What’s next

This weekend I was at two different conferences. Both gave me a lot to think about. Coupled with a new month coming, I’m thinking a lot about continuing to move forward on a number of fronts.

In addition to the conferences, the events of the weekend, watching as people protested an unjust policy and people were denied their rights, created a real sense of urgency. I keep fighting a feeling of inefficacy, as if my actions in particular will have no impact.

Before this weekend, I was already feeling a little antsy. But then, I met up with old friends, great educators and smart people, and we shared ideas and I listened to people talk about the things they’re doing. And it made want to double my efforts.

In between sessions and talking to people, I kept scrolling through my Twitter feed because it was like watching a train wreck and like watching a train wreck, I couldn’t really do anything about it, so I just turned back to talking, sometimes about my Twitter feed and sometimes about education or life.

I left early yesterday, mostly because I couldn’t function on the five hours of sleep I’d gotten the night before but also, I was full. On the train ride back, I started thinking about how to dig in. I’ve been very reactionary the last month, just responding to things in the moment rather than taking a step back and thinking about what’s important and what I really want to do.

Taking the step back and digging in is going to be more work but I have a semi plan. It involves giving some things up and restricting some things. No TV. Less internet that’s not for a particular purpose. Might mean a shift in what happens with my free time.  I’m hoping this will give me the kick start I need to be more effective in my work, in my life, and in the larger context.

And I hope by kicking it up a notch, I’ll get a little more brave so I can take some risks. Because I think that’s what it will take to move forward. Otherwise, I’m just running in place.

The Power of Failure

MottoI usually talk about failure in the context of teaching courses where I am expliciting helping students learn from failure.   A student writes a program that doesn’t work and rather than come to their rescue, I have them struggle through the debugging process.  Trial and error is a real thing in my classes and my students talk about it frequently.

Recently, I’ve been applying the idea a little more broadly, in relation to people’s work.  I work in an environment where we’re all pretty dedicated to achieving success, where we don’t want to let each other or our students and community down.  And that means that sometimes, we step up and pick up the pieces for each other without being asked.  It’s a really nice thing to see and it does usually mean that things don’t fall through the cracks.

But occasionally, someone will be trying to support someone’s work or they’ll pick up the ball for them and the person they’re helping is still not picking up their part of the deal.  And the person helping can see the failure coming, and they want like hell to make sure the failure doesn’t happen.  And I’ve had to say to the people helping, “You’re going to have to let them fail.”

We don’t work for NASA, so failure for us is mostly an inconvenience.   The reason I suggest to people that they let their colleagues fail is that they, and their supervisors and broader community, need to see that the problem exists, that there even is a failure point.  Otherwise, it won’t ever get fixed at the source.  Saying, “The sky is falling.  The sky is falling.”  And then it doesn’t because someone else props it up makes the issue look nonexistent.  The sky is still falling, but now no one can see it.

Also, the people propping up the sky start to get frustrated that they’re propping up the sky when it’s not their job to prop up the sky.  Resentment starts to build and working relationships that were solid before start to fray.  And then, guess what, more failure starts to happen.

Failure is a powerful thing, but most people are afraid of it.  They’re afraid to fail because they’ll lose their jobs or they’ll be embarrassed or they’ll just feel incompetent.  I have a huge fear of failure, I get it.  It’s why I think about it quite a bit.

Tim Burke’s recent post on the upcoming administration reminded me of these thoughts I’d been having about failure at this micro level, and how sometimes you have to step back and just let the failure happen.  He argues we have to do this at the macro level.  Whatever happens is going to happen and some of it is probably going to be very bad, especially bad for certain pockets of people.  And it’s going to be hard not to step in and make sure the very bad doesn’t happen.

