Search status; Reflections on teaching

Happy new year! I have two topics for this post: an update on our faculty search and some reflections on my first semester teaching at Whitman.

First, I’m very pleased that we have filled one of our two tenure-track positions starting in Fall 2016. John Stratton will be joining us from Colgate University, where he is wrapping up a two-year visiting position. John previously served as a visiting professor at Knox College; he earned all three of his degrees at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne. John’s research specialty is software performance optimization. He’s established a record of publishing with students, and he’ll be teaching an elective on this topic when he joins us next fall. John is an adaptable and creative teacher; he thinks both carefully and pragmatically about curriculum. I am excited to have him as a colleague. Should you have the opportunity, please welcome John to the Whitman community.

Despite our best efforts, the second position remains open. We have re-advertised the position and will read applications starting at the beginning of February. I’m enthusiastic about the opportunity to see more candidates who are just finishing their Ph.D.’s, who were not well represented in our September applicant pool. If you know anyone who is searching this year, please share our position ad.

Second, faculty activity reports are due at the end of this week. Since I’ve already shared a lot about my service this fall and some about my scholarship, I thought I’d also share my reflections on my first semester of teaching at Whitman.  This is not something I’d normally post publicly. However, some have expressed interest in the insight I have been providing into the professional life of the faculty. So, I’m willing to share—just this once.

CS 200A Human-Computer Interaction (Fall 2015, 15 students)

This is the fourth course I have offered titled “Human-Computer Interaction” (or HCI). Because of changing circumstances, each offering has been very different. I taught HCI this spring in my prior position at Grinnell College. The circumstances of the fall offering differ from the spring offering in several ways: I am new to Whitman; the course was offered as part of a brand new program; it was the only computer science course offered beyond CS 167 and 270 this fall; it was offered for 3 credits rather than 2 credits (a half-course at Grinnell).

Expanding the course to 3 credits added 50 minutes of direct instruction time each week. I retained many readings from the previous offering, but only a few assignments. Whereas the previous offering had independent, bi-weekly assignments, this fall I assembled several of the weekly assignments into a community-based team design project. I aimed to demonstrate the continuity of design, to reinforce the importance of iteration, and to increase student motivation. Working in teams allowed students to do more together than they could have individually and is a valuable learning experience in itself; I was also able to give more thorough feedback because there were fewer reports to grade. I adapted the project assignments (with permission) from courses taught by colleagues at Harvey Mudd College and UC Berkeley. Students were mostly positive about the project. One wrote: “The group projects stand out the most – while not necessarily perfect in every regard, the ability to engage in some semblance of an iterative process was informative and interesting.”

I also added one new individual assignment to introduce the design lifecycle, and an “advanced topics” assignment in which students presented and reflected on current research papers. Although I could do more to help students prepare for their presentations in future course offerings, the presentations got a positive response overall: “The reading assignments prepare students well for starting meaningful discussion in class. The student-led presentations sparked such an awesome learning experience!”

While the Mudd and Berkeley courses are lecture-based, I continued to use a “flipped classroom” style Before most classes, I required students to prepare with a reading journal assignment. While I lecture occasionally, I prefer to use a mix of pair, small group, and whole class discussion techniques, as well as peer instruction questions (with clickers), activities, and project presentations, to engage students with the material and reflect on their work. Most students found the approach effective: “I really did like the [reading journal] as a way to start thinking about the readings. I have a lot of trouble thinking of things on the spot so I liked that I could have already thought about some of the questions asked in class before class. I also really liked discussing in small groups because it was a lot less intimidating to share my ideas with a small group of people first.” “I think Professor Davis did a good job of mixing in-class discussion with the occasional lecture, and also balanced discussions between small group and full class settings. In fact, this course featured a lot of different ways of learning and sources of information.”

Teaching HCI poses two challenges I’ve wrestled with every time I’ve taught the course. First, some students see the the material as “obvious” or “common sense”. While multiple course readings argue for the non-obviousness of HCI principles and practices, I could make this a more explicit topic of discussion. Second, unlike every other CS course Whitman students have taken, this course was not focused on programming. While I made this very clear at the beginning of the course–and indeed, one student listed among lessons learned by the end of the course, “CS is more than programming”–a few students expressed a strong preference for a programming-focused course, or at least wished they had had the opportunity to build working prototypes of their designs. The Harvey Mudd course does this, but there, all students have taken a prerequisite course that includes mobile application development. I will continue to address this student expectation on the first day of class or even in the catalog description. I’ll also consider how this course fits in as Whitman’s computer science curriculum evolves.

