TITLE: You Are Here → X AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: December 18, 2008 4:28 PM DESC: ----- BODY: the famous You Are Here → X picture As I type, my students are taking the final exam in my programming languages course. A couple might prefer to be reading my blog than taking an exam, but perhaps not. I always enjoyed final exams as a student. They marked the end of something and offered a challenge. My students can also rest comfortable tonight in the notion that their duties for the course are behind them, yet I still face grading the behemoth I am foisting on them right now. Even still, I am already beginning to put this course behind me, thinking back to what we've learned and ahead to what comes next for a few us, the course on programming language translation. In my mind, I keep coming back to a punch line I heard on TV the other night:
All I'm saying is, if you keep living and dying on whether or not a person changes, well... you're not gonna make it as a doctor, that's all.
This is Dr. Cox, the "sarcastic, bitter mentor" of the protagonist on the show Scrubs. I don't watch the show a lot, but I have seen this episode a few times, and it ends with a scene in which this line is the lone heartfelt moment among Cox's typical schtick. His protege is having a hard time accepting that one of his patients, who had sidestepped a cancer scare, lights up a cigarette as he leaves the hospital, fully intent on resuming a habit that may kill him. Cox wants the newbie to see that a doctor simply cannot take personally the behaviors of all his patients; all he can do is treat them and, as best he can, try to teach them how to be healthy. The rest is up to them. Students are a lot like patients. They come to us for help -- not treatment, but presumably education. My role as "doctor" is, as best I can, to teach them how to think and act like a computer scientist or programmer. But not all students have the same commitment, or motivation, or resources as the rest. It's easy to get caught up our own desire to teach, excite, and communicate and forget that not every student will leave the room inspired or changed. If a teacher lives and dies in his own mind on whether or not every student in a class "gets it" or leaves the room changed, well, he is going to have a long and painful life in the classroom. Every course will seem a failure. The news is not all that bleak, though. Some students leave the room inspired. That energy can carry me a long way. And most students leave a course changed, if only a little bit. For some, that may be all the farther it goes. But for others, that little change is a seed waiting for the right conditions to come along some time in the future. At that moment, it will bloom into something no one can predict. I guess this week I'm feeling a bit like Uncle Bob, who has been writing a lot of code lately -- hurray! -- but is disappointed in his performance. Programmers think about what it is like to program in an ideal world, just as teachers idealize what will happen in the classroom. When they get into the trenches, though, they encounter their own weaknesses and frailty. I run into that as a programmer sometimes, and as a teacher, too. Like Uncle Bob, I can recite a litany of how badly I do what I do: continually fighting the demons that say, take it easy and just lecture; they'll get it; the constant allure of not grading an assignment thus not being able to give the prompt feedback I know that some students need; do what is expedient, not what's best; it will all work out in the end. But does it? Uncle Bob closes with:
There is much I have yet to learn about writing software well. So, although after 56 years of life, and 43 years of programming, I have achieved a modicum of success, and even some glory, Chef Baglio is right. It is from that point that you really start to learn.
You start learning _here_, at this point, for whatever the current value of "this" is. As I was thinking about my final exam last week, I started to wonder what terms and concepts would be most on my students' minds as they studied. So I created a wordle:
a wordle of my class notes, 810:154 Fall 2008
This makes for an odd summary of the semester, a flashlight onto my vocabulary, and an unusual piece of art. -----