Dealing With, Preventing Negative Classroom CS Culture

June 25th, 2013

I’m attending the Pacific Northwest AP Institute this week for the AP Computer Science A exam. A teacher, who has no computer science background, shared witnessing an incredibly negative environment in a forum she went to as she takes an online course this summer to introduce her to programming. I wrote the following up for our workshop’s private share space, as this is a problem that, from familiarity with the space, didn’t surprise me.

How to Ask Programmers in the Wild Questions

The (albeit long) “guide” to how to ask Computer Scientists questions online is titled How to Ask Questions the Smart Way. A long term want of mine is to rewrite this minus the unnecessary condescending tone, as the guidance provided is EXCELLENT for those in this field.

The 10,000 Rule

I post the following comic, blown-up, in my classroom. XKCD comics have “alt text” that appears when you hover on the comic. This comic’s alt text is: “Saying ‘what kind of an idiot doesn’t know about the Yellowstone supervolcano’ is so much more boring than telling someone about the Yellowstone supervolcano the first time.” My favorite moment was when a whole group of students responded to a student who often feigns surprise (“What? I can’t believe you don’t know what the stack is!”) by pointing to the comic and unanimously exclaiming: “The 10,000 rule!”

It’s important to note that the student who regularly feigns surprise is considered by classmates to be one of the kindest, most helpful students. After feigning surprise, this student immediately assists students with fully understanding this thing they did not know. But it’s vital to immediately address the intimidating (and often loudest) part of the response.

No Feigning Surprise, No Well-Actually’s

Finally, a superb how-to on setting the environment is the “Social rules” subsection (found below Imposter Syndrome sidenote) of the Hacker School User Manual, which is a professional 3-month coding retreat.

Social rules

The first of these rules is no feigning surprise. This means you shouldn’t act surprised when people say they don’t know something. This applies to both technical things (“What?! I can’t believe you don’t know what the stack is!”) and non-technical things (“You don’t know who RMS is?!”). Feigning surprise has absolutely no social or educational benefit: When people feign surprise, it’s usually to make them feel better about themselves and others feel worse. And even when that’s not the intention, it’s almost always the effect. As you’ve probably already guessed, this rule is tightly coupled to our belief in the importance of people feeling comfortable saying “I don’t know” and “I don’t understand.”

Our second social rule is no well-actually’s. This means that when someone says something that’s almost but not entirely, correct, you shouldn’t say, “well, actually…” and then give a minor correction. This is especially annoying when the correction has no bearing on the actual conversation. This doesn’t mean Hacker School isn’t about truth-seeking or that we don’t care about being precise. Almost all well-actually’s in our experience are about grandstanding, not truth-seeking. (Thanks to Miguel de Icaza for originally coining the term “well-actually.”)

A third social rule is no backseat-driving. This means that if you overhear people working through a problem, you shouldn’t intermittently lob advice across the room. This can lead to the “too many cooks” problem, but more important, it can be rude and disruptive to half-participate in a conversation. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t help, offer advice, or join conversations. On the contrary, we encourage all those things. Rather, it just means that when you want to help out or work with others, you should fully engage and not just butt in sporadically.

Our last social rule is no subtle sexism (or racism, homophobia, etc). This one is different from the rest, because it’s largely based on how someone feels and not a specific, observable phenomenon (“well-actually’s” are easy to spot because they almost always start with the words, “well, actually…”).

The goal with all this isn’t to burden Hacker School with a bunch of annoying rules, or to give us a stick to bludgeon people with for “being bad.” Rather, these rules are meant as a release valve of sorts.

If someone says, “hey, you just feigned surprise,” don’t worry. Just apologize, reflect for a second, and move on. It doesn’t mean you’re a “bad” person, or even a “bad” Hacker Schooler. As we said above, these rules are meant to be lightweight. We’ve all done these things before. In fact, we originally adopted a no well-actually policy for our company because Nick and Dave well-actually’d each other all the time.

Asking For Help

September 1st, 2011

Between being realistic about grief and being primed to expect more bad things to happen, I am wary to say I’m doing better. But last week was fairly solid. And this week I would even venture to state I felt almost back to normal.

I’ve been going to counseling since returning, and I am so glad I dove into that without even thinking not to. I hadn’t realized how much I had clammed up about my life until I had the dedicated time to talk about it.

It’s slightly fascinating looking back. At the end of second session, I fell to pieces. Not while I was sharing the stress of my uncle Rick needing a new heart. Nor while I shared striking Penny situations that I found in past personal writings since the funeral. But during what I meant to be a passing admission that I had needed to take a sick day not for a physical ailment, but because I was overwhelmed.

