Monday, 16 October 2017

My Curious History with Computer Science

I’m writing this partly as a way to understand my own issues, partly because writing itself is therapeutic, and partly because there may be people out there who can relate in some fashion. Perhaps not with the subject of computer science, but with some other school subject that you’ve grappled with over the years?

Love it or hate it, you can’t seem to escape it.

HIGH SCHOOL


We’ll start the story in Grade 9, mainly to mention that it’s the last year I did computing at school on electronic typewriters. It was computers after that. So in reality, we start in Grade 10. Or possibly Grade 11? As tends to happen 20 years later, events when I was a teenager blur together.

During one of those years in CS, I remember coding up a maze game. Couldn’t tell you the language. You moved a small ball through a maze. Then there were additional levels, including walls that would move and multiple floors within a level, that sort of thing. I must have worked on some of that at home.

That’s possibly the last time I actually enjoyed coding.

Speaking of home, my parents had started us with a Commodore 64, which at some point was upgraded... I have memories of ASCII “Duck Hunt” from the former, and playing “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” followed by “Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego”, which must have been on the latter - but I couldn’t tell you when that was. I also programmed in Logo with a turtle at some point. Grade 10?

In the summer of 1993, I attended Shad Valley, and learned something about using tech for splicing audio tracks, something I still do to this day. I also advocated with my parents for getting a modem, in order to maintain contact with the program’s alumni. (It was on the ShadNet system where I first started writing reviews, of Star Trek Voyager when it first premiered in January 1995.) I also went to Computing Insights in the summer of 1994, where I believe we programmed in “Turing”. Honestly, one of the most important things to come out of that was my friendship with Sonal. None of the coding really stuck.

Here’s what I basically remember of my last high school computer science course, which was probably OAC (could have been Grade 12). We had 3 (kind of 4) teachers back then. Mr. Brush, bless his heart... I don’t know if it was the year he lost his home to a fire, or the time that he was involved in a car crash, but he was unable to continue that semester. His two student teachers took over temporarily, followed by another teacher later on.

I ended up paired (or maybe they were groups of three?) with Joey, whose name I remember mostly because he had a prosthetic limb. He wanted to do coding in C, and I was already feeling a bit out of my depth on code, so sure, whatever. I don’t think I ended up doing any coding in the end, I left it to him. My grade in that course was the worst out of all my OAC courses. Still a 78, granted, but enough to tell me that this was not where my strengths lay.

It didn’t matter anyway. I was going to university for MATHEMATICS. Because THAT was love. I had a 97 in Calculus and a 98 in Finite, or maybe the other way around, so even though my Algebra/Geometry was in the low 80s, I was in.

POST SECONDARY


At the University of Waterloo, Mathematics and Computer Science was wrapped up under one umbrella. I entered under the belief that I could handle “Pure Mathematics”. I discovered by second year that pure mathematics was, well, REALLY damn pure. I started to look for a backup plan. Or rather, a new primary plan.

Applied Math was out (like really, who cares about actually using this stuff), Statistics was too much of a head scratcher, Combinatorics & Optimization was plausible... and then there was Computer Science. I’d had to take CS courses as a matter of course in first year (and I still remember having to wake up early in the morning to pick up jobs off a print queue, to submit it into the assignment box).

I’m not sure exactly how my new major ended up being Computer Science. To this day, I maintain that I only passed third year “Operating Systems” because I paired off with a guy who liked coding but disliked documentation, while I liked documentation but disliked the actual coding. (Granted, human memory is a curious thing.)

In fourth year, I loaded up on ALL the theoretical courses I could. I can program a finite state machine like nobody’s business. Ask me about Turing Machines, go ahead, they’re cool. I think I only passed the MatLab programming course because they graded on a curve.

The funny thing is, I also ended up as a tutor for first year (second year?) computer science courses, as part of one of my Co-Op Placements. I even kind of liked it, because they were working with a language I actually UNDERSTOOD, since I’d had to use it in first year. (It wasn’t Java. I avoided Java as much as I could.) That’s what ended up steering me towards teaching. In large part because the thought of sitting behind a desk and coding all day was a little nightmare inducing.

Ergo, without Computer Science, I wouldn’t be where I am today. To sum up, I got a Mathematics Degree, major in Computer Science and minor in Music. (Because you gotta have music.)

TEACHING


My first year teaching was at a private school, where I taught Mathematics and Science (with chemicals, not computers) to ESL students. It wasn’t right out of University, but anyway, that was enough to get me into Queens for a formal Teaching Certificate. What would I declare as my teachable subjects there? Obviously Mathematics, and... well, computer science was more rigorous than music, and I already had some experience with that.