Two things we have to do, according to Tim.  One, solidify our stance and quit worrying about small differences among us.  Two, keep pointing out the failure of those in power.  Both of these are harder than they sound.  Liberals have a tendency to recognize and point out small differences and make those differences deal-breakers for working together.  And the second action is going to be exhausting.  Already on day one and day two, we’ve had to point out untruths.  And that’s just the surface.  It’s going to get more exhausting when substantial work starts to get done (or not done).  It means phone calls and demonstrations and hard work on the ground, behind the scenes, so that, as Tim says, we’ll be ready to step in when the time comes.

It actually breaks my heart a little to think that this is the way things have to go. Having felt it on the micro level, I’m struggling to gage how it will feel on the macro level.  We’re in for a world of hurt.

And so it begins

I didn’t watch the inauguration.  I was actually too busy working, but I did read a transcript of the speech.  It’s neither here nor there, really. Mostly empty rhetoric.  We’ll be awesome. I’ll fix everything.

Geeky Girl is going down to the Million Women March tomorrow.  Mr. Geeky and I are not going.  We are a tad worried, but it’s a historic event, so we’re setting that aside and assuming everything will be fine.  My boss, our head of school, gave her some much appreciated advice.  She’s prepared.

None of us knows what happens next.  We haven’t gotten very clear signals from the administration.  Oh sure, we have cabinet picks, and we have some declarations.  But Trump keeps contradicting himself and the Republicans, and well, it’s hard to know what will really stick.

In such a large and complex system, it’s hard to know where one might make inroads. Many of my younger colleagues and students think voter registration and education is key. I tend to agree.  Get more people registered to vote. Get them to vote in the off years.  2018 could be a turning point.

But I don’t count on anything now. Evidence pointed to a different outcome. It doesn’t mean I give up.  It just means I hold a skeptical view.  It actually means I try harder because there are no guarantees.  I can’t assume someone else will do it.  I may not be marching tomorrow, but there are other things I am doing and will do.  I’m kind of holding my breath right now.

What is Civil Rights Now

An attempt at a discrimination graphic.I kind of hate that this topic pretty much only comes up when MLK day rolls around.  I am (mostly) privileged enough to not have to think too hard about civil rights.  I got pulled over by the police the other day, and I didn’t get nervous at all.  I have friends and students who would be seriously worried, even if they didn’t do anything wrong.  So, it sucks that most of the time I don’t have to think about it, but I’m glad, I think, that at least once a year, many of us do pause and take stock of where we are and think about what needs to be done to make things better.

This election cycle and upcoming presidency have raised the issue of civil rights to the forefront of many people’s minds.  The rights of many have been questioned over the last few months and many are left wondering what the new administration will really do.  They’ve said, for example, that they might ban Muslims from entering this country, that they will deport Hispanic and Latino/a immigrants, that the work the current DOJ has done to investigate policing is misguided and unnecessary, and they’re looking at cutting provisions in the ACA that support women’s health.  And that’s not even touching what might happen to education and housing, both key areas where civil rights are either upheld or not.

What does it really mean to have civil rights or equal rights for all? In my mind, it’s relatively simple.  In terms of the law, everyone gets treated the same, regardless of their race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc.  That basically, they’re human first and whatever else they might identify as has nothing to do with how they can operate in the world.  Thus, in my mind, two women have the right to get married and afterwards, have the same kinds of rights any heterosexual spouses would have: right to health and survivor benefits, hospital visitation rights, and yes, right to divorce.  I have a hard time understanding why people want to deny a right to someone based on skin color, religion, and gender.  I know there’s an underlying feeling, which came out during this election cycle, that the “rights pie” is limited and if we allow, say, a black person the right to vote, then there’s what, less votes for others? Well, I know where that comes from, but when you lay it out like that, it starts to sound ridiculous.

I do get that there are people out there who hold certain beliefs (that homosexuality is evil, for example) that they feel are being trampled on, but you know, beliefs are meant to be challenged.  They’re meant to be scrutinized in the light of day, against logic and evidence.  And you may, indeed, still hold that belief, but the country doesn’t have to.  We actually have a law on the books that blacks are only three-fifths of a person, and yes that was a political thing, put in place so that southern states would have less representation, but it was also a real belief that people held (and sadly, some still do) that black people were literally less than human.  That law got repealed and while there’s a fringe of people who still hold the belief, the belief has been outlawed now.

