February 20, 2007

Interview with Jane of See Jane Compute

I proud and pleased to inaugurate my occasional interview series with one of my all-time favourite bloggers, Jane of See Jane Compute. Her running commentary on computer science, teaching, women in science and general life in academia are an inspiration -- and lots of fun to boot.

Her best known posts are likely the Teaching: The Miniseries set of posts:

I hope to continue this series of interviews on an approximately monthly basis, featuring scitech bloggers (including librarians) and people in the publishing industry. Mostly I would really like to thank Jane for agreeing to help me jump-start this little project, proving what a fine person she is. But enough of me. On with the interview!

Q0. I would normally ask a "tell me something about yourself" question but it's hard to know what to ask without probing too deeply into your anonymity. If there are some details you wouldn't mind sharing about your professional & educational history, consider yourself asked.

Yeah, this one is tricky to answer with the whole anonymity thing, isn't it? Well, I'll start with the obvious: I'm an Assistant Professor of Computer Science, in my 4th year on the tenure track and currently fortunate enough to be on a pre-tenure sabbatical. I'm currently expecting my first child. I'm not sure which freaks me out more at this point: going up for tenure or becoming a parent. :) My background is quite varied; without getting into too many details, my research interests overlap quite a few subfields, so I've done a lot of moving around within that space. I've also worked a teeny bit in (and with) industry, which I think lends an extra richness and understanding to my research and to my teaching.

Q1. How did you get into blogging? What role has it played in your life?

I've been blogging since December of 2004. I started reading blogs in the summer of 2004--I believe Bitch, Ph.D and Barely Tenured were the first blogs I found and read. I decided to finally take the plunge and start blogging myself because (a) this new medium was really compelling and interesting to me; (b) I felt like I might just have something to say, and wanted to experiment with my own non-academic writing voice; and (c) I hadn't found many CS or scientific women bloggers, and felt that the blogosphere needed to hear more of those voices. I've never, ever been successful with journalling or any other kind of sustained personal writing, and frankly have always somewhat feared writing, so the fact that I've continued on with this for so long still amazes me.

Blogging, more than anything else, has helped me to find my voice and to realize that my experiences are relevant and shared by others. It is so easy, as a woman academic, to start doubting all the little and big things you're experiencing--"is it all in my head"? Blogging helps me voice some of those experiences, positive and negative, and thus work through them. Blogging has also helped me become fearless about my work. After all, I write all these really intimate things about my life and my fears and shortcomings for total strangers, on a regular basis! If I can do that, then heck, sending in a paper for review or trying a new line of questioning/experiments is a piece of cake. It has helped me become a much better, quicker, and more prolific writer. And finally, it has allowed me to find an incredible community of technical and scientific women bloggers who also fearlessly share their experiences.

Q2. Why do you blog anonymously? Do you think you'll "come out" once you get tenure?

To be honest, I really struggled with the anonymity issue before I started blogging. I knew that anonymity would be both freeing and limiting. Ultimately, though, I decided that I wanted the freedom to talk about my real experiences as a woman in CS: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I wanted to be able to talk about my students, my struggles, my triumphs, and frivolous things without worrying that my colleagues and/or students could Google me and find these things. I also wanted to be able to talk about things without people filtering them through preconceived notions about me, my research area, or the type of institution at which I work. I think I can reach more people, and be more authentic, as an anonymous blogger at this point; I consider my blog to be somewhat of a "safe space" for discussing the life of a woman in CS, and anonymity better allows me to do this.

That said, there are things I really wish I could discuss that I can't because of my anonymity. Things like my research (which I think is really, really cool and fascinating), or things related to the type of institution that I work at, or even things related to the rhythm of the school year. And I find that even with anonymity, I feel the need to hide information, alter details, or just avoid discussing certain things altogether.

The "coming out" question is the million dollar question for me right now. I'm toying with the idea of being a bit freer with the information I give out about my field, my work, and my institution type once I get tenure, but that's probably as far as I'll go.

Q3. You share a lot about the joys and frustrations of teaching in your blog. Does this help you work through problems and issues in your teaching, helping you evolve your teaching practice? Or is just a way to blow off steam?

