Fourth in a series. First one is here.
In yesterday’s post, I wrote about how the Creative Programming MOOC helped me realize that I really like programming. To my students, colleagues, and others in my life, this revelation must come as “kind of a duh” (a favorite student phrase from several years ago), as I am the math faculty member who uses computers the most and who is often fiddling with something software-related.
The story I tell myself has been different, however. Like many stories we tell ourselves, it’s one constructed to avoid pain. As I start to write today, I am not sure I will be able to keep up my promise of posting something that I write this day, as I feel fear in my gut and grief in my chest, and my instincts to protect myself and keep quiet compete with my desire to share.
My first programming experience was in high school. I got a summer job assisting in an Algebra One class at a wealthy private school in Chicago (I went to a public school in Evanston, just north of Chicago). I don’t recall how I got the job, but probably someone asked one of my math teachers to recommend someone. The school had a new personal computer – a Radio Shack TRS-80 – and when I showed some interest, the instructor let me take it home some weekends (he gave me rides), so I could learn to use it and help teach some relevant programming to the students in the class.
I taught myself some BASIC, an early computer language for beginners, and remember being thrilled to do things like print out lists of perfect squares. That computer experience was a mostly private affair, although I suspect that my dad helped me, as he is an engineer who had been bringing home teletype machines to do programming for several years.
As both an undergraduate and a graduate student, however, programming was never a private affair: I always had to go to a room where first the punch cards, and later the terminals lived. There were always others there, and the others were always mostly male.
I graduated from college in 1984, with degrees in both math and computer science. All of my classes in both fields were male dominated, but over the years, the percentage of female undergraduate math majors has increased to over 40% of all majors, while the percentage of female computer science majors has declined to only 12% at major research universities (Note the percentage of female CS majors listed in this graphic for 1985 was 37%, but it doesn’t give the stats for engineering departments at major research universities, and it was definitely not that high in my classes, although the percentage was higher than 12%. I think MIS and other degrees are included in the 1985 numbers; if anyone can point me to accurate data, I’d appreciate it — I didn’t want to spend too much time looking today).
I don’t consider it a tragedy that I pursued math more vigorously than CS – I really liked programming, but I loved math – but I do find it problematic that my experiences in CS were bad enough that in order to protect myself, I convinced myself that I never liked it much at all (even while I continued to look for programming-type opportunities for decades). These bad experiences were almost entirely related to sexism and harassment.
My closest male friend my first year of college (a CS major) had a roommate (also a CS major) who used to yell out on the phone in the background that if I didn’t come over and perform a certain sexual act on him, he would kill himself. Of course, he was joking, as was I when I said I’d go to his funeral, but I didn’t enjoy these interactions. By junior year, these “friends” had dumped me because of my emerging “feministic beliefs,” before I could dump them; I made many new friends, almost none of whom were math or CS majors.
These two guys were devotees of Plato, one of the earliest Computer Assisted Instruction systems, which was based at the University of Illinois, where we went to school. As I remember (and it’s been thirty years, so I don’t claim my memories are fully accurate, but they are the basis for the stories I’ve told myself), Plato was used during the day to supplement classes. After 10 pm, students were allowed free access, where they participated in some of the first online discussion boards (including talking about sex in a lot of juvenile ways and flaming each other), played games, and wrote their own programs.
I am very likely biologically a morning person, and although I was better at staying up late when I was twenty than I am now, it would have been physically very difficult for me to participate in this culture where students frequently stayed up all night on “Playtoy,” as my friends dubbed it. I was rarely there, but I heard about Plato all the time from these young men (who at some point, struggled to pass their classes, due to their nocturnal computer use).
Senior year I took a software engineering class as one of my final CS electives. There were over a hundred students in the class, and I don’t think I knew any of them going into it. The centerpiece of the course was a project to be done in groups of four; I don’t remember any other group projects that were part of the major. We got a list of projects and voted on our top three; I was assigned my first choice – a Monopoly Game — which seems a very simple final project now, but was more complicated then with the limited graphics available to us.
The other three people in my group were male friends (of each other, not of mine) who used Plato a lot, and at our first meeting they said they wanted to do the project on Plato, that it had better graphics. I protested that I’d never programmed in Plato before (its language was not used in any of our programming courses) and didn’t want to work so late at night, and they said they would write the program and I could do the documentation (i.e. be the secretary).
In a more heroic version of the tale I might have transcended my biological rhythms, staying up for nights on end to work feverishly on my own to learn Plato and dazzle my male classmates with programming that was slicker than theirs. Or, I might have been a teaching prodigy, who marched into the professor’s office to discuss the potential structural inequities in how he was handling the group project and suggest alternatives to make the assignment more productive for all.
In reality, I accepted the secretary role, knowing exactly what I was doing, with some shame. I learned very little, but I made our final project pretty enough, and we got a good grade. But hey, I didn’t really like programming that much anyways, and I was just finishing my last two courses because it was crazy, when I was already so close, not to get this degree that could be a backup and help me get a job someday.
And I was perfectly capable of programming a Monopoly game. And of learning to program on Plato. But I did not have the motivation, strength, and sheer will to fight or transcend the culture of the computer science major; I was more interested in finding places that were already affirming than in carving out a place for myself in a culture that felt hostile.
In graduate school, I took advantage of my morning-person nature in order to get some space so I could write the program that helped me solve the central problem in my thesis. I got up at 5 a.m. so I could take one of the first trains in, and I usually got at least two hours alone in the computer lab before any classmates showed up. I sometimes tried to keep working after others arrived, but there were men who constantly looked at my screen, asking what I was doing, and offering help that I didn’t want. There was one guy who used to just stand there, right next to me, way too close.
I am sure that I asked some of these guys to back off at some times, and there were some friendlier guys that I talked to (my female friends mostly left the program to do other things), and in retrospect there was probably some as-of-yet unnamed Asperger’s involved in some classmate’s behavior, but mostly I dealt with my discomfort by adjusting my schedule and trying to avoid people who bothered me. And besides, I didn’t really like programming that much, I just needed to finish my thesis.