Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence 2023
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

Taming self-doubt

Michael D. Taylor

When I look down the list of prior recipients for the Herbert A. Simon award, I'm beyond honored and perhaps a little bewildered to be joining so many of my mentors. To name a few, Illah Nourbakhsh, Mark Stehlik, and David Kosbie all helped me to find my teaching voice, and their written responses to receiving this award all echo with such familiarity. It's quite daunting to come up with something that feels worthy of this same space ... but, relatedly, I can think of one topic I know very well: self-doubt, and a few things that can help to tame it.
Forewarning: No one has successfully taught me how to be concise.

Setting the scene
Since my first semester co-teaching with Kelly Rivers in Fall 2018, many thousands of student s have come through my semesters of 15-112 Fundamentals of Programming and Computer Science. I love this course with all my heart because it's a meeting point for so many different academic disciplines, and so many different hopes and dreams. I'm not sure how many of them realize that I'm learning as much from them as they're learning from me.

Despite their differences, one of the most common traits among our students is the frequent specter of self-doubt when faced with the rigor and speed of 15-112 and CMU as a whole. Many student meetings begin with some variation of the following: "I don't have any prior experience and my friends just seem to already know what they're doing, and solving problems just seems to take me so much longer than everyone else." Even those who do have some prior programming experience often find that they're still extremely challenged by this course, and they conclude (very incorrectly) that the majority of students are somehow breezing through it. Why is this? Why do so many students doubt their strengths, and especially their ability to grow and thrive?

I think it all starts with the fact that they're good people ... and good people see the best parts of those around them, and they acknowledge the accomplishments of their peers before seeing their failures and struggles. When they look inward, the opposite is true. A student might attend my office hours every week for the whole semester, and they'll view themselves as weak for asking for help. Meanwhile, they perceive another student doing the exact same thing as displaying resilience and dedication. Perhaps one student envies the algebraic fluency of another, oblivious to the fact that the other student can't stop wondering if they will ever match the artistic creativity the first student casually doodles in the margins of their notebook.

And every Tuesday and Thursday, I'm nervously reviewing my notes, and wondering if I'll ever be able to light up their eyes like I've seen my co-instructors do. And ... gosh, they seem to do it so effortlessly. How many of my students wish I was someone else? How many of them are wondering how the department decided to put me in front of 1000 of the world's best students every year? How long do I have left before they find out I don't know what I'm doing?

How do we stop tearing ourselves down?
Early in every semester, I try to address self-doubt head-on in my lectures by speaking from the heart and telling my students that I feel it too, every day, but it can be conquered with patience and self-kindness, and trusting in those who believe in us.

My first semester was pretty rough around the edges, to put it lightly, but I know I've gotten more confident in the 12 iterations of 15-112 since then. Those worries are still there in the back of my head, though, and I've just gotten better at quieting them down before I turn on the microphone. Part of the reason I'm open with my students is because I'm at my best when I'm simply being my whole self, and I always hope that maybe my students and TAs and I can tame those negative feelings by coming together and refusing to be isolated by them. Here are a few of the things I mention:

  • Everyone feels this way sometimes, even faculty, even professors at the best university in the world.
  • Nothing productive comes from trying to measure your worth against someone else. All that really matters is that you're moving forward, and striving to be happier with yourself today than you were a year ago.
  • But...we're massively biased when it comes to perceiving our strengths and weaknesses. So, trust those that believe in you, whether they're your friends, family, fellow students, or co-instructors.
And even with all of that, you can't force yourself not to worry about these things. The strongest self-doubt always creeps slowly and persistently. But, when you sit down in front of a quiz or stand in front of a podium and hear that voice that says "what if you mess this up and what if you aren't good enough" you can (with enough practice and self-kindness) tell that voice that you simply aren't going to find the answer to that question right now. It's going to need to be patient and wait its turn, because right now you've got a Python function that needs to be written.

What's the short version?
Whether you're a CMU student, or another professor, or someone who just happened to find this page through the wonders of the internet, here's my ask: be kind to those around you, and be kind to yourself. Never stop learning, and whoever you are, let it shine through so that others can love you for it. The best way to know if you're where you need to be is to be your whole self, so drop your walls, share your fears, share your joys, and let your stories reach the people who need to hear them.

14 May 2023

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