Step 16: Get Oriented

One of the signposts of starting a new job is the orientation, and Oxy’s orientation for new faculty was last Thursday. I was shocked to realize that I have been to at least eight orientations in the last ten years – both as a participant and as an organizer – so I thought it would be fun to do some comparing and contrasting. For reference, of the eight of the orientations, two of them are for a peer tutoring program at Northwestern (in which I played different role between the years), two of them is for the Center of Talented Youth, and four of them for teaching assistants at Michigan (where I was a participant one year and a presenter the other three).

It never occurred to me before now, but teaching orientations are probably different from orientations for most other jobs. In addition introducing new employees to the internal policies and procedures – what every orientation does – teaching orientations often have an active component, where we get feedback on some aspect of our new role. (On reflection, while a tech company orientation won’t train you to program, a service position might do role plays. This suggests a correlation with whether human interaction is required.) For Oxy, this consists of a little over an hour after lunch to workshop a draft syllabus. It turns out that this was the only training component of the entire day, which surprised me, as my previous orientations have almost reversed the amount of time spent on training versus on procedures.

In retrospect, I suspect that this has to do with how my teaching credentials have already been established at the interview stage, and I am therefore assumed to know what I am doing. I think CTY had a similarly light focus on the training as well. In contrast, for the peer tutoring and teaching assistant programs at Northwestern and Michigan, the majority of participants have never taught before, and so time must be spent providing them with the basics.

Of course, CTY and Oxy also requires more of me outside of teaching. At CTY, as a summer camp for middle school kids, I was asked to keep an eye out for the students’ wellbeing, even though I was only an academic staff and there were other dedicated residential assistants. This included making sure the students are eating well at lunch (which the academic staff oversaw, but also being aware of the interactions between students, which could ruin the entire camp experience if a negative relationship was not resolved. I was reminded of this at Oxy’s orientation as well, especially with the focus on student services – advising, Title IX, library resources, peer tutoring, and so on. Which also makes sense, since on a scale of how student-focused an institution is, Oxy would lie between CTY and (say) Michigan.

While nothing in the orientation blew my mind – a lot of it was infodumping – I did gain a perspective on setting up students expectations. A lot of the advice given to us was about making sure students understand how college works. This is true for first generation college students (ie. students who are the first in their family to attend college), who may avoid office hours to not appear clueless in front of their professors, and in general may not know the avenues of support that the college makes available to them. Even students who grew up knowing college graduates, however, may not yet have the habits to succeed in college – not just study habits, but also how to write professional emails (ie. to you). The cleverest one I heard is that students may not know they have to set aside time to think – not just to plan out a program they have to write, but to let the concepts sink in. It has never occurred to me that taking time to understand something is a learned skill, but it makes sense if students have never struggled before.

Classes start tomorrow. Orientation is over for now, but I’ll be meeting with my cohort of new faculty as the semester progress. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot in the next couple weeks – and I’m honestly looking forward to it.

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Step 16: Get Oriented

Step 15: Prepare the Ground for a New Department

My new job officially started yesterday. I moved to LA a week and a half ago, and have already had a couple meetings about the particulars of my job. For once, I am going write about actually starting a department, and the things I’ve learned and some impromptu thoughts I’ve had.

Surprisingly, not once from writing my application until now did I ask (or was I told) why Occidental wants to start a computer science department. I have my own answers as to why people should be able to study computer science – although I’m still struggling with what it really means to “major” in something – but it still should have occurred to me to ask what other people think, especially since they might have other priorities.The closest I got to such a conversation is when I was interviewing, with several conversations talking about how computer science offers a different way of thinking not found in other disciplines. While this is true and important, I’m not sure that others would consider it the first reason for having a computer science program. I should spend time asking people what they think, if only to better understand what they are expecting of me.

