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I’m quite drawn to topics where there is a right or correct answer. I’m an introvert who has a hard time sharing my subjective experience; if I instead use mathematics, I can be explicit and precise. This universal language explains events in the world that we all seem to experience, like gravity, and sunshine.
I studied physics in college, hoping to find the “equations of everything”. Instead, I noticed that most topics couldn’t be simply made into math (see P. W. Anderson’s More is Different, or our understanding of turbulence). And even when a subject was mathematized, it didn’t have all the answers. In quantum mechanics, fundamental questions about measurement and observation remain unsolved. In string theory, it is extremely difficult to test for the expected higher-dimensional spaces. Some answers are perhaps impossible to know.
Up to this point, I had assumed that learning always operated in a “banking model”, where the teacher gifts knowledge onto the students. It is extremely rare in life to come across a big question that has a single right answer. And when there is a correct answer, you can always ask why enough times to get to a question without one. I’m reminded of a quote by Malcolm X:
“I’m sorry to say that the subject I most disliked was mathematics. I have thought about it. I think the reason was that mathematics leaves no room for argument. If you made a mistake, that was all there was to it.”
Our experience mediates all of our understandings about the universe. There is so much worth communicating that is subjective. Our stories and metaphors are only lenses of truth; there may be many ways of looking at the same thing. Life is messy.
As I teach, I think a learner should be active, skeptical, and curious. Why is the learner’s most important and effective question. Even in mathematics, different stories may cause a concept to “click”; it depends on what makes sense to you.
I’ve been especially influenced by bell hooks’ book Teaching To Transgress, Andy Charman’s perspectives on problem-solving, Dan Garcia’s enthusiasm in education, and Greg Wilson’s kindness and empathy.
I frequently teach programming to academics with the non-profit Software Carpentry (recently renamed to The Carpentries after merging with Data Carpentry). This group organizes volunteer-run workshops on computer literacy for academics and researchers. It is explicitly geared away from computer scientists, instead directed at people who want to use computers for their tasks.
I highly respect this approach to computing. It is designed for the very beginner, who may be intimidated by computers. These workshops can show you a way to use computers you never thought possible.
I have been active since 2015, when I met Greg Wilson, the founder of Software Carpentry. He is one of the best teachers I have ever met.
At CarpentryConnect Davis in 2018, I blogged about different ways people find this group.
I’ve taught many workshops for this organization:
I gave a talk on some of this work at the Tribal EPA Region 9 Conference in 2021.
I have long admired the effort to teach others how to code. In 2015, I helped teach a Python Boot Camp at LBNL and organized weekly “Learn to Code” meetups at my co-op.
In college, I was as a Teaching Assistant for two wonderful classes.