After graduating from teaching, my first Long Term Occasional work was Semester Two (start of 2004, so 2003-04 school year) at Sir Wilfrid Laurier SS. Teaching the TIK 2O Grade 10 computer science course. I still have my notes, because of course I do. Programming was in RealBasic, which I figured out while teaching flowcharts and and hardware components. That course didn’t lead to a contract. Bounced around from school to school in 2004-05.

I ended up back at Sir Wilfrid Laurier SS in 2005-06 on a Long Term mathematics contract (started in October). This time around, there was a contract opening for Sept 2006 for TTI 1O, Integrated Technologies. It was mine, so long as I took a University Technologies course to have all the qualifications. (The TTI course involved a shop component, which would be taught by a different teacher, but still, gotta dot all the i’s.)

I once did spot welding in Grade 7 or 8. Not the sort of thing I’d ever thought I’d have to repeat. Anyway, upgraded my qualifications, then tried to forget about all that practical stuff. I think there’s a mousetrap car somewhere in my basement.

Along with TTI 1O (co-taught with Mr. Chalmers) I ended up with the TIK 2O course at least once more in 2006-2007. All I remember is going through it more or less the same way I had two years previously. I knew how to use “Binary High”, the school’s intranet, and the tech was generally manageable.

Within a year or so, I’d transitioned into the mathematics department. (It was the year Ron Gaudreau retired. I vividly remember being at a retirement gathering and lamenting to him, “I finally have a contract in math and YOU’RE LEAVING.”. We have similar senses of humour.) I think part of the reason for it was picking up the Statistics course (“Data Management”) which has a number of tech aspects to it.

That course (MDM 4U) has actually been a great fit for me.

TEN YEARS LATER


I took the year 2016-17 off of teaching, for mental health reasons, having put in for the leave back in late 2014. (See the post “Year Of Hell”.) In late June 2017, I got the news. Two sections of ICS 2O, Grade 10 computer science. They revised the tech curriculum in 2008, TIK 2O is no more. I have been assigned a course that, for all intents and purposes, I have never taught before.

Added context: My phone is from 2001 and I have texted people exactly ZERO times in my life. I don’t know Siri by name. My last Windows machine ran Windows Millennium (seriously, I transitioned to Macs after) and I do not use the Cloud. I have not done any coding for 10 years, nor have I had any desire to do coding. I am a fiction writer these days. (I even had a teacher ask me if I wanted to talk to a Creative Writing class once.)

O-kay. Computer Science. Back from the grave.


We try anything once, right? I scrambled to try and get some advice. “Processing” is apparently the language we use now? Sure. We don’t use optical drives any more? Oh, USBs, I have one of those. There’s this magical “Google Classroom” thing that can organize courses? Alright. I can have a bunch of files and assignments from previous teachers of the course? Good. Now what?

Sink or swim.

Sinking.

Siiiiiiinking.

The rational part of my mind knows that there’s always aspects to teaching that a person won’t enjoy. If it wasn’t ICS 2O, there would probably be something else to complain about. The levels grading system, which I’m STILL wrapping my head around 5+ years later. Efforts with homework, or chronically absent students, or failed attempts to implement math debates (not gonna get to THOSE this year). Always something. Sacrifices are necessary.

But on the other hand, why am I sacrificing happy aspects of my life for COMPUTER SCIENCE?

Actually, when we get right down to it, maybe that’s the real fear.

I’m scared that I’ll sacrifice the things I enjoy doing for CS, and as a result, I’ll end up getting it again. Oh God. A bit like what happened with Statistics, except that the Stats is actually fun. That’s something with just enough tech, but not too much. (I still need to find a good replacement for Fathom, something ELSE I’ll have no time for this semester.)

Here’s a nightmare: What this semester leads to more permanent tech? I’ll NEVER get back to the happy things.

I think that’s the problem. It’s a Catch-22. If I somehow make this course work, I might have to do it again. (I already have to do it again in second semester, the way things sit now.) Whereas if I DON’T make it work, well, I’m too much of a perfectionist to simply do it badly (though we are getting there!!), so it’ll be a spectacular flame out. SPECTACULAR. Either way, I’m caught. Trapped.

Computer Science helped guide me to teaching. In the end, it helped me to get a contract. I can’t fault it as a discipline, but we’re hardly friends. In part because, in my personal opinion, the actual CODING is a horrible thing to inflict on a person. Mad props to my wife, who does it for a living.

I'm not sure if I have my answers, but I think we’re at the end of this post.

Has anyone else out there ever had a love-hate relationship with a subject? Was it anything like my experience? For that matter, has anyone actually read this far?

I may never know. All I know is, doing this bit of writing over the past two hours has very possibly made me feel better than anything else has over the past seven days. Thanks for taking a look. (Now, what on Earth am I going to do tomorrow in my tech class...)

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