Reflections on starting my second semester

With the start of the spring semester, it’s been a a busy three weeks since my last post. This post will reflect on what’s been keeping me busy in teaching, scholarship, and service.


Teaching two newish courses this spring is at least twice as much work as teaching one newish course.

CS 167, Introduction to Programming, is very new to me. I taught intro CS for something like 12 of my 18 semesters at Grinnell, so I’m very experienced with the fundamental learning goals, content, and pedagogy. However, over the nine years at Grinnell, I collaborated with colleagues Sam Rebelsky and Jerod Weinman to evolve a curriculum based on media computation in Scheme. Much as I am convinced it’s an excellent curriculum, I decided not to import it to Whitman. (That’s a larger topic for another time.) Instead, I adopted my colleague Albert Schueller’s textbook for introductory CS in Python. I’ve never used this textbook (and I haven’t decided yet if I will use it again—again, a topic for another time). I’ve never taught intro in Python. I hadn’t even used Python significantly since the first time I taught Software Design at Grinnell in 2007.

I think I made the right choice to adopt Albert’s textbook choice for now. His previous offering of the course gave me a schedule of topics to start with. I haven’t adopted as many of his assignments as I expected; I’m less motivated by mathematical applications, and want to motivate my students with a broader range of applications. So that means I’m researching and writing new homework assignments. (EngageCSEdu has been a great resource.)

I’m also a few days behind him by now. We discussed this: He’s eager to get through the foundational material to cool applications, where I see the foundational material as the essence of the course and cool in itself, worth slowing down to spend time on. I also have a broader range of CS teaching experiences to draw on, for example, in peer instruction exercises on Boolean expressions or an impromptu demonstration of problem solving with pseudocode. On the one hand, I am finding myself looking back at my lesson plans from CSC 151 at Grinnell for inspiration. On the other hand, what I learned from Sam about improvising in the classroom is helping me a lot (it turns out I’m better at it than I thought I was!), but Albert and I aren’t able to pool our efforts as much as I hoped.

Albert and I mutually agreed to have student mentors in our intro courses. With thirty students in a closed lab, one instructor is not enough to answer all the questions and coach all the students. I learned about this position from my colleagues at Grinnell and I had planned all along to import it to Whitman—though not necessarily this semester. There’s been some back and forth between me, Albert, Dustin, and the students we recruited to get this position established.

CS 200A, Elements of Computer Systems, is less new than I feared—so far. The textbook that I chose specifies a series of bite-size programming projects, so I don’t have to write any homework assignments. The projects are extremely well constructed with suitable tools, frameworks, and grading rubrics all provided. I’ve just had to do the projects myself to prepare to coach students and grade their work. (Indeed, it’s fun to see that some particularly insightful and/or diligent students are developing better solutions than mine.) The textbook is unusual in that it is almost entirely focused on specifying the projects, with only a few pages of background in a typical chapter. This has led me to a teaching style that’s not my usual: One day a week is a background lecture, which students show up for cold (no advance reading). I introduce the background in depth based on what I learned from teaching Computer Architecture and The Digital Age at Grinnell: both the content and the pedagogy. Then students go home and read the book chapter and come to class prepared to start the corresponding project.

I could not teach this way if I hadn’t had those prior teaching experiences. Some of the material later in the course—particularly that on compilers—is new to me, and I’ll have to come up with a different approach.

In both courses, I’ve chosen to adopt some of Albert’s tools for assignment submission and grading. Google Forms are wonderful for reading responses, or “readbacks” as Albert calls them. There is an easy-to-read report that gives responses by question instead of by respondent, so it’s very easy to scan the responses 15 minutes before class and let this inform my teaching. Albert also found a script to close form submissions at a specific time, so I can set a hard deadline on submissions and expend very little effort to enforce it. I’ve also adapted his workflow for accepting programs, grading them, and returning feedback to students. The workflow is supported by a very simple web form, a collection of Perl scripts, and some Vim macros. Although it took some extra time last week to learn the workflow and get the tools set up the way I want them—and there are probably some scripts yet to write—I think it was worth it. I’m experiencing far less friction than with any other workflow I’ve ever used for grading programs. Unix tools for the win!

