everyone else was too - so when you did manage to log in, there were far less emails there.

Everyone else seems to be feeling overwhelmed too. Though aside from either inhuman self-discipline (don't eat the giant chocolate chip data plan) or ignoring email, it's not clear what the solution is.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Playful Science Joy

The most important quality in a graduate student is playfulness. A light-hearted excitement about exploring something new.

My heart leaps when a student says, "I was thinking" or "I was wondering", and when those thoughts are far beyond the current topic of conversation. The click-clack of connections, new ones unconsidered before.

This is a student who goes to the library because they want to, not because they have to. They read books far outside their discipline. They create wild, innovative ideas as easily as they breathe.

The best part of my job is when I meet a student like this, and feel great hope about the future.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Student Who Checked Out

As an educator, one of the things that comes up every semester is a student who has "checked out". They stop coming to class and turning in assignments, and you can see their downward trajectory.

What should simply be a small hurdle becomes a 15-foot high tsunami wave for these students. They don't have the psychological resources to go to office hours, work harder, put in the time. So they just let the missed work accumulate until it becomes impossible for them to recover.

When I was an undergraduate I had friends in this place, so it is gut-wrenching to blindly apply a syllabus policy and fail a student in the interest of "fairness". "Fairness" unfortunately means that students on the lower tail of the psychological resource distribution curve get left behind.

What's strange is that this "oh well, tough luck for the student, nothing we can do" sentiment doesn't seem to be quite as prevalent in elementary ed as it is in higher ed. Younger kids having academic trouble have more access to resources to help them - there is a concept of an intervention*. However, for some reason, our society has decided that by the time students are 18 if they struggle in their education it is fully up to them to fix it. Sink or swim.

When faced with a failing student, some people say, "Well, college isn't for everyone", or, worse, "Computer Science isn't for everyone". I disagree. I think everyone is able to do both -- it's just that some people are dealt better hands than others, and our system currently favors those with pocket aces.

(*) In well-resourced and caring schools, that is.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Teaching is like children

A new course is like a new baby. You have to feed it, bathe it, calm it, put it to bed, keep it appropriately entertained and distracted. You worry about it a lot, especially when it gets sick, to the point of complete distraction from everything else in your life (your job, showering, etc).

The second time you teach a class, it is like having a toddler. It is slightly more capable, but you need to worry about it choking on errant objects, not looking both ways before crossing the street, and ensuring fried potatoes are not the only vegetable it eats.

The third time you teach a class, it is like having a kindergardener. You worry about it occasionally, like when fights or cdiff break out at school, but overall you are considerably more relaxed.

It is around year three or four that you start to get a little heartsad. You miss the excitement you felt when you found That Perfect Example, or The Hilarious Video, or even that time you discovered those amazing lecture notes from the University of Alburquerque on set theory with the two pigs. The course materials don't need you as much as they used to.

So you putter around, tweaking things here and there, while idly toying with the idea that next semester, by golly, you're going to prep a new class. Just as nature makes parents forget the trauma of pregnancy and the agony of not sleeping for 2-3 years, academia, too makes us forget the birth of a course.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Fight for your right (to publish?)

When you get a rejection, do you call the editor / program officer / etc. and "give them the business"?

I am curious. I never heard of doing this until a natural scientist friend told me this was common practice in her field for journals. ("That's what the boys do," she whispered conspiratorially). 

Having been raised to be quiet and well-behaved (*ahem*), when I receive a rejection I usually take it to mean I need to buckle down and write a better paper / proposal. I assumed that was what everyone did. But apparently some people make phone calls.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Programming Sucks, Implementing Unicorns, and Other Professional Insights

This article by Peter Welch, "Programming Sucks",  is probably the best description of our profession I have ever read. Those of you who are computer scientists will read it and say, YES, EXACTLY; those of you who are not computer scientists but think we are mystical beasts from mordor will realize we are not actually mystical beasts. (Though may indeed come from mordor).

Peter's article is so good, I am loathe to quote the clever, funny bits because they're so much better in context; but I have to at least post some some teasers:
Not a single living person knows how everything in your five-year-old MacBook actually works. Why do we tell you to turn it off and on again? Because we don't have the slightest clue what's wrong with it, and it's really easy to induce coma in computers and have their built-in team of automatic doctors try to figure it out for us. The only reason coders' computers work better than non-coders' computers is coders know computers are schizophrenic little children with auto-immune diseases and we don't beat them when they're bad.
Most people don't even know what sysadmins do, but trust me, if they all took a lunch break at the same time they wouldn't make it to the deli before you ran out of bullets protecting your canned goods from roving bands of mutants.