To me, civil rights is all about examining the beliefs behind laws that make certain groups less than human.  To support the rights of a fetus above those of a woman supports the belief that life at any stage (viable or not) has the full rights of a living human.  You can still hold that belief, but the belief  is (tenuously) outlawed, giving the pregnant woman full humanity.  Any time, I think, that you put a white man next to someone other than a white man, there should be equal status for both written into the law.  Sometimes, laws have to be written to ensure that regular humans going about their regular business don’t impose their beliefs (conscious or not) about inequality.  So, we have affirmative action and voting rights laws and housing discrimination laws and employment discrimination laws.  And sometimes, we have to fight to get these kinds of laws passed or enforced or changed.  Sometimes that’s a legal fight, and sometimes, it’s a fight taken to the streets in the form of protest.  MLK day reminds us that there are still things to fight for, but it also reminds us that we live in a country where we can fight, where we are specifically constitutionally allowed to fight. It is up to all of us to continue the fight King started.

Expanding CS Career Paths

Life PhilosophyMike Zamansky is someone I’ve been following in the CS world for a while.  He has really smart things to say about CS Education.  Last week he wrote about the difference (and perceived difference in value of) a BA versus a BS in Computer Science.  I agree with him that we need to educate students more about how to follow a CS career path and what you really should be looking for in a program.

There are a lot of people out there who think that the best CS programs are not only BS programs but BS programs housed within Engineering Schools (as opposed to within Arts and Sciences).  I face this misperception all the time.  My students will shy away from pursuing CS because of this idea, or I’ll have students who insist on the engineering route when they’re interested in other areas of CS that are more in the realm of social sciences or even humanities. Very few of my students are interested in pursuing CS as a standalone thing.  They often want to pair it with another discipline like Psychology or Economics.  An engineering school isn’t necessarily going to allow a student the flexibility to do that (depends on the program, of course) and CS in Engineering is often focused on Software Engineering (or hardware-based things like robotics, etc.). As Mike says, we need to do a better job of letting people know that this is just one pathway–a viable one, but just one.

What seems to fit many of my students needs and interests are programs at small liberal arts colleges where CS is part of a larger program, and students can focus on different aspects of CS.  Or programs that focus on interdisciplinary approaches to CS, encouraging students to pair CS with another field or study CS through the lens of a particular area.  One large school that I know of that’s done this is Indiana University where CS is housed within a School of Informatics and there’s lots of cross-pollination in terms of both courses and research in a wide range of fields.

And some students may choose to make CS a minor rather than a major, and truly focus on the some other field but use their computing expertise to enhance their work in that field.  As Mike points out, going down any of these paths–BA, BS, Engineering, major, minor, etc.–can lead to success in a Computing field.  But too many of our students (and their parents) think that if they don’t go down the BS/Engineering path, they will fail.

This is somewhat related to my PISA post from earlier, the idea that the concept of what the any STEM field entails should be broadened beyond its stereotype in order to attract the widest possible interest. It’s our role is as teachers to help dispel those stereotypes, starting with college expectations.  I would say we need to dispel the notion that there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to any career.  If there’s any expectation that might be true, it’s that things will change, even careers.

PISA and Girls’ Education

Tests Don't Grow in Trees You Know...Okay, enough naval gazing.  Let’s get back to work.

A few weeks before the break, the 2015 PISA results were announced.  This is one of those assessments where the US comes out way behind other countries and everyone wrings their hands for a while.  My interest in results like these is to assess pedagogical approaches that seem to be working and, for where I am in particular right now, to examine the gender gap and think about ways we’re addressing that.