Throughout the semester, I was concerned about the workload, particularly with adapting a series of assignments from two institutions that are very different from Whitman. Course evaluations confirmed this concern. A few students mentioned that some work was repetitive: a perennial problem with the cumulative and iterative nature of design, but compounded by assignments that, in retrospect, appear designed to help instructors retain context when grading dozens of projects at UC Berkeley. One student also pointed out the unfortunate pileup of work at the end of the semester. For the next offering, I will look harder for components that could be simplified or pared away. One student also suggested that the course should be four credits and should include more in-class studio time, something I had already been considering for the next offering.

Expanding the course to four credits would also allow me to address two unexpected but valid critiques from students: We spent too little time looking at contemporary design and at opposing or alternative viewpoints. As noted earlier, I was concerned about workload. Even though I tried to keep the reading assignments manageable, a few students still struggled to keep up, so I would hesitate to add a lot more required reading. There are several alternative strategies I might try in the next offering: for example, adding short popular press articles or blog posts to the required reading, suggesting additional readings for extra credit, or having brief, regular student presentations on current events or alternative viewpoints.

Overall, I consider the course a success. I am pleased with what students learned and accomplished. Overall, they responded well to my teaching. Out of 15 students, 13 completed course evaluations. More than half rated my “overall teaching ability in the course” as “Excellent” (6/6); the average rating was 5.1. [The average for all faculty is 5.2.] Beyond the assignments, readings, and class sessions, students cited my accessibility, fairness, and enthusiasm: “Everything was well communicated and questions were allowed at any point. I felt extremely comfortable approaching Professor Davis about anything at all. She was friendly, informative, and open to discussing all my ideas.” “I always knew exactly what Professor Davis wanted on each assignment and I felt the grading was very fair.” “Professor Davis is clearly passionate about the field and wanted everyone to learn.”

I will add something I didn’t write in my faculty activity report: Teaching at a new institution is hard, even for an experienced teacher coming from a very similar institution. I realized I had come to rely on my students knowing what to expect from me. I’d also come to rely on seeing a few familiar faces in each class—especially 200- and 300-level classes, but even intro classes. And of course, there are all the questions about academic culture that you don’t know to ask until they leap up and bite you. I felt like it took the first half of the semester to really break the ice and build trust, something I usually manage to do in the first two or three weeks. For me, it seemed like the turning point was reading mid-semester course evaluations, finding that my thoughts weren’t so far out of line with my students, and reflecting back to them what I learned. If any students are reading, I’m curious what they see as the turning point.

Some have expressed interest in learning how Whitman is different from my prior institution, Grinnell College. Whitman’s faculty activity reports are different from Grinnell’s in several ways:

  1. At Grinnell, the activity report is pretty much a bullet list to make it as fast and easy as possible. At Whitman, prose is encouraged. There is an opportunity to reflect on the past and plan for the future.
  2. At Grinnell, the activity report focuses on scholarship and service; teaching is already part of each faculty member’s record. At Whitman, activity reports address teaching, scholarship, and service.
  3. At Grinnell, activity reports are due in June. At Whitman, they are due in January. I kind of wish they were due in June, because it seems there’s never enough time during the winter break. But, it was good to have the opportunity to reflect on my first semester.
  4. Grinnell uses a commercial software-as-a-service solution for activity reports. The idea is that you can enter your information once and it is put in a database where it can be used to generate different kinds of reports at both the individual and the institutional level. Nice idea, but it’s cumbersome and inflexible. I’ve put the software’s name out of my mind. At Whitman, there is a Web form with three big text boxes for teaching, scholarship, and service, or you can email a Word document instead.
  5. At Whitman, activity reports are used for annual performance evaluations that set annual raises. At Grinnell, salary reviews are a separate process, with a more involved review, taking place once every three years. This fact probably explains the reasoning behind point (1), at least in part.

If any colleagues can tell me the history behind Whitman’s activity reports, I’d love to hear it over lunch sometime.


Tuesday marks the beginning of the spring semester. With two new course preps, about 50 students, and a search to run, it’s going to be a busy semester. I will try to post from time to time. We’ll see how it goes.



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