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Notes Towards and From Day 25: The Programming Life

I. Coursekeeping
post your multi-media project (by 5 p.m. Friday) as PAGES, not POSTS
(Rebecca, Guinevere, Michelle…)
and tag its “page parent” as “Web Papers 4-Multi-media projects.”

New tricks:
Baibh on Windows Media Maker,
Melanie on Mosaic Maker…

By 5 p.m. on Sunday post your response to three of these–>
what have you noticed? learned? what questions do you have for the project-makers?
how do these projects intersect with and comment on your own?

II. Course Evals:
substitute “technological extensions” for “laboratory”

III. Sign up for Conferences

IV. Our Reading:
Ellen Ullman, “Out of Time: Reflections on the Programming Life.”

V. Our Guests:

Lisa Meeden, CS, Swarthmore College & Dianna Xu, CS, Bryn Mawr College

Lisa started w/ the “story of how she got to be here…”
She grew up in Iowa. In college, programming seemed more empowering than “just doing math” because she could “make it do things.” In grad school in computer science @ Indiana, there were 20 women among 200 students. Lisa didn’t mind it; as one of the only women, she stood out: people knew who she was, though early on, sometimes she felt as faculty didn’t think she was as good, as a woman). She was hired @ Swat right out of grad school, and enjoys it. She has definitely She felt a little pressure, “not wanting to let her gender down.”

Dianna was born in Shanghai, and lived in China for 12 years. Due to the one-child family policy, she was an only child, and “unfortunately” a girl. When she was born, her grandmother said, “The family name dies w/ you.” So her mother felt enormous pressure for her to succeed. Her father decided to raise her as a boy, and make sure that she would “do better than all the boys.” Half of the time (because of this upbringing?), Dianna doesn’t notice the “teenage boy behaviors” that dominate in computer science–maybe because she “is a boy”?

Coming to this country, she found herself in a high school club, but hated it, didn’t see the point of it; it was unstructured and messy. She went to college w/ no thought of being a computer science major. It happened completely accidentally. If something didn’t work, she wanted to know why. It was enormously satisfying to know that if something didn’t work, it was not the machine’s fault, but hers. She is a control freak, and liked being in control. She went to Smith, where there were riding stables. When she went to her first lesson, she realized that they were very big animals, and had to drop the class, and found a computer science class as an alternative. She was finally able to work w/ “something that was never wrong.” She realized how much of a control freak she was. She went to grad school @ Penn in 1997. There were 25 grad students in each of 5 years; in hers there were only 3 women. One of them left early on, the other after a master’s. Dianna ended up being “the only one.”

Most of the time, masculine behavior “gets a chuckle” out of both Lisa and Dianna. There are those guys who “just don’t do the talking”; there are others who are superdominant, and need to be quieted. Computer science can draw those with strange social skills (there was a guy who carried a samarai sword….). Programming can be very engrossing, and you need to tune out the outside world. When you are “in the flow,” it can be very compelling. The field is very self-reinforcing; if you are a genius, you are allowed to be eccentric. If you are too normal, you are not respected. If you have geek traits, you are more respectable.

This ties into the culture of assuming that all users are idiots; the first lesson you learn in programming is that users will make mistakes. “Users are losers”; there is a general contempt for the public. There was a student who said that he preferred machines to people; he could fix machines, not people; he preferred machines, because they don’t argue, the way people do (who also disagree with him).

Ruth: could you talk about deciding to teach @ Bryn Mawr, a woman’s college to teach computer science?

Dianna: you probably don’t realize what Bryn Mawr is doing for you. Smith was very good for me: the connections with professors, the academic excellence, all the freedoms. All this came clear during the two years she taught (very large classes) @ Penn. In a big school, @ least 1/2 the students are in computer science because their parents told them they have to; they are very unwilling. Here, students are here because they are interested.

Lisa had a similar history: Grinnell, then a large university, then Swarthmore. Five years ago, Swarthmore was thinking about classroom dynamics, esp. male students making females feel uncomfortable. They did a survey about comfort in computer science, science and humanities courses, and found that the more women were in the class, the more comfortable everyone felt.

Dianna’s teaching @ Penn demonstrated the same phenomena: it took weeks for the students to sort out a hierarchy and establish their place in it by asking (sophisticated sounding) questions.

Lisa had student fill out evaluations of one another, on a participation scale.

She told the story of a well-respected soccer coach, who had to show males films of themselves doing things wrong, and women films of them doing things right.

Dianna told the story of gender differences in response to a psych study, based on an “unfair test, designed to fail everyone”: women felt that it was their fault; they were inadequately prepared. Men felt that the test was badly designed. Women “feel as if they don’t know anything,” whereas men perform boredom–or show off. Men must blame everyone else, because they cannot admit that they are failures.

A lot of women have the “imposter syndrome”: the feeling that they are no good @ anything, that they don’t deserve whatever recognition they are getting. It’s an unmotivated feeling of inadequacy, a feeling that you have “cheated your way into it.” Perhaps women admit to suffering from it more than men do.

