Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Am I more afraid after Virginia Tech?

[I wrote this in the days immediately after the Virginia Tech shooting, but chose to sit with it a while before posting. I have backdated it to when I originally wrote it.]

The first time I felt afraid of a student, I was a graduate student
assisting in a course taught by a professor in my department. The
professor called my lab and asked me to come to his office with the
gradebook. There, I found a surly-faced student standing with his
back to the door and the professor sitting solemnly facing the door.
The student insisted that he had taken our final exam the day before,
even though we had no record of it, and was demanding a grade for the
course. The gradebook showed no grades on any assignment for the
student. The student claimed we had lost them too, and that we were
doing so deliberately. The professor offered the student an empty
room and paper on which he could write descriptions of the exam
questions from the day before. The student remarked that he'd left
his car running and couldn't do that. The professor said he could
offer no more. The student left. I felt shaken, but said nothing.
Years later, the professor told me that that incident marked the only
time he'd been afraid of what a student might do.

The second time I felt afraid of a student, I didn't know his or her
identity. All I knew was that a student was angry enough to write a
strong and sexually-explicit paragraph on my teaching evaluation. I
received this months after the course was over, but still kept an eye
over my shoulder in the parking lot every day for the next two weeks.

The third time I felt afraid of a student, I was attempting to sort
out a dispute between students attempting to work together on an
assignment. One of them seemed disconnected, overwhelmed, and afraid
yet unwilling to face it. His academic advisor confirmed that the
student's behavior was worrisome in other settings as well, and they
were attempting to work on it. I breathed a sign of relief when he
scored enough points to pass the course.

What happened at Virginia Tech is horrifying. As the details came
out, I began envisioning my own usual classroom, with no desks and too
many doors for those inside to reasonably secure. I sensed full-body
memories of interactions with students that set off a little voice in
my head: is this student okay? Perhaps being a female professor in a
male-dominated field makes me particularly sensitive to this. To be
sure, most of my students are fine people who I respect and truly
enjoy teaching. But every once in a while I hear that little voice:
this one could just be mad enough to try to hurt me.

What happened at Virginia Tech doesn't raise a new fear for this
professor: it already exists, and tremours on par with what comes from
flying frequently. I thank the Virgina Tech faculty who took the time
to report their concerns about the gunman to the authorities. I
wonder whether we have the right balance between students' privacy and
community protection, as the current one leaves little room for
universities to legally respond to such warnings. I remind myself
that, periodic warnings from the voice notwithstanding, no student has
ever attempted to harm me physically. Statistics are on my side.

I don't know what the answer is, and frankly doubt there is one. I've
lived in states across the gun permissiveness scale, and working now
in gun-controlled Massachusetts hasn't quieted the little voice,
though it may dampen the tremours. Whether the real problem lies with
me, with increasing student pressures, with societal dysfunction, or
with availability of weapons is irrelevant. What does matter is
fostering communities that take time to notice and discuss potential
problems, continuing to debate how to balance security with the range
of non-dangerous human expression, and acknowledging that lack of
control and fear are, sadly, par for the course.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Should professors decriminalize copying?

An incident this weekend got me thinking again about plagiarism. As a professor, I've always been strict on detected plagiarism incidents in my courses (failure in the course if our judicial process finds the accused guilty). As a pragmatist, I believe there must be a better way to think about and handle this issue though. I appreciate arguments, such as Jason Johnson's recent Washington Post op-ed, that originality is not always the most important, or even most appropriate, criterion for a piece of work. Students naturally need to develop skills at synthesizing and interpreting material as well, which is the standard non-ethics argument against allowing attributed copying (Cognitive Daily has more discussion on Johnson's article). The latter argument counters the former with an expectation of interpretive work on _every_ assignment though. Perhaps that is asking too much.

Courses ask students to demonstrate a variety of skills. If a student shows solid skills at synthesizing and interpreting on several assignments then submits a largely copied assignment with attributions, has the student failed to satisfy the course goals? Shown a lack of integrity? Necessarily gotten less out of the assignment than a student who made practically no progress despite hours of effort? It isn't clear what this student would be guilty of beyond making a decision about resource allocation or time management. The student may have even gained something in searching for substitute work to turn in (though the web can make this too easy) and in deciding how to allocate work efforts that week.

