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Why Be an Instructor

Posted 2012-12-05 by Greg Wilson in Community, Opinion.

Our instructors are all volunteers—boot camp hosts cover their travel and accommodation costs, but they're not paid for their time. So why do they do it?

  1. Make the world a better place. As I say in a lot of my talks, the two things we need to get through the next hundred years are more science and more courage. I don't know if we can do much about the latter, but we can sure help a lot with the former.
  2. Make their own lives better. Most of the time, we try to have astronomers teach astronomers, ecologists teach ecologists, and so on. These are people whose tools instructors might one day want to use themselves, so by making them more clueful, instructors are helping themselves.
  3. It's fun. How could it not be? You get to stand up and look smart in front of a bunch of smart people who actually want to be there, and you don't have to mark anything afterward.
  4. Build a reputation. Showing up to run a really useful workshop is a great way for people to introduce themselves to places they'd eventually like to work, and a great way to make contact with potential collaborators. This is probably the most important reason from Software Carpentry's point of view, since it's what makes our model sustainable.
  5. Get practice teaching. We're doing more every year to train instructors, and giving them chances to teach online as well—both of which are useful for people with academic careers in mind.
  6. Help get people of diverse backgrounds into the pipeline. Computer Science is 12-15% female, and that figure has been dropping since the 1980s. From what I've seen, there's a similar gender skew among computationally-oriented people in other sciences, which if left alone will be self-perpetuating. Some of our instructors are involved in part because they want to break that cycle and be a public example of a competent, confident woman programmer.
  7. Teaching forces you to learn new things, or learn old things in more detail than you already know. See for example "Graduate Students' Teaching Experiences Improve Their Methodological Research Skills"
  8. The more you know, the less you have to write yourself. Putting a grant application together? Have a site review coming up? We probably have slides for that... :-)

And why do people do online office hours? For some, the primary incentive is a little bit of guilt: we can't give everyone all the help they need during a two-day workshop, and online follow-up is a way to make up for that. For others, it's a chance to pick up and practice some skills that are increasingly in demand: everyone believes that a lot of teaching is going to move online in the coming years, and this is a way to figure out how to do it.

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