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Sam, you’re losing your audience!

A day or two ago, a friend and I were chatting. As is often the case these days, my essays came up. In particular, my friend said,

Sam, you’re losing your audience. No one understands this technical stuff. But that’s okay, you write for yourself and not your audience.

Now, I will admit that I had hoped that my audience, such as it is, would deal with this month in two ways: Most would skim the daily essays to see if there was anything comprehensible and plan to come back to the essays when I was done with this detour. I assumed that the same would happen when I wrote the profiles of Grinnellians, and I seem to have been be right; the non-Grinnellian friends who comment on my essays from time to time continue to comment on my essays from time to time.

But this friend may be right. Everyone could understand the profiles, even if they didn’t know the people, or the full context. These new essays devolve [1] into technical details fairly quickly, potentially making them a complete slog for non-technical readers [2]. And, as someone who is governed by habits to do (or not to do) many things, I understand that once folks stop reading these essays daily, they may not come back to them when the month ends.

I guess I could assess what my readership is like, and consider what percentage the technical essays will affect. After all, I seem to have a lot of technical readers [3]: current students, alumni, colleagues [4] (including two in the English department who probably qualify as technical readers), and perhaps a few hangers-on. But I also believe that many of the readers who communicate with me regularly are not technical readers. And, in spite of what I’ve said, I do care about having some readers, particularly the ones who send me comments.

I also wonder whether my technical readers are actually reading these essays. I assume (well, maybe hoped) that I’d get a few comments on whether people think the same way, or whether I’ve missed something, or whether I’m going over the top, or …. But the only comment I’ve gotten so far was about an adult kitten.

So, what to do, what to do?

It’s important for me to write the technical essays. I really would like to change the model of the course so that we have more in-class time to discuss solutions [5]. While I think there’s some significant benefit to the back-and-forth that happens, say, when we develop a simple C project, I think there’s more benefit to looking at how students approached problems when they had more time to think about them. I also hope that I can write in a way that allows engaged readers to experience some of that back and forth.

More importantly, my muse is incredibly jazzed about this project, perhaps too much so. Every day she suggests a wide variety of things to write about. Here’s a typical experience.

Oooh! Now you can follow up with an introductory essay about Make. Wait, you should discuss procedure signatures and why they are important. Don’t forget the story of showing a student valgrind [6] and fixing in five minutes a problem that they’d been debugging for two days. Oh: you’ve been been using #ifdef in your headers. It’s probably time to write more about the C preprocessor. How many essays will that be? One for constants and macros, one for control structures, one for some of the complexities of macros. And once you introduce macros, you can show them your typical debugging library and the evil hack for simulating generics! Of course, most C programmers wouldn’t use that hack; they just deal with generics with pointers. And then you could come back to how to store an integer or a pointer in the same space. But wait! This is supposed to be about C and Unix, and those are all C topics. You should write about Unix, too. Write about regular expressions, and the basics of sed, and tr (and why you want tr if you have sed), and editor wars, and that great command you showed a student last semester to edit only the files that contain a particular string, and, damn, what else do you no normally teach in the course?

I think my muse is so enthusiastic about this project that it will be difficult to get her to inspire me to write about other things, perhaps so much so that I might still write about these things were the trustees to discontinue need-blind admission [7]. Writing the technical essays also seems to take more time than writing the non-technical essays. In part, that’s because I have to write code in addition to writing text. In part, it’s because the technical essays seem to be a little longer [8]. The essays also require me to think in multiple ways, both about my writing and about programming / software development. It also looks like I may want to switch how I generate the Web pages for these essays, from using Markdown plus a few custom scripts to using Jekyll. All of that doesn’t leave a lot of time or energy for the non-technical essays.

I know, I’ll see if I can jump-start my muse to think about non-technical topics. Maybe then she’ll help me write short, non-technical bonus essays at least every other day. Let’s try.

Think of all the other things that I could write about. Don’t you hate the word relatable? When did that come into common parlance, and does anyone above the age of, say, 25 use it? [9] Remember that essay on Eskimo words for snow? You could encourage me to write an essay on how poor my essay are in comparison to that one? It’s almost the start of the semester. You could have me write about the myths of winter break and the realities, and mention Janet G’s comment on planning fallacies. Chronicle had a recent article on implicit bias; there are things I could write about that. Erik Simpson, Janet Davis, and Rachel Schnepper all keep mentioning inbox zero. I bet there’s a series of essays possible associated with that topic, starting with inbox 220K [10]. Two days ago, I organized my collection of SF hardbacks and identified two boxes worth to get rid of [11]. Doesn’t that deserve an essay?

Hmmm … that may have worked. Stay tuned. I’ll try to get a non-technical essay out at least every-other day. But, at least given the list I came up with, it looks like very few of them will be about higher ed, at least right now. We’ll see.

[1] Or maybe evolve?

[2] I hope that they don’t end up being a slog for my technical readers, particularly the students upon whom I will impose those essays in less than a month.

[3] By technical readers, I mean readers who can also understand the technical content of my computer science essays. I realize that there are other possible interpretations of that term, but you should ignore them.

[4] In the list of colleagues who are technical readers, I include two members of the English department.

[5] I suppose I could have added another hour to the course each week, which, now that I think about it, students suggested two years ago, when I last offered the class. But it’s too late for that now, and it does increase the potential workload for students.

[6] Rhymes with sinned.

[7] Okay, that’s not quite true. I think if we got rid of need-blind admissions, I’d end up writing an essay. But I’m not sure what it would be.

[8] I’m too lazy to do firm statistics yet, but it looks like the technical essays are averaging about 1300 words, and I believe the traditional essays average about 1000 words. If we ignore the introductory essays, which were all about 1000 words, it looks like the technical essays are averaging about 1500 words.

[9] My muse just noted that others have probably written similar essays, so what’s the point?

[10] I did have 220K messages in my inbox as of a few weeks ago. I’m down to about 200K, dating back to 2008. 70K of them are unread.

[11] I plan to offer those to my students, and then bring the rest to Friends of Drake Library, which I will always think of as Friends of New Drake Library, or FONDL [12].

[12] We knew that the Friends of Stewart Library were old because we were all FOSLs.

Version 1.0.1 of 2017-01-07.