More exams are better

Schedule for the Operating Systems class that I’m taking

I am stressed out. The class I’m taking has only two exams – Midterm and Final. The exams together are worth 45% of the grade. This is unfortunate for me, considering that I’m not too great at exams!

In yet another example of “things that frustrate me as a student, so I try to do better at as a teacher”, I don’t like exams that cover too many topics. Sure, make the final cumulative; that’s fine. But, during our “learning period” of the semester, I prefer a tighter cycle – Teach, practice, assess. Teach, practice, assess. You can spend more time doing in-depth study of fewer topics in order to prepare for that topic’s exam, rather than panicking and trying to cover every topic for the first 8 weeks and praying to your exam-god that your teacher’s exams aren’t unintuitive, and that what you think is important to study happens to be the same thing that your teacher thinks is important to study. (For reference, I also hate the lack of study guides!)

Schedule for the CS 200 class that I’m teaching

In my classes, I tend to have about 4 exams, including the final. I like to schedule my courses in chunks, with exams being the clear delimiter between topics. For exam 2, students will be studying up on arrays, pointers, memory management, and dynamic variables/arrays; all related and tie together. Exam 3 is everything OOPey. Structs, classes, inheritance.

For Data Structures, the first exam is over introductory content, wrapping static and dynamic arrays, and building a linked list. The second will be over stacks, queues, and dictionaries. The third will be over trees, heaps, and balanced search trees.

And for Discrete Math, each chapter of the book gets its own exam as well. A nice, clean, split between topics in the course.

I also either prepare study guides, or provide exams from a previous semester. Why? I don’t protect my old exams like a dragon hordes treasure because at some point, somebody is going to have that information. And they’ll distribute that information among their friends, so then only a small pool of people will have it. That’s not fair to everybody, and that’s also not really something I can stop. So start them all on even footing. I hope that it also discourages cheating if students know what I expect of them, and what I intend to assess of them.

So I’m nervous about this upcoming midterm. I have actually taken this class before, as an undergrad, at another university…

… and while I scored really well in my programming assignments, I just don’t do well on these kinds of exams. Math, gimme, I’ll ace that. Exams with coding on paper – ok, I can do that. Exams where you memorize a bunch of random information aimlessly? That is not my strong suit.

The first time I took the course, it was taught by Dr. Cotter, who is one of my favorite teachers. Even having an interesting teacher didn’t make it easy for me to do well!

Of course, I’m older now, I’m more experienced, I’m better at knowing how to learn. I have been using more resources as I study these concepts so that I have a better understanding than I would if I only studied from the textbook. But still, I resent not knowing what is expected of me. I resent the lack of respect for my time, by making the exam an amorphous mystery – good luck.

Lecture sucks

Scribbles on a slide that is incomprehensible if you're viewing independent of the class.

Scribbles on a slide that is incomprehensible if you’re viewing independent of the class.

One of my classes (that I’m a student in) is split into a lecture and a lab. The lecture is three days a week for one hour, and it is only lecture – slides without a theme (black text, white background), instructor talking, stuff from the textbook, occasional review questions.

They’re so boring. They suck. I can’t focus on them.

As a teacher, a lot of my teaching philosophy has been shaped by the frustrations I had as an undergrad — quizzes worded specifically to trick you, tests where the teacher doesn’t give you any clue as to what they think is important and what they will cover on the exam, boring-ass lectures…

Admittedly, since I teach at a community college, all of my classes are held in computer labs. It is wonderful. I have the ability to flip my classroom, record video lectures to watch as homework, and do programming during class. At university, there are too many students to have all computer science courses in labs – this is true at KU and at UMKC. Still, even though we are constrained to classrooms with desks instead of school computers, it would be nice to try to shake up the class in other ways.

My math classes aren’t just me lecturing the entire session. I give a short lecture, the video lectures that I recorded last semester are available online, and each week I write up an “in-class exercise“, which contains introduction text and examples, and then a series of questions. The students work in groups, and submit only one copy per team. They’re free to ask me questions as well. We spend time learning and practicing in the classroom, instead of putting all the onus on them figuring it out totally alone from the homework questions.

I resent pure lectures. They feel like a waste of my time. If the lectures are just going to reiterate content from the book, why not just let me read the textbook instead? Another big issue I have with lectures are that (1) I never go back and reference my notes. I just don’t. Over my 7 – 8 years as a college student, I just never go back, and (2) When I have taken notes in the past, any time I’m trying to recall something really specific, I can never find it. Probably because I cannot write as fast as teachers can talk.

