Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 18, 2015
There’s no happy ending to this story, just to let you know up front. Because in a happy ending version, I am wearing a CS50 tee shirt, my brain is slightly more encephalized (bigger) and I have successfully reinvented and rerouted myself into mini-career number six or seven or whatever it is. That would be the long view of the happy ending. In the short view, I would be saying something like “Dang, this is interesting and applicable. And I’m getting it! Maybe I’ll finally get a big girl job.”
That doesn’t happen, though. And what you are getting instead is the reality version, the one where, for starters, I fall for the oldest trick in the middle-aged book: I hear my daughter tell me what all the young people at her job are doing and I get riled. “Well, if that’s what they’re doing, maybe that’s what I should be doing. Get with the program and think like a young person. Yeah. Yeah! Bring it on!” I slip on their lingo, the lingo of mass culture and parodies of mass culture, and the pep squad quadrant of my brain, up on its feet and shaking its pom-poms, adds, “Game on!” An expression I’ve never once used. This is what usually happens before I do something impulsive.
So I sign up. For Harvard’s Computer Science 50 (CS50), which, like lots of other classes at Harvard (and other universities), you can audit for free in an online version (via edX.org). I don’t research how hard it will be or I’ll never do it. It’s not like I’m setting myself up for failure, I’m just giving myself a chance to succeed. I’ve done this before.
No, I don’t yet know that the class has preeeettty high difficulty and workload levels, that a lot of those touted no-prior-experience-with-programming stats just cannot be true (they say 78 percent). That, realistically, probably not a lot of women of a certain age — from art and writing and retail backgrounds — are signing up in droves. They’ve even asked me if this is out of my comfort zone, and I’ve replied, “Not really” or whatever the equivalent is, because learning is within my comfort zone, and I don’t yet know how far out of it learning programming might or might not be.
The online resources for this class are impressive. Wow! But I don’t really have time to explore them because I’m supposed to be done with the whole thing in nine weeks — by Dec. 19 — so I’d better get going. It’s not like I have lots of free time, you know. I don’t even have time to use the Facebook and Twitter sites and the study groups because there’s a real urgency here to dive in, even without my knowing, yet, that this class, which has been around since 1989, has snowballed itself into something legendary. It’s the biggest class at Harvard College (nearly 900 in 2014). A class with producers, managers, dozens of TAs, audiovisual staff, sponsors, a reputation for humor and quirk and a virtual cult of personality around its current professor, David J. Malan (Harvard ’99). (The course was first taught in 1989, and Malan took it himself in 1996. Whereupon a self-proclaimed uptight government major jumped the tracks and changed the course of his own life.)
Yeah, he’s good. Almost too good. I learn so much in the first lecture, I wonder what rock I’ve been living under my whole life. Oh, that’s what binary means! (And: hey, aren’t the men who understood this concept of programming from the get-go running the world now? How did that happen?)
There’s a lecture hall full of bright young diversified Harvard faces, and hands shoot up with every call for volunteers. They get novelty prizes for participating. There are bells, whistles and light bulbs, and at the end, students are invited to have lunch once a week with other CS50 students and staff and relish the rich learning environment. It’s not just a class, it’s a happening. A scene. So utterly other-planet from my late- ’70s college experience — where upper-level courses might have five or 10 students — it’s mind-blowing. In 1980, Apple had just created its first PC, and IBM was just about to. No normal people knew about this stuff back then.
But times have changed, and I’m on board with it. Yeah. Game on.
At the end of Week 0 and the first set of lectures, which I watch from the comfort of my own couch, covetous only of the CS50 tee shirt Dr. Malan is wearing, I click my way to Problem Set 1 and watch the adjunct videos of “walkthroughs” to help me. I download a program called Scratch, developed by MIT to help kids (and adults) learn the basics of programming, and do my first assignment, an assignment that takes me how many hours? And what does my elementary “game” (there’s no winning or losing or anything in between, just random clicking), Space Fortune, have to do with anything relevant?
Stay tuned for part two to find out.