The PISA report, of course, has nothing specific to say about whether girls’ education is more effective than co-ed education, but it does have some interesting things to say about the gender gap and what seems to be causing it.  First, some data about the science gender gap.  Boys outperform girls in science by a small percentage, in fact by the smallest percentage between math and science.  Where the gap in STEM seems to be occurring is in expectations and efficacy.

On average across the OECD, a similar proportion of 15-year-old boys and girls expects to work in a science-related occupation at age 30 (25% of boys vs. 24% of girls) (Table I.3.10b). However, a different pattern is observed in the United States, where 43% of girls but only 33% of boys expect to work in a science-related occupation at age 30. This difference exists despite the fact that boys in the United States perform significantly better than girls on the PISA 2015 science assessment (Table I.2.8a). Expectations of a career in health account for the difference between genders. In the United States, only 9% of boys expect this career path but 35% of girls do so, compared to 2% of boys and 7% of girls on average across the OECD. Boys were more likely than girls to expect to become science and engineering professionals (20% of boys vs. 6% of girls) and ICT professionals (4% of boys vs. 0.5% of girls), a gap that is also observed in many other OECD countries. (“Key Findings from PISA 2015 for the United States” 24)

Some people might take that first US stat about 43% of girls expecting to work in a science-related field and feel pretty good about the gender gap, but if you continue reading, you see that the stat comes primarily from the expectation to work in a health-related field, which runs the gamut from nurse to medical researcher.  And we know how nursing (and other health-support areas) skew in terms of gender.  And then you see that only 6% of girls expect to be science or engineering professionals and that’s where the gender gap widens.

Efficacy is the measure of how confident you feel about your performance.  If asked, for example, are you good at math, what would you say?  The questions asked by PISA are more complex than that, but that’s the idea.  More often than not, boys will say they’re good at something and girls won’t.  Their actual performance skews in the opposite direction. Boys perform worse than they think they will and girls perform better  If the student is in the US, then they’re likely to be very confident that they’re good at something, but their performance is actually average, on average.

What this suggests is that if we create environments where girls will expect to enter a STEM field and we give them the confidence to do so, we might go a long way toward shrinking the gap.  Lots of other research points this idea out, including the PISA report itself:

Gender-related differences in science engagement and career expectations appear more related to disparities in what boys and girls think they are good at and is good for them, than to differences in what they actually can do.

Stereotypes about scientists and about work in science-related occupations (computer science is a “masculine” field and biology a “feminine” field; scientists achieve success due to brilliance rather than hard work; scientists are “mad”) can discourage some students from engaging further with science. In addition to challenging gender stereotypes, parents and teachers can help support students’ engagement with science by helping students become more aware of the range of career opportunities that are made available with training in science and technology (“Results in Focus”, 6).

What does this have to do with girls’ education?  What I’d suggest is that when you’re teaching girls, you’re often more keenly aware of these issues, of the way girls lower expectations for themselves and lack confidence.  Therefore, what we do at girls’ schools is work hard to support girls in raising those expectations and building their confidence in their abilities.  We can do that, I think, more effectively than we could if we were in a co-ed situation. We just have to fight internal dialogue and some external pressures.  We don’t also have to fight off the boys feeding them the same message.  We’re engaged in a single battle, not two.  I personally spend a lot of time reading research of teaching methods that are equitable and that will impact girls specifically, and I share that research with my faculty.  I shared the PISA report with the department chairs and program leaders, and someone responded, “To me, this is an argument for girls’ education.” And I agreed with them.  The report provides no hard and fast evidence, of course, but certainly, it dovetails with the approach many girls’ schools take in providing education geared toward women.