My counselor rightly told me to cut myself some slack.

Things have gotten easier. I’m closer to being back in that calm state where I can casually reference these things while to others this is BIG STUFF. To my family, it’s the (not even new) new normal.

It’s twistedly grounding to call home to receive a family drama update. It’s when I’m not plugged into the grapeline that I begin to lose my grip. Once I have exhausted the latest news, I can return to my life and tackle the less important things.

Learning My Greatest Weakness

August 26th, 2011

We can never really be prepared for that which is wholly new. We have to adjust ourselves, and every radical adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem: we undergo a test, we have to prove ourselves. It needs subordinate self-confidence to face drastic change without inner trembling. — Eric Hoffer

My intense but weak grasp on being able to enjoy just being had the footing ripped from under it in the last two weeks of July.

In the last five years, my family has gone from quirky but ideal to something that has had me experience what it means to love not just intensely, but with an aching heart.

Last month, my aunt — my father’s and uncles’ only sister, my grandparents’ only daughter — lost her life to suicide as a result of suffering yet undiagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder.

During my senior year of high school, we were only just beginning to get a taste of this mental illness. At the time we thought we were simply dealing with our first, but to the world was yet another, messy divorce. Congruently, Penny was suffering from acute physical ailments.

So little of the behavior during the divorce made sense. For the time, it was this fire forever on the verge of flare up that burned in the background of every family interaction. It was unpredictable and illogical. During my last family birthday party over the summer before I went to college, I remember hoping to god we could make it through with no drama and enjoy just hanging out. Penny left at one point in a flurry; she thought one of my aunt’s had said something derogatory about her.

As much as I hated what my cousins were being put through, I boxed up dealing with this part of my life when I left for school. My grandparents and dad were doing all that they could and things continuously spun out of control. When I first got to school, I received regular updates of what was going on. (My family is a living example of news traveling through the grapeline.) At some point I realized the flare ups had not gone away, but they had become so normal they no longer were being reported.

At the end of this spring, my family finally hit a true breaking point and began the process of revoking Penny’s full custodial rights. The only thing in the last five years that was constant was Penny’s unwavering love for her children. That she made it through the last five years was because of this. But knowing how close her past suicide attempts had been, I recognized this likely would become Penny’s breaking point.

Facing this Reality

As expected, going home and playing a very different role than in past visitations and funerals I’ve attended was partly surreal. However, for the first time in years, there was a comfortable underlying feeling to the event. As Penny’s eldest commented after the visitation: “This is the first time we’ve all been together in a long time.”

After having boxed up this part of my life for so long, it’s been quite the lovely mess during the unpacking dumping of the box. This has also in turn been my breaking point. After everything that has happened in the last year, having this box upended laid out more items than I was able to keep control.

And so I’m working on dealing. I consider it a broken work in progress. This was one drastic change that inner (and outer!) trembling pretty much had to occur in order to do such.

Back From Christmas at Home

December 27th, 2010

There are twenty-five incomplete blog posts in my drafts folder.  I posted more often before I started making plans.

It’s pitch black outside my plane.  I’m on my way back from a week home.  I scarfed down McDonald’s before my final plane left Chicago:  I’m regretting the drink.  My favorite seat is by the window; I hate having to get up.

While home, I almost had a conversation with someone who assumed I agreed with their dislike of Fort Wayne since I choose to move away.  If this becomes a normal thing for me to experience, I’m going to have to get a sign:  Don’t bitch to me.

Can a grocery store not survive downtown?  There isn’t one.  I would think with West Central there would be a market for a small niche place.  Plenty of hungry hipsters that love riding their bikes around there.

Granted, after reading Nicolette Hahn Niman’s article Avoiding Factory Farms, I suppose there are farmers’ markets during the warmer months.  Regardless, a normal grocery would be nice.

I wish I was more interested in cooking.  It comes in spurts.  With long breaks in between.

My favorite part of night flights:  seeing the civilization below.  (Of course, this intensely conflicts with my dislike of light pollution.)

If we’re thirty minutes out from landing, what city are we above that has such a concentration of lights?  According to the route maps in the airline magazine, could be a place in Canada.  Not that the map is likely to be accurate.

I’m not 100% thrilled about lugging two suitcases home via public transit.  Mostly because it’s going to be dark while I’m dealing with this.  It’s somewhat relieving that I’ve done this route before.

My new carry-on rules!  I feel like such a pro pushing my four-wheeled bag.  (It’s also going to make life so much easier dealing with that AND my checked bag.)

I’m curious if I were to actually use 750words.com, if my writing on my blog would improve.  Or maybe I would just run out of things to say.  (Okay, not likely.  I talk too much for that.)

