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The last day of classes (Spring Term Two, 2021) (#1150)

Topics/tags: Autobiographical, Teaching, end-notable

Today is the last day of classes for Grinnell’s Spring Term Two, 2021. As usual, I’m both happy and sad to be done with classes. I’m happy because, well, it’s been a stressful term (more on that later) and it’s nice to be done. I’m sad because I enjoy teaching, because I feel that there was more I could have taught these students, and because it’s the last time I will teach some of these students. Between HCI-232 [1], which I finished on Monday, and CSC-282, which I finished today, I have a bunch of students [8] who I taught in their first CS class ad have now taught in their last CS class. I’ll miss them. It’s strange to see them go, but I’m enthusiastic to hear what happens next in their life adventures.

I’ve written before about mom’s guidance for teaching the last class of the semester. At least one colleague has now adopted that for their classes. I don’t think I have a lot more to add about the basics: Acknowledge the class is special, acknowledge the connections, remind people to say goodbye.

Why are classes ending on a Thursday, rather than a Friday? That I understand. This way, we can use Friday as a reading period, along with the weekend, before we have exams on Monday and Tuesday [9]. But why did we have 36 days this term rather than the 35 we had in the other three terms? For that, I have no answer. I may even have asked. But, well, it’s not my responsibility and it’s no longer my concern.

What happens next? I’m not giving any exams. But I have a lot of grading left for HCI-232. I’ve never been an efficient or prompt grader [10], but this term has felt particularly bad. So, well, I’ll be spending the next few days getting grades done, not least because I told my students they could re-do any work. I better get on that! My research students start on June 1, so I have to get ready for them, including figuring out how I deal with hybrid summer research. I have reviews to do [11]. I promised to do a bit more administrative work for the department [12]. My muse appears to be drinking all of the coffee I’m no longer drinking [14]; at least she’s inspiring me to write too many musings and too much in each musing [17]. So I’ll be writing. And yes, I’ll be finding things that are fun, too [49].

Whoops! As you can tell, the penultimate [50] endnote in the prior paragraph is a bit of a wormhole. Sorry. Moving on.

Or maybe you wondered what happens next on campus. As I noted, Monday and Tuesday are exam days. All work is due at midnight CDT on Tuesday. Faculty need to get approximate grades for seniors to the Registrar’s office by Wednesday [52]. Baccalaureate is Thursday, as is the Celebration of CS graduates. I need to check the time for both. I think we’re doing a gauntlet, although that has not been confirmed yet. Graduation is Friday [55]. Then they’re gone. Sad.

Then we have memorial day weekend. I think most people are taking memorial day weekend off. I’ll probably do more prep for my summer research students. And then, as I said, summer research starts on June 1 [58].

This should represent the end of teaching online or at least having online teaching as our primary modality at Grinnell.

Why do I say it should represent the end of teaching online? Because we’ll still have some students who cannot return to Grinnell in the fall for health or visa reasons. So we’ll likely have some hybrid classes in which some students are online. I’m not sure what that will be like. I hope we’ll have adequate support. Perhaps the online classes will get scheduled in the fancy new classrooms they build to support such teaching. Time for the new mantra: It’s not my responsibility.

We’ve also been encouraged to think about what we’ve learned about online teaching that might translate back to the classroom. And I’d do that in any case. What will retain from doing online? I want to project an transcription on the board, not only for accessibility but also for the amusement value. I’ll need to think of how to rearrange my screen for that. And maybe I’ll need to have a few remote microphones for my classrooms. I’ll experiment over the summer.

What about class recordings? Students tell me that those have been useful. I first recorded one of my classes in 1995 or so [59,60]. Of course, technologies and approaches have changed. Perhaps I should continue recording. But how? I suppose I could run Teams on the main computer in the room and also put my iPad somewhere in the room for a broad picture. That’s something else to experiment with this summer.

Being online was good for CSC-151 in multiple ways. One of the most important was that it allowed us to enforce the driver/navigator paradigm. One student gets half of the problems, the other student gets the other half. Whoever has the next problem drives. That will be harder to do in person since we don’t want students to log in and log out. However, we can still indicate a driver and navigator for each problem. And that information is already in the code files [61].

