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C'est la Z

Proof By Authority

No,I'm not talking aboutArgument from Authority - something that very much plagues CS Education and education in general where an annointed few who may, or may not really know what they're talking about are given creedence because they've been there the longest, work for the companies with the biggest names, have the economic backing or otherwise have been given the stage.

I'm talking about Proof by Authority which I fondly remember from those silly Proof techniques lists that went around in the day. Techniques like:

Proof by IntimidationTrivial
Proof by exampleThe author solves for n - 2…
Proof by fundingHow the Bill Gates Foundation be wrong

and many many more.

Proof by authority was basically "I saw Dr. Gershon in the elevator and she said…."

What made me think og this was this Tweet by Julia Evans:

I don't know Julia personally, but we have mutual friends and I've been following her online for a while. She makes cool "zines" and interesting blog posts about a variety of tech type topics leaning towards the systems side. Her latest post on debugging is well worth a read.

What caught my eye was "I'm not sure if this advice is too obvious/basic…" It isn't. As an educator I've found that to others, what's obvious to us is not always obvious or clear to others. What I also got to thinking about was the fact that if a student follows Julia, they're, in many cases, more likely to listen to her rather than her teacher because Julia's a known and respected expert in the field and a teacher is well, just a teacher.

This further reminded me of something that happened early on in my career. I was a reasonably popular teacher but I didn't have that much of a reputation being fairly new. I would try to add real world best practices to my classes but I could tell that many of the students weren't really buying it. Mid semester, a friend came to town. He was a long time Microsoft employee. He started right after college in the late 80's and had been there ever since. He gave a guest talk in my classes.

One of the things I remember Danny saying in the class was that "Stuy wasn't special because of the teachers, but rather because of the students." He was right, but I, um "Thanks, Danny, you know, I'm a teacher and right here in the room :-)" On the other hand, in later talks he always did say to listen to what I had to say. I guess during the first talk he didn't really know what I brought to the table as a teahcer.

The other thing is that Danny talked about a number of best practices both in his talk and during Q&A. In all cases, what he said mirrored what I had been telling my students all year and none of it was planned.

Not only did the kids pay more attention to what Danny had to say than what I had previously tried to say but from that point on, they paid more attention to my asides on what is done in the "real world." I had been authenticated by a top level Microsoft engineer. Proof by Authority.

Since those early days, I've developed my own reputation. My students graduated and went on to success both in and outside of CS. They both provided the information I needed to know how best to prepare my students and also verified that I was doing it. Over time I needed outside verification less and less but was able to get and rely on outside information more and more.

When I saw Julia's tweet it made me think that having respected industry people share their thoughts on what works for them in clear concise ways is not only valuable directly but can also be of value indirectly when used wisely by teachers.

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