Natasha: you didn’t seem to mind the male-dominated culture. Did you feel drawn to hang out w/ them? What was the culture like?

Lisa was always a jock, who had a lot of male friends; grad school was a lot of fun.

Dianna notices the male culture, but it doesn’t bother her “as much as it should.” It is very clear to her that she “doesn’t want to be like them.” She “wants to be able to talk to other people,” unlike the socially awkward men who can’t talk to women unless they are drunk. Socially awkwardness can actually become socially endearing, though the training continues….”When you get 200 in a room, something happens: they all turn into adolescents.”

Alex felt that she would never have become a computer science major @ another school, for fear of the “alpha male culture.” Lisa asked her not to be afraid of studying @ Swarthmore or Haverford. But neither of the comp sci women profs are very “girl-y.” Is it something about Lisa and Dianna’s personalities that made them choose computer science, or @ least not to be turned off by it? Something in Dianna’s upbringing made her “refuse to be beaten by any boy.” It was never considered an option to be scared.

Lisa too is very competitive. Can women who are not flourish in computer science?

Laura asked about technology itself being masculine.

Lisa noted a different computer set-up @ Swarthmore: Linux desktop, the most uncool, low-level thing, a text interface that is so unfriendly. Is this a sorting mechanism? Intentional weeding-out?

Dianna had a similar story @ Penn: ” We can’t baby them: let’s make sure they know what they are getting into.” She sees women graduating from small liberal arts colleges as changing the field.

Anne: how have you changed the field yourself?

Lisa described a project of laying out the goals of the intro course: anyone admitted to Swarthmore should be able to be successful @ it. There was a debate about that goal, as controversial.

Dianna said that computer science field originally assumed that everyone in the intro course would be a software engineer–but need to have more versatility. “We will get there, but we are just really, really young. Math, physics had to sort out the same problems; we need more time. We may need to be patient, ’til some of the older practitioners die.” The students are changing; next year, all will have been born in the nineties; they have never been without a computer; they have been exposed to a level of technology, and don’t have the fears of earlier generations (who will not talk to a phone message machine, for example).
Questions from Kalyn
(who originally gave us the idea to “have another speaker come in“….)

Question 1:
How would you define your relationship with computers?
Is the computer an extension of yourself or do you separate yourself from the computer?

Question 2:

Would you describe your work as an obsession similar to the obsession gamers feel? If so, was your obsession something you had prior to working in your field and it developed into a job? Or would you describe your job as just “work” and completly seperate from your “real” life? Do the two ever blend together?

Lisa likes to be separate from her machines; she doesn’t want to be reachable @ all times. She likes having engrossing projects, but doesn’t need to be touching her computer @ all times. She has colleagues who do not try to have such a separation.

Dianna has been told that she is really not accessible. She knows how hackable everything is: anything that you have ever said on-line will always be there. It will be buffered and cached. She is cautious, and also doesn’t want to be reached, doesn’t want to know all the time what is going on. Most of the time, her computer (which does graphics) makes a lot of noise, generates a lot of heat, and collects a lot of dust. It is not an extension of her body. She does have moments of obsession (not limited to computer use); she becomes committed to getting something done “the way she wants it done,” and will forget to eat or sleep. The obsession is fueled by wanting to understand why something doesn’t work. (This might be different from gamers’ obsessions….)

Natasha objected to the idea that a “programmer is really like” anything, “one of those kinds of obsessed people,” someone who can’t work with others, etc.

Lisa recalled having to argue for a face-drawing assignment that was completely open-ended; the field needs to be re-designed to do all different kinds of projects. We need not to focus on stereotypical ways of doing things.

Baibh asked about the resistance to opening the field up beyond “hard-core science” people, to those who are more skilled or technically creative.

Where does the contempt come from?

2 Responses
  1. Hannah Mueller permalink
    April 25, 2009

    I was reminded of this conversation this week when watching The Daily Show. The president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president of an African nation, made a comment about how women really supported her bid for the presidency and they helped her to actually take office in a contested election. She was actually pumping her fist in the air for women, and I was waiting for the cheer from the studio audience, which is usually very willing to cheer. I was so surprised when the audience remained silent. Probably because similar praise of women always gets a huge response from a Bryn Mawr audience, it seemed very weird to me when these people seemed not even to get it.

    Two explanations come to mind. 1: The Daily Show’s audience is primarily male, and males don’t feel the need to cheer about the triumphs of the opposite gender. Or, 2: the phenomenon that Lisa and Dianna desribed in class extends from classrooms to studio audiences. I think it’s a combination of these two things: there were more men in the audience, and the women, because women are supposed to be quieter and less excitable in general, didn’t feel like they could make some noise on their own. It got me to wondering uncomfortably whether or not I would have cheered myself, even if I really believed (as I do) that such a great comment from the president, female herself, deserved some recognition.

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