Sunday, August 12, 2007

On not fitting in

Earlier this summer, I went out to dinner with some of our undergrads and some of our faculty. It was a great evening and everyone, students and faculty, had a great time.

At one point during the evening, the talk turned to "who was the biggest high school geek". This is a common icebreaker among techies. The conversation was high-spirited and fun, and I certainly learned a lot about our students as a result.

But it also made me realize one more way in which I don't "fit in", because apparently I was *not* a big geek in high school. At least not by the standards set by this group.

I found that our students (and my colleagues as well) had common high school experiences. Science Olympiad. Math Team. Science Fair. Band (marching, jazz, orchestra). Robotics and engineering competitions. And so on. The students who didn't know each other well previously delighted in their common experiences, and their stories typically triggered "me, too!"'s from around the table. They were in their element. It was refreshing, in a way, because I'm sure that most of them felt like they had to hide that part of themselves from their peers in high school, and now they were among peers who knew of where they came from.

But while this was nice to see, it was also, I admit, a bit uncomfortable for me. Because I was *not* that type of person in high school. I did not have traditionally geeky interests. I don't have the same shared experience with them that my colleagues do. And so while they sat there conversing easily with them about Science Olympiad and the like, I sat there and smiled and felt like a visitor from another planet.

Granted, this was a small group of our majors, and I know that our majors come from all sorts of backgrounds. Perhaps this was a representative sample of our majors; perhaps not. But the experience got me thinking about our majors (and potential majors) that, like me, don't fit the classic "geek" mold. Is this why some of our majors shun department activities and avoid the computer labs? Does this sort of chatter cause some people who are considering majoring in CS to say "no thanks"? How much does "fit" factor in to the decision to major in CS and/or to become involved in the department once deciding to major?

I don't have any answers, but this experience has gotten me thinking, again, about lab culture and department culture, and how I (and we as a department) can make the culture more welcoming for everyone...even the non-geeks among us.

11 comments:

Saoirse said...

I sometimes feel left out in a crowd of math majors at my school because I'm not into math competitions (I was only on my high school's low-key math team for a semester, whereas many of my classmates have competed internationally in math.) and I was a biology nut growing up. It does feel alienating not to have the same background as the other people around you. My different background is one of the reasons I almost switched from being a math major.

Sorry, I'm rambling. Good post though.

Rebecca said...

I can identify with what you're saying, Jane. Although I was probably more geeky than you were (academic team, math-science-technology magnet high school), I've never had the same inspirations or motivations as my colleagues.

Veo Claramente said...

I think everyone feels left out in some milieu or the other, and if their motivation for doing something is strong enough, they will do it regardless. That said, I didn't join a lab that I rotated through because everyday at lunch they discussed American TV shows of the 1980s. All the time. I did know anything about them (still do not), felt left out and unable to fit in socially. Who knows.

Kathi Fisler said...

I strongly relate to this. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a technical geek. I tried hard to impersonate one for many years starting in grad school and it didn't work. It wasn't until I read "Unlocking the Clubhouse" though that I considered the (negative) consequences of my own desire to fit in on my role as a professor. The book relates several stories from female CS students about not fitting the 24/7 geek mold and how that affected their impressions of CS. I started to feel a responsibility to be my non-geek self even as a professor. I don't know whether it has made a difference to anyone else, but I'm certainly happier as a result.

Along these same lines: every fall we do a "meet the faculty" session with the new first-years during orientation. All the faculty get up and say stuff like "I'm X and I teach Y". I started pushing for us each to add "I like/do Z", where Z is something about who you are other than a prof (sports we follow, instruments we play, foods we like, etc). I want us to appear human for the students, who are (whether they realize it or not) often trying to work out how to model their own adult lives. I'd like to think that a little would go a long way to making a broader profile of students feel at home in CS.

Kathi

Anonymous said...

Don't worry about what the crowd, group, peers, masses (whatever)thinks nor about fitting in with them. Be yourself. Unless they pay your salary and don't like you-in which case, screw 'em and find another place of employment quick-go your own way and never look for acceptance or approval from others. Life is too short to worry about fitting in with the group. Let the group worry about fitting in with you instead.

Jane said...

Kathi, I feel the exact same way---that I'm somehow obligated to show that you don't have to be a geek to be a successful computer scientist. Because as veo claramente and saiorse point out, alienation is no fun and can have much broader consequences (leaving a lab, possibly leaving the field altogether). I like your idea of "humanizing" yourself to your students---I actually do a variation of this on the first day of class. I've always hoped that by emphasizing my non-geekiness that I'll attract other non-geeks to the field, but I also wonder if this hurts my credibility with the hard-core geeks. (One of the more cryptic comments from my review last year was that I had to learn to appeal more to this particular demographic, because my ratings with them were lower than for other students. Sigh.)

Jane said...

Ratings for teaching, that is. (I just realized my last sentence was a bit cryptic.)

Kathi Fisler said...

On credibility with the non-geeks: this is something I used to worry about too. In the end, I decided that if my geekness weren't genuine, they'd see through it to some degree anyway. This issue of being geeky gets tied into the issue of appearing competant, which I suspect is the real issue wrt students. I do work hard to make it clear that I know my stuff and have high standards even though I have interests beyond computers and gadgets.

On that cryptic eval comment, though: how did they know which demographic of students gave you lower ratings? I can't imagine your course evals include a geek-rating as one of the demographic questions ...

Jane said...

kathi, there's a lot of accompanying demographic information we get with our student evals. At the very least, one can figure out "this is a male major" vs. "this is a female major", but often one can deduce much, much more too. (But that's a whole other story, and one that I will probably talk of at length if in fact I get tenure at my current place of employment.)

liketothelark said...

This is why books like Danica McKellar's "Why Math doesn't suck" matter.

Computers and Maths don't have to be geeky - geeks were just the early adopters.

Anonymous said...

To liketothelark...

That Danica McKellar is really brilliant! Everyone who doesn't at first take to math should read her book! (Plus, she's a really cute chick and that counts for something too! ;)