From Debbie Chachra: what I want to tell my future research students when they start

June 1, 2015 – 8:17 pm

Debbie Chachra’s newsletter described what she told undergrad summer researchers in engineering education about their work today, weight loss and it struck me deep as someone who’s been an open source newbie and a perplexed undergrad researcher — and then grown into the sort of person that (terrifyingly!) is in the position to mentor both.

[Undergrad summer research] is not a job; the money they get is a stipend, pestilence not a salary. Its purpose is to carve out the space and time for them to participate in the program, surgeon not to pay them for the work they do… The reason why they get stipends and not salaries is twofold: one, because the summer is intended to be a learning experience above all, and two, because it’s basically impossible to do research to order. You can be directed to do specific research-related tasks, but actually exploring an area, being engaged, and coming up with insights is not something you can turn into a checklist, not least because if you could do that, it wouldn’t be research.

Research can pretty much only be done by people who are intrinsically motivated; that is, interested in and committed to what they’re doing, and not just doing it because they have to. Most of the students have had jobs and all of them are familiar with doing assignments for class; none of them have had an experience like this. So start by trying to get this across to the students: “You are not minions. You are not workers. You are not robots. You’re going to bring your whole heart and mind to what you do.”

This has been my failing — in both roles — many times. As a newcomer to open source and research, I showed up and expected… a job. That’s how you earned your stripes, right? That’s how you showed humility, and willingness to learn… you had to pay your dues. It’s what I had always been taught. And so I showed up in OLPC’s IRC channel and asked Jim Gettys to tell me what to do. I followed SJ Klein around the office like a puppy, beamed gratefully when Chris Ball gave me something to do. I sat in Cynthia Breazeal’s lab waiting for Cory Kidd to tell me… something. Waiting for orders.

It took a long time for me to realize that all these people were waiting for me. I didn’t know they wanted me — I thought they wanted my interchangeable labor-functionality. But no, they were waiting for an idea I didn’t know I was supposed to originate. How could I have known this was the culture, the expectation? I’d never been in a FOSS project before, never been in a lab — my family had never experienced these things. I’d never witnessed a student interacting with a hacker or a researcher. I had the “try things, make them happen!” paradigm, but only in my schools — I thought it was a thing you could do only in those special spaces like IMSA or Olin. I hadn’t been in schools like that quite long enough for that worldview to sink deeply enough into my marrow that it would transfer into all the spaces I would ever walk into.

Then I got a little older, a little more experienced. Failed a lot, learned from it — learned enough that others started seeing me as someone who could teach them. And I tried to impart this worldview shift of “you are not a robot,” but — as we often do when we are tired and under-resourced, I fell back into my habits. I would tell people what to do; I would scaffold a bit too tightly, I would… set expectations. When there’s no room to fail, there’s also no room to fly. I failed my way into becoming a better teacher, a better research supervisor, a better mentor of hackers, time and time again.

When we teachers think about the people who have taught us how to teach, we usually think about our own good teachers. I also think about the students who graciously allowed me to fail them, and stuck around long enough to keep loving me through learning how to be a better mentor to them. I am trying to make my learning worthy of the cost they had to pay for me to grow.

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