This is why I record video lectures.

Students can watch again, pause, and watch when it is best for them.

Some teachers in previous classes would just record their in-class lecture – all 1+ hours of it – and post it as-is. You can’t find shit by sifting through such a long video, and it’s still boring as hell. It isn’t concise at all.

This is why I edit my video lectures.

I pre-script them. Usually, this means my slides are pretty detailed and it’s my main script. I export my slides to image files, put them in the video editor, then record my audio in Audacity. That way, I cut out all that is extra. Those go in the video lecture, too.

Then, if it’s a programming class, I use OBS to screen capture while I do some example coding – this is less scripted, but gives the same kind of example coding you’d get from a lecture. If it’s math, I open up GIMP and plug in my Wacom tablet and work some example problems. I further edit these down to get rid of long pauses and excess “ums” and speed up sections where I’m only writing stuff out or coding stuff after I have explained what I am doing.

I comb several books to figure out what points I need to make on the topic, and I put my slides together. Everything I would test over, I mention. I want my students to get everything they need, and be able to access that information at any time.

But it sucks for me.

I’m already the type of person who likes to control things, and gets annoyed when Redbox’s user interface isn’t as streamlined as I would like. (Brightspace has inconsistencies in user interface that drive me up a freaking wall!!!)

This means that when I’m a student rather than a teacher, I get really frustrated by the classes I take. I’m frustrated by the boredom, the inefficiency, the unknown, the schedule.

Best I can do? Basically go through the course content the way I would as a teacher – and write my own notes. Basically come up with the same sort of resources that I would as a teacher (because sometimes we have to teach ourselves the content while teaching, too – do you think I really remembered discrete math from when I took it 10+ years ago??)

So, just like I make repositories for my courses and throw all the content I make, available for anyone at any time (https://github.com/Rachels-Courses), I do the same with my classes. My notes, the code I write to try to learn the content, and so on. (https://github.com/Rachels-studies).

Road map

Next week, I begin my first semester as a grad student at KU, and my second semester teaching full time, teaching two sections of Discrete Math, and one each of Data Structures and Programming II. Moosader is also on my mind, and I feel like I have a bit more of a focus for what we should do in 2017. Marriage is also on my mind, though I’ve never been engaged before or planned for such a thing before.

 

Grad School

kuOrientation at KU opened my eyes to some possibilities that I had not thought of; I had originally just planned on doing it for the paper, to push forward my career, but talking to the EECS faculty inspired me a bit.

I like watching Day9’s Mostly Walking series, and one of the guests on that web show is Sean Bouchard. Sometimes he talks about his work, and though I don’t know much about it, it had piqued my interest prior to even thinking about grad school, and going to orientation made me think of some of the things he had talked about, which got me excited.

Now I see grad school as more of a journey than just a means to an end. Perhaps at some point I will switch from working full time and studying part time to vice versa – going back to being an adjunct and studying full time so that I can spend time on a research project, centered around software and education.

 

Teaching

This year, I’m an assistant professor. The previous semester, I was a full-time-temp, so I worked full time but I didn’t have the same responsibilities; it was like being an adjunct but with more hours.

I’ve been with my community college for a full year now – all of 2016. I really enjoy the teaching aspects, but this is the first place I’ve worked where I keep being put in the middle of faction politics. Perhaps I just hadn’t been at any software companies long enough to experience this, or I was always really low on the totem pole.

It isn’t making my job unpleasant at this point, per se; I mostly see it as weird, bizarre entertainment. But, it has affected my long-term goals there. That, and also being full time means I have more responsibilities now, such as attending meetings and a “butt-in-seat” policy (having to be physically present at the workplace to “prove” that you’re working, when really it just proves that you know how to look busy.)

I left the software industry to get away from arbitrary things that kill my productivity, such as required work hours and require work locations. If you want me to create my best work, you need to trust that I know how to best produce that productivity in me, rather than restrict me to silly standards that make no sense.

Anyway, this is part of why I’ve shifted my excitement towards grad school, and why I’m thinking of adjuncting after my year-and-a-half contract is up. Keep a foot in the door, but put my efforts elseware.

 

Moosader

fdeIn 2016, I was convinced that I could put out Fin ‘N’ Kit, rewriting it in C++ so that I could control more of its features than what the original engine had allowed for. However, this just ended up meaning I was the bottleneck and my team didn’t have anything they could work on. In 2016, we basically just re-released Gift Grab with new graphics as a free game with ads, since in 2015 we basically had about 12 sales.

