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My first Obermann seminar

Topics/tags: Autobiographical, academia, writing

One benefit of being an Obermann Fellow is that you participate in a bi-weekly seminar with the other Obermann Fellows. At each seminar, two of the Fellows present their work in progress for others to discuss. And yes, we’ve read an excerpt of that work in advance of the meeting.

This past week, we had our first Obermann Seminar. My experiences preparing for and participating in the seminar reinforce some of my concerns from my first day at the Obermann Center. In reading the first excerpt, I said to myself,

I always say that my writing is competent, but not exceptional [1]. This paper reminds me of what good academic writing can be like. And it really is good writing. The sentences are sophisticated but clear. While it is well grounded in the literature, an outsider like me can still understand it. You can tell that thought went into the sentences. Or, perhaps the author is so used to writing high-quality sentences that they come naturally. I’m not sure that I can ever write this well [2].

It’s not that I write poorly. I’m arrogant enough to say that my writing is not only generally clear, but also above the average for the papers I read in my discipline. I can’t recall the last time I’ve looked at a paper in computer science and found myself noticing the quality of the writing [3]. But this paper made me remember what really good academic writing can look like [4]. Now I want to read that Fellow’s books [5].

The other Fellow’s work was in rougher shape; they’d warned us that it was an early draft. However, as in the first work, I appreciated the clear grounding in theory and the way ideas stem from the kinds of close reading that humanists do. I find my work meaningful, but it’s much more grounded in motivation and in practice than in theory.

What do I mean that it’s grounded in motivation? Much of my work is in the field of CS education. As a computer science educator, I want to find ways to teach my students better. And, as a computer science educator, I have the moral responsibility to identify, explore, and embrace approaches to teaching that will help diversify our discipline. That is, I’m motivated by the problems at hand: helping students learn better and broadening participation.

I’m also an experimentalist at heart. While many of the approaches I take are grounded in prior work [6], I also like to explore new strategies. The digital humanities approach to introductory CS that I’m working on this semester stems from my desire to find new ways to bring people with different perspectives into the discipline [7].

My, that was a bit of a detour. Where was I? That’s right. I was finding myself impressed by the broad array of theoretical works my colleagues draw about and reflecting on the role of theory in my work. It’s not that I don’t have deeper theory to draw upon. There’s certainly a wealth of work on the value of active learning. And, whether I cite it or not, I subscribe to Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development [8]. But I’m not sure that either grounds my work in quite the same way that theory seems to ground humanists. Is that a flaw? No, it strikes me that it’s more of a disciplinary difference.

While both works were in domains quite different than those I regularly study and, as I suggested, are very different than the kind of work I do, I did my best to reflect on what I could contribute to the discussion. I noted some sections that I, as a non-specialist, found less clear. I noted some places where the writing sounded like mine [9]. Then we got to the seminar itself.

While I was not over my head in the seminar, I did realize that my contributions were likely to be much shallower than my colleagues’. Many drew on much closer readings of the excerpts than I could provide. I was also surprised at the number of comments that drew on outside sources: Did you consider this related issue or this theorist in addressing this topic? Those aren’t the kinds of comments I can contribute. I did have some suggestions that I think were helpful, but I’m not sure they reached the level of quality of my peers’ comments.

I was also struck by just how damn smart these people are. There’s a real joy in hearing deep thinkers reflect on a topic and on writing. I particularly appreciated the ways in which Teresa Magnum, the Center’s director, steered our conversations and the careful and thoughtful comments she had on each work. I consider myself particularly fortunate to be able to work with her this semester [10].

I’ve signed up to present at the seminar in about four weeks. I find myself wondering, in part, what it will be like to have my kind of work before this august group of thinkers. I won’t be presenting a traditional sort of scholarly work; I’m working on curriculum, not a book [11]. I won’t show the same level of writing. At the same time, one of the goals of the new course is to provide inroads to computing for people who would not necessarily consider studying computing. So it will be worthwhile to share my introduction. I had considered sharing the schedule of topics. However, I don’t expect that it will be meaningful to this group. Perhaps I’ll instead share selections of the first reading on markup and the corresponding assignment. I’ll make those decisions closer to the date.

[1] I have traditionally said that my writing is workmanlike. But Grammarly tells me that some of my audience may object to that term.

[2] Let me put on my growth-mindset hat for a moment. If I spent the necessary effort on my writing, I definitely could come close to writing that well. So perhaps it’s more that I’d rather spend my time working on other things.

[3] That positive quality. I do sometimes read papers, particularly while reviewing, and wonder at the infelicities.

[4] The Fellow noted that the work we saw was still a draft. I wonder what their polished work looks like?

[5] It helps that the Fellow’s most recent book appears to be on a kind of subject that I enjoy reading about.

[6] For example, we’ve used a Media Computation approach in CSC 151 because of the work of Guzdial, Erickson, and others in showing that such an approach better supports women. Similarly, I look for ways to include issues of Computing for Social Good because of the work of Goldweber and others. More broadly, I know the power of active learning approaches in supporting members of underrepresented groups.

[7] If I were a better experimentalist, I’d have more precise ways to measure that effect.

[8] I’m not sure that it’s at the front of my mind when I design an exercise or assignment, but it’s there nonetheless.

[9] That is, not up to their standards.

[10] I also consider myself fortunate to work with all of the Obermann Fellows.

[11] Well, my curriculum may end up as a textbook. That’s a separate issue.

Version 1.0 of 2018-09-07.