Friday, May 3, 2019

Sending forth the Spring 2019 HCI class

I spent the morning computing final grades for my Spring HCI class. Last night, I came across a post I wrote at the end of the Fall 2018 section that I had forgotten about: my post about how powerful our final reflection session was. This, along with other thoughts and desire for closure, inspired me to compose the following final announcement for this semester's class. I have another post I am working on which is a reflection about the semester, but I also wanted to share this as an open letter here. If I didn't, it would be trapped away on Canvas where I wouldn't be able to reference or reflect on it later. What follows is the announcement in its entirety, except for the first paragraph, which simply dealt with the final grading formula and reporting mechanisms.

I regret that we didn't schedule a day for a semester wrap-up discussion. Because of the problems scheduling our final presentations with Tania Said, we went right from working on the final project, to technical presentations, to formal presentations... and now time is up. Even though this is a one-dimensional stream, I would like to share a few of my final observations, in hopes it is inspirational to you as you move forward in your studies and career.

A conversation just fifteen minutes before the final exam made me think of the perfect question for the final exam. Of course, it was too late to make any changes at that point, but I did post it up on Facebook for some of my friends and alumni to comment upon. It looks like this:
Many of you signed up for this course expecting that I could pour some special knowledge into your heads that would make you good at designing user-interfaces. Now that we've studied design methods for 15 weeks, explain why what you wanted is not possible.
The resulting conversation on social media has been interesting. A colleague who also teaches undergraduate HCI mentioned how he regularly gets students in his class who conflate visual design with HCI. A successful alumnus from about five years ago posted, "It's a field without universal truths except for, 'Know thy user, and thy user is not you,'" which I think is a brilliant summation. Another alumnus who does a lot of user-facing development pointed out that there are always accessibility issues in any design, responding to a nested conversation about how accessibility is important but also platform- and application-dependent. A friend who teaches game design in Michigan simply said, "People are broken in interesting ways," which also ties in to many of our discussions of design processes, working in teams, and confronting our human biases.

I share this with you to help you compare what you know now to what you new before the semester started. Undoubtedly, there is something you can do to take the next step of improvement in your HCI skills, and my hope is that this course helped you identify what that is. After all, the goal of a liberal education is not prosaic job training but helping people understand how much there is yet to learn. Successful professionals are those who engage in reflective practice: thinking carefully and critically about their work and continually improving. Keep close to the heart of agile.

It would be irresponsible of me not to share with you an observation I made from working with you on the final projects. For many of you, the thing that is stopping you from creating innovative and useful systems is programming. I was disappointed to see so many in this class struggle with fundamental topics from the prerequisite courses, such as variable scope (CS120), parsing a one-dimensional data structure (CS121), and naming variables and methods appropriately as verbs and nouns (CS222). There are prerequisites because a solid background is required to succeed at the level of discourse appropriate for a 400-level course. How a student may have gotten to this level of the curriculum without such knowledge is a question for their own personal reflection; prudence demands considering what to do next. What ought one do who wishes to improve their software development skills? As I shared with you from Brown et al. Make It Stick, "To achieve excellence in any sphere, you must strive to surpass your current level of ability."

A creative mind may come up with no end of possible hobby projects; for such a person, the problem can be identifying a reasonable scope. You can always look up the kinds of questions that are asked on technical interviews, participate in the mathematical challenges on sites like Project Euler, or join a community of practice around a passion area such as game development or humanitarian open source projects. If you're not sure what else to do, I suggest working through this semester's projects again. The course plan will stay online. You can start again on the short project, but do it from scratch: don't fall into the trap that every team did for the final project and assume that my naive search architectural demo had any implicit value. Build up something for which you understand every part. Hold yourself accountable to best practices, which you can refresh yourself on by re-reading Clean Code. It's possible that our image server will be taken down some time this summer, but that doesn't have to stop you: you can find another data source to draw from, as the first part of the final exam implied. In fact, the university is moving to a cloud-hosted ContentDM database, and I'll be talking with Ms. Said and Mr. Bradley about how future students might take advantage of that.

A. J. Liebling wrote, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." Andy Harris said, "You want to be a game designer? You write the code, or you write the check." Steve Jobs said, "To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions." Kyle Parker told us that he was proving himself in the trenches for a decade before he was given a position of creative authority within the university. We are Computer Scientists—whether majors or minors!—and we are the ones who create value in the 21st century.

I hope that you have had a formative experience in this class. I wish you the best in future endeavors and will pray for your success.

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