Oh, I also used Teams a lot. I liked helping students on Teams. I could multi-task and respond quickly. It worked well for CSC-151. It worked best of CSC-151 in Fall Term 2, but it also worked okay in Spring Term 1. I wonder how I’ll integrate Teams in the future?

I also switched to using Gradescope. That switch accompanied a host of other changes, including mastery grading. I’d like to continue using mastery grading and Gradescope. Should the CSC-151 exams remain online? That’s a question to discuss with my co-instructors [62].

What other changes did I make? Because we switched to terms, I had fewer class sessions for CSC-151 (35 or 34 instead of 42). That meant that I covered less material. But we didn’t cover all of the topics that I’d like to cover. Re-expanding the course will be an interesting challenge, but a fun one.

Teaching in terms meant that I generally had only one course at once [63,64]. That was nice; between grading, class prep, helping students, and, um, all of the administrative work associated with being department chair, I’m not sure I would have had time or energy for a second course.

What else? Oh, that’s right, I promised to tell you why this term was stressful. It wasn’t that stressful. Compared to most of my career at Grinnell, it wasn’t stressful at all. But I was teaching two different courses, each one two days per week. It seemed to require three to four hours of preparation per two-hour class period, including assignments. And even with that, I never felt as on top of things as I’d like to. As I said before, the worst part was that my brain wasn’t functioning at its normal level. It’s not that classes went poorly, or at least that they went poorly more frequently than normal. Rather, it’s that they were excellent, or that I felt that vibe of an excellent class, less frequently than normal. Oh well. My students learned. I hope they enjoyed themselves. I think that’s enough for this term.

In any case, classes are over. I’m wrapping up my grading. I’ll move on to summer research soon. I’ve warned my summer students that I’ll be pushing less hard than normal; I think that’s okay. I have two and a half weeks after summer research before classes begin again. I look forward to teaching my classes in person.

Postscript: My muse is certainly in overdrive. The musing started as a reflection on teaching. It seems to have evolved into something much more autobiographical. And she certainly wanted me to spend time writing end-notes or to give you a peek inside my thought processes. I apologize [65]. I hope you like spaghetti [70].

[1] Officially, it’s CSC-232/PSY-232/TEC-232 [2], but I refer to it as HCI-232.

[2] Hmmm. Now that the Tech Studies concentration has been discontinued [3], I wonder if I just taught the last course with a TEC designation [4].

[3] Is that the first concentration to be eliminated at Grinnell? I’m not sure. And it’s not so much eliminated as replaced.

[4] I’m pretty sure that I’m responsible for the TEC designation. When I started at Grinnell, TEC-154, The Evolution of Technology, was listed in Anthropology [5].

[5] If I recall correctly, TEC-154 was originally cross-listed between Physics and Anthropology [6]. But then Physics stopped teaching the course. Of course, all of that happened before I started at Grinnell.

[6] Can you tell that I’m enjoying chaining endnotes? [7]

[7] At the point that I wrote that, I did not anticipate the level of chaining that ended this musing ended up including. Apologies.

[8] I have twenty seniors, more or less. I’ll admit that I can’t recall exactly how many of them took CSC-151 with me, and I’m too lazy to look.

[9] Traditionally, we have Monday as a reading day and Tuesday through Friday as our exam days.

[10] My former students are likely saying, That’s an understatement.

[11] It seems like I always have reviews to do. I’ve been less good at shedding those than other responsibilities.

[12] Bad Sam!

[14] Did I mention that I’ve cut out caffeine from my life? [15]

[15] Except for the caffeine in chocolate [16].

[16] Mostly 90% or 95% dark chocolate.

[17] What does she want me to write about? Here are a few of the things.

  • I just learned that I’ve been at Grinnell about half the time that Henry Walker has been here. There’s a musing waiting about that.

  • Someone asked about the evolution of pair programming in Grinnell CS courses. There’s a musing waiting about that.

  • Someone asked me about retirement. I hadn’t thought much about retirement before this year, so I should muse about that.

  • I managed to snag a few of Henry’s books [18], and there are some things I want to write about them [33,34]. More precisely, they inspired my muse to inspire me to write about them.

  • I’ve done some new things in CSC-282 and want to write those things up as part of the never-ending but long-delayed series on thinking in C and Unix. What things? You’ll just have to wait and see.

  • One of my tasks for the department is to try to coordinate opinions on our software design class [35]; I feel like I should muse about that. Or, more precisely, my muse suggests that I should muse about that [36].

