Joyce Currie Little Interview: Selected Quotes


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Hiring women to do the programming

Well, it turns out that in the 1940s when the ENIAC was being built at the University of Pennsylvania, for some reason Mauchly and Eckert got women mathematicians to do the programming. And there is of course a lot of talk about whether or not it was because all the men were gone off to war -- that was in World War II -- or whether it was some other reason, but they consistently hired women to do the programming. [...] Yeah, so it turns out the people at Convair had actually done research as to who was going to be active in this new field that was arising -- because I was hired in 1957 -- and so it turns out that they had read research, psychological findings and workplace findings, that women were supposed to be especially good at detail. And so apparently that's one of the reasons he had asked my physics teacher, "Do you know any women math majors?" So I guess I was reverse discrimination placed, you know, I didn't know it at the time.

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No credit -- you already know too much!!

And one of the first courses that was mentioned was a course that was in a book by Dan McCracken. And Dan McCracken's FORTRAN manual was our bible, I mean ... And so I said, "You mean the book is by Dan McCracken?" (It was called Combinatoric Principles for Digital Computers.) "I got to take that." So I went charging out there to see if I could take it. And in order to take it, I had to get admitted and had to go through some of the other steps. And so they said, "Oh, we're not sure we can give you credit for this." "Why not?" "Well, you already know too much, you can probably teach it. But you can sit in, you can audit."

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Roller skate transmittal for in-line real-time computing

And we had this real crisis project that was done for American Airlines. We had to prove that the plane could -- the one being tested -- could take off in less than a mile and land in less than a mile. And we were going to get this huge contract if we could do that. And so they put us on sort of crisis mode and we had to go back over to the IBM 650 like ten times a shift. They'd do a run and we'd charge over there. They held up while we got back. We'd take another run over. Run back. Take another run over. And so I hit upon the idea of bringing my roller skates to work. So I put my roller skates on and we skated over there through this big, huge model design tunnel place. And we hit the deck in the other building and they'd see us coming and say, "Oh, no, here they are again." But anyway, we both found out doing roller skates for a while. And so I call that now "on-line real-time" with roller skates, before on-line real-time was really possible.

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That's a skill, not a college subject

So the only place I found that had a computer was Goucher College, a women's college. And they didn't need anyone full-time, but they needed somebody to come and help manage the new machine that they had gotten through the NSF. So I took a job at Goucher College and I was called assistant director of the computer center, even though we didn't have a center yet. And I taught one course a semester: statistics. The other thing that was really a shock was that they didn't have any courses for credit, computer courses. And I said, "Well, shouldn't you be teaching a computer programming class, like FORTRAN programming, for all your math majors?" "Oh, no, that's not a college subject. That's a skill and that's like a trade. And we'd love for you teach that, but we're going to teach that after school as a club activity." So they had this different mentality about what was academic and what was not.

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Workforce trends and attracting minorities

So I then began to study workforce trends. I did a study on gender and workforce trends way long ago. I did a study on certifications by the states of their teachers. I did another study on demographics, like where are the ... this was an early diversity thing, this followed up on my doctoral dissertation. In fact, I discovered that most are men and most are white and most are WASP -- White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. And the next was way down and it was Asian. And there were no blacks, no minorities. That was one of the other things that I carried with me to the community college, that some of this needs to be promoting. And so as the community college where I was teaching became more interested in attracting minorities, we were certainly there to try to lure them, and get them involved in that. It was interesting, though, that in several of the studies I did, it was the minorities who didn't want to return their survey forms. In spite of the fact that a few of them were going into the field and they didn't want to be involved. So, you know, you think, "Well, there's something else going on here that we need to be interested in."

