How Instructor Training has made me want to quit

Mar 28, 2015 • John Moreau

I have struggled over writing and posting this blog post. When we received the assignment to write about a demotivating educational experience, I struggled to think of a good example from the classroom. Then I realized that the most demotivating experience of my life was still going.

Software Carpentry Instructor Training has sapped my enthusiasm for both programming and for teaching in general.

Coming into this program, I felt excited not only to improve my own teaching but also to strengthen my programming knowledge. As an economist I do not have much formal training in programming. I’ve organized a Software Carpentry workshop at my campus to provide training for grad students. I’ve been through several online courses on R. I regularly attend my local R user group. Yet despite all of this experience, I feel like an imposter. There are so many people who know so much more about programming and R than I do. It’s hard to not compare myself against them. When I came into this training, I thought I would conquer those fears through learning-by-teaching.

Coming from the social sciences, I thought maybe I could help other social scientists learn good programming skills. Reading through the SwC email listserv and website, there’s all of these great resources for Biologists and Physicists. I never anticipated feeling like an outsider but since trainiing started, I’ve never felt like I didn’t belong as badly as I do right now.

##Where The Problem Starts## The problem started with the first blog post. We get the assignment “Make a blogpost with Markdown”.

“Great. (What’s Markdown?)”

We did get paired with someone to help with github. My partner helped me brush out the cobwebs and get my post online. The only way I could create the file was by coping someone else’s file and substituting my text into their formatting. I didn’t know what I was doing, if it worked, or why. After the github post, I thought I might maybe know how to do it.

Then for the next blog post, I didn’t touch markdown or github for another two weeks. By that point, I had lost what little confidence and skill I had built previously. It took me five hours to get the file into a markdown format and loaded to Git. In the end, I had to delete all of the files on my local machine and my forked repo on github.com because I had made such a mess of things.

The whole time, I’m struggling through this task, I keep questioning why am I failing so badly. I keep looking over every email and conference call transcript. The whole time, I’m beating myself up, saying that:

“This must be a basic task, why don’t I know this?”

“Everyone else must know how to do this”

“What’s going to happen if I do this merge/commit/pull request? Is everyone going to see how badly I’m doing?”

“Is this a natural\physical sciences thing? Is this something people all learn in biology?”

This situation worsens with every assignment and webinar. Since training doesn’t have a syllabus or written outline, I wasn’t sure where to turn for help. Normally, I’m great about looking things up on google, finding answers on my own. My anxiety and fears overwhelmed any intellectual part of me. I felt so demoralized that I just started shutting down.

Before the course, no one mentioned anything about using Git, Github, or Markdown. There is nothing on the SwC website about Markdown. The Teaching site doesn’t even have a direct link to the main website. At one point, I did find the github page about markdown, but I had absolutely zero context for it. The thing didn’t make any sense to me. Hearing ‘there’s a github help page’ only made me feel dumber.

Finally, I break down and ask for help. By this point, I’m nearly in tears every time I have to deal with github or markdown. Even now, writing this blog post, I’m still ashamed, frustrated, and hurt.

##Asking for Help## I didn’t want to ask for help. I didn’t want to have admit that I didn’t know this seemingly trivial thing. I felt like the message was “this is so easy, you should already know how to do this.” I felt like I was a failure for not knowing how to do all of this already.

###Here’s the actual email I sent:

I would like to ask for help with markdown. Did I miss the instruction about markdown? I’ve never used this before and this whole course feels like I’m supposed to already know everything about markdown. Everytime I try to do any of the assignments, I just feel stupid. The whole thing is so demoralizing. When did we get that material? Was it a prerequisite for training? I’m so confused and lost.

What program edits markdown? How does it work? There was something about headers on the email list. I tried to read it but it made no sense. Is this something biologists all know? I’m an economist, we don’t get training in web languages.

Is markdown a programming language? Is this some sort of teaching device, requiring learners to do something without giving them any guidance? Everytime I deal with markdown, it takes hours and makes me feel terrible because I don’t know how I’m supposed to already know this. What am I missing? Can you please resend the email where you told us how to do this?

{Emphasis Added}

##What could have been done differently

  • Don’t tell someone to ‘read the help page’. If they don’t understand what is even being asked of them, they can’t help themselves yet.
  • Just because you’ve helped someone with one topic, that doesn’t mean they’re comfortable with it on their own.
  • When you say ‘here’s help with idea X’, people will only talk about idea X and not V or U.
  • Don’t assume that people know a topic when that topic is not a prerequisite for the class.
  • Have a syllabus that includes ways students can ask for help without losing face.

For everyone who’s thought that if the instructor apologized, the situation might be better, I have some bad news. I did get an apology. But by that point, I had already internalized my struggle as a personal failure. Even with an apology, I still feel like an idiot.

Perhaps the final takeaway here: * Don’t let it get this bad. Just because people are still showing up for class, that doesn’t mean they haven’t already failed in their own mind.

##Post-Script:

This blog post has been delayed substantially because I can’t seem to get it pushed or pulled or merged or I don’t even know what. I’ve finally got a handle on Markdown, but I’ve spent hours trying to figure out if I’m about to overwrite other people’s files by doing a pull request. Yes, I have tried ready the help files and using google to find answers. I can’t make heads or tails out of any of it.

If I can’t figure out what’s going on I may have to quit Instructor Training.