March 31, 2019 4:07 PM

Writing Advice to the Aspiring Kurt Vonnegut

In the fall of 1945, Kurt Vonnegut was serving out the last few months of his military commitment after returning home from Dresden. During the day, he did paperwork in the secretarial pool, and at night he wrote stories in the hopes of making a living as a writer when he left the service. One day his wife, Jane, sent four of his stories to one of those agents who used to advertise in magazines and promise to help frustrated writers get into the business. Her cover letter touted Kurt's desire, ambition, and potential.

The agent wrote back with clear-eyed advice for an aspiring professional writer:

You say you think that Kurt is a potential Chekhov. To this I fervently reply "Heaven Save Him!" This is a very revealing statement. I'm glad you made it. I hope the virus has not become so entrenched that it can't be driven out of his system. I recognize the symptoms of a widely prevailing ailment.... Read Chekhov and enjoy him, yes, and all of the other great and inspiring ones, but don't encourage Kurt, or anybody else, to try to write like them. If you want to sell in the current market, you have got to write "current literature". I warmly applaud Kurt's desire to "say something" that will have some influence, however small, that will do something to help uplift humanity. Every writer worth a hoot has ambition. But don't think that it can't be done in terms of current fiction.... So then, what it adds up to or boils down to is this: you have got to master the current technique if you want acceptance for anything, good or drivel, in the current market. The "message to humanity" is a by-product: it always has been.... If you want to make a living writing you will first of all write to entertain, to divert, to amuse. And that in itself is a noble aim.

What a generous response. I don't know if he responded this way to everyone who contacted him, or if he saw something special in Jane Vonnegut's letter. But this doesn't feel like a generic form letter.

It's easy to idealize classic works of art and the writers, poets, and playwrights who created them. We forget sometimes that they were writing for an audience in their own time, sometimes a popular one, and that most often they were using the styles and techniques that connected with the people. Shakespeare and Mozart -- and Chekhov -- made great art and pushed boundaries, but they did so in their "current market". They entertained and amused who those saw performances of their works. And that's more than just okay; it, too, is a noble aim.

I found this story early in Charles Shields's And So It Goes. Shields met Vonnegut in the last year of his life and received his blessing to write the definitive biography of his life. It's not a perfect book, but it's easy to read and contains a boatload of information. I'm not sure what I'm just now getting around to reading it.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General

March 17, 2019 10:59 AM

Are We Curious Enough About Our Students?

I ran across an old interview with Douglas Crockford recently. When asked what traits were common to the weak programmers he'd seen over his career, Crockford said:

That's an easy one: lack of curiosity. They were so satisfied with the work that they were doing was good enough (without an understanding of what 'good' was) that they didn't push themselves.

I notice a lack of curiosity in many CS students, too. It's even easier for beginners than professional programmers to be satisfied with meeting the minimal requirements of a project -- "I got the right answers!" or, much worse, "It compiles!" -- and not realize that good code can be more. Part of our goal as teachers is to help students develop higher standards and more refined taste while they are in school.

There's another sense, though, in which holding students' lack of curiosity against them is a dangerous trap for professors. In moments of weakness, I occasionally look at my students and think, "Why doesn't this excite them more? Why don't they want to write code for fun?" I've come to realize over the years that our school system doesn't always do much to help students cultivate their curiosity. But with a little patience and a little conversation, I often find that my students are curious -- just not always about the things that intrigue me.

This shouldn't be a surprise. Even at the beginning of my career as a prof, I was a different sort of person than most of my students. Now that I'm a few years older, it's almost certain that I will not be in close connection with my students and what interests them most. Why would they necessarily care about the things I care about?

Bridging this gap takes time and energy. I have to work to build relationships both with individuals and with the group of students taking my course each semester. This work requires patience, which I've learned to appreciate more and more as I've taught. We don't always have the time we need in one semester, but that's okay. One of the advantages of teaching at a smaller school is time: I can get to know students over several semesters and multiple courses. We have a chance to build relationships that enrich the students' learning experience -- and my experience as a teacher.

Trying to connect with the curiosity of many different students creates logistical challenges when designing courses, examples, and assignments, of course. I'm often drawn back to Alan Kay's paradigm, Frank Oppenheimer's Exploratorium, which Kay discussed in his Turing Award lecture. The internet is, in many ways, a programmer's exploratorium, but it's so big, so disorganized, and of such varying levels of quality... Can we create collections of demos and problems that will contain something to connect with just about every student? Many of my posts on this blog, especially in the early years, grappled with this idea. (Here are two that specifically mention the Exploratorium: Problems Are The Thing and Mathematics, Problems, and Teaching.)

Sometimes I think the real question isn't: "Why aren't students more curious?" It is: "Are we instructors curious enough about our students?"

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Software Development, Teaching and Learning

March 15, 2019 2:01 PM

Good Tools

From David Lebovitz:

The best way to repair your knives is not to damage them in the first place.

I think one can probably replace "knives" with the name of any tool and have a good piece of advice. It may even apply to software.

Over the years, like many of you, I have gone through phases in which I was enamored with productivity pr0n. I also have an interest in good pens and notebooks, though not nearly to the level of some of my friends. Lately for me, though, it has been cooking that has captured my attention. My twice-weekly adventures in the kitchen are so conspicuous among my family that now, whenever my daughters go to cool places like India and Europe, they bring me back native spices as gifts.

... which accounts for why I might be quoting a blog on knives. I've become so aware of the utility of kitchen knives, and their feel in my hand, that I'm reading about them and thinking about making a purchase or two.

Every programmer knows that a good tool can make all the difference in how we feel when we work and in the quality of what we create. That's true in the kitchen, too.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Personal

March 10, 2019 10:53 AM

Weekend Shorts

Andy Ko, in SIGCSE 2019 report:

I always have to warn my students before they attend SIGCSE that it's not a place for deep and nuanced discussions about learning, nor is it a place to get critical feedback about their ideas.
It is, however, a wonderful place to be immersed in the concerns of CS teachers and their perceptions of evidence.

I'm not sure I agree that one can't have deep, nuanced discussions about learning at SIGCSE, but it certainly is not a research conference. It is a great place to talk to and learn from people in the trenches teaching CS courses, with a strong emphasis on the early courses. I have picked up a lot of effective, creative, and inspiring ideas at SIGCSE over the years. Putting them onto sure scientific footing is part of my job when I get back.


Stephen Kell, in Some Were Meant for C (PDF), an Onward! 2017 essay:

Unless we can understand the real reasons why programmers continue to use C, we risk researchers continuing to solve a set of problems that is incomplete and/or irrelevant, while practitioners continue to use flawed tools.

For example,

... "faster safe languages" is seen as the Important Research Problem, not better integration.

... whereas Kell believes that C's superiority in the realm of integration is one of the main reasons that C remains a dominant, essential systems language.

Even with the freedom granted by tenure, academic culture tends to restrict what research gets done. One cause is a desire to publish in the best venues, which encourages work that is valued by certain communities. Another reason is that academic research tends to attract people who are interested in a certain kind of clean problem. CS isn't exactly "round, spherical chickens in a vacuum" territory, but... Language support for system integration, interop, and migration can seem like a grungier sort of work than most researchers envisioned when they went to grad school.

"Some Were Meant for C" is an elegant paper, just the sort of work, I imagine, that Richard Gabriel had when envisioned the essays track at Onward. Well worth a read.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, Software Development, Teaching and Learning