The new year is coming up next weekend.  I don’t like resolutions; I’m excited about it being a holiday to celebrate.  Are midnight movies normal?  It doesn’t actually have to begin at midnight, I’d just like to be in the theater as it switches over.

Alrighty.  Time to return to where the sun sets at 4 PM.  Good night sun.  (Ode to a book that I didn’t actually read as a child.)

2010 in a Word: Weird

December 7th, 2010

It never felt like its own thing.  The wretchedness of 2009 dragged on with Rick still in the hospital and just happened to become 2010 at some point.

Even the good was unusual.  My one semester on campus during senior year was disconnected from the rest of my college experience.  I spent junior year happily holed up in the CS House in a comfort zone I’d been in since shortly before the end of my first year.  But my core group had been demolished by transfers and graduations.  Instead, I finally hung with my awesome pep band people.  Weekly dinners, late nights, senior party party.

Summer was mixed.  Having my entire high school crew in town most the summer, starting my job (woot employment!).  Finding new people to hang with (that shit is exhausting), losing Sheila.

The year is ending at the beginning of what I want for 2011:  steady.  After the constant stream of unrest, all I’ve wanted is to just be.

The bass plays a vamp.  The drummer begins a reverse clave.  The piano comes in with the theme.  Slowly Horace moves into his solo, keeping his left hand vamp going throughout.

I’m sitting on the couch, with my new (functioning battery!) laptop in my lap, a thesaurus at my side.  Letting myself be immersed in the combo’s jam session.  Contemplating and writing.  No worry.  No stress.  Just being.

I love it.

reverb10 – One Word:
Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you? (Author: Gwen Bell)

Details on this project at www.reverb10.com.

I Miss Flat Land

November 27th, 2010

Seattle + Ice = Fail

Earlier this week, the greater Seattle area got hit by snow and ice.  Steep hills + inexperienced winter drivers + infrastructure that just can’t handle it = nothing good.

More hills need shut down, earlier. A better mix of sand/gravel/ash stuff they apparently use in West Virginia is needed. And those without ice driving experience? Listen to me, I beg you: Sitting on the gas pedal, even a little bit, makes things worse.

No Hills

For Thanksgiving, I’ve taken a super short trip to see my sister.  She’s still in school and is working full time, so she didn’t have time to make it home.  This makes for two years strong my family not doing a normal Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving.  (One of my cousins is recovering from planned surgery earlier this week, so even back home Thanksgiving took place last Sunday instead of Thursday.)

As my sister drove me back to her place from the airport, I kept saying how much I have missed flat land.  Granted, while I was saying this, things did look bare along the road.  But this was due to lack of trees, not hills.  (Thank you drive through Kansas for teaching me that.)

I miss driving through that boring farmland with the random patches of forest in the distance.  I miss the tiny lakes that I could see from my side, around the edge, straight to the other side.  I miss the hills bumps that made me sweat, but didn’t force me off my bike.

I’m not homesick in the sense I want to be home.  These are just some of those differences that at this point seem too different to be mine.

Yoga!!!

November 21st, 2010

As a rule, I only use one exclamation point except for random super excited texts to my boyfriend, sister, and Ed.

But that is how I feel about yoga.

Either sophomore or junior year of high school, I began attending classes with my friend Bethany.  She’s always been much better at it.  Began yoga on her own, doing yoga both outside of class and on a generally regular basis when not taking classes.  (Appropriately, she is in the process of being a yoga teacher.)

(That brought my brain to the awesome music ab-destroying classes as taught by my friend Liz, which led to thinking about pole dancing classes…but I’ll just leave that awkward tangent at that.)

I’m pretty sure I was hooked before my first class was complete.  I had a blast.  I’ve always been inflexible; it’s a family trait.  But learning how to move, push my body, and play around?  It was a done deal.

In high school, I took classes regularly enough to get to the point of being able to touch my toes.  At college, my attendance was a hit or miss.  I always started the semester off strong…

So, about a month ago, I finally went into the workout place that’s within walking distance of my apartment.  (One of the few that isn’t about hot yoga.  Too freaking many of those.)  The owner gave a free class, and I’ve been going weekly ever since!  Sunday early morning and Wednesdays super early.  Seriously, I get up before 7 AM for yoga.

This is probably going to come out very zen or something, but my favorite part of yoga is just being.  You push yourself, but not beyond your limits.  You’re cool with wherever you are at in your practice.

My favorite yoga buzz phrase of the moment is adjusting to the new normal.  I’m working on my posture, and it’s a matter of adjusting to the new normal.  These are both things that I want to apply outside class.  Slow but steady improvements, and less self-inflicted stress.

