TITLE: A Perfect Place to Cultivate an Obsession AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: October 27, 2011 6:44 PM DESC: ----- BODY:

And I urge you to please notice when you are happy,
and exclaim or murmur or think at some point,
"If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."
-- Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

I spent the entire day teaching and preparing to teach, including writing some very satisfying code. It was a way to spend a birthday. With so much attention devoted to watching my students learn, I found myself thinking consciously about my teaching and also about some learning I have been doing lately, including remembering how to write idiomatic Ruby. Many of my students really want to be able to write solid, idiomatic Scheme programs to process little languages. I see them struggle with the gap between their desire and their ability. It brought to mind something poet Mary Jo Bang said in recent interview about her long effort to become a good writer:
For a long time the desire to write and knowing how to write well remained two separate things. I recognized good writing when I saw it but I didn't know how to create it.
I do all I can to give students examples of good programs from which they can learn, and also to help them with the process of good programming. In the end, the only way to close the gap is to write a lot of code. Writing deliberately and reflectively can shorten the path. Bang sees the same in her students:
Industriousness can compensate for a lot. And industry plus imagination is a very promising combination.
Hard work is the one variable we all control while learning something new. Some of us are blessed with more natural capacity to imagine, but I think we can stretch our imaginations with practice. Some CS students think that they are learning to "engineer" software, a cold, calculating process. But imagination plays a huge role in understanding difficult problems, abstract problems. Together, industry and time eventually close the gap between desire and ability:
And I saw how, if you steadily worked at something, what you don't know gradually erodes and what you do know slowly grows and at some point you've gained a degree of mastery. What you know becomes what you are. You know photography and you are a photographer. You know writing and you are a writer.
... You know programming, and you are a programmer. Erosion and growth can be slow processes. As time passes, we sometimes find our learning accelerates, a sort of negative splits for mental exercise. We work hardest when we are passionate about what we do. It's hard for homework assigned in school to arouse passion, but many of us professors do what we can. The best way to have passion is to pick the thing you want to do. Many of my best students have had a passion for something and then found ways to focus their energies on assigned work in the interest of learning the skills and gaining the experience they need to fulfill their passion. One last passage from Bang captures perfectly for me what educators should strive to make "school":
It was the perfect place to cultivate an obsession that has lasted until the present.
As a teacher, I see a large gap between my desire to create the perfect place to cultivate an obsession and my ability to deliver. For, now the desire and the ability remain two separate things. I recognize good learning experiences when I see them, and occasionally I stumble into creating one, but I don't yet know how to create them reliably. Hard work and imagination... I'll keep at it. If this isn't nice, I don't know what is. -----