Resolutions: Process and Product

full glassesSo I laid out a lot of things I’ve been thinking about over the last week, embedded in which are goals I might set for myself.  Every year I set goals.  I’ve even been specific about them. Heck, I randomly set goals throughout the year. A couple of months ago, I started down the road of doing a 30-day challenge, which worked the first month and didn’t the second.  Goals are great, but what I really aim to do is establish some habits that I know will put me on the path to an end goal I have in mind.  I have a lot of end goals in mind. But I can’t do all the things all at once. I’ve read in many places to tackle only one thing at a time.  That’s what did me in on the 30-day challenge. I tried to tackle 2 things at once. It takes approximately 21 days to establish a habit they say, but I think that’s probably crap. In fact, reading just a couple of semi-reputable articles tells me it’s crap.  But I think a good start to establishing a habit is 21-30 days.  If you can do a thing most days for those first few weeks, you’re probably on your way.

So, one way to approach resolutions would be to pick one to start with, work on it for 30 days and then move on to the next one while maintaining the first habit. Except, I think you may have to wait until the first habit is well and truly established.  But 30 days seems like a good assessment time-frame.  In thinking about what I want to accomplish this year, two things rise to the top of my list: finances and the house.  These two things nag at me pretty constantly, and they’re two things I often feel like I have no control over.  The reality, of course, is that I do have control over them.  But now, I have an end goal for both that I think will make other things in my life possible. I’ve also already started working on both, so I think momentum is on my side. I’m going to start with process and then lay out product.


  1. Every day, check on spending and allocate money toward long-term goals (paying off debt, adding to savings).  I’m realistic enough to know that Mr. Geeky and I are never going to be the type to write down every coffee we buy and then evaluate where our money is going and make some kind of dramatic change.  But, by knowing on a daily basis, what our balances are, we can plan accordingly. We can decide to eat in or hold off on a purchase.  We did this last month to good effect.
  2. Every week, fix some financial thing that’s broken.  This sounds weird, I know.  We don’t have major things broken, but I have accounts that need to be rolled over, things need some reorganizing, and I just need to make sure things are lined up in a way that makes sense.
  3. At the end of the 30 days, make an appointment with a financial planner. This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while.  We’re at a point where our goals are complex enough that I think some expert advice would be helpful.


  1. Pay off all consumer debt.  I once had a handle on our debt, but then I quit my job and it gradually creeped back up again.  And that’s been the pattern over the last 5-7 years.  Pay it way down, watch it creep up again. It usually happens as a result of some unexpected expense–car repairs, trips to see family (for weddings, illness, semi-unplanned events that need to happen quickly).  I’m planning to be aggressive about this, because see 1 above.  When the money goes elsewhere early in the cycle, we can adjust.
  2. Have two months salary in savings.  This will take a while, likely more than a year.  Achieving #1 here will hopefully help achieve this one.


  1. Daily. Keep main living areas clean. Don’t go to bed with a mess to wake up to.  The whole family is on board with this one, and we’re being reasonable about it.  A pair of shoes by the couch is no big deal, but dirty dishes in the sink is.  Perfection is not the goal.
  2. Daily. Spend 15-30 minutes decluttering an area.  I have tried this before, and it’s hard.  What I’ve realized is that it’s not just doing the work that’s hard, it’s making the decisions about what to do with the stuff.  Thus the weekly goal below.
  3. Weekly (probably on the weekend). Take donations to Goodwill, etc.  This is where I often get hung up.  I declutter.  I create a box of giveaways, and then, I never give them away.  So this must get better.
  4. Weekly. Arrange for professional work in some area.  We have some repairs that need to be made that are beyond our DIY capabilities.  Mr. Geeky always wants to tackle things himself, and I appreciate his handiness, but frankly, it takes too long to get things done that way and then I get frustrated and well, that’s not good. There may be things we can’t afford to have done immediately, but at least we’ll know what the costs are and can plan accordingly.
  5. At the end of 30 days, consider hiring household help.  We’ve had a housecleaner in the past, but we let that go to save money.  Even if we just hired someone to come in once or twice a month, I think that would help. While we’re committed to keeping a better house, we’ve grown busier over the years and relieving some of the work if we can afford it would be useful.


