Feedback, Community & Mentorship: Open Science’s Need for Skill Sharing

Out of Greg Wilson’s blog post, the responses from Azalee Bostroem here and Justin Kitzes here, and the inaugural offering of the Science Lab’s Instructor Hangouts, some common threads have begun to emerge around how we can all be better workshop instructors. As I hear it, this conversation is made up of three ideas: feedback, community, and mentorship.

SWC already has feedback baked into its instructor training program, and promotes it as an indispensable ingredient in mastering teaching; it’s becoming clear that we have to carry this practice forward another step as we welcome a growing pool of instructors. The posts linked above reflected on jugyokenkyu as a method of teachers observing teachers, to exchange criticism and seek improvement.  The beauty of this approach is that it can bootstrap the refinement of skill from very humble beginnings; I have never met a contributor in our community, however inexperienced, that didn’t have something to teach me. By observing one another, even new instructors can call out each other’s mistakes, adopt each other’s strengths, and help iterate on each other’s practice. Justin made a fine proposal for this in the context of SWC bootcamps in his blog post linked above – but we can go even further.  At our first round of Instructor Hangouts, there was an enthusiastic ‘yes!’ to the question of giving people the stage to try out teaching a concept, and that is exactly one of the things I’ll be centering our attention on moving forward. That way, instructors can float some ideas and get some feedback on a new lesson before launching it at a bootcamp, as well as afterwards as in Justin’s formulation; I believe this will not only improve the quality of bootcamp instruction by exposing and averting some of the little misfires that always go along with new material, but also alleviate some of the anxiety new instructors feel when they take up this task for the first time. I talked about more ideas for live observation and feedback in the summary of the first Instructor Hangouts session, linked above, such as the opportunities presented by Research Bazaar in Melbourne; live and remote feedback are both tools which I hope we can further explore together.

The second part of this conversation was the enormous potential for community in this space. Atul Varma teaching for ScriptEd and Vincent Betro from XSEDE both stepped up in the first session to talk about the tremendous need for community that goes beyond the workshop. At ScriptEd, the value of keeping students engaged by fostering ongoing communication with their instructors is put first; their instructors are role models for their students. Meanwhile, XSEDE has successfully launched ongoing projects which small groups of students work on, with minimal guidance from a supervising instructor; Vincent described the enthusiasm and self-direction of the students in this program in a way that was reminiscent of the concept of ‘letting learning happen’ that Azalee concluded her blog post with. And in my own experience at SWC, students are crying out for guidance on how to take the skills taught at the bootcamps home with them, and for guidance on how to apply them to their own research. In many ways, ScriptEd, XSEDE, and Software Carpentry are three wildly different workshop offerings – and yet we are all facing the same challenges! It would be sheer foolishness not to share strategies and resources when we know we are all answering the same call; I want to continue these conversations at the Instructor Hangouts and elsewhere to keep the ideas pumping throughout our community, so we can work together as we tackle the challenge of going beyond the bootcamp.

Which brings us to the final pilar of this new conversation: mentorship. The beyond-the-bootcamp activities that ScriptEd, XSEDE, SWC and others are envisioning are exercises in mentorship, from instructor to student. This model of experimentation coupled with regular feedback may be the vehicle we need to transform our teachings from creating awareness, to triggering adoption. But as open science grows as a movement, including the engine of mentorship from practitioner to practitioner may be what we are looking for, too. I wrote last week on work to identify the on-ramps to open science coming out of Codefest; new participants are actively seeking the guidance mentorship can provide. Structures to identify mentors and explicitly point new instructors or community members towards them should be explored; that’s a thread I would like you to help me pull on. But before we dive too deep on engineering this process, consider: often, mentorship arises naturally. No one had to put a Mentor Hat on the people I admire and have learned the most from; that they had great leadership to offer me was evident from their words and their actions. Furthermore, mentorship is often a very personal experience; perhaps the people that practically glow in my eyes will fall flat for you, making preselection impossible. Role models that really speak to you will appear if made visible by the community, and the only real difference between a role model and a mentor is that with a mentor, communication happens both ways. I am willing to bet that mentors and mentorship will arise organically, if we create the community and the communication channels necessary to make great practitioners visible, and let them interact with the people that look to them.

Ultimately, this is a bigger issue than just teaching workshops. Whether it’s teaching a bootcamp or demonstrating an analysis technique or introducing an idea from the broad umbrella of open science itself, one of the grand challenges this movement faces is skill sharing so the entire scientific community can access the opportunities currently out there. We need to open the communication channels that will engender feedback, community and mentorship everywhere in the sciences, so that the skills and ideas we admire can spread freely and we can grow beyond the ranks that found their own way here. Instructor Hangouts are a small stab at starting that; more are coming. But as always, I need you and your ideas to make it real; let us know what we can do together.