TITLE: Walk the Wall, Seeger
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: October 03, 2007 5:24 PM
There is a great scene toward the end of one of my favorite
An Officer and a Gentleman.
The self-centered and childlike protagonist,
has been broken down by
Drill Instructor Foley.
He is now maturing under the Foley's tough hand. The basic
training cohort is running the obstacle course for its last
time. Mayo is en route to a course record, and
his classmates are urging him on. But as his passes one
of his classmates on the course, he suddenly stops.
has been struggling with wall for the movie, and it looks
like she still isn't going to make it. But if she doesn't,
she won't graduate. Mayo sets aside his record and stands
with Seeger, cheering her and coaching her over the wall.
Ultimately, she makes it over -- barely -- and the whole
class gathers to cheer as Mayo and Seeger finish the run
together. This is one of the triumphant scenes of the film.
I thought of this scene while running mile repeats on the
track this morning. Three young women in the ROTC program
were on the track, with two helping the third run sprints.
The two ran alongside their friend, coaxing her and helping
her continue when she clearly wanted to stop. If I recall
correctly from my sister's time in ROTC, morning PT (physical
training) is a big challenge for many student candidates
and, as in An Officer and a Gentleman, they must
meet certain fitness thresholds in order to proceed with
the program -- even if they are in non-combat roles, such
It was refreshing to see that sort of teamwork, and friendship,
among students on the track.
It is great when this happens in one our classes. But when it
does, it is generally an informal process that grows among
students who were already friends when they came to class. It
is not a part of our school culture, especially in computer
Some places, it is part of the culture. A professor here
recently related a story from his time teaching in Taiwan. In
his courses there, the students in the class identified a leader,
and then they worked together to make sure that everyone in the
class succeeded. This was something that students expected of
themselves, not something the faculty required.
I have seen this sort of collectivism imposed from above by
CS professors, particularly in project courses that require
teamwork. In my experience, it rarely works well when foisted
on students. The better students resent having their grade
tied to a weaker student's, or a lazier one's. (Hey, it's all
about the grade, right?) The weaker students resent being made
someone else's burden. Maybe this is a symptom of the Rugged
Individualism that defines the West, but working collectively
is generally just not part of our culture.
And I understand how the students feel. When I found myself
in situations like this as a student, I played along, because I
did what my instructors asked me to do. And I could be helpful.
But I don't think it ever felt natural to me; it was an
Recently I found myself discussing pair programming in CS1 with
a former student who now teaches for us. He is considering
pairing students in the lab portion of his non-majors course.
Even after a decade, he remembers (fondly, I think) working
with a different student each week in my CS1 lab. But the
lab constituted only a quarter of the course grade, and the
lab exercises did not require long-term commitment to helping
the weakest members of the class succeed. Even still, I had
students express dissatisfaction at "wasting their time".
This is one of the things that I like about the agile software
methods: it promotes a culture of unity and of teamwork. Pair
programming is one practice that supports this culture, but so
are collective ownership, continuous integration, and coding
standard. Some students and programmers, including some of the
best, balk at being forced into "team". Whatever the psychological,
social, and political issues, and whatever my personal preferences
as a programmer, there seems something attractive about a team
working together to get better, both as a team and as
I wish the young women I saw this morning well. I hope they
succeed, as a team and as individuals. They can make it over