Now for a more traditionally-formatted reflection for that reflections seminar class, this one on a specific experience at Hacker School (HS), a 3-month program that's like "a writer's retreat for programmers."
What happened and how did it feel? I landed in Manhattan on Sunday afternoon and went straight into a pow-wow with the HS staffers over cheese and crackers and large sheets of butcher paper with colored markers in the back room. I was there for my second round as a Resident -- what universities would call "visiting faculty." Like the other Residents who'd be visiting later in the batch, I was an experienced programmer with a long history of contributions in the open source world. Unlike the other Residents, I studied Education Stuff as my Day Job, and thus felt a bit like an impostor. Since I started my PhD in Engineering Education at Purdue, I've felt, nervously, like I wasn't a "real hacker" any more but rather "just" someone who studied them and how they learn.
Hacker School, however, has a way of making me feel instantly ok with that tension. We sat down and got right to business with the brisk comfort of those with an Understanding Between Them. One of the first things they asked me for was for more "pedagogy magic."They didn't know specifically what they wanted, but they knew they wanted to Learn More about Teaching and Learning, so that they could Get Better at it. Normally, this sort of phrasing drives me nuts -- but in this context, it did not. Honest. I'm not trying to make HS look good here; I'm trying to write out what I felt. I knew their vagueness wasn't some "Mel, be a Magic Wand and Fix Everything!" request for a silver bullet, but rather the careful considerations of people who know that they don't know what they don't know, who trust you to pick up on that, and who you completely trust to improvise with you in ways that turn out things that are unknown, but Very Good.
"I don't know what you need," I told them, "and I think we'll need to do this stuff in context, so why don't you talk about what you're doing and then as Pedagogy Stuff crops up, I'll pull it out?" I don't even know if we took the moment to nod before we got to work (have I mentioned I love working with these people?) but within minutes we were full-out in the flow of improvisational expertise. At some point, we started talking "philosophy" -- the question of "what makes a good student [at HS]" came up, and it became clear this was a frustrating topic for the facilitators, who knew they had to tackle it somehow but also wanted to Take Concrete Actions -- an itch I sympathize with as a hacker myself.
It was surprising how natural the next thing felt: I started thinking of "what makes a good Hacker Schooler?" as a research/design question, and looked for ways to ground the exploration of that question in data. Without getting into too much detail: I asked the faculty to think of specific students they'd had in the past, and what was wonderful about those students, and what was frustrating. We came up with qualities drawn directly from their shared experiences, and rephrased and categorized our way towards personas, and it felt right, and I kept getting told how Wonderfully Helpful all this was.
Analyzing. Am I most useful to the hacker world as someone who is not a hacker in the normal sense -- not working directly on technology -- but as someone who hacks... hackers? A researcher of hackers, someone who deliberately chooses to stand on the side and not jump in with the messiness of making things that (for many hackers) characterizes what it means to be a hacker at all?
And if so, how do I feel about that? It certainly feels normal, natural, comfortable -- I slipped into it here almost without realizing it. I feel empowered, strong, useful, functional, good. I fit into that researcher-of-hackers role in a way I never quite fit as someone who "just" wrote code. It is important that I do and have written plenty of code, know the technical roles from the inside -- I would not understand the learning of hackers the same way if I'd never learned those things that way myself. But I am decidedly with at least one foot outside that world right now.
It is gratifying to discover that the things that are now obvious to me (thank you, Olin and Purdue!) are not obvious to others; that not everyone knows design and research technique, that it can be something I teach and something that's very empowering to the people I work with. It's also confusing to re-realize that you've rewired yourself so much that you are, once again, an oddball among oddballs, a someone characterized by being the "one of these things that's not like the other" (to hum along to the old Sesame Street song). That you're most useful when you are... a freak.
A useful freak.
A happy useful freak.
Next steps. I like this role, and I will play with it; I will acknowledge that the boundaries and definitions that I set here (hacker vs nonhacker, hacker vs researcher, hacking as "only" coding -- or not! -- and so on) are constructed, shifting, arbitrary, not platonic absolutes dropped down from heaven. Putting on the researcher hat gives me a particular sort of positionality that prevents me from being a "normal hacker" or a "normal student," but I'll play with it for now, with the knowledge that I can always take that hat off and become a "normal hacker" again. I'll think about how to do research in a way useful to the people learning and working at HS -- I'll see that as my role for now -- and talk with everyone as if it is, and thus it shall become so. And we'll see what happens, and I'll use my usefulness and comfort as a gauge for when I should evaluate or re-evaluate that call.