For now, however, the most explicit task for me is to put some structure on the current computer science minor, with the (even) longer term goal of building the base for a major. Historically, Oxy’s computer science minor was formed by grouping computing-related classes from multiple disciplines, then adding some core classes allowed gave students the background necessary. I am hypothesizing here, but I think that’s why there are a number of half-credit courses in individual languages, which serve as prerequisites for the “real” introductory course. This is an arrangement of courses that I would not have considered, although I can see how it arose – students in the individual disciplines can just take the course for the language they need, without necessarily committing to a heavier workload for the semester. The downside is that while students may come out “knowing” a language, they would be missing the skills that even casual programmers should have, both at the lower technical level (eg. debugging) to the higher conceptual level (eg. functional decomposition). Without meaning any malice, it would be like learning to play fill-in-the-blanks in a foreign language, but not necessarily getting the bigger picture of how that language works.

This is where I come in. The organization and restructuring of lower level computer courses is something I have been itching to spend time thinking about since I co-taught the introductory computer science course at Michigan. It amuses me a little to think that this experience wasn’t even in my application materials, which was due at the end of 2014, when my class was in the first four months of 2015. Regardless, seeing behind the scenes of that class gave me a lot of insight into what Michigan – or more specifically, what the lead instructor – thinks students should know. Again, I’m not trying to be disagreeable here, but thinking back on the course now, I agree with all the topics covered but don’t think we spent enough time and provided enough support for students to gain skills. Which is an interesting idea, to separate the goals of a class into things students should know at the end and things they should be able to do. There has to be literature exploring this framing…

I went off topic a little there. The short story is that starting next semester, when I will be teaching a (new) introductory computer science course, I will (in theory) be setting the foundation on which future departmental courses can be built, eventually subsuming the current organization of courses and requirements.

Which brings me to the next topic. When I first entertained the thought of starting a new department, I thought that I will get to work with a clean slate and have the freedom to do (what I believe to be) the right things. This is mostly true with the amount of leeway I have in designing my courses, but I neglected to think of how to deal with the transition, both for the college and for the students. The problems for students are obvious enough, as there will be uncertainty over which system to follow and what the requirements are. On the college side, computer science is growing in popularity and demand, to the point where there is not enough faculty to keep up. This is of course a problem that universities across the country face, but transitioning between curricula is an added challenge. Would it be okay for both the old and the new courses to be offered at the same time? If not, how should the teaching load be split? And this is not even taking into account how the new curricula needs to grow – which means needing even more faculty.

These are all college-level problems that I have no experience with, but luckily, I am not alone in this endeavor, and everyone I have talked to have been more than supportive. Neither the development of a new curricula nor the formation of a new department is a trivial task, and the latter in particular has administrative procedures that must be followed – although, I did learned that it’s possible for a discipline to “accidentally” become a department… For now, this semester will allow me to settle into the college and give time for an advisory committee to form, with whom I will be working in the future on both curricular development and more administrative responsibilities. I suspect I will have a lot to learn.

This is all very exciting, and honestly, kind of scary.

Step 15: Prepare the Ground for a New Department

Step 14: Manage Your Physical Presence

It’s interesting that, although I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to present myself to students online, presenting myself to students in person has never been much cause for concern. Even when I was a TA as an undergrad, in a course I had not taught for students who were older than me, I’ve never run into issues with authority. I had once speculated that I had become so used to teaching that even in my interactions with friends I take on a slight mentor role, but continuing with Socratic-method-like questions on things that actually interest me. The flip side, however, is also that I like to think of students as friends unless I need to otherwise.

This issue of how teachers relate to students is actually something I’ve thought a lot about, because I only recently realized that not everyone feels that they should be/are friends with who they teach. Recently I’ve talked to several friends who did have issues with authority, stemming almost directly from treating their students as friends. It has been suggested that I somehow wield authority better, that I’m more willing to put my foot down and re-establish the formal relationship – but I don’t think that’s it. If anything, I have been accused of being rude by my students, because of my heavy use of sarcasm with my friends. This at least I buy – that my students don’t know me well enough yet to distinguish between me being sincere and me being sarcastic, and therefore may take my comments the wrong way. The solution, without losing my sarcasm, is to at least warn students beforehand about this tendency

Sarcastic as I may be, this doesn’t explain why I feel students should be treated as friends. A quote that has been influential – in the sense of “this describes how I feel”, not “I should be doing this” – comes from Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism without Beliefs: “The task [of true friends] is not to make themselves indispensable, but redundant.” In context, it was about having friends whom “we can trust to refine our understanding of what it means to live”. But, even in the original passage, Batchelor describes these friends as teachers in how to live, who “invites us to interact, to challenge and be challenged.” And if that’s not what a teacher should do, I don’t know what is.