  • The other day, one of my offspring asked why I wrote own a footnote system for Markdown rather than relying on the standard one in pandoc. Particularly given what my muse has forced upon me in this musing, she suggests that that’s another good topic. She also suggests that the disjoint complexity of my endnotes [37,38] might explain some of the responses I get to my musings.

  • I’ve started writing about trying to downsize the amount of stuff I’ve accumulated. Some musings on that topic appear to be waiting in the wings, from reflections on why I accumulate to discussions of things I’ve accumulated [39]. Perhaps there will even be pictures. Oh, I suppose I have a musing to write about my family’s responses to my suggestion that I’m going to start getting rid of stuff [40,42].

  • I still need to figure out my responsibilities as Tapia Engagement Chair [45]. Musing will help me think through those.

That’s eight topics some of which fodder for multiple musings [46]. More than enough to keep me occupied [47].

[18] In both senses. Henry gave me two of the books he’s written and let me take some classic CS texts from his shelves [19,20].

[19] Bad Sam!

[20] Youngest Son was enthusiastic about getting some of them, including the Snobol4 manual and the green dragon book [21].

[21] He’s taking Compilers this term and already borrowed my purple dragon book [22].

[22] For those not in the field, there are a series of books on compilers written by a group of computer scientists [23]. The illustration on the cover of each suggests that particular tools and approaches allow one to slay the complexity of compiler construction, represented on the cover as a dragon.

The first version, Principles of Compiler Design, by Alfred V. Aho and Jeffrey D. Ullman [25] has a green dragon on the cover.

The second version, which adds Ravi Sethi as a co-author and changes the name of Compilers: Principles, Techniques, and Tools, has a red dragon on the cover, peeking through the screen of what now looks to be an ancient PC, while a knight types on a keyboard. It’s the one I used when I taught Compilers at Dartmouth back in 1993.

The third version, which adds Monica S. Lam as a co-author, has what looks like a computer-generated purple 3D dragon on the cover. It retains the title of the second version, making it both the third version and the second edition. It was released in 2006.

There has not been another since. I’m not sure there will be. Most of the work on compilers since that time has been about topics not necessarily appropriate for an undergrad textbook. Or maybe there has been work. I don’t recall what the book does about object-oriented languages or garbage collection. In any case, lots of Compilers courses still use the Purple Dragon book [32].

[23] Mostly at Stanford, I believe [24].

[24] I’m wrong. While Ullman and Lam are at Stanford, Aho is at Columbia and Sethi spent some time at Princeton. Aho and Ullman were also together at Bell Labs. You can read more on the Wikipedia pages for Aho and Ullman.

[25] The latest Turing Award winners [26], which is a source of significant controversy [28].

[26] I should mention that to my CSC-282 students [27].

[27] How’s that as a way to tie all of this back to my teaching?

[28] I refuse to get involved in that controversy, other than to suggest that I understand Ullman’s perspective and support his right to have that perspective [29,31] but also support the right of others to object.

[29] Apologies to those colleagues who signed the petition opposing the award. But I’m not sure that Ullman’s perspective is all that different than the whole BDS [30] movement, albeit with a different target. It’s just that he expresses his opinions and takes the approach as an individual, rather than as a collective.

[30] Have you ever noted how close BDS is to BDSM?

[31] I should also note that I care deeply about the Iranian students I’ve been fortunate to teach. One ranks among my favorite Grinnell students.

[32] Even though the Red Dragon book has by far the best cover.

[33] Believe it or not, but the distracting sub-musing about the dragon books is not the end of what I can write about old CS texts.

[34] Isn’t it scary that the endnote numbers jump by about thirteen within the same sentence?

[35] Don’t ask why I ended up with that task. The answer is not good.

[36] Did she volunteer me for the task just so that I’d muse about it? I’m not sure.

[37] Her endnotes?

[38] Why does the term spaghetti code come to mind?

[39] I may even do this with an offer to give things away. Can I manage that? I’m not sure.

[40] When she read the musing, Michelle said We could always build bookshelves in the attic to move the books from your office and lab. I worry about her current state of mind. The correct response is something more like You are not permitted more than ten boxes of books, and you need to get rid of at least five boxes of books from home before you bring those in.

