Summer Vacation 2015: Part I (BPI)

Many wonder what teachers and professors actually do in their free summer months. Days on the beach? Long walks in the woods? Fishing? Crabbing? Well, I did a little of that this summer, but I also had the most extraordinary, and busiest, summer so far in my career.

After teaching computer science to undergraduates at Bard for six years, this summer was a bit of a reawakening. In addition to advising great undergraduate research students via BSRI, which I do most summers, I also taught a course in the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) and co-developed a computing component for our Language and Thinking program. This post (Part I) covers BPI, and the L&T effort is up next in Part II.

Teaching Computing for the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI)

I have taught an introductory computing class using Processing a number of times on our Annandale-on-Hudson campus. The class is quite popular – sometimes drawing close to 100 students during registration – and exposes students from a variety of backgrounds to programming via interactive computer graphics. Studio art students go on to use Processing in their interactive art senior projects, and science students use Processing and Arduino to control scientific instruments. It is a pretty good course, especially if it is a student’s only CS course (if I do say so myself). So when the Bard Prison Initiative asked me about possible courses, this course seemed natural. Bard has one of the largest prison education programs in the state, if not the country. BPI students go on to earn Bard A.A. and B.A. degrees in everything from Art History to Mathematics.

I started the 8-week summer course in June with 18 students. In addition to being taught in a prison, this is the first time I taught the course in a compressed summer format. The students ranged in age from twenty to sixty. Two students had taken a web programming class in the past. Some students had earned over 120 college credits, but not much experience with a computer. All were smart, motivated, and ready to go on day one. We met for two hours on Monday and Wednesday mornings in a modest computer lab. Our final class was last Monday.

Top Chef; Top Professor

Teaching anything in a prison is a challenge: a wide variety of student backgrounds and preparation, limited contact hours, and an imposing setting, at least at first. Teaching computing in a prison is at an entirely different level, perhaps even reality TV worthy. The absence of any type of electronic communication (no email, no moodle, no course website), the prohibition on bringing in any electronic devices (no laptops, no usb drive), and a World Wide Web void (no google, no wikipedia, no stackoverflow) were all expected, if cumbersome, hurdles. Execution of the course introduced another layer of complication.

Students are Students

Despite the myriad challenges – Chef, please prepare your mise en place without your chef’s knife – one of the most surprising aspects of teaching in the prison is how much students are students, no matter the age, life experience, or locale. Students turning in homework with coffee stains, eyes lighting up when a bug is finally stomped out, computers eating homework, missing class due to a birthday celebration, students challenging your own assumptions and falling off chairs, well, these things just happen in college classrooms. All college classrooms, it turns out. I have a great job, coffee stains and all.

Growing as a Teacher

Preparation: This experience pushed me as a teacher in all aspects. In terms of teaching mechanics, the lack of electronic communication and accessibility forced me to prepare (and print) course materials at an unprecedented level (for me, anyway). Thinking through almost every moment is important, though uncompromisingly executing a planned class can be constricting, especially given my particular teaching style (I like closed-loops and jazz).

Cultural Sensitivity: My first assignment, a self-portrait via code, led me to reflect and reconsider how some students might interpret this assignment. Consulting with some of the students and our Muslim chaplain, I learned some devout students might feel uncomfortable about depicting life through art. I didn’t know this before, and it has made me think hard about other views of Computer Graphics, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, and Artificial Life.

Human Contact: Computing is taught with computers, therefore, computers can teach computing. Wrong. Computing education like all subjects, requires a human touch. Despite the MOOC hysteria, computer science isn’t as simple as giving students textbooks, NAND gates, and GO! The dearth of communication really hurt this course. Small snags, small questions, big questions: no answers till Monday or Wednesday, really hampered learning. We had planned to have a student tutor, and thus more contact hours, but that was tough to organize in the summer.

Overall, I am happy to have taught the course and I will do it again. I will not teach both sessions in a computer lab and I will definitely have a student tutor. I also might go for a smaller class size.

Next up: Poets teaching coding and #HumanitiesMatter…

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