How to improve at programming when your current position doesn’t require it & Online Learning Resources

Have you ever felt like you would like to get better at programming, maybe even get a position involving more programming some day but the fact that you currently don’t really need it at your current position seems to hold you back? This post is for you.

Daily practice is key for improvement

You need daily practice if you actually want to improve. You already need daily practice just to keep your skills sharp during a time where you don’t need to use them. Also, if you don’t even have programming skills yet, you probably are too tired after work to sit down and work on a private programming project.

But you should. Programming is a skill which takes a long time to learn. That is, if you want to reach a decent skill level. This means that you have to start regular practice long before you actually need that skill or need to apply for a job, if possible.

The common advice: Find a starting out project to program in your free time

When I first informed myself on this, the most common advice was to find a cool project and try to program it in your free time. But I found that when you don’t have an idea for such a project which makes complete sense to you, you’re not going to go through with it. Without an acutal, urgent need you probably won’t sit down the amount of hours necessary to actually make progress. At least the great majority of people wouldn’t.

Then I tried setting myself mini-challenges. This was a good idea. But there wasn’t a lot of guidance (obviously). This, in return, was discouraging and wasted a lot of time. Of course, time well spent learning something. But since I am really interested in effective learning, I felt that I was wasting time. Effective learning is always better than just playing around. You need curriculum. At least some. That’s when I found out that there are a lot of competitive programming sites which offer useful short exercises where you can do one per day.

Before that, I had tried all sorts of “Learn programing” sites like SoloLearn, freeCodeCamp, the Enki app, just to name a few of my favourites. But really, I didn’t like them all that much. They went through the syntax of the language and that was it. Like learning the vocabulary of a living language but never using it.

Review of some of the materials out there

Here, I want to share links to all sorts of learn coding sites out there. Of course, it’s not extensive but I think it does cover a good few of the most important ones. And maybe has a bit of a different perspective from most other “here are 30 sites to learn coding for free” blog posts out there.

A constraint for me was that the site had to be completely free of charge. So, for example, DataCamp is a no-go. Although, I have still linked to some pay-sites in case you are interested.

But especially as there are so many pages where you can get a similar service for free, I don’t see why I should pay for one of them, when there are so many alternatives available. If it were really brilliant, I would probably pay for it, in theory. Like HackerRank, I like so much at the moment, that I would probably get access for a one-time payment. But most of those apps and sites ask for monthly payment of up to or even starting at 10€ – that is a crazy amount of money and you already get books starting from 10€. I personally would always put more trust in a book in terms of quality and the hope that there might be a logical progression to the teaching; and thus, rather go for that. Also, I just don’t do monthly subscriptions. They eat so much of your money and mostly, when you sum it all up, are not really worth it. 

Also, the amount of sites (plus all the apps!) out there has become so huge, it’s really a full-time job to check them all. That time might be better invested in just picking one and learning to code. These other sites that I found initially focused more on interview prep for experienced programmers or programming contests, but many of them have actually developped training tracks. They also tend to offer a broader range of subjects than many other very popular sites which focus on web development (“coding”) mainly.

Enki app

I had liked the Enki apps daily workouts, but the learning progression was not stable. They give you a random tutorial every day. This was not very effective and I quickly was through with all of their material. Ergo, the workouts started repeating very quickly.  For more, you would now have to pay monthly for access which I am not willing to do since learning-wise, it is not sooo well done. It was really good for a free site (for a while I used it a lot), but not good enough to be paying for it. Sadly, I have experienced this with most of the sites I have tried (and I have tried quite many).

App-wise, you will just get the Enki review here. I tried probably all the most important apps out there. But mostly, in their way of just explaining the syntax of a language, the progress was slow and it was ineffective for me who already knew most of the syntax. You usually can’t skip much or speed up if you’re getting bored. Still you never get any actual programming done which I found both useless and frustrating. Having tried all the apps and “learn the syntax of XY” (disguised as “Learn programming language XY” which is not the same thing, in my opinion), I now found competitive programming sites to be more what I had been looking for. 

Some of them don’t have all the languages you might want, especially the smaller ones and the web dev focused ones.

 

General-purpose learning sites (video-based, MOOCs, etc.)

Many popular sites (Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, Khan Academy, MOOCS like edx, OpenMIT) are video-based and I don’t personally like that. I prefer interactive sites where you can type your code directly. But well, now you have the links to those resources as well.

Online books or blog tutorials

Even though I have a tutorial blog myself, I personally would not try to learn a programming language from a blog. Sometimes you find useful posts for a specific problem you need to solve, that’s mainly what they are good for. I just think that the available interactive things are cooler for actually getting programming experience as a novice programmer.

