May 30, 2024 5:56 PM

In Loco Parentis

Avdi Grimm sent out an email to one of his lists this week. After describing his daily domestic tasks, which are many, he segues to professional life. I am not a software consultant, but this sounded familiar:

I telepresence into my client team, who I will sit with all day. My title might as well be "mom" here as well; 20% of my contributions leverage my software development career, and the rest of the time I am a source of gentle direction, executive function, organization, and little nudges to stay on target.

There are days when the biggest contribution I make to my students' progress consist of gentle direction and little nudges that have little to do with Racket, programming languages concepts, or compilers. Often what they need most is help staying focused on a given task. Error messages can distract them to the point that they start working on a different problem, when all they really need to do is to figure out what the message means in their specific context. Or encountering an error makes them doubt that they are on the right path, and they start looking for alternative paths, which will only take them farther from a solution.

I don't sit virtually with any students all day, but I do have a few who like to camp out in my office during office hours. They find comfort in having someone there to help them make sense of the feedback they get as they work on code. My function is one part second brain for executive function and one part emotional support. My goal as educator in these encounters is to help them build up their confidence and their thinking habits to the point that they are comfortable working on their own.

I have had colleagues in the past who thought that this kind of work is outside of the role that profs should play. I think, though, that playing this role is one way that we can reach a group of students who might not otherwise succeed in CS at the university level. Almost all of them can learn the material, and eventually they can develop the confidence and thinking habits they need to succeed independently.

So, if being dad or mom for a while helps, I am up for the attempt. I'm glad to know that industry pros like Avdi also find themselves playing this role and are willing to help their clients grow in this way.

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

May 05, 2024 8:31 AM

Reading "Fahrenheit 451" in 2024

Sometimes, speculative fiction seems eerily on the mark:

Montag turned and looked at his wife, who sat in the middle of the parlor talking to an announcer, who in turn was talking to her. "Mrs. Montag," he was saying. This, that, and the other. "Mrs. Montag--" Something else and still another. The converter attachment, which had cost them one hundred dollars, automatically supplied her name whenever the announcer addressed his anonymous audience, leaving a blank where the proper syllables could be filled in. A special spot-wavex-scrambler also caused his televised image, in the area immediately about his lips, to mouth the vowels and consonants beautifully. He was a friend, no doubt of it, a good friend. "Mrs. Montag--now look right here."

"Spot-wavex-scrambler" is a great phrase. Someone should make it a product name.

That is a paragraph from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. I was not far into the book before its description of technology used to entertain — distract, occupy, sedate — the population began to seem eerily familiar. It's not what we have now, and there hasn't been anything especially AI-like in the story yet, except perhaps the sinister robot dog at the fire station. But the entertainment tech hits close to the mark. Mildred wears earbuds all the time, listening to her shows or just to white noise.

The timeline isn't perfect, either ("We've started and won two atomic wars since 2022!"), but the timing isn't all that far off. Almost everyone these days is living with a sense of disruption from the events of the last decade or so, including wars, which is in rhythm with the story. The fictional government, I presume, makes people happy by surrounding them, literally, with video and audio entertainment 24/7 — all the better not to think about what's really happening out in the world.

Reading this is eerie for me in another way. I read a lot of Ray Bradbury when I was growing up, and for a long time I thought I had read Fahrenheit 451. But then I wasn't so sure, because I couldn't bring to mind any memory around reading it, let alone any memory of the content. (The latter is common for many books I read in high school.) On my last trip to the library, I checked out a copy in order to fill either the gap in my memory or the gap in my reading.

It's a prescient book. I see why it remains a common text in high school and college lit courses. I look forward to the rest of the story.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, General, Personal