Jane Prey Interview: Selected Quotes


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Programming languages as just syntax once you understand computing

It's not hard to teach a programming language once you understand computing, because it's just different syntax. And so that was what was really the enlightening thing for me, was it really isn't about syntax, it's really about how to solve the problem. And that's what was fun. And I enjoyed being around students, and so that motivated me to go back to school.

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Experience of computing courses in earlier days

Remember this is the days, the first computing courses I took, we had to use punch cards, we dropped them in a basket, a messenger came and took them someplace where they could be ... the jobs would be run. And then they would bundle the paper up with your card deck and bring it back at a certain time. So back then it was really very labor intensive, was not instantaneous by any stretch of the imagination. And then the nights before you had big projects, you went down to the computing facility and you lay on the floor and worked your card decks and whatever. But what I really liked about it was how cool it was to be able to solve a problem. How you could make a machine do something that you wanted an answer for. It was just very ... I just thought it was really interesting, how I could make something happen by telling it what to do. And it would give me the right answer, that I couldn't necessarily know what the right answer was, but I knew how to get to the right answer. So I just thought it was really fascinating.

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Clear thinker with a flow chart

I know one of the men I most admired -- and I still admire -- in my whole life was a gentleman I worked with back in the old days when we used to flow chart. You'd give him a project, and he would spend 80%, 90% of his time working on a flow chart. He literally, day after day, would sit there and draw flow charts. Every single piece he would draw, and he'd refine it, he was very meticulous. And you'd go in there, and you'd see him working, and he'd explain a problem to you or something. He was a very nice man. And at the end he'd go in and he'd code it. He'd probably code the whole thing up in just a few days, because he had his flow chart. And then he'd go run it, and it was unbelievable, it always ran. It was just one of those things, that he had spent so much time analyzing the problem that he understood what the issue was, and then when he wrote the code, it was all there. I was just amazed. I could never ... I was never that clear a thinker. He was just ... he was really incredible, just really an incredible thinker. So I will never forget him.

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Opportunity to pick the times to teach

And the chair of the department always said, "I'll let you always pick the times you want to teach because I don't pay you anything." So I always taught when my children were in nursery school, so it wasn't like they were at a babysitter so I could teach. And then I would pick them up from nursery school after class let out. And then I would do my grading and lesson planning and everything when they went to bed at night. So, you know, it was a really exciting time for me because I felt like I had it all. I felt like I was really doing some interesting work, and I loved college students. And I still had my babies, and I could still be the full-time mom that they thought I was. So it was a very nice life.

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Studies then and now

[O]ne of the benefits of being an older student is that you really are more focused on your work. And I used to be a typical college student where I'd stay up all night before a paper was due. My dissertation was -- all the papers I did and all the research I did and all the work that was due in a class -- was always done at least 2 weeks ahead of time, which was so unlike my previous educational experience. And in part because I knew that my family always came first, and if I waited until the last minute to do the paper, there's somebody who's sick, or somebody who needs something, and that would have to take precedence over my going to school. I mean, that was my choice, and I knew I never wanted to be put in a position where I had to make that choice. So I always tried to make sure that my work was done in plenty of time, so in the event that something happened that I couldn't work on my school work, that I wasn't stuck.

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Literacy as the road to getting credit

And I started doing a lot with another one of my soapboxes, is really talking about literacy: What do students really need to understand about computing? And I think this is a failing in our community, that we haven't sold how cool it is and how important it is to others outside of our community. Anything that we touch today has some kind of computing in it, but yet we get no credit for it. You know, we get no credit for the fact that cars are better, safer, stronger, and more intelligent than they ever were. People don't think of computing as being part of a car. But yet so much of a car is now computing. Engineers get credit. Material science people get credit. All these other people get credit for developing better cars. Computer people don't get any credit for being part of that development. Bad thing. I think it's very bad.

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Teaching as a partnership

One of the things I learned late in my teaching career was that if you really talk to your students early, it makes it a much easier environment to work with them. And so the last few years I taught, the first day of class I would talk about my teaching philosophy. And how I believed that we could work together to make the most of the class time and their time. And I really told them, "I'm not here to teach you. I'm here to help you learn." And I said, "I think those are very different things. Because no matter how good a teacher I am, if you're not willing to learn, it doesn't matter. And learning takes effort on your part."

