Sunday, March 2, 2008

The music of teaching

Between the end of classes last week and a paper deadline next week, I haven't done much outside of work lately. Last weekend though, I treated myself to a favorite spectator event: a master class in music. In a master class, music students perform for a master (usually renown) musician, who works with the student to improve the performance. The audience gets to watch the whole exchange, which lasts 30-45 minutes per student.

Music master classes thrill me on many levels. As a teacher, I envy the masters: they hear the effects of their teaching in real-time (and the difference is usually dramatic, easily noticeable even to my amateur ear). A student can play the same 30-second excerpt over and over with different voice or emphasis each time. Each time, the piece and the process become more alive. What reward must lie in such interaction. In teaching programming, writing the same code over and over in different styles is tedious; once code is written once, writing the same code again with minor variation doesn't offer insight that's worth the time or trouble.

As one interested in the structure of software systems, I'm intrigued by how the masters move students between thinking high-level and low-level, between thinking compositionally versus decompositionally. The first student played a piece with technical precision but not much emotion. The master helped her find and emphasize local melodic patterns within the overall piece. The second played with incredible emotion and intensity, but without an overarching organization to the emotion to carry the listener through the piece. The master helped him find a story across the piece and to refine his playing to draw that out. These students are experimenting with ways to interpret a finished product (the composed piece). I work more like the composer in trying to create the piece in the first place. When I'm done though, at best most people interact with a small portion of what I've created (the user-interface, not the underlying code). A computing system needs to be fairly complex to give a user a large space in which to interpret the result; music students, in contrast, can work on interpretation even from the smallest pieces. The route to exploration is much shorter for the student.

I'm reminded of the interplay between high-level and low-level thinking this weekend as I bury myself in writing a paper. I love this process: moving ideas and results over and around in search of the story and emphasis that makes an idea come alive for a reader. This part of my job gives me real-time experimentation with organization and presentation (with more chances to get it right than when I lecture). I often wonder if I would enjoy this career without the writing aspect. Coding is similar, but far less forgiving: programming is sensitive to unfinished parts in ways that writing (or music) is not.

Master music classes remind me what interactive teaching can be for both teacher and student. Can we bring that spirit into teaching computing and programming? Does it make sense to do so? I hear more and more that students reject computer science because of the long detailed hours. How do we teach to expose more of the intermediate rewards? What would a master class in computing look like? My best vision right now involves a lot of shell scripting, which could be cool but only applies to a limited range of programming tasks. What about a master class in software modeling? The right notes must be there, if we can figure out how to scale them to computing education.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

In the Interest of Time

Earlier this week, I was passing my hour-long car commute in the usual ways: flipping radio stations (all were enamored of Journey this week, challenging the usual Fleetwood Mac dominance), rehearsing my morning lecture, running down the to-do list, and mentally composing emails to send as soon as I got into my office. It was a day full of one-liner emails, the sort that I sometimes imagine capturing with a voice recorder with driving. Or better still, some microphone wired to a laptop that would prepare and send the messages automatically when I got to my office. Oh, the promise of squeezing every drop of efficiency out of the day!!

And then I asked myself what I would do with the extra time if I did have a way to dispatch my email from the car. The answer came instantly: I'd make myself more busy by taking on something else that I'd now have time to do.

How often do I wish for more time just so I wouldn't have to take the responsibility of prioritizing among all the things I find interesting? Or the responsibility of declaring something profoundly uninteresting? Perhaps I wanted the email-in-car device because it separated the interesting part (figuring out what to say) from the uninteresting (typing the darn thing). It was one of those moments when I understood that "more time" is not so much about "getting more done", but about "doing more of the right things".

For my next trick, I'll work on the device that captures these insights directly from my brain and produces the blog post. Which is the interesting part though? Having the idea or developing it? Need to make some time to think that one through ...

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Work/life balance

A number of separate incidents left me thinking a lot about work/life balance these last couple of weeks: research deadlines near the start of term had me working a lot on weekends, bouts of sleeplessness had me up at my desk before 5am for several days running, multiple students came by to talk about academic career issues, and I heard yet another discussion on the oft-heard wisdom that older people nearing the end of life are more reflective/proud/wistful/etc of encounters they had with people than with long hours spent at work. It was enough to induce frenzied angst about overwork even in my calmest moments.

Yet, it didn't, and not because I was too stressed to think about it. I'm actually bemused by how calm I've been these last 3 weeks, especially in contrast to how uncalm I was under similar workloads in the fall. When I consider working less, part of me stops and wonders "to replace it with what?" And this just after having one of those moments with a dear friend that I will recall for the rest of my life as one that truly mattered.

Driving to work after a wet snowfall earlier this month, I was struck by how blindingly beautiful the highway was surrounded by bare trees coated with strong clean snow as thick as the branches themselves. Immersed in that powerful image, I suddenly knew that what stays with me over the years are powerful emotional and sensory moments. If I aim to live a life that I won't regret in the end, amassing powerful moments like these seems critical. And some of my most vivid memories of being human and real have come from work. I have both emotional and muscular recall of certain seconds when I saw specific research problems in a new way. I can replay segments of lectures given ages ago that were on song. These remind me that I am human and alive as much as the analogous treasured moments with friends, family, or nature.

Of course, it's often far too easy to get lost in the aspects of work that won't lead to moments like this. There's a lot of seemingly pointless work even in the unfettered academic life. But this insight gives me a metric: if I'm going to spend hours at the desk, do it to work on something hard and interesting enough to create those moments of a lifetime. At that point, it's not work. It's living.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Punching lines: what prevents change?

Quote: "The barrier to change is not too little caring; it is too much complexity." -- Bill Gates, Harvard University Commencement 2007

I came across Gates' address a couple of days ago and highly recommend it. It's forceful, and this line pulled the main punch. Gates argues that many people are concerned about global issues such as economic inequity, but the problems are so complex that we don't know what to do about it. Cutting through the complexity is one of the objectives of the Gates Foundation.

I'm often moved by a problem, only to stumble in a wave of helplessness and futility that discourages me from even trying to do something. India did this to me many times; the way it commands me to react is one of the things I find most rewarding about traveling there. Educational inequality sometimes hits me the same way: leveling the academic playing field seems daunting because disadvantaged students have to get beyond the system around them that had the same education they are trying to surpass. The latter is arguably easier to solve; I'm still tossing around whether it is any less critical.

Underneath Gates' complexity theory is an assumption that people need to feel they are having an impact, or at least being useful, to participate in a problem. Measuring impact is hard, especially for a single individual facing a global-scale task. Personally, I find micro-finance appealing because it provides some metric of utility to someone; I just have to be careful not to
think too hard about all of the people I'm not helping. Cliches about butterfly wings notwithstanding, we have a hard time believing in the impact of small acts. Most people haven't been trained to think in terms of large systems, but that's what charitable giving or community service often ask us to do.

This seems an educational challenge: we have enough people with some time or money to give to causes (my sense is that there is more of this available now as the middle class grows, but I could be wildly wrong on this). What tools do we learn for understanding and participating in complex problems though? I don't recall formally learning much along these lines aside from the importance of voting. This is a deeply social question to which computing technologies could be applied. What might we do?

As a side note, the "punching lines" tag reflects a new thread I'm trying for the blog. It'll label posts that respond to a concise quote that socked me in the gut when I first read it. Not lines I understood on re-reading, but ones that made me stop reading then and there and made my mind tingle.