Perhaps professors need to stop fighting the copying and make it acceptable (with attribution) right up there on the syllabus. Reframe copying as a lesson in risk and time management, rather than a crime. Set a grading rubric that allows students to copy sometimes, but with the expectation that they can explain and defend their choice of source. Deal harshly with lack of attribution. Hopefully, more students would provide the attribution since copying would carry no penalty. The time saved in not trying to enforce originality could be used to interview students submitting attributed work to confirm that they did understand it. That in turn could teach more about the tradeoffs of copying than lecturing ever could. It might take a bit more work on the professor's part to run these periodic spot checks, but they'd be far more rewarding than trudging through judicial procedures for plagiarism cases.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Bon Voyannegut

I'll join the masses commenting on the last stanza of Kurt Vonnegut's Requiem this week. I haven't read much Vonnegut. Matter of fact, the work I most associate with him is the "wear sunscreen" commencement speech which was mistakenly attributed to him when it first went around.

So why blog on it? The last stanza of Requiem, which his NY Times obituary quoted, just hit a nerve. I think a lot about how people (of a certain means) create the environments they live and work in, how often they complain about the result, and how much they will do to avoid being conscious of their role in it. Not wanting to comment on the stanza out of context, though, I first went looking for the rest of the poem.

The stanza preceding the quoted one ends with "we know what we're doing" (see the full piece).

And then I realized that the poem really applies to a different corner of my life. I'm starting to read about the logic of human decision making and thinking about how computational artifacts can account for the more emotional components of it when encoding human judgments in logical form. So the poem spurred me to bridge different issues on my mind, which is the best I hope for from reading. What better kind of moment to blog on?

Marketing CS 101

A colleague pointed me to an essay entitled "The Death of Computing" over on the British Computer Society website (author: Neil McBride; dated: Jan 2007). The article offers several reasons for why CS enrollments will never return to their lofty heights of a few years ago. The main one (and the most compelling) is that the marketplace of students no longer finds CS necessary for creating computing technologies. Globalization and fears of low job prospects are mentioned as usual, but the overall message is on the market. The essay deride's universities' attempts to re-make the CS's image by focusing on games or fundamental connections to real-world problems to convince students that CS really is worth taking. It's an interesting read, in part for the vivid Titanic-esque imagery it uses to describe the situation.

It would be easy to respond defensively to this essay: the myth of job shortages has been debunked (thanks in parts to detailed studies such as the recent ACM report on offshoring) and everybody knows that computing has become a fundamental part of our intellectual infrastructure. But those arguments miss the point. Enrollments are about the student market, the student market is looking elsewhere, and universities are largely misinterpreting why. We talk about our "image problem" and look for the magic introductory course that will entice students to study CS. We reassure parents that the jobs aren't really gone. But what are we doing for the student who finds computing intriguing but is turned off by hours spent at a terminal building larger-scales systems? As the essay points out, technology has evolved to the point that casual system builders can achieve a lot, and without a CS degree. If academic CS hungers to rebuild its enrollments of the late 90s, it has to talk to these students. MIS programs aren't quite the right solution, because they focus on management rather than the creation of new technologies using computing. There's a fascinating open space here for us to fill (and if we don't, someone else will).

Of course, one could argue that enrollments aren't the right metric for academic CS, particularly in light of our infrastructural importance. Let's ask the physicists what they think. Like it or not, funding and academic clout are economic issues, and enrollments are a key factor. So let's embrace the challenge of thinking more broadly about what constitutes CS, damning the resource constraint issues for now. The question is thrilling. What would a computing program look like without hours of bleary-eyed coding in a lab? Do the folks emphasizing design and "computational X" have it right yet? My experience using modern computational products doubts it. Anyone else interested in this journey?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Con Liçensa (A travelogue of Portugal)

I do not travel comfortably without knowing how to stammer some basic phrases in the local language. Addressing this is usually easy: work the corresponding Pimsleur language course. For Portuguese, this process was surprisingly representative of the culture as a whole.

Getting the course was the first challenge. The most readily available is Brazilian Portuguese, which differs noticeably from European Portuguese (one of Shriram's colleagues described the relationship as analogous to having an Irishman and an Indian trying to communicate in English). Continental, or European, Portuguese only comes in a 10-lesson set (rather than the more comprehensive 30) and as comparatively harder to find than previous sets I've used. While waiting for it, I did 2 lessons of Brazilian Portuguese to get started (figuring the main change at that level would be pronunciation).

