tim: A person with multicolored hair holding a sign that says "Binaries Are For Computers" with rainbow-colored letters (binaries)
A comment on [blogspot.com profile] lambdamaphone's post about obstacles to learning typed functional programming, in which I attempt to dissect the antipathy that some programmers have towards math, encumbered by as little evidence as possible. I wanted to preserve it someplace.
Rank speculation: A lot of people have traumatic experiences associated with math, because math is frequently taught in elementary school (computer science rarely is). In particular, math teachers at that level are usually poorly trained (due to the structural disincentives for people with math education to enter K-12 teaching) and/or lack enthusiasm for the subject.

Moreover, at that time in a person's schooling, it's common for a student to be shamed (publicly or privately) and told they're "not good at math". Because socially, math isn't considered a necessary skill (unlike reading), it's easy for a student to deal with this kind of treatment through avoidance rather than mastery. This is completely understandable for a child who has never been told why math is worth doing and has only been taught that it's a tool that will be used to humiliate them and demonstrate their inadequacy, by the way.

So when many adults -- even adults who have enough analytical reasoning ability to be programmers -- hear the word "math", they think back to those experiences, to the time when they were told "you're no good at this", and they freeze up, or else feel the need to prove why math is some useless ivory-tower theory garbage, because of their own feelings of insecurity to do with the disservice that their school system did them.

This is rank speculation because I didn't go to school until college, but I did tutor high school dropouts for a brief period of time, and over and over I'd run into a student who kept saying "I'm not good at math" even though I was there to help them be better at it.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This is the last part in a 4-part series on impostor syndrome. (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3)

Conclusions

At this point, I know someone will ask: "what could computer science departments do differently?" Well, more involved advising and mentoring would be a great start! That is, it isn't enough for an advisor to just say "come by if there's anything you need", because if you have impostor syndrome, you may not know what you need and you certainly won't want to admit that you need help. What if departments expected advisors to be ready to support all grad students, not just the ones who look exactly like themselves? This isn't to say that every faculty member can or should try to be an expert on every identity, but knowing what they do and don't know would be a start. Any outright acknowledgment of impostor syndrome would be a great start too. At Berkeley, there was nobody who stood up and said that most of the time when people look like they know what they're doing, they don't. I'm not sure I would have believed it even if they'd said it. Oh, sure, other people might be fumbling, but not as fumbling as me. We did have a required class on teaching techniques at Berkeley, since all grad students were required to TA for at least one semester -- in my head, I called the class "Geek Support Group", but it was actually really helpful because it was one time during the day when we got to put aside the pretense that we were all rational beings made of pure logic. So maybe a required class on how to be a grad student would have been helpful (required because I suspect the very people who needed it the most would have brushed it off if it was optional.)

Encouraging socialization in a way that includes everyone would also be helpful. Of course, most departments already have social events. In my department at Berkeley, when I was there, the CS grad students' group organized a weekly reception. However, faculty members rarely attended; the professor who I saw there most frequently seemed to stay just long enough to snag some free food. I was part of the CS grad students' group at Portland State, and over time, students stopped attending our events, even when we offered free food; it's not clear why. In contrast, in my ex-partner's department at Berkeley -- mathematics -- the department had a tea/coffee hour every afternoon, which a department assistant organized (the job wasn't pushed onto students) and was very well-attended by both students and faculty. Just having social events is not a be-all and end-all, since some students won't feel comfortable in large groups and some people always get left out, but it's a start. Of course, offering free food can help, and provides an excuse to go for someone who is reluctant to socialize.

Read more... )

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This is the third post in a 4-part series about impostor syndrome (Part 1, Part 2). Check back tomorrow for the conclusion!

Self-Deportation

When a department admits students from "minority groups" but doesn't do anything to address impostor syndrome, how different is that from categorically rejecting everyone who isn't a het cis able-bodied white man from an middle- to upper-class background? This way, the administration gets to boost their diversity numbers and gets plausible deniability when those students (as it were) "self-deport". "We tried to admit women and students of color, but they just didn't like it here! They must just not be interested in science." As if interests are developed in social isolation and don't depend on a network of social support telling you -- implicitly, usually -- that you belong. It's not as if everyone who's in a minority group experiences impostor syndrome, but the experience of someone who gets treated like they belong and someone who doesn't is so different that I don't think it's too strong to say "you might as well just reject everyone". I also don't mean to say that diversity decisions always get made in bad faith, but I've had some personal experiences that make it difficult for me to believe that there is any genuine institutional commitment to diversity at the universities I've attended.

In my experience, it seems that being told you're welcome and that you belong is sort of like water if you're a fish: when you have it, you don't notice it. It's only when these things are absent that you do notice. I blamed myself for their absence, because that's what I've always been taught to do. I attributed my failure at Berkeley to my own incompetence, and it didn't occur to me until years later to think about how my environment contributed to my failure to thrive there. I got ignored. The other grad students in my group and cohort socialized with each other; I just got left out. Since I was being perceived as female at the time, I think this had something to do with the fact that I was perceived as not a peer (because I wasn't male) and not sexually available (since I was married) -- therefore, to most of my fellow students, I was useless.