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Collaborative mentoring

I really am so strongly convinced that mentoring is important, mentoring is useful, mentoring is very helpful and that we need more role models of people to do mentoring. But I've never been really active myself, in considering myself doing it or even in using it. It turns out that in most of my situations it's almost been a collaborative endeavor, not necessarily a mentoring endeavor. There've been several colleagues who I worked with who helped me a lot and then I helped them a lot, but they were in different kinds of things. I don't have any specific people to name as mentors, unless of course you name some people like the ACM folks -- Dick Austing, for example. He really became a mentor to so many people and was encouraging. I think, even though you don't necessarily consider those people mentors, you consider them influential. They gave influential encouragement at time when it was very important.

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Promoting breadth as a profession

And especially now that we're, as a profession, we're promoting breadth in so many ways. And NSF has a program called Broadening Participation, which predominately they intended to be broadening of the demographics, bringing in minorities and women and so on. But broadening ... to realize that computing is everywhere and it is needed in almost all the disciplines, is another part of broadening that I think is really important. And I guess I've kind of been pushing that, too, for a long time.

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Extending training on-the-job to the classroom experience

Probably one of the major influences in my teaching was the fact that my first experiences of learning in this field were on the job, were training programs on the job, or self-study on the job. So I really believe in learning by doing, learning by practice, learning by doing. And so I try to bring into the classroom, under the constraints that we have in the classroom, practical experiences. I have always tried to bring in graduates of the program and let them tell about their experiences. I have always included stories, you know, like the story of what happened and what was the moving point that brought that to bear. And so, when the movement came -- teaching and learning movement -- several organizations of higher education were promoting the teaching and learning movement. Which is more of a constructivist philosophy, that students learn, retain more about what they've learned if they themselves have processed it through their own brain, rather than just surface knowledge or listening to somebody or reading about it, that they have to actually do something with it. And so I've always tried to have in-class activities that students can participate in. I encourage a lot of discussion. I sometimes have small group discussion -- three people talk about this question. It is especially easy to do that in courses of societal and ethical issues, societal and ethical concerns. It seems that in those kinds of courses that's not only easier to do, but most of the computer science majors don't know much about it to start with, so there's a lot to learn.

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Software engineering course as a capstone

And I also teach the undergraduate elective in software engineering, which is, of course, one of my favorites. And people come in thinking, "Oh, this is just another programming class," but no, it's not. It's not another programming class. It's about computer programming, but it's not to teach more in computer programming. But we're using process models from the Software Engineering Institute. We teach process models. We teach estimation. We teach how to better manage a project, what to look for, how to know about ... how to manage it. What are all the design alternatives that are there, and what are all the different modeling methods that you can use to do it with. And so students, instead of writing a program, will maybe have to write a test plan for a system or something related to that. That's really been a joy. Apparently it has been very well received locally. Although there's no particular standard for that anywhere, not even in the new software engineering curriculum, which would start -- the software engineering curriculum model that the ACM developed starts off doing that early on, so it's a totally different approach. But for computer science majors who have never had any of that, doing that kind of thing is what I would like to think of as a capstone. And having them handle some of it and do some of it has been really gratifying, in that they come back from job interviews saying, "Gee I'm glad I knew what CMM stood for!" And so that's been one of the things I enjoy the most.

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Don't let people hold you back

Don't let people hold you back. You know, don't be shy. Because I was very shy and I was not necessarily going to speak up until I got angry. And I waited a lot longer that I should have in many cases to speak up or to say something or to present my opinion. I think that they should just move on and when they have opinions or attitudes or expressions, they should express them and find others with common interests and common causes to work with. Because there's just a lot of wonderful people out there who need colleagues to work with. And so try to find them.

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A blessing in retrospect

You see, a lot of times when things happen to you, you don't think of it as a blessing until years later. You discover ... you thought it was terrible, but looking back -- that illness I had in college was really a blessing. You know, you look back and you think, "But for that illness, I would have remained a phys ed major, been a basketball coach in high school, and married [...] the guy who was the star of our campus basketball team (who I dated for years). But because of that illness I really had a total turnaround in my life. And I think sometimes you have to -- well, the way we expressed it then, you have to fight while you're lying flat on your back. And you don't realize that, in performing that fight, that you are actually thinking through situations and that you make turns in your life that you would not have made otherwise.