Youtube tutorials or channels

Some posts on free “learn coding” resources recommend Youtube tutorials or channels. This is, I think, a valid point if there really is an excellent tutorial video out for exactly what you want. So, if what you want isn’t uncommon, there is likely to be one. Sometimes a 5min video can save you an hour of reading a tutorial. But I find that hardly any channels offer sensible curriculum for a motivated learner, so I’m not sure how much you would get out of it in the long run. That’s why I won’t recommend any here.

Sites just/mostly teaching the syntax of languages

 

Many of them are gamified as well

Sites I really like for practice / or of the type I like (challenge-based)

Learn the language tracks are available on for example: HackerRank, HackerEarth (teaches algorithms).

With Hackerrank, for example, I really like their testcases. They don’t just ask you to write a solution on your own (sites like SoloLearn, Codecademy hardly do that in their regular curriculum), they also provide testcases where, for example, overflow is bound to occur. So with every single test you are reminded to remember that. This is a good reinforcment method in  teaching, I think 😉 Also, have I mentioned that supposedly, the only thing which really works wonders in teaching is getting tested? So forget about what learning type you are (visual, audio-visual-bla, etc.) and become a tester. You can skip some of the testcases of course, but the frequent reminder still works wonders. Also, you can learn from other users good (high-ranked) solutions. Especially in algorithms, it’s really worth checking how more experienced programmers did it. However, these competitive programming platforms do kind of encourage bad programming style (and dirty hacks to improve speed), so be sure to take care of that yourselves. Be persistent disciplined when it comes to using good style! And remember to still work on bigger projects every once in a while, since the daily practice from these sites is just one single function without context.

Learn Catch the Flag / Hacking

Also, if you’re interesed, these are some sites where you can learn CTF (catch the flag), something like competitive ethical hacking.

Other / Tutorial-based

More tutorial-based sites which are useful but not for the kind of rapid learning I recommend:

Resources

Also, check these other posts on free coding resources:

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Your 24 hours. Time management or How to get to know yourself while organizing your life. Part II

Today, I am yet again happy to present the second part of the latest LaTeX Noob guest post:

 

Last time, I told you about four important steps to organizing your life. They were:

  1. Know your priorities.
  2. Learn to say “no”.
  3. Leave your comfort zone.
  4. Never back down.

If you want to re-read the last post, you can find it here!

So, time management.

You will need a calendar, let’s start with that. Take your phone, open your Google calendar. Start. It is actually that easy. You have to know the most important basics. When do I work, what are my main working hours? Do I like a silent or slightly more lively environment for my work? Am I a morning person or a night owl? When will I need a break, when do I want to go to sleep?

When am I meeting my friends, when do I spend time with my partner or my family? What do I do for relaxing? How often? Exercise? Any activities? When and where?

What is there to do on household chores (you know, cooking, cleaning, gardening etc.) and when are they due?

Just write those things down. Think about it. It is creepy at first sight, I know, but hey…

Labyrinth-Girl

I am a morning person, I like to start early with my work.

I love good instrumental or orchestral music during work. I like other people around me while I work, because of the swift “office-noise”.

For relaxing, I like reading, listening to music, going climbing, watching TV, taking long walks, photography, writing, people-stuff (friends and family).

Basic week:

  • 4 work days, Monday to Thursday = 30 hours of work
  • 1 “thesis day” (also called somehow home-office)
  • 1 university course to teach and prepare
  • 4 university courses to attend and prepare
  • one evening to go climbing
  • (at least) one evening to have dinner with my partner

An example week

I will give you my five days of my working week in my calendar now, just as an example and to show you how I work on my organization and how I try to plan my days. You may have got it until now – it is all about your own rhythm: find it, then stick to it.

Monday

7:00 start work

15:00 short coffee break with friends

17:00 back home, dinner

18:15 climbing (1.5 to 2 h)

  • hair day, bathroom cleaning

  • prepare courses

22:00 bedtime

Tuesday

7:00 start work

10:00 Coffee break with colleagues

18:00 back home, dinner

  • washing clothes

  • prepare courses

  • TV/Dinnertime with my partner

22:00 bedtime

Wednesday

7:00 start work

10:00 teach my university class

12:00 lunch with friends

15:15 university course 1

18:45 university course 2

20:30 dinner with colleagues

22:00 back home

23:00 bedtime

Thursday

7:00 start work

13:00 end work

13:30 university course 3

15:00 prepare next course (learning a new language for work)

