TITLE: But Raise Your Hand First AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 30, 2007 4:27 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Weinberg on assessing the value of a critic's comments:
Here's an excellent test to perform before listening to any critic, inside or outside: What have they written that shows they have the credentials to justify the worth of their criticism? This test excludes most high-school and college teachers of English, most of your friends, lots of editors and agents, and your mother. It also excludes your [inner] four-year-old, who's never written anything.
Computer science students should show due respect to their professors (please!), but they might take this advice to heart when deciding how deeply to take criticism of their writing -- their programs. Your goal in a course is to learn something, and the professor's job is to help you. But ultimately you are responsible for what you learn, and it's important to realize that the prof's evaluation is just one -- often very good -- source. Listen, try to decide what is most valuable, learn, and move on. You'll start to develop your own tastes and skills that are independent of your the instructors criticism. Weinberg's advice is more specific. If the critic has never written anything that justifies the worth of their criticism, then the criticism may not be all that valuable. I've written before about the relevance of a CS Ph.D. to teaching software development. Most CS professors have written a fair amount of code in their days, and some have substantial industry experience. A few continue to program whenever they can. But frankly some CS profs don't write much code in their current jobs, and a small group have never written any substantial program. As sad as it is for me to say, those are the folks whose criticism you sometimes simply have to take with a grain of salt when you are learning from them. The problem for students is that they are not ideally situated to decide whose criticism is worth acting on. Looking for evidence is a good first step. Students are also not ideally situated to evaluate the quality of the evidence, so some caution is in order. Weinberg's advice reminds me of something Brian Marick said, on a panel at the OOPSLA'05 Educators' Symposium. He suggested that no one be allowed to teach university computer science (or was it software development?) unless said person had been a significant contributor to an open-source software project. I think his motivation is similar to what Weinberg suggests, only broader. Not only should we consider someone's experience when assessing the value of that person's criticism, we should also consider the person's experience when assessing the value of what they are able to teach us. Of course, you should temper this advice as well with a little caution. Even when you don't have handy evidence, that doesn't mean the evidence doesn't exist. Even if no evidence exists, that doesn't mean you have nothing to learn from the person. The most productive learners find ways to learn whatever their circumstances. Don't close the door on a chance to learn just because of some good advice. So, I've managed to bring earlier threads together involving Brian Marick and Gerald Weinberg, with a passing reference to Elvis Costello to boot. That will have to do for closure. (It may also boost Brian's ego a bit.) -----