Read more... )

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This is the second post in a 4-part series about impostor syndrome (Part 1). I'll be posting one installment per day.

Berkeley 2001-2003

"it's cool to discover someone
it's hard to support them
everyone is playing life
like it's some stupid sport"
-- Ani DiFranco

As for most new Ph.D students in the US, my first year at Berkeley consisted mostly of coursework, and that was what I was used to, so for the most part it went smoothly. At the end of the year, it should have been a warning sign when nobody wanted to be my advisor. One professor I talked to -- the one I'd mentioned in my statement of purpose as who I wanted to work with, and who encouraged me to come to Berkeley when I visited during prospective student day -- said "no" outright, saying he wasn't interested in what I wanted to study (functional programming languages). Another one didn't say no, but had a reputation of being someone who didn't answer email; I was hoping for someone who actually seemed interested in having a student. I ruled out two more professors who seemed close to retirement, and one more because she did scientific computing and that pushed my "I went to a liberal arts school and don't know anything" buttons too much. I ended up with an advisor who told me he was willing to advise me, but given what I was interested in doing, he wasn't going to be very involved and he would basically just be there to sign paperwork. At the time, I thought that was fine. Remember, I didn't like talking to people. I thought I would just work on my own, and that would be easy. Easier than getting up the courage to talk to somebody, anyway.

Later on, I saw it as a personal mistake to have chosen this advisor rather than looking harder for a more involved advisor, or even changing research areas. But part of why I made that decision was structural. I was socially shut out, as I'll discuss, which meant that I wasn't getting any tacit knowledge that would have helped me understand that I did need an advisor who was involved. I know this is a structural factor and not a personal issue because Barbara Lovitts talks about it in her book Leaving the Ivory Tower. That is, she discovered that a major component of grad students' success or failure is the extent to which they can use informal social networks to attain the tacit knowledge that's essential to completing almost any graduate program; faculty and staff rarely communicate this knowledge to students in any systematic way. Official lists of graduation requirements stick to course requirements and the specifications for what constitutes a dissertation -- they don't talk about the unofficial things, like having an advisor you can work with (and who has time for you) and which advisors are likely to be compatible with which kinds of people. Thus, people who find themselves misfits and outsiders in the (figurative) lunchroom in any particular department tend to get pushed out, even if they're just as able as the insiders to complete the academic requirements.

So here's where my impostor syndrome really began. Read more... )

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This is the first post in a 4-part series about impostor syndrome. I'll be posting one installment per day.

"Compare the best of their days
With the worst of your days
You won't win..." -- Morrissey

I can't remember exactly when I first encountered the term "impostor syndrome", but I know I was less than ten years old at the time, and I know where I read about it: a book called The Gifted Kid's Survival Guide. I don't think it made much of a mark on me. And knowing what it was early on didn't stop me from developing it later.

This essay is about my experiences with impostor syndrome. One of the reasons why I want to talk about these experiences is that I had them while most people in the world were seeing me as female, though I'm not female. Sometimes people tell me that my experiences are un-representative (of, I guess, anyone except me), but I think they're wrong. My experiences represent those of one person who spent 26 years moving through the world while generally being perceived to be female, albeit (often) gender-non-conforming. I say this not to lay claim to any sort of female socialization, which I didn't have; or to deny that I have male privilege (and probably had some even before I knew I was male); but because if I can say something that helps people understand what cis and trans women, as well as many trans men and genderqueer people, face in trying to find a place for themselves in male-dominated spaces (which is to say, in the world), I want that message to be understood. At the same time, I'm speaking from my position as a white trans man who doesn't have visible disabilities, was raised lower-class, and has a graduate degree and works as a software engineer. I've had it harder than some people and easier than many others, if it even makes sense to compare.

Ideally, I would like to change how historically male-dominated institutions -- specifically in this essay, computer science graduate programs -- try to integrate and welcome women as full participants. While one little blog post can't change the world, it might show a few people that the situation isn't as simple as it may look, and that has ripple effects. So I'm simply going to recount my personal history as a non-traditional learner, then undergraduate, then graduate student at Berkeley, and wherever possible try to draw connections between my experiences and larger social structures. If you remember nothing else from this essay, I hope you remember that when grad programs admit more women as students, it's not enough: to do so without extra attention to structural inequalities sets these students up for failure and actually reinforces sexism. I'll elaborate on that point in the rest of this essay.

Read more... )

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
A couple days ago, I filled out a thing on VolunteerMatch to volunteer to tutor prisoners studying for GEDs. I just got this reply:
"Good Morning Tim,
Thank you for your interest in volunteering with the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. Due to recent budget issues, our education program has been temporarily suspended."

Would that we could make up our budget issues by cutting back on prisons rather than withholding (volunteer-provided!) education from prisoners.

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tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

July 2014

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