Saturday, December 03, 2005

Technological passion

Zuska (and by the way, if you are not reading her blog already, go right now and read it. She writes very passionately and very intelligently about gender issues in science and engineering) recently posted on women loving computers. The posts are very interesting. I responded to each of them in her comments, but now I'm inspired to share my thoughts with you as well. So, I'm going to repeat myself a bit from the comments, but also add some more reflection.

For me, computers have always represented possibility. The first time I really saw and interacted with a computer was in junior high, where we learned to do simple programs (in BASIC, I'm guessing) on the TRS-80. Programming was like magic: I type a few lines and the computer starts counting! I type a few more and a picture appears! If I type a lot of lines, who knows what I could accomplish! I was equally fascinated by the insides: the circuitry, the parts, the processor, the 1's and 0's parading around representing numbers and text and music. Computers really captured my imagination.

In college, I continued to be fascinated by what computers could do: Crunch a bunch of numbers. Design complicated circuits. Build models. Graph things. If I could use them for such simple things, like my course work, why, much smarter people must be using them for even greater things! Curing cancer, maybe, or desigining fuel-efficient cars, or ending poverty....

What really "sealed the deal" were two events that I remember vividly. One was my personal discovery of email. I was in the computer lab one day when one of my fellow major friends came running up to me. "Jane! You have to see this!" And he told me to click here and there and.....there was a message! To me! From him! (This is much more impressive when you realize that this was the very early 90s, and email had not hit the mainstream yet.) The second event was sometime in 1993. I was in the computer lab, idly clicking around, and I clicked an unfamiliar icon and up popped a web browser (Mosaic). I had no idea what this thing was, so I started clicking around, and all of a sudden I'm reading someone's home page from another school, halfway across the country! And it was then that I realized a new possibility: Computers could connect to each other, and could connect people. And the possibilities in that basic idea totally blew me away (and still do!).

You may notice that I definitely had a lot of passion for computers, but not in the "traditionally accepted" ways. I did not spend my childhood taking things apart. I did not spend my high school or college days up until all hours, programming away. In fact, for the longest time I abhorred programming, the direct result of taking a soul-sucking introductory programming course in college (that's a post in and of itself). I knew that my passion was real, but it took me a while to accept it as "valid".

Today, I see that same struggle in my female students---the few majors, sure, but also, and more importantly, in the many non-majors. My female students are incredibly passionate about technology. They blog. They design web pages. They hack their calculators. They program. They game. But, all of them will tell me that they "know nothing" about computers, that they're "not geeks", and they dismiss their skills and passion. As Zuska points out, they're struggling to validate a passion of technology that doesn't fit our picture of "geek". And that, really, is the biggest shame of all.


post-doc said...

I find this fascinating too. While I came to adore computers a little later, I remain in awe. I think my hesitance to claim any personal talent comes from guys in every class or research group fixing my mistakes. Their intentions were great, but it started to erode my confidence. So I'm self-conscious about taking longer to develop programs or writing code that's a little less elegant than it could be. So I tend to downplay my interest in technical areas.

I think having people like you considering the issue and providing great role models will eventually help a lot. It's just too bad that the culture doesn't change more quickly.

Oh, and I really enjoy your posts!

Laura said...

I will now have to add Zuska to my list of Geeky Women I read. :) I had the same experience with computers in junior high, BASIC programming on a trs80. We also had an apple and played Lemonade Stand all the time. I love tweaking the inputs. Email, the web--totally cool. Though I stuck with my humanities stuff as my official career track, I kept computing as a hobby. When I interviewed for my current job, they asked me why an English major would be interested in technology. I said, "I want to make my hobby my career." Who wouldn't want that? I'm so glad I did. And being at a women's college, I get to encourage women to pursue technology. And I let my geekiness hang out all the time. Most of the women who work for me have either taken CS courses, majored in CS or incorporated technology into their degrees and lives. My first freshman is doing her senior thesis on Internet Art. One woman went off to get a degree in what I do(Instructional Tech.) and another woman dropped her second major to take graphic design and more web design courses. And then they go among their friends and show them that being geeky is not bad.

Maybe at some point, you should come visit us--give a talk or something. That would be pretty cool.

Jane said...

post-doc, I think there's definitely something to that mentality---if you don't get something immediately, like the boys seem to do, then you must be slow, and slow=not good at this. I try to counter this in my own classes by either telling my students the story of how awful my first programming class was (it was bad enough to make me try to avoid programming if at all possible for a very long time afterwards), or by telling them that I am the World's Slowest Programmer---which, it sometimes seems, is not far from the truth. :) In other words, it's cool to be slow, and it's not the end of the world if you don't get everything the first time around---if you like it, stick with it!

Laura, your Lemonade Stand game reminded me of a game I used to play---something about delivering newspapers, on a very early Windows box. Can't remember the name of the game. But I digress. In my dream world, no one will ask "why would an English major be interested in technology"---because the correct question will be "why wouldn't an English major be interested in technology?" And I think that's really the key to where the computing fields are going---their value lies in how well they can be applied to *all* other fields. And you are serving as a very powerful role model to that ideal: you love technology, and you've found a way to combine that with your other passions. Love of technology does not lead to isolation. And it sounds like your students are getting that message, too (yay!). Bravo to you!

Jill said...

Great story, Jane!

There's a call out for contributions to a book about womens passion for technology. The book's going to be called "She's such a geek."

Also, a colleague of mine, Hilde Corneliussen, who does research on gender and technology, has just published a paper called ‘I fell in love with the machine’: Women’s pleasure in computing - I haven't read it yet, but I love the new focus on how women really DO love technology, and the stories of how that love feels and plays out.

Jill said...

Oops, wrong link. The call for works for the She's such a Geek book is here: Sorry!

Jane said...

Thanks, Jill! See my Dec 6 post---I'm seriously thinking about it! (and I will track down that article...thanks for the link!)