From the first word, Continental Portuguese (CP) bore little resemblance to the Brazilian (BP) . Pimsleur always starts with the phrase "excuse me", which in BP was given as "con liçensa". CP instead presented "descuple" (sounds like "deszcoop"). Pimsleur teaches by listening, not by reading. Had I seen the word, it would have made some sense. Hearing it, I was baffled. (Overall, this is the first language I've done through Pimsleur for which I believe seeing the words from the outset would have helped, rather than hindered, progress).

Lesson three started with a basic dialogue including the now-familiar "excuse me". Except they didn't use desculpe and expected an answer using a previously unintroduced form of "you" (when asking a question). Different voices were on the tapes. It was if the folks doing the first 2 lessons had wandered off without leaving course notes to the folks doing the rest. Several similar changes popped up throughout the lessons. We took it as a sign.

On the whole, being familiar with Spanish made picking up basic CP easier. The bit of language we learned suggested a competition between extremal factions as to how much to resemble Spanish: some words were the same sans pronunciation (CP reminds me of Russian in cadence and consonants), but those that differed did so dramatically. We used a mix of CP and Spanish words to communicate to others, and that worked fine. I had a very hard time understanding CP spoken to me though, even at the level of numbers.

Something's afoot in Portugal: shoe stores are ubiquitous. At least one store in every cluster, and often several on a block, featured shoes. Most of these were women's pumps in neutral colored patterns. (In contrast, finding water and chocolate bars was difficult.) When traveling, I often take stock of a place with the question "could I build a functional wardrobe here if my luggage disappeared in transit?". I first tried this on a long airport layover some years back: within the airport, a man going to a business meeting could replace his attire sans the underwear, while a woman could only attire herself for a golf tournament or funky artists convention (still sans underwear, but sporting a lovely designer handbag). The main market in Braga easily solved the underwear problem. Dozens of stands sported all varieties of undergarments (mostly for women, but socks were there for all). Other forms of casual clothing (tshirts, jeans) were also readily available, though shoes were harder to come by. The emphasis was clearly on undergarments though. Non-chain clothing stores in the cities favored bridal gowns (harder to find than shoes, but far easier than jackets and umbrellas). I have to assume that we never stumbled across where people do their normal shopping, even though the old city areas do still seem the centers of commercial activity. To be sure, I saw nobody going to work in a bridal gown and leopard-print pumps.

Does anybody know what time it is? Does anybody really care? Not a single hotel room our entire trip had a clock (even at the more upscale place we stayed during the conference portion of our trip). We asked for a bus schedule at a tourist office and were told it ran "every half hour" (repeated attempts at clarification yielded the same answer, and English was not the issue). We asked at our hotel for a local cinema schedule and got "movies run all day until midnight" (and the schedule was in the paper at the end of the counter). If people showed up at a full restaurant at lunchtime, they generally stood around and chatted contentedly while waiting. For a quick lunch, people seem to go to cafeteria-style places, at which they can down a 2-3 course meal in the time I took to eat a salad. Every establishment has a posted government-issue sign showing their opening hours, but these are often approximations, especially on the opening end. Sights, however, close very promptly a few minutes ahead of the posted time (particularly at churches). Buses and trains were remarkably on schedule given the casual view of time in the culture overall. There didn't seem to be enough connections with places outside Portugal to drive the time-orientation of transit, so perhaps the Portuguese just have a better developed sense of where time really matters.

Blessed are the spice traders, for they made sure that Portugal has at least encountered foreign foods, even if it rarely adopts them. Almost all Portuguese restaurants offer the "typical" menu with the same headings: soup, fish, and meat (fish is sometimes divided into fish and shellfish). Sign boards carry two sections: fish specials and meat specials. Salads, vegetables, pastas, and rice are generally not on offer. The lack of restaurants featuring food from other cultures was surprising. The dearth of pizzarias was astounding. As vegetarians, we assume that we can always pizza our way through a trip in the western world if necessary. Technically, this appears true in Portugal, though it can take some amount of searching to find the one pizzaria in a medium-sized town or city. Even Indian food, which influenced early Portuguese economic success, was far rarer than we'd hoped. Food gave the strongest evidence of Portugal's isolation from the rest of the world. The crowds at the vegetarian restaurants we did find illustrated that even the Portuguese are getting hungry for broader options. The veggie places (listed under "recommendations" below) were uniformly outstanding, many specializing in all-you-can-eat buffets of salads, entrees, and sides; the others generally offered a choice of one of two daily plates. (All were also quite vegan-friendly.) If you plan to visit Portugal with a mixed group of vegetarians and non-vegetarians, though, plan to swap off who gets to eat at each meal. The rare pizza or Indian restaurant offer the only reliable hope of dining together.