So one of the things I’ve learned is that, this early in, we need to be building games with tools that increase our speed. Visual Novels in RenPy, or maybe using other engines or languages, rather than rewriting a full engine in C++. Fin ‘N’ Kit is in alpha, but there just isn’t much interest, so I guess it is suspended for now.

I put out a survey – in English and in Esperanto – with a list of some of the games we have prototyped, or just ideas for, to see where the interest lies. Mostly, the interest is around the language learning educational apps, moreso than anything that we’ve worked on purely for entertainment. Sure, there’s a little interest in a game where you’re a courier in a post-apocalyptic setting, handing out bills for peoples’ still-active student loans, and returning the payments back to the student loan H.Q. — Because, even after the apocalypse, student loans will continue to exist. Get it? 😛

And, honestly, it is hard for me to find inspiration for the “purely for fun” types of games anymore. This inspiration was severely killed off during my years as a software developer, as my soul was slowly killed as I zombied through the days. It was language learning that rekindled any sort of passion in me. As a result, I can easily think of games that I would like to play to help me learn languages, in the style that I best learn, so designing these sorts of games comes much more naturally. Coming up with something purely fun for fun’s sake outside the context of learning, my brain just doesn’t do that anymore.

 

Marriage?
rai22016 had mostly been good to me, up until a certain point. I began taking antidepressants/antianxiety meds, started my new job as an adjunct instructor, which I really enjoyed, and started my relationship with Rai, whom I met on Tinder. I had not been intending to find a serious boyfriend, and only date around to fill time, but we actually hit it off really well, and it had been the most healthy, supportive relationship I had ever been in.

In late October, however, the company that Rai was subcontracted under had budget cuts and rolled him off the project. He was given two weeks to return back to India. So, November 1st, he returned, where he continues waiting for another assignment and spending time training on Selenium.

We are still together, though “together” through WhatsApp. He is 11-and-a-half hours away, which is a difficult schedule. There is a chance that the company that rolled him off the project will be reassessing their budget from Q1, and be up for hiring him back in Q2.  I hate having to rely on corporations, they never come through and they have no respect or care for their employees.

Beyond that, I need to renew my passport, and I’m planning on booking a trip to India in May of this year, where we will go to Uttarakhand and meet his parents. I need to make sure to study Hindi daily, as his parents do not speak English. We’ve gotten approval from them already, but it is good to meet.

IMG-20170111-WA0016The marriage I’m willing, but weddings are a pain in the butt, and even more so now that we have to think of weddings in two countries. I like to keep things simple, but simple does not describe an Indian wedding. In the U.S., I figured it would be my parents, his parents, my sister, her bf, and my cousin and her husband. I do not want any more people than that. Simple, clean, low-stress, mostly casual. But how far apart would we have the two weddings, getting visas, and how all of this works, is just another stress on my plate when I already have so much to think about.

I finally am working full time so I can actually feasibly pay for flight(s) to India, but trying to fly myself and my parents, or flying his parents over, so many flights! So much money! Blarg.

GR3

Dear public internet diary,

Today I decided to pay for the GRE fee with my credit card, because I need to get the test over with so I can apply to colleges before the September – December deadlines, but I don’t think I’ll have the spare cash in June. (The financially awkward part of being an adjunct instructor is not quite knowing how pay is going to go when going between semesters)

Why is the exam so dang expensive? I will already most likely need to take out loans for college itself. I will have to do research into scholarships and assistantships. Sigh. I still have loans from my BS, and from the last two times I tried to get into gradschool for different areas. I thought that I had to pay off these loans before I could move onto the next thing, but it is clear that this debt will be with me for a while – so why let it stop me? I’ll just go back to school, gain more debt, and then once I have a career that I’m happy with, then I can spend the rest of my life paying it off. 😛

I’m looking forward to going back to school, I guess. I’m building a new career, or a couple new careers, because the life of a corporate software engineer doesn’t suit me. Since I’ve quit and been working on my startup and as an adjunct, and been on an antidepressant, I’ve been so happy – probably happier than I’ve been in years. I’m a bit disappointed in myself for not having an established career at the age of 28, but eh… who really has their shit together in their 20s anymore? But I have hope in my future now, once I realized that I don’t have to keep doing the same kind of work – the 8-to-5 open-floorplan boring but stressful programming work. I’m no longer making anywhere near $90k/yr, I’m trying to figure out how to manage my finances on a tight budget, but at least I’m not withering away anymore.