Beyond lesson planning, assignment preparation, and grading, I’ve had a lot more students in office hours this spring than I had last fall. I think this reflects the nature of the subject matter I’m teaching. Last fall, assignments were more prose-driven. There is better quality work and worse quality work, but it’s rare that students wrote something that was actually wrong. Both of my classes this spring involve problem solving through programming. It’s fairly obvious when you don’t know how to start. The compiler, interpreter, or simulator tells you when your code is syntactically invalid, and the test cases tell you when your algorithms are incorrect. There is still better and worse work, but there is an objective lower bar and students know when they haven’t met it. That means more students in my office seeking help. I’m spending a lot more than twice as many weekly hours on teaching this spring as I did last fall.

Oh, and I’m supervising two independent studies, one on Computer Systems Security and one on Web Development with JavaScript. Those have been surprisingly fun so far—I’m learning a lot from my students and seeing a new side of them—but it’s a two-hour chunk out of my Mondays.

On top of all that, I need to have colleagues observe my teaching for my tenure review this fall. This doesn’t take a lot of extra time, and I don’t get as stressed about being observed now as I used to, but it’s one more thing to attend to. It’s a bit awkward to have to ask colleagues to do this for me, especially colleagues I don’t know well.


The last two weeks have been a perfect storm for scholarship—almost. Several things have converged, but fortunately none has been large.

  • I’ve known since December that I needed to revise the four-page piece on Value Sensitive Design of persuasive technology I wrote way back in 2012. I put it off in favor of enjoying the holidays, vacationing, class prep, and other scholarly projects (see below). That finally came due this Monday, so I got the bulk of the work done during last week’s faculty writing hours at the COWS, and submitted it over the weekend.
  • Also in December, I learned about a CHI 2016 workshop on a topic related to my scholarship, and specifically to a book I had been wanting to read. The deadline was January 10, so I read the book and wrote my position paper during a vacation with my husband in Waikiki. (I have to keep reminding myself that the search, and not this position paper, is the reason why I got sunburned.) My position paper was accepted, with enthusiastic reviews (yay!) I submitted the final version this weekend.
  • At the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in October, I approached a young colleague about developing a panel on teaching-oriented careers, similar to several panels I’ve organized at GHC, for the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing. The proposal was due on Friday. Thankfully (and I did thank her, repeatedly!), my young colleague took the lead in recruiting the final panelist, drafting the proposal materials, and submitting the proposal package. But I still had to write my own position statement, and I contributed revisions to the abstract and proposal. (More details if the proposal is accepted.)
  • I just submitted my application for the Perry Faculty-Student Summer Research Award (or Perry Award). I might have let this drop, except that a student from my fall HCI class (hi, Emma!) read a previous blog post and approached me about the project. I’m slightly afraid of having too much on my plate this summer, but I’m excited for the opportunity to start working with Whitman students, and to work with Emma in particular. And it is always exciting to plan a new project, especially one I’ve been dreaming about for some time.
  • Last but not least, the journal article I am second author on just came back yesterday with a second revise & resubmit, this time with a 30-day window. Fortunately my co-author wants to get this done quickly, so she is taking the lead on revisions.

This is the main reason there’s been no blog post the last two weeks. I’ve had other fish to fry.

It makes me reflect on how different my scholarly life is now compared to when I was a new faculty member at Grinnell. Then, I had one major project (my dissertation), and was seeking to develop the next major project (for my pre-tenure leave proposal). Now I’m juggling many projects and I have many people relying on my work. So far, I’m keeping all the balls in the air, but at some point I’m going to have to let something drop.


With all that other stuff going on, service has been on the back burner. I’ve been going to meetings, responding to email, and dealing with the unpredictable little crises a department chair is responsible for. I’ve been corresponding with Kim Rolfe about business engagement. I went to my first Community Council meeting. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the proposal for a new Encounters theme, and talking to colleagues about it as the opportunities arise. And I’ve been enjoying the faculty lunches at the Baker Center as a way to connect with colleagues that doesn’t take away from time spent doing work with more concrete outcomes.

That said, service is about to become a significant part of my workload. The deadline for the remaining open position just passed on Sunday, and I have a pile of applications to read, with Skype and on-campus interviews in the future.

I’ve enjoyed this time to reflect on my work, but it’s time to get back to it.

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