…which specifically, perhaps, I should apply to my sleep habits.  Hooray for sleep all day Sundays!

Thinking, Contemplating, and Processing

October 11th, 2010

I have spent a lot of time in my head lately.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve run into many who just cannot comprehend this: I don’t have internet in my apartment. Willingly.

Despite this, I still spend a disgusting amount of time online doing nothing that feels productive for the number of hours logged. I have 24/7 access to internet in my apartment complex’s business center. And if I don’t want to be there, I can go to the library or work.

I have been very happy with my newly regular podcasts: The Rachel Maddow Show, various NPR feeds (Talk of the Nation, Fresh Air, education, story of the day), ABC World News with Diane Sawyer (and the guys that sub for her on a seemingly regular basis…I’m curious where she’s at during all those times), and This Week. I’m slowly accepting the label of liberal, but still trying to do it with a grain of salt. People aren’t Republicans or conservatives for no reason.

On the note of news, I do need to inject some source (preferably podcast) that gets me info about outside the US. During my first couple days at Microsoft, I had a convo in which I was the only person from the US (so cool!) where it was commented that they are less aware of what is going on in the world now that they live in the US. She said it is due to how localized the news is here compared to what is considered regular types of news to receive back home: think of your local newspaper.

There is a striking lack of African Americans at work. Just throwing that one out there.

On the other hand, I am surrounded by folks from other countries. Easy and quick example, each member of my team is from a different country: Brazil, India, the US, Egypt/Canada. (He spent his childhood in Egypt, then moved to Canada.)

Still of ton of white males. Just go up that leadership chain and senior independent contributors. Those are two topics that I attended sessions on at GHC and have notes that I’ll eventually get into blog posts. Interesting issues.

People keep asking me, and I haven’t been spouting it cause I guess I’m taking the stance that no news is good news, but I am really enjoying working for Microsoft. I am finding it fascinating figuring out how the seemingly endless moving parts have to work together to achieve one goal. I work in Office, and from the consumer’s perspective, you would never guess the effort behind the end product. There’s something like 4000 people working on Office. Crazy.

Needless to say, it was a hell of a lot easier to grasp everyone’s roles at the 30 employee company than at the 90,000 employee company.

Since it’s easier to work on such smaller terms, here’s my attempt at a translated example:

Imagine my team as a small company attempting to ship a product. We rely on products from other companies to successfully complete our job. However, since the other companies have separate end goals from us, we both have to work to compromise and convince one another why certain elements are needed.

Except at work, we’re all one company. With separate companies, profit can be used as leverage, but between teams at the same company, that isn’t an option. (Though, due to the sheer size at Microsoft, you do have the the option to work with other teams similar to the option of choosing a different company.) Challengingly, since on the outside you are viewed as this single company you are expected to be on the same page, but realistically that is not easy. It’s an interesting problem.

Things are just a bit jumbled up in my head. I have received a massive amount of information in my seven weeks of work. The never-ending firehouse as they describe it. Combine that with the hello adulthood. (Which I am totally okay with.) And put that all on top of everything my family life has gone through in the last five years.

It’s a lot to think about.

Done With School

August 7th, 2010

I was super pumped after graduation.  I could finally change my Twitter profile.

Okay, so this wasn’t my immediate thought upon receiving my diploma.  But it was the first time I sat on Twitter afterward.  (Which was totally a good three days later, since my sister, boyfriend, and I went road-tripping less than 24 hours after graduation.)

“Waiting to finish college. Ready for new things.”

Admittedly, I had a blast my last semester on campus.  But I’ve been itching to be officially on my own for ages.  At DePauw we’re required to live on campus, meaning every summer we’re required to move out and completely on the school’s schedule.  Before college, I hadn’t moved before in my life.  I am no fan of the temporary feeling this created for each living arrangement I’ve had for the last four years.

Frosh school year in a dorm, that summer in a duplex on campus, soph year in a dorm for first half and a house for second, apartment in Indy over the summer, house junior year, home for summer and fall, same house senior year but had to re-move everything in.

Then I opted to live at home for this summer prior to my big move.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am super glad I stuck around Indiana and specifically Fort Wayne one last time.  My high school gang was all home,  which is truly a rare occurrence.  Plus, taking the summer off allowed for some traveling and doing fun things like attending WPC and being on a panel for the SPIRIT project at Purdue.

“College finished. Moving across the country for new things.”

I about tagged this post “Life After College”.  I still might.  It just made me pause.  I made it to what I’ve been waiting for what seems like ages.  Past four years, my one goal was to have a job after graduation.