This is not to say that I don’t understand the cultural differences in boundaries between friendships and student/teacher relationships, only that I see little conflict between the two. Curiously, Math with Bad Drawings paints Oliver Sacks in the same light, that being professional and being platonically intimate are not mutually exclusive. This is explicitly against what we are told to do as doctors and teachers, but I don’t think that rule is as strict as we are led to believe.

I’m starting to sound arrogant here, so I’ll stop. But I would love to here how others navigate the student/teacher boundary, and how it’s different/the same as the one between friends.

PS. If there’s anything I worry about in terms of physical presence, it’s that I’m not sure what clothes to wear. It’s still somewhat bizarre to me that I am now officially and solely in charge of twenty students, when I don’t even know whether I should wear flip-flops – if that’s too informal – or brown dress shows – but they’re so much work. Of all the things to worry about…

Step 14: Manage Your Physical Presence

Step 13: Manage Your Social Media Presence

A while ago I wrote on my other blog why I decided to keep my social media accounts (and online presence in general) public during my job search. My starting this blog means that it didn’t have a detrimental effect – at least, it didn’t prevent me from getting a job – but I now have a couple more thoughts on the topic. There are two main things that have changed since I wrote that post a year ago: first, that I am now a professor; and second, that I am now following (and being followed by) other professors at Oxy. The simple fact that my colleagues are reading my tweets has changed my attitude a lot, mostly in the direction of avoiding vulgarity. For example, one tweet I would otherwise have published goes, “Hi, welcome to Helios Tanning Parlor. Are you looking to be sun-kissed, sun-groped, or sun-fucked today?” While I like the pun, it’s vulgarity is somewhat shocking, and does not present the image that I want (especially since I haven’t met my colleagues yet). It was surprising to me that I would bow to this consideration at all, since in the post I had explicitly named some of my tweets as sexual or offensive. I named four in particular, in order of least to most likely that I would tweet the same now:

  • Latin pop quiz! What is the plural of “vagina”? #vaginae
  • I am without sin, much as I am without unicorns. I shall cast the first stone.
  • Isn’t “want to be raped” an oxymoron?
  • Door knobs are so amusingly lacking in attributes, cf. alive, musical, creative, clever, active, funny, etc. as a door knob.

That I am reluctant to publish some of them now suggests that it’s not something specific to my sun-kissed tweet above, but that my attitude has changed. The taboo for the first two is clear – sex and religion. The third one is different if only because I’m not talking about rape as an action, but as a word with a particular definition that precludes it from being wanted (this is almost, but not exactly, the use-mention distinction). And of course, the last tweet says nothing negative about me that would make me hesitate now. I suppose that needing to project an image as a new professional is different from not wanting your image tarnished as a job applicant. Which brings me to my next issue. Most of the faculty I follow tweet mostly about their professional activities, with the occasional tweet about their non-academic interests. In comparison, I tweet in the style of non-academic “public” figures (eg. Existential Comics, Pat Rothfuss): mostly puns, wry observations, and the occasional random fact. In particular I don’t tweet about computer science at all, and I rarely write about it in my other blog either. This is not a deliberate choice, but a result of feeling that not everything I do has to be about computer science – and most of my free reading isn’t about computer science. I’m not sure if there is a point to this post, beyond wanting to discussion changes in how I use social media I’ve noticed in myself. I don’t think that the online presence of academics have to be entirely about their subject of study (or otherwise have no online presence at all), but it certainly feels a little out of place for it to be mostly unrelated to their job. I won’t go and delete the tweets from before, but I don’t intend on creating new ones in the same vein either.

Step 13: Manage Your Social Media Presence