Nell Dale Interview: Selected Quotes

This page includes a number of quotes from the Nell Dale interview. The interview overview page provides access to some background information, the audio from the interview, a transcript of the interview, and two video snippets.


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Calling in sick

And what really concerned me was I was teaching a class I knew nothing about and frantically trying to stay one lecture ahead. [...] And I remember one day thinking, "I can't do it." I called in sick. I went to bed. I put the covers over my head. Slept for three hours. Got up. Used that as a chance to get more than one day ahead. And everything was fine from that day on. But I remember the sense of sheer panic. I got through it.

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Retraining women scientists and the need to talk

I had been teaching for about 2 years. No formal mentoring at all. And [the department chair] showed me where the National Science Foundation had a program for women in science. [...] It was the late 1970s when this was being done and where are the scientists, where are the women scientists? And he showed me this Call for Proposal and I got very excited about it. And put in a proposal to bring women back with science degrees and give them an intensive year's programming in computing. And bring them up to the level of undergraduate degrees in computer science. [...] I must have interviewed 500 women that thought this program might be for them. And what interested me the most was that it really wasn't for most of them, but those women wanted to talk to somebody. And so the interviews really turned into my being able to mentor someone that had degrees in science and by the second add-on proposal it was social sciences as well.

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An advantage of writing over teaching

Yes, one likes to think about one's successes and not necessarily one's failures. And I think about the teaching evaluations. And they're predominantly very good, but it's those one or two that say, "Why did you hate me? Why did you pick me out to criticize?" When you think, "I never criticized a soul in class!" At least I tried not to. So, are you picking up the ambiguity that I'm feeling? And ... when you are writing, you can go back and redo something that's not right. When you're in front of the classroom you can't rewind. So maybe that's why I love writing so much.

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The human faces of people in computing

And I had great fun. I did things like I started out each class on the overheads with a picture of someone in computing and asked them to tell me who it was. And of course, they couldn't. They did recognize Steve Jobs and Microsoft's Bill Gates. They recognized them. They didn't recognize Ada Lovelace: "Who is that funny lady?" I actually had on the evaluations one person comment on how much they enjoyed the human faces of the people in computing.

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What is the right setting?

So SIGCSE has meant a great deal to me over the years. It's given me the opportunity to move out from what is a major research university setting and realize that I probably would have been much better fit in a small liberal arts college than I have been at a major research university.

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What is computer science education research?

It wasn't until this Ph.D. program was put in that I realized what sorts of things one could do in computer science education research. I was always collecting data on what was going on in my classes and then several semesters later throwing it away because I didn't really know what to do with it. And it was the first couple of dissertations that I worked on that taught me what computer science education research was. So my regret is that I didn't get involved in it much, much earlier. But what I learned about it I learned from my students as I was working with them. And I think the successes that I have seen in their work is that that they are quantifiable, that we know some things that we didn't know.

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The flexibility of an academic career

I have a word to parents. One of the wonderful things about an academic career is your time is very much your own. You have to have your office hours and you have to be in your classes, but your schedule isn't rigid. So that you can take the kids to school. If they've got something going on at school you can go be there.

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The energy to "have it all"

I think you have to decide are you willing to put in the energy to have it all. And I think you can. I think a woman can have it all. You can have a family, you can have children, you can have pets, you can have an outside life, you can have a rewarding career -- but it takes energy. And I think you've got to make that decision up front. And I think if you don't make that decision consciously you are going to be fragmented, and pulled apart. I think that you can't do it halfway.

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Don't float

Did I make a decision? I don't think I made a decision. And so by not making a decision my career went the way it did. So one other bit of advice I would give to women is make decisions consciously. Don't float. Men tend to make career decisions explicitly and women tend not to. Now it's a vast generalization, I know, and all you hearing me are going to say so, but I think that that probably is true.