TITLE: Exuberance and Fear in the Classroom AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: November 21, 2006 5:31 PM DESC: ----- BODY: One measure of how busy I am is how much outside reading I am able to do. By that measure, this term has been busier than most. In the last few days, I've tried to catch up on some blog reading. Last month Kathy Sierra posted two short pieces that ring true as I reach the end of my first semester back in CS1 in oh so long. Her primary context is on the business place, with managers and employees and products and users. But her advice is a useful starting point in the context of an academic department, with its chair and faculty and courses and students. In Knocking the Exuberance out of Employees, Sierra reminds us how easy it is to say that we value creativity and curiosity yet create an environment that not only devalues these traits but even penalizes them. As a teacher, I say that I value creativity and curiosity in my students, but I have to attend to creating a course in which students feel free to have and express these traits. I think that I have done reasonably well this semester in not knocking the exuberance out of my students, at least in gratuitous ways. With the media computation theme, I have tried to: Earlier in my academic career, I was more prone to violating the last two of these. I know that students in our department struggle with the last of these in one course in particular, especially in the form of ticky-tack style requirements. I understand why some faculty impose rules -- they are convinced that there is a right way to do things and want their students to learn the right way sooner. Even if there is a right way, though, instructors have to walk the line between helping students learn to "do things right" while keeping them interested and motivated enough to want to get better. I also know that giving students latitude requires exercising latitude in judging how far is far enough. Without confidence in one's own ability, an instructor often feels safer within constraining rules. But will students live comfortably there, too? Often not. Sierra writes about similar issues from the user's perspective in Reducing Fear is the Killer App. Users won't feel comfortable to cozy up to your product if they are afraid -- of breaking something, of feeling stupid, of most anything. Students are in a similar frame of mind when they approach a course, and students who are just beginning college, or their major, are most at risk. They want to do well in the course. They want to enjoy their new major. They want to master tools and ideas. How can an instructor reduce fear? I can think of a few ways. I don't think that my classroom or office say "comfortable" quite in the way the dentist office or hospital do in Sierra's pictures. My office certainly looks like a place that someone works. (In the common phrase of the day, my office "looks lived in".) I've tried to rely on my textbook authors' experience by sticking to the textbook as much as my constitution allows, in an effort to take the right sort of steps and set the right sort of problems before the class. However, I'm not a "natural" teacher, at least not the kind of natural teacher who makes instant personal bonds with his students, who sets them at ease with the twinkle of an eye. My hope is that, by consciously thinking about the things Sierra writes about in these two essays, I can at least do no harm. -----