17:00 university course 4

19:00 back home

22:00 bedtime

Friday

7:00 morning routine

  • Thesis Day

  • kitchen cleaning

  • washing clothes

  • shopping supplies

14:00 lunch with my partner

15:00 beginning of my pre-weekend

Weekend

Normally spend with family and/or friends and /or partner – and sometimes spent with reading texts or papers connected to my research field

Conclusion

So I actually do have some kind of private life, but I have to organize it in a very strict way and I have to be very strict with myself sometimes. I am a morning person and I am in the possession of a “daylight alarm clock” – you know, it starts with deep red light approximately one hour before your actual alarm time and continues getting brighter like the sun rising, so your body can wake up before you actively open your eyes and wake up in your head. It works! At least, for me.

I need my bedtime set earlier now, so around 10 pm I am really grateful for a warm and cozy bed and sleep. I enjoy resting in my bed on the weekend, this is a fact, but it is like a reward I promise to myself.

I am still meeting my friends and I have still a lot of other things to do in my life, things which I enjoy and which are keeping me relaxed and sane.

It’s worth the hard work. You just have to start.

Some thoughts on grading

Grading is always a touchy and emotional subject. When students misbehave, you automatically feel the urge to punish them with a bad grade. When students receive a bad grade, they will be angry and pissed off. And ‘bad grade’ is relative to what they expected, not ‘realistically bad’, like in a fail grade. In most cases, they will also think you are unfair if they honestly expected a better grade. And they will be gradually more pissed off, the more work they put in your class. So make sure you put as much thought into planning your grading scheme as into the rest of the preparation, because the grade might just leave the biggest lasting impression on students looking back.

 

The good student receives bad grade problem

I just cleaned out my old archived data and remembered I had this class with a teacher I really liked. But now, I hardly remembered her. Then I realized it probably had something to do with a weird bad grading situation that had left a sour taste with me.  Also, it happens that situations like this (and I defintely had more than one) were always in the Linguistics department. Anybody who knows me is aware that I am a language nerd, I love dialects, etc. I came to university really looking forward to studying Linguistics. Now I hate it, not because it turned out I disliked the subject but because of many bad grading situations where I felt treated extremely unfairly.

This particular teacher had doted on me during the class. I also loved the subject and participated a lot. Then I handed in the paper, and I don’t remember exactly what the problem was, but she gave me a really bad mark and said I could only turn it into a positive one, if I made major changes. A C, to be exact! Which was as good as a negative mark for a student like me with overall high marks. This would ruin my GPA. But then again, I had such a tight schedule that I couldn’t afford just redoing this class. This whole situation came as a huge shock to me. I felt I had written an ok paper, as far as I was qualified to judge. It was in my fourth semester only, so you probably can’t expect a publication-ready work. It would have been be ok if I had felt I had put in minimal work only and performed badly. But I had honestly really tried to write a good paper. And it’s not like you generally get a lot of help in how that is actually done. I’d given it my all and ended up being treated like an abysmal student who had personally offended the teacher by handing in such a bad paper. Also, once I already knew that the only thing I could do is rework the paper but would still get a grade which would ruin my GPA, I was not exactly super-motivated to put in a lot more good work.

I had seen the papers my colleagues had handed in, they were obviously less good than mine (from formal standards already) and left an obvious impression of having been done carelessly in a haste. I was profoundly shocked. Maybe the teacher had taken to me so much because she had seen herself in me and thus, expected a publication-ready output. The teacher was not very experienced either, so this misconception might have easily happened to her. Since, of course, I was only in my fourth semester, I was not able to deliver that level of high quality she had expected from me and thus, graded me way more strictly than my less good colleagues.

 

If a good student underperforms, ask what went wrong instead of lashing out on them

Dear teachers, something like this happened to me mulitple times and is a surefire way to make your students hate you in retrospective. You don’t want your best students to hate you, right? They will talk badly about you (as I sure did) and ruin your reputation for generations of new students to come! Especially good students will get very angry at less-good-than-expected results since, unlike really bad students, they probably actually care about their grade point average which you just ruined!  Some people’s stipends also rest on this GPA. Don’t be so quick to give out bad marks to students of whom you would have expected more. Try to clarify what the problem was instead of just being angry. That’s just childish. Don’t let students’ outputs scratch on your ego. Students probably really don’t care about you all that much and if they did, they sure don’t have a positive impression anymore now. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding? Especially if you had expected better result, it’s obvious you should investigate what happened.