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A failing of all teaching

You know, that was the way I started out. I mean, I started out, I think, very traditionally, the way we always did it in college. I would lecture to my students. I would do my notes. I would try to make good examples. But I lectured at them. And then I'd say, "Do you get this? Is it OK?" And then, of course, what would they say? They'd say nothing. And it took me many years before I figured out how to engage them in a more active way. And I think that's a failing of all teaching, that we aren't helping people become better teachers. Because people are spending a lot of time getting ready for class, and I don't believe anybody spends that time deliberately to go do a bad job.

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Introducing First Timers at SIGCSE

One of the things that I'm most proud of is I introduced the idea of First Timers. Getting First Timers together so that they became part of the community much quicker. It wasn't an original idea on my part. I was at another conference where they had an active First Timers program. It was a much larger conference, it was like 6,000 people. But I really felt like that was a great thing to do because then all of a sudden I had somebody to go to dinner with. All of a sudden, you know, I had a community of people to hang out with, or to go to the next session with, or to sit with, and not be alone among 6,000 people for two days or three days. So I thought this would be ... SIGCSE was a very warm and embracing community, but we had never done anything overtly to try to interact with this group. And as we got larger, I thought it would be harder to do. So I started that when I was program chair. I did it again when I was conference chair. And then people must have thought it was a good idea because we're still doing it, and people have taken it to the next level of engagement and being part of actively seeking out the new people. And I think that's the kind of thing that makes me feel good about why I'm involved in these organizations that are about building community.

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SIGCSE community as a welcoming setting

But certainly the SIGCSE community is very welcoming and open. I felt very warm the first time I went there. Some of my best friends are in that community. The reason I go there now, not just to hear the papers, but it's to see my friends and see how they're doing and see what's new. So it has served me well through these many years.

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Learning to be effective in groups

Some of the early challenges were when I was new and didn't know how to be assertive in faculty meetings. It would be hard for you to believe now that I was actually very shy and retiring at one point in my life, but I truly was. And I didn't know how to be effective in addressing groups, and making my point, and being heard. And I don't know that it was because I was a woman or because I was new, but it was something. And I know what helped me was a couple of my colleagues that I would sit with. And I would say something and then somebody would say it five minutes later and everybody would jump on that and say, "Gosh that's a good ..." Well then one of my colleagues in particular said, "Oh yeah, that's what Jane said ten minutes ago." And so he was the one who helped me stand up and say, "Yes, that's what I was talking about." And so I think a lot of it is confidence, and to know that you can think of things that are actually pretty good, or that are worth discussing further, not that everything that you come up with is perfect. But it's an opportunity to discuss and have value in an opinion of others about your ideas.

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Being a lone wolf is never a successful strategy

Being a lone wolf, in my mind, is never a successful strategy. And it took me a lot of years to figure that out. You need to have people who have the same passions as you. Different operating mode, different ideas, different thought patterns, but have the same passions. They're good people, they have good ideas. You work together and you can come up with some really fabulous things. Being able to work as a group is far more powerful than being able to work by yourself.

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The tension of being an academic in industry

But yet when you're on the research side of the house, you say, "Well, not everything can work all the time. And you need a certain percentage of failures in order to understand that you're pushing the envelope." Well, philosophically everybody agrees with that. But practically, is that something that works in an industry environment? I don't think so. And so there's always this tension between being an academic -- and always being an academic, I will always view myself as an academic -- being an academic, but being in industry. And so how does that tension work? And it actually works in your favor, if you don't get all bent out of shape over, "This is really a stupid thing to be doing, because it's not enough time." Or "This is really a question of ... why aren't academics addressing." If you don't get yourself wrapped tight up in knots over not being able to solve all of the problems of the academic/industry engagement, but just keep working at it and keep pushing both sides to give a little. And then you get, you know ... and hopefully someday the hole in the dam will be big enough and the water will come out in bigger spurts.

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Decide you love being a teacher

I think you really have to decide you love being a teacher. And being a teacher -- meaning being a mentor. Being a teacher -- meaning not being perfect. Being a teacher -- meaning not expecting your students to be perfect, but really trying to help people grow. I view teaching as being a mom. I think that all teachers, in the generic sense of being a mom, not in a gender sense. But the whole idea of nurturing, of letting them pick what clothes they wear, whether it's the orange shirt with the red shorts to school three days in a row, but you wash them every night. You let them do that because that's part of growing up, that's part of the decision-making process, that's part of nurturing them into making the right decisions. Same thing with teaching. The whole idea of having them think and being able to help them understand how to solve the problems. And that's what a teacher does.