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C'est la Z

SIGCSE 2019 - the keynotes

It's that time of the year to write a series of blog posts about SIGCSE. I thought I'd start with one on the keynotes.

There were four keynote speakers. Marie desJardins, Gloria Townsend, Mark Guzdial, and Blair Taylor. I wasn't at the first timer's lunch where Townsend spoke so I won't talk at all about that keynote.

I'm also not going to summarize the talks. Andy Ko wrote up a terrific summary of his SIGCSE experience and did a much better job giving overviews to the keynotes than I ever could so I'll just refer you to Andy's blog post. Rather, I'm just going to talk a bit about what they left me thinking about. It might be something that's pretty tangential to the actual talk but hey, it's the direction that the speaker sent my brain to follow.

Marie des Jardin - the pinch hitter

Marie desJardins wasn't supposed to be the keynote. She was filling in for a flu ridden Freeman Hrabowski at the last minute and she did a more than admirable job.

The big line for me was her plea for us not to create "weed out" courses but rather to create "launch" courses. I think this resonated with many in the audience. It got me thinking about something that's been a concern of mine for a while. We see a lot of examples of making student's first CS experience more gentle and more varied. Probably the biggest example is APCS-P but you can also find it in many college CS0 classes. Hunter's no exception - we're now in the second year of a more varied CS0 class (although truth be told, our problem wasn't so much that our old CS0 was a gatekeeper but more that students hardly did any programming).

I started to become aware of the problem as I would hear stories of kids who did Girls Who Code programs who then dropped out of CS classes that were too hard and then later when my former students at Harvard told me that many kids "dropped like flies" in the class after CS50. I've also seen these problems at Hunter but at least here I know we're working on it. Having a more accessible entry point is terrific but not if you just set the kids up to fail one step down the line. It seems that not enough people are looking at the complete path: from first course to last and the transitions in between. This is a hidden danger. We can proudly say that diversity and enrollments are up based on those first experiences and no one's the wiser that we're killing the kids later on. We have to do better.

Mark Guzdial - the outstanding contributer

Mark was this year's winner of SIGCSE's Award for Outstanding Contribution to CS Education. A well deserved award. Mark's talk was terrific and similar to the one he gave at the Code and Beyond conference in NY which I wrote about here.

As with the previous keynote you can get a great summary if you read Andy's post linked above.

One point Mark made was that he felt that all students should learn programming but if I remember the talk correctly he didn't make a strong statement about all students learning CS. He also said that first course our CS majors take shouldn't be the same as the first course for non majors. I see where Mark's coming from I'm not sure I agree. Well, I do agree given what a first CS course for a major typically looks like versus what a never-CS major might need for life but the few CS0 for non major courses I've seen don't leave their students with enough to continue on to the CS major or a minor (which could be valuable to a HUGE swath of students) so they end up taking the CS0 for CS majors anyway. This means one more course and one more semester. More cost and more time spent. I'll say that I do agree with Mark UNLESS you can design a course that can address the needs of both parties and the truth is I think you can. We did it at Stuy. Students come back with that having been their only course and talk of its usefulness and utility and students come back having used it to launch a tech career in later high school, college, and beyond. What we built isn't perfect and is for a particular population but as proof of concept it's convinced me that a single course for both can be done

Another one of Mark's big points was taking CS into other subject areas. I love this and I love when he said (apologies if the quote's a little off) "They need things and we can build stuff" as a call to action to partner with and to develop the languages and tools needed to support a new vision of CS embedded in other subject areas.

My thoughts here are that as a community we are ignoring the realities of K12 education. Mark mentioned Bootstrap World, a sprogram both he and I like very much. It is embedded in Algebra classes and uses CS in Racket (nee Scheme) to support learning said algebra. Mark noted that Racket looks like Algebra and that's one of the reasons Bootstrap works. Another fact often left out is that algebra is frequently taught either over two years or with a double period allocated to it. It is given more time than most classes and that allows teachers to experiment a bit more with instruction. Even if we develop more tools like Bootstrap that align themselves to teaching other subjects those subject teachers might not have the time to dedicate to the new tool. Why not? That's another thing Mark indirectly mentioned. At one point he said that we might have to "take a step back" first in terms of results and quite frankly, K12 teachers sometimes can't take that chance. In addition to not wanting to give their current students a worse experience even with the promise that future classes would get a better one they have to face the specter of high stakes testing. If I'm using a new CS tool in a history class and my student's test results go down, they might have to repeat the class and the teacher could put their license in jeopardy.

In the end I loved just about everything Mark had to say but it still got me thinking about a lot and to me that's one of the hallmarks of a great talk.

Blair Taylor - the controversy

Blair Taylor gave the final keynote and this one had some controversy around it. Andy's blog post again summarizes things well.

My only take on the content is that the talk was more about Dr. Taylor's journey and less about Cyber Security (I hate it that it's now just being called "cyber") but that was fine.

What I want to talk about here is not so much the controversy over how some people took parts of Dr. Taylor's talk and the Q&A at the end but rather the fact that more and more recently I've felt that as a community we can't talk about difficult issues concerning gender, race, and the like.

I consider myself an ally to under represented and under served groups but have found myself in situations recently where unless I 100% parrot one side's extreme view I'm accused of sexism or racism at which point ANYTHING I say is treated as such. One is not allowed to see any nuance in what is a very complex topic.

At one point, the speaker made a joke. She prefaced it with something like "I'm going to tell this offensive joke" and that she could, presumably because she is a women. The joke fell flat (although I've told the story of the keynote to a few women in tech and they chuckled and said they actually kind of liked the joke). My take was that the speaker was setting the stage to maybe dive into a difficult conversation. My take was also that some members of the audience right then and there decided that the speaker was wrong about all things.

After the talk I was a bit more convinced that this was the case as I read a tweet stream explaining what happened that included the joke but none of the context for the reader to make an informed decision.

In the end, I felt that Dr. Taylor has honestly worked for under represented groups and while this might be unpopular, her pragmatism of sometimes swallowing an insult and "having a sense of humor" is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, Dr. Taylor misread the audience and that some people decided somewhere in her talk that even though she was working to empower women in her own way, it wasn't "my way" so it was wrong.

The situation was unfortunate and my big fear is that as a community we still have a long way to go before we can have these conversations and personally, as someone who considers themselves an ally of the undeserved I'm becoming more gun shy of partaking in discussions.

That's all for now.

So, that's my take on the keynotes. Much more to come on the conference in future posts.

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