Beware of thinking a good student is you. Don’t expect your good students to be scientists. They are not, despite their apparent motivations to be come full-blown researchers one day. By ruining their GPA, you actually negatively influence whether they will one day be able to become researchers.

 

On silence and introverts in class

Silence does not mean disinterest, like many teachers assume. It might just be that they’re an introvert. And even though they might have participated in the beginning of the course, stopping later might not mean disinterest. To give a personal example, I often participated very actively in classes I was interested in. But then the teacher focused so much on me that I felt awkward and didn’t want to be the center of attention anymore. Actually I had never wanted or intended to become the center of attention. I therefore stopped participating because being the center of the attention made me feel uncomfortable. This, the teachers usually took as a horrible insult and were furious.

In multiple cases, I ended up with a really bad mark despite knowing (from having seen my colleagues papers) that my work had been well above average, if not even very good. Already formally, my papers were a few classes above those of my colleagues because I had way more experience writing papers than them. These times, I first wanted to complain. But then I was so annoyed that I never talked to the teacher about it. One teacher even told me my paper was an A but they would make it a B because I had stopped participating. I didn’t want to confront them and was ok with a B because, after all, it was true that I had stopped participating and found it to be their good right to take a grade off. A B, after all, would not hurt my GPA in bad ways. Then they put a C in the online system. That was pretty mean, seeing as my paper really was quite good (without being too fond of myself, but I had worked on that particular topic for a long time in another context already). The teacher offered no explanation for this behaviour except being hurt personally and stressed many times how good my contributions had been.

I’m sorry, extroverted teachers. Have you really never thought about the fact that it might be uncomfortable for a good student to be called out to answer questions all the time? It makes your fellow students dislike you. Please don’t take this as an insult and also, definitely don’t base your grading on it! You are scaring away good students. I continue to dislike this particular teacher after years. The lasting impression was extremely negative. This didn’t happen only once either.

 

Grade using check-lists to avoid mixing in personal emotions

I handle the problem of grading by having a check-list with points. So I don’t “grade” or hand out marks – they score on a check-list. That way, I as a person will not be the object of a student’s hatred. A lot of people actually recommend to do grading this way, especially if you’re still young or lack authority for whatever reason. That way, I can act like a mentor and trainer during my (very workshop-style) classes and still be fair in my grading.

Of course, coming up with these check-lists is some work in the beginning but it is very fair, good practice and will save you lots of trouble once complaints come in. And they will at some point. Another technique I find very useful is to ask a lot of the students (greater amounts of portfolio work to be done, in my case), but then am fairly easy on giving out points. That way, they feel like I grade so nicely, but they still have done more work than they would have otherwise, so it’s really ok when they all get very good marks.

Would be happy to hear how you handle these situations,

best,

the Ninja

[Guest Post] Your 24 hours. Time management or How to get to know yourself while organizing your life. Part I

I am happy to introduce the second guest post by our friend, the LaTeX Noob. This time not on LaTeX 😉 So, here we go. Enter the Noob.

 

I am currently writing my PhD thesis and, hell yeah, it is rather pleasant, because I am good at getting sh*t, I mean, stuff, done. Now, I will tell you how this is possible and show you how to achieve that too.

 

Before time management, find structure in your life first

However, it was not always that easy and organized. I have to admit I am generally a structured person: I like notebooks, I do keep a bullet journal and I love calendars to organize my life. But how to get the great amount of work together with one’s private life (for we all love our family, our partner, our friends, and we want to spent time with them, right?), enough sleep, healthy eating, some sports, some Me-time?

The ways of time management are paved with many books, tons of good advice, and many expectations – but, essentially, always depend on yourself. This might sound like a yoga mantra, but only you can be the best version of yourself. Therefore, before getting into structuring your life, you have to reflect on yourself and on your life.

This is like our Ninja’s post on why courses on learning how to program go wrong most times. You cannot start with an expectation to be the best structured and organized human being in this world just from zero to hero – no, it is hard work. However, I can give you only some advice on how to build your organized self, but it will take its time.

Self management first!

1) First things first: Know your priorities.

What do you want in life or at this moment? Is it your PhD – like for me – or is it the next career step? Is it to spend more time with the people you love? Is it to get enough Me-Time, quality time for yourself, to caress your soul etc.?

2) The next thing will be: Learn to say NO.

Let’s say, you are planning your life as a graduate student, like I do. You have a job, you have to write your thesis, you have to relax and practice self-care. So, the important word is “no”. You have to know when you can and when you should use it. Trust me, sometimes this is really hard. However, you, your mind and your body, are your resources, so be careful with them. We are living in a hard world, full of burnout and bore-