When I told my kids about that [41], they said something like Dad, we always assumed you’d leave us all of your stuff to deal with. Don’t worry about it. I wonder if that means that there are a few dumpsters in their long-term plans.

In any case, I appreciate the underlying sentiment: We’re worried about you, and we don’t want you to stress about organizing your stuff. But I’m at a state in which I can start to think about it, so I feel like I should move forward.

[41] Well, two of my kids. But they’re a representative sample.

[42] Hah! I triumphed over my muse. There will not be a separate musing about my family’s response to my inclination to get rid of stuff. I managed to incorporate them into this one [43].

[43] Or did my muse win by getting me to write an extra musing [44] within the broader musing?

[44] Perhaps multiple extra musings. One about my family’s reactions. One on possible musing topics. One on dragons. Oooh … my muse is sneaky. Or caffeinated. Or both. Or neither.

[45] No, I am not responsible for officiating marriages.

[46] Unless those musings take the same form as this musing.

[47] Whoops! There’s one more. My muse has already had me draft a musing in response to all the students who have been asking to add CSC-151. I’ll likely post that one tomorrow (unless I decide to post two musings today) [48].

[48] I decided to wait.

[49] Musing is fun. Some reviewing is fun. Grading is not fun.

[50] When I used penultimate in class, I was surprised to discover that some of my students didn’t know the term. At least I didn’t use antepenultimate or preantepenultimate [51].

[51] Blame my younger two offspring for teaching me those. Or blame the linguists, the group who most likely came up with the terms.

[52] Done. All of my seniors are receiving an A-C grade or an S. I remember when we had to affirm All of my graduating seniors are receiving a passing grade, which can lead to an interesting situation [53].

[53] For those not versed in Sammish [54] logic: If this student fails my class, they won’t graduate. Hence, I can affirm that all graduating students will receive a passing grade, even if I assume this student will fail.

[54] The term Sammish is due to Paul Tymann.

[55] I’ve heard from some students in the class of 2020 who said, We were told that if Grinnell had an in-person graduation in 2021, we’d be invited back for that graduation. All I could say in response was, I don’t think that’s going to happen and it’s not my responsibility [56]. But I’m sad that I don’t get to hand middle offspring his diploma. Maybe we’ll find another time for their graduation.

[56] I may have also added, If you really care, complain to President Harris or Alumni Relations. Sorry, Anne and DAR [57]!

[57] Why is the Department of Development and Alumni Relations DAR rather than DDAR?

[58] More accurately, summer research can start on June 1. I believe we have a two-week window within which we can start summer research. But I prefer to start as soon as possible so as to give students (and myself) a short break at the end of summer.

[59] CS4 at Dartmouth, the largest class I’ve ever taught.

[60] And yes, the miniDV tapes are still somewhere in my lab.

[61] By putting the information into a single code file, we can easily extract the two individual files. And by we, I mean the program we wrote.

[62] We have three sections of CSC-151 scheduled for the fall. I’m the lead instructor. Our new visitor is teaching section 2. And Barbara Johnson, our long-term visitor, is teaching section 3. At least I think that’s how we arranged things.

[63] Well, one class at a time. As chair of a complicated department, I had a lot of other things on my plate.

[64] As much as I hated terms, I also found things to like about them. It’s nice to generally teach one thing at once. It’s nice that a class ends after seven weeks. If we could cut back on the workload a bit, such as by offering three-credit courses rather than four-credit courses, then maybe students could take three courses in each term. That would give them twelve different courses each year, and forty-eight over their Grinnell careers, much better than the thirty-two they have right now. Or we could move to a quarter system, like Chicago and Stanford and Dartmouth. Not bad schools to emulate. Oh well, it’s not in my control and it’s not likely to happen.

[65] Did you make it completely through this musing, including the endnotes? If so, let me know and I’ll give you partial preference for the stuff I’ll be giving away in the future, at least if I remember [66,69]. But there may be a quiz!

[66] It’s a partial preference because my offspring [67] get first preference.

[67] Aka the boys [68], the kids, my three sons, Youngest, Middle, and Eldest, Galoos, and other descriptors.

[68] Perhaps the men.

[69] Ah, memory. Such a wonderful thing. Not always one of my strengths.

[70] If only today were Wednesday.

Version 1.0 of 2021-05-20.