  1. Have a stress-free space to live and work in.  This is my main goal in getting the house in shape.  When I come home from a long day at work, it stresses me out to be facing a giant mess that would take hours to clean up.  I want to be able to relax and feel good about the space I’m in.
  2. Have the house in shape to sell.  We have no immediate plans to move, but we’ve talked about it, and if we decide we’d like to be in a different house, I don’t want to be rushing around before we put our house on the market getting it into shape.  I’d rather do it gradually over the course of the next year.

So those are the two big goals, and my thought is to tackle these in January and February, in order.  Personally, I also want to do things like eat healthier, exercise and read more, but I’m setting those aside for now.  They’re less important and they may just fall into place as I get these other things done.  We’ll see.

Year-end thoughts: Community and Beyond

New photo added to galleryHere we are on the eve of the end of the year, 21 days away from a man we didn’t think could be president becoming president.  I have always agonized a bit over my lack of “involvement”.  I don’t quite know what it means.  But I can’t help but feel now more than ever, that I should be doing more.  One small thing I did over the holidays was to donate money in people’s honor instead of buying them presents I wasn’t sure they’d even like.  Or that they could buy themselves.  I also donated money shortly after the election and I hope to continue contributing to causes I care about and that can do good in the world.  But that doesn’t strike me as being particularly involved.  I’m sure it helps and it certainly made me feel pretty good, but it’s not getting my hands dirty.

The other day, our whole family had a heated argument about the election and why Trump won and what we can do.  It’s interesting to have two smart, but very young, kids participating in the conversation.  Both of our kids follow the news.  They often bring information to us before we’ve seen it.  Geeky Boy’s argument is that the two sides don’t talk anymore and that the way forward is to start talking to people on the other side (or on no side, which is a larger percentage) and to convince them to vote and to vote for your candidate.  Geeky Girl agrees.  Mr. Geeky countered that that won’t work.  He’s spent a year and a half arguing with the other side and hasn’t convinced anyone to change their minds.  I agree with both.  I agree with my kids that it’s important to try to engage people that you disagree with.  It’s possible to change minds, but it’s hard.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  But I also agree with Mr. Geeky that there are people on the other side who can’t be swayed.  Not only do they not respond to logic, but they often won’t even respond to an appeal to emotion or empathy.  There’s no way in.  Mr. Geeky has taken that to its logical conclusion and feels much more cynical about the next four years than my kids and I do.

But what do we do with our earnestness?  There are local politics, which I’ve been involved in before and could be involved in again.  There are state level politics, but frankly, not a lot is happening on that front. In my district, our state reps are both Democrats.  At the national level, we just re-elected our Republican Senator.  The Democrat is up in 2018, but he’s so moderate, I doubt he’ll be seriously challenged.  And my guess is the Democrats won’t run someone against him that’s to his left.  All politics is local, but the real action is happening at the national level.  Sure, I can call my senators every time I’m pissed off, but 2018 needs to be about flipping one of the houses.  Locally, the best we can do is keep our seat.  Beyond that, we need some decent candidates.

But how does a busy working woman and her family really dig in and do something? That’s the question I keep coming back to.  Here’s a thing I keep thinking about. We, neither as a family nor as individuals, belong to a community organization.  We don’t go to church and beyond church, we don’t even know what organization to belong to.  It’s honestly not that I don’t want to belong to something.  It’s just that there’s not much out there beyond religious organizations (and I live in a large city).  Rotary Club (religion infused), nope.  I played bridge in college and grad school, and once looked to find a bridge club.  There are some, but most meet in the middle of the day on weekdays.  You must be retired or unemployed to join.  There are a handful of civic organizations but they don’t seem to meet very often or have super specific goals, like working in particular park, etc.  So we’re mostly on our own, socializing with friends, but rarely interacting at a deeper level with those who might hold different views from us, something we might gain from being in an organization.

So I don’t know where we go from here, or in what way I might engage beyond my immediate family.  I do know that the Internet isn’t enough.  It’s a starting point, but it’s not the same as engaging face to face.  That, my whole family agrees on.