In January of 2018, we had the first ASPP summer school outside of Europe. (This was a parallel workshop to the European one, which will be held in Italy in September 2018.) In general, it was a great success, with some caveats that we will elaborate on below.
First we want to note that this school was a bit different than the European ones, in that we only had attendees from Australian institutions, where the European school has broad international representation, including some from out of Europe. This was in some ways inevitable, as it is more expensive to travel to Australia from almost anywhere than to travel within Europe. On the other hand, we advertised relatively late, and we were unable to secure travel grants during the advertising period, so there is hope that a future edition would be able to attract a more international crowd from the Asia Pacific region.
Given all this, there was a question as to whether we would be able to capture the atmosphere of the school, which normally sees the students living together and socialising for basically the whole week. In this case, most students just went home after classes were finished. But although some of that atmosphere was missing, by the end of the week we did manage to get some close links between all the students and the faculty. The evaluations below show that most of the value of the school was preserved.
We note that 100% of the respondents (29/30 of the students) would recommend the course to their peers. So, although some lectures were better received than others, and although the programming project was not universally loved, we managed to provide value for everyone. All of this is in line with the evaluations at previous schools (available at https://python.g-node.org/wiki/archives.html).
The project, which consists of programming a videogame bot, is controversial every year, but, consistently, more people like it than don’t, and people get to practice git, pair programming, and programming as a team, which is the single most difficult skill to practice when programming for science. Indeed when we walk around during the project programming sessions, we see people extremely engaged in what they are coding. It’s difficult to imagine a scientific problem engaging such diverse people as the school’s attendees (which come from very disparate scientific fields).
Of all the feedback, two particular statements, we hope from people in the same project group, broke our hearts. We decided not to include them in this report, because they might be easy to de-anonymise by group members, but they boil down to the following: a group member, by being combative and rude to others in their team, and deciding to essentially complete the project by themselves, ruined the programming project for all of their team members, with some even feeling that they were not good enough to contribute. This is tragic, because we want everyone in the school to feel empowered to do anything at all in Python.
Absolutely every student has something to offer in this project. Here, as in life, teams are comprised of members of varying skills. But we know from our selection that everyone has the skills to contribute (and this is confirmed by the fact that most attendees, for most lectures, felt that the difficulty level was “just right”). So if a student felt inadequate, it can only be because of the toxic team member.
Ned Batchelder recently wrote an excellent blog post about what he calls “Toxic experts” and what Tiziano Zito calls, somewhat more bluntly, “Arrogant assholes”. (In discussions about this post, Tiziano and others noted that one does not have to be an expert to be toxic, or arrogant, or an asshole. No matter: the points below apply equally to anyone meeting any of the above characteristics regardless of expertise.)
The feedback we received should serve as a warning to selection committees and hiring managers everywhere about how damaging it is to allow such a person into your ranks. Due to the anonymous nature of the survey, we can’t tell whether there was one or two toxic experts in our midst, but if it’s one, they soured the school for five other people. If it’s two, then that’s ten people, a third of the school, that might have had a terrible experience. The problem with toxic experts is that they can so quickly cause damage to so many others. Thus, even if they are a mythical “10x engineer”, they are not worth it.
Literally nothing that the above-described team member could have done, coding-wise, could make up for the damage they caused. Despite their strong opinions, they missed the entire point of the programming project, which is not to win a medal, but to learn about working in a team.
We try to avoid toxic experts in our selection process for the school, but they slip through every so often. In response to this feedback, we will aim to be even more vigilant in our selection, and also make the aims of the project as a learning exercise more explicit during its introduction. We will also make sure to be more aware of group interactions during the actual school; we apologise to the students involved that we did not catch this behaviour this time. We are truly sorry.
If you are in the position of being an expert during a school or workshop, don’t go it alone. That is a waste of your time, because you can do a programming project on your own whenever you damn well please. Slow down, and think instead about practicing your teaching and mentoring skills. They are also important in life, and, in many contexts, they are your responsibility.
You can access the full survey results here.
— Juan, and the Organisers.