Speaking is Hard
This post is going to be more personal essay than documenting views that can masquerade as advice. I am considering writing more posts in this style, as a representation of a particular time and place. Inspired by this series.
Talking about technical work — and research especially — is hard. When we say this, we often elide the why and as a result perpetuate the idea that there is something inherently difficult about computer science. This post is about a view I’ve long held, that computing is just as much about learning a dialect and culture as it is about the technical work we do.
Mise en scène
In today’s world of Hackathons and Girls Who Code, I came to computing comparatively late. I didn’t program in my youth, I didn’t go to math camp, and I wasn’t, like many folks I met in college, a talented youth, which I presume would have exposed me to programming. This was totally normal for a 90s kid! I was raised with propaganda that sexism was a solved problem. It was against this backdrop where, while I’d done fine — and at times even excelled! — in my STEM courses in my younger years, I decided to change my major to English Literature in college, mostly because it made me feel smug and cultured at parties.1
Unsurprisingly, I used to feel like a fraud in those courses because my professors thought I was quite insightful and clever, but I always felt like I was faking it. I knew how to mimic the styles of writing they admired, I could read criticism in depth and map out the more arcane perspectives, and I generally knew how to repeat back enough analysis that would align with the professor or the reading, while inserting enough of my own thoughts to appear original. I knew I was only a good writer because I was a depressive, socially awkward, and misanthropic child who preferred to read and write and think strategically about communication over actually communicating. I wasn’t a “natural” at these things2 — they took considerable time and effort — but more powerful people seemed to think I was and the mask was to my benefit, so I went with it.
When I took an introductory programming course in my penultimate semester in college, I found myself in the middle of the pack, but enjoyed the actual work of sitting at a computer and coding so much more than writing papers that felt like sophistry.3 I thought, this is something I could stand to do for 40 hours a week. I always planned to be some kind of writer or a lawyer, but coding seemed like a sufficiently enjoyable profession with better pay than the former and less debt and stress than the latter.
I got into computing in my 20s during a time when all tech interviews asked what coding projects you did in your spare time. That’s a topic for a different post, but my main feeling was one of culture shock. There are certain things that can be more apparent to an outsider, such as how CS had a view of itself as being filled with people with no social skills but tons of passion, when in fact there was a clear culture, language, and hierarchy. Despite the fact that I’ve “officially” been in computing for over a decade now, I still feel like an interloper in a foreign land wondering who can tell that I don’t belong and that this isn’t my mother tongue.
Writing is hard, but speaking can be harder
My secret weapon in graduate school was many years of writing experience. My super-special secret weapon was how I thought about writing, which was very clinically and operationally. My writing meta-game allowed me to adapt to CS technical writing with relative ease, which was incredibly important since everything else was a slog.4
Writing is s skill, but given that papers are rarely written by a single author, attribution can be challenging. Even single-author papers go through peer review, and are often the result of iteration and feedback. I quite like this feature, since it can emphasize the work over the self. On this axis, however, speaking is in direct contrast — we rarely question who spoke an utterance upon hearing it.5 The social status of a person who says something insightful or clever will immediately improve if the speaker has enough confidence and insouciance; people will hold that person in higher esteem and make inferences about their acumen. Speak in an awkward or imprecise manner at your peril. Mistakes feel fatal.
The stakes for spoken speech are thus quite high, especially for people who do not fit the current cultural profile of clever person in CS. I was never one to ask questions during class (make no mistake, I had plenty), and recall male peers from grad school criticizing classmates who did (always female), for their “stupid questions.” I remember going in to office hours and fumbling over the words to describe what I did not understand, and having the professor latch onto the part of the question I actually did understand, which of course made me wonder how little they thought I knew.
Over time I found people I trusted, mostly in my labs. I was fortunate to work with several professors during my PhD who really listened to me work through problems, rather than dismissing me as an outsider for not knowing vocabulary or for struggling to articulate my thoughts. I learned how important it was to work in a lab with peers, and how even casual communication about research could be a minefield. At the end of my PhD I was especially lucky to have a cohort of female colleagues with whom I’d chat about research regularly.
What shocked me about the lab environment at the end of my PhD shouldn’t be shocking at all — having a space of people who, no matter what I said, would never think I was less for having said something poorly, foolish, or even (gasp!) incorrect finally gave me the space to feel truly comfortable in a research environment. That comfort wasn’t just about feelings — it created a virtuous cycle wherein we kept talking with each other about research. For the first time I was getting regular practice in the art of research conversation. Everyone should have the benefit of this environment.
Casualty of the pandemic
Some of this story may come as a surprise to people who know me well.
Trouble speaking, especially in high-stress situations, is a common consequence of a lack of practice, and a lack of practice can often be attributed to a lack of social or psychological safety. Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve secured a TT position, written and defended my dissertation, moved to a new state, and started a new job. I used to commute on the bus every day and on most days chat with one of my labmates on the way in. We would chit chat about papers at lunch, run ideas by each other, and seamlessly meander from discussing the latest boulder problem at our gym to an interesting research discussion we saw on Twitter. We’d pitch paper ideas to each other and outline big, ten-year research visions.
Now I can go most days where the only person I actually speak to is my partner. I haven’t given a public talk since my defense a year ago, and virtual conferences have no appeal to me. I feel increasingly disconnected from a broader research community. I’ve tried to use Twitter to connect with people, but it’s been much easier leverage Twitter as a casual social media site than to engage in serious conversation on it. I’ve reached out to some folks over the past year to chat about possible research collaborations, but it’s been painful. I went from being conscious of how hard it was to articulate my research plan to downright struggling to make sense to the other party.
All the while, I have not stopped writing. In fact, the only time I feel good about myself and my work is when I sit down to write. Virtual interpersonal interaction makes me feel like a loser, but at least all of the paper reviews and grant feedback has been effusive about my writing.
Hope for the future
I know that this is a byproduct of the pandemic and remote work. I believe — and must hope — that it will pass. However, it reminds me so much of my early days in computing, where I struggled to understand and be understood.
While this is personally challenging, the silver lining is that it does come at a good time. I will soon have research students working with me and being reminded of how daunting it can be to start. It’s good to viscerally feel the impact of not “speaking the language” of the community so that I can be intentional about the environment I create for my students.
Fundamentally, no matter how I feel, I have all the signifiers of someone who belongs — I did, after all, end up in academia. My students will undoubtedly differ from me in ways I will not be able to anticipate. My hope is that with honesty, practice, and a commitment to listening — really listening — I will be able to foster an environment where they will feel free to speak.
I started as an Economics major, but I went to college in part to become what I thought was a learned person, and I didn’t feel any more learned after my freshman year, hence the change of major. ↩
Is anyone, though? ↩
In high school I wrote a document called “Bullshitting Writing Assignments” that was structured as an infomercial and was meant to be a pastiche of Strunk and White. A classmate actually used it to write her college essays. Youth. ↩
I’d note that some of that ease wasn’t just the experience of having spent years of writing nearly every day, but also the experience of having earned years of positive feedback on my writing. I certainly had several CS professors pontificate on their idea of good writing and tell me some very silly things, but I had a good foundation of confidence in my skills (even if I did sometimes feel like a fraud) that I lacked in my mathematical reasoning and coding. ↩
Although I will surprise myself with words that sound quite unlike me, and am no longer surprised when I hear my words coming from someone else’s mouth, these cases speak to a different issue. Even if you are repeating yourself, choosing the correct time and emphasis is a skill and can be wielded to impress. ↩