My nana, who has no short term memory, asks me every time we talk about me moving away, “How long will you be gone?”  I enjoy having no answer.  I mean, my boyfriend and I are already planning on him joining me after next summer, and I plan to stick around for the full cycle of the product I’m working on.  After that?  No clue.

It’s just nice not already planning the next move.

Losing the Love of Her Life

July 21st, 2010

My 23rd Birthday

On my 23rd birthday last month, I prepared an Italian dinner for my high school friends.

Our “weekly dinner” this summer ensures we see one another on a regular basis during possibly the last time we all reside in Fort Wayne.  I made one of my favorite dishes:  manicotti.  It’s one of those “family” recipes that you’ll often find on the back of a box.  This one we refer to as “Sheila’s Manicotti”.

For this meal however, both the tiny Scott’s near my house and the big Scott’s on Clinton had no manicotti noodles.  I had an employee check, and even he was perplexed why there was different pasta taking up manicotti’s space on the shelf.  I resorted to big shells.  Turns out, they’re much easier to fill.

It took me much longer than it should have to prepare the food. Two of my friends were distractingly vocal about their hunger, until I pointed out they could eat the French bread while they waited.  They demolished it.  Dinner was prepared with little time to spare for the friend who had to leave for a rehearsal.  Of all our dinners, this was possibly the calmest.

After dinner, the three girls chilled in my parents’ bedroom, which currently houses my recliner.  We discussed whatever.  Random dating stuff.

Eventually my dad called, and while I was on the phone, my friends quietly left.  My house felt really empty after their departure, even though my boyfriend was still there.

The day prior my family had received word that my aunt Sheila had 24-48 hours left to live.  Some time between finishing our manicotti dinner and going upstairs, Sheila had gone quietly surrounded by her three sisters and two brother-in-laws.

DePauw President Casey’s Inauguration

The day President Brian Casey was inaugurated at my university is another day I’ll remember vividly, but with much more abrupt emotion.

The whole affair was insane.  The party tent on the lawn, for special guests, had real doors!  The procession rivals commencement, if not surpasses it, since it’s for just one person.  I arrived late, so I stood in back for the ceremony.  Afterward, I was hanging with one of my professors and Ed when my mom called.

“Sheila has ALS.”

It was like getting hit by a truck.  I briskly stepped away from Ed and our prof.  It took everything I had to muster together a coherent response.  I think I asked what the next steps were.  Something to acknowledge I had received the message.  The important thing was I managed to hang up the phone before reacting.  Ed stopped mid-sentence after I hung up, came over, and wrapped me in a hug, with no clue what had happened.  I broke down.  We were in the middle of the academic quad.  There was still remnants of the large crowd.  My prof told me after I shared the news I had received that hoped she’d be better soon.  Ed’s retort explaining it’s a terminal illness calmed me.  I can handle logic, and Ed’s protectiveness was comforting.

My strong reaction was in part, easiest way for me to explain, due to selfish reasons.  ”Not again, not again, not again,” ran through my head more as a feeling than a fully formed thought.  This threw mortality in my face.  Twenty-four years prior, on another memorable day, my mother’s father also passed away due to ALS.

He Smiled Until The End

With Sheila’s diagnosis, what we feared true was confirmed.  These two cases of ALS, along with the probable case of my mother’s grandmother, were outside the 90-95% of all other cases in their classification as Familial ALS.  It’s a disease that in over fifty years has seen essentially no progress.  There has been no significant change in prognosis.  While some DNA markers have been identified, they haven’t unlocked any secrets.  Sheila did DNA testing and had no such markers.

However, the emotional ripple this disease has left in my family is strong.  This disease takes away your muscle function, but leaves your brain completely in tact.  The majority of patients die from respiratory failure.  Imagine sitting in your body completely aware and unable to make yourself breathe.  Or having your family visit you, listen to them talk, but be unable to respond.

I never met my grandfather.  He died three years before I was born.  Yet, I know how much my nana loved him.  Loves him.  Oh, the way she would every once in a while talk about some man her age attempting to hit on her.  With such disdain.  No one else was good enough.

Losing The Love Of Her Life

Choosing a charity has always been an impossibility to me.  There are just so many causes.  This year changed that for me.  There are just five cousins in this section of my family.  And my mother is fifteen years younger than her sister.  Any one of us could be the next victim.

The audio in this post were excerpts from my StoryCorps interview of my mother in which I asked her to remember her father and her recently deceased sister, Sheila Edmund.  Sheila requested contributions be made to the ALS Association, 1810 Mackenzie Drive, Columbus, OH 43220 or HomeReach Hospice, 3595 Olentangy River Road, Columbus, OH 43214-4034.