Dueling banjos: Coimbra was plastered with lovely concert posters showing a mandolin and suggesting two shows: one the day we arrived at a place we couldn't identify, and another the next night at a theater in town. Our hotel staff found no info on the former. Enjoying the challenge, we eventually found a plausible spot and a student who confirmed correlation with the poster. Instead of mandolins, though, we found a stage setting up for a loud rock-style concert. Blaming our language skills, we settled on going the next night. Curtain opens to a large group of students playing lively traditional music on an assortment of string instruments. Then out come two people with microphones and cue cards. We got none of the text of the 5-10 minute speech that followed, but the enumeration of place names and cheering from around the auditorium suggested that we had in fact landed at a inter-collegiate "tunna" band competition. The groups were generally quite good and the atmosphere lively. Furthermore, we got insight into student life that we couldn't have found elsewhere. Particularly noticeable was the "jumping chant": someone in the audience would shout a particular phrase, then all the students would begin jumping up and down and singing along (rather like making a bride and groom kiss by clinking glasses in the USA). We never figured it out. We did, however, finally get that the previous night's "performance" was actually the undergrad party for all of the bands participating in the event. No wonder the student we asked looked so confused when we tried to inquire whether we'd in fact found the event on the poster.

Let the music pray: Musical culture generally seemed more subdued than I'd expected. I tend to associate Iberian and Hispanic cultures with music in the streets, but we rarely encountered as much as a sidewalk performer. Personal digital music players were nonexistent. The preference for American music took the cake though. Restaurants loved Elton John. They couldn't hold a candle in the wind to the music at the university chapel in Coimbra though: in low tones as befits a chapel came the unmistakable strains of Hotel California (from the cleaner's quarters). I still haven't decided whether that or the vigorous vacuuming at two other Coimbra churches were the bigger auditory surprise.

Recommendations: we visited Braga (4 days), Amarante (1 night), Porto (2 partial days), Coimbra (3 days), and Lisbon (2 days). Amarante had a picturesque bridge, but Vila Real had more tempting squares and other areas to wander around for a couple of hours, so we would have stayed in Vila Real instead as a starting point for exploring the Duoro valley. In Lisbon, we stayed at the Insulara Residential, featuring amazingly helpful staff (and very reasonably priced for the location in the heart of the old city). The Bracara Augusta in Braga was lovely and seems exceptionally good value in the off-season.

For vegetarians: In Braga, both Anjo Verde (Large Praça Velha 21) and Gusto Superior (Praça Mouzinho de Albuquerque, 29) offer multiple entrees of the day; O Alfacinha (Rua D. Gonçalo Pereira, 75) has a single-plate of the day for lunch; Rangoli offers veg and non-veg Indian. In Lisbon, check out Terra (Rua da Palmeira, 15 near Príncipe Real), Jardim dos Sentidos (R. Mãe de Água, 3 near Praça da Alegria) or Green Pepper (Av. José Malhoa 14 B), both of which offer all you-can-eat, all-veg buffets; Everest Montanha (Calçada do Garcia 15 near Rossio) offers Tibetian/Indian food for veg and non-veg. In Coimbra, Menu Verde (R. de Olivença 9 2nd floor in the Galerias Topázio, close to the Coimbra parque train station) offers cafeteria-style veg food (closed for dinner). The Hotel Astoria (which we didn't eat at) has two veg options on the menu. In Porto, O Vegetariano (R. de Camões, 339) is another cafeteria-style all-veg spot.

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Ulurring Down-Under (a travelogue of Australia)

Before I started this blog, I posted a travelogue of my first trip to Australia on my webspace. Just archiving it here for easier access.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Dosa, Re, Me (A travelogue of India)

Before I started this blog, I posted a travelogue of my first trip to India on my webspace. Just archiving it here for easier access.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Ready for takeoff

And now my sabbatical takes me into the blogsphere. I've traveled lots of neat places while on leave this year and written notes on them (more on that in another post). A blog will be a lot easier than emailing new urls to family and friends after each trip. More importantly, though, challenging myself to look for observations to report has been an invaluable part of my sabbatical. Starting a blog should motivate me to continue pushing for observations once my wanderings are more mental than physical and the landscape less syntactically exotic.