Computer Science and Flexible Learning

I’ve heard Maria Klawe say (something along the lines of): “To become a better teacher, you should learn how to do new things that are hard for you – this will help you remember what it is like for many of your students.” 

A variation on this that may relate to diversity has occurred to me over the past year as I’ve taken some exercise classes at my university.  In particular, for teachers who are part of a core majority group – in computing, this is usually white males, like me – it’s important to put yourself sometimes in a learning situation in which you are a minority. 
I’ve been taking Pilates and circuit training in classes of about 25 people each, where I am often the only male and where I am almost always the oldest person in the class (often by 10+ years).  In each case, I have found myself looking for people “like me,” and have been forced to realize that my body isn’t shaped and doesn’t bend like most of the others in the class.  It doesn’t mean I’m not learning, but it means I have to look at the learning process a bit differently.

I’ve also noticed that the instructors seem to be aware of me as a minority, even to the point of changing their patter a bit.  “OK, class, now pull the weight just under your … uh, just under your chest.”  Somehow I get the feeling that if I wasn’t there, the instructor would phrase that differently.

Maybe this is not a big deal.  At the same time, it has caused me to try to put myself in the place of the people who are a minority in our computing courses.  Maybe a little empathy and understanding – from putting ourselves in a position where we’re not in the majority – can help our field just a little bit.
David Notkin is a professor and Bradley Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. His beard may be older than you are.

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