Both, actually. I spend a lot of time reflecting on my own teaching, because I'd obviously like to be the most effective teacher I can (without letting teaching stuff completely take over my life...it's a delicate balance). Teaching is something that I love doing, that I feel "called to do" in a sense, but at the same time still struggle with. I've found that blogging about teaching helps me to see things--patterns and such--that are either helping my teaching or holding me back from being an effective teacher. In fact, blogging about teaching inspired me to start a teaching journal last fall, which I also found immensely useful in figuring out what works and what doesn't work (and identifying good and bad patterns). Plus, I get so much inspiration about teaching from other bloggers--I've plucked things from completely different fields and tried them out in my own classroom, some successfully, others not so much. So I also view blogging about teaching as a give-and-take: "Here's what works/doesn't work for me; what works/doesn't work for you?"

But sometimes, you just have a bad class and need to get it off your chest, so being able to just vent every once in a while is great! And often, these venting posts will result in fabulous advice from my readers--particularly when the source of my frustration is classroom management issues (disruptive/disrespectful students, etc.).

Q4. You blog a lot about women's experiences in an academic computing environment. How do you think those experiences are similar or different from women in other science/engineering/medicine disclines? Or even non-science fields like law or business?

Great question! I imagine that there are universal threads that run through the experiences of strong women in any field, whether it's a more gender-equitable field like law or medicine or a field like CS or engineering that's still struggling to achieve anywhere near respectable gender numbers. Things like not being listened to, or stereotyped because of the way one dresses or speaks, or not given a chance because "you'll just run off and have babies"--these are universal parts of the experience of being a woman in our society. I think what makes the computing fields different, and from what I understand some of the "less enlightened" engineering and science fields (electrical engineering, physics), is the whole "macho culture". Women are still made to feel like they just don't belong in these fields, whether it's because of the media images (the antisocial hacker, the almost total absence of women and their contributions in discussions of technical innovations and innovators) or the things we emphasize in the CS classroom and lab (bogging our students down in details and syntax, rather than focusing on the benefits and applications of computing) or even what we focus on to praise ("my code is faster/bigger/better than yours"). And it's not just women--men who don't fit the mold experience feelings of not belonging, too, although to a lesser extent. And that's unhealthy for everyone. What I try to do through my blog is expose this culture, in all its unhealthiness, as a way of adding to the dialogue (hopefully) of how we can start to change this. I want to highlight, through my own experiences, why we should all be invested in changing the computing culture to something way more inclusive than it is now.

Q5. What's the best thing about your job? The worst?

I love the freedom that my job brings me. I can work on whatever research problem I find interesting, dabble in other subfields, even propose new classes on topics I find interesting. I also love working with students. College students are so energetic (sometimes too much so!), and a lot of them are doing amazing and remarkable things with their lives. I get a real kick out of getting to know them--their energy and passion is contagious.

The worst is definitely being the only woman in my department, and all of the stuff that goes along with that. Some days, I feel like I'm shouting into a vacuum, that it's impossible to make a difference as The Token Woman, that my colleagues just don't get it and don't want to get it. And that's really, really frustrating. But then again, I knew that's what I was getting into when I took this job, and I do think that my presence here is slowly improving the culture in our department....but progress is painfully slow, and I'm an impatient person!

Q6. What's your hope for the future, both for the field of computing and those who toil away in it?

My first and greatest hope is that we change, really and truly and fundamentally change, the culture of CS. The future of our field, I believe, depends more than anything on opening ourselves up to a wider set of ideas and perspectives. To do this, we have to have more people in general, and a more diverse set of people in particular, at that metaphorical table. We need to get rid of the macho hacker culture and replace it with the (truer) image that computing is something that is and will continue to fundamentally change society, and that we all can and should take a role in shaping this future society. My second hope is that we continue to strive towards universal access: making development and content creation tools easier to use, providing more opportunities for underserved populations to cross over that digital divide, removing restrictions on content consumption and content development, etc. Computing has the potential to be the great societal unifier, and we as practitioners should never, ever lose sight of that.


Jane said...

Thanks, John! I really enjoyed doing this interview, and look forward to the rest of the series! :)

CogSciLibrarian said...

Great interview -- I liked the computer science bits, the teaching bits, and the anonymity bits. All are relevant to me!

Anonymous said...

Great interview! It's nice to hear Jane's thoughts on anonymity in particular. It can be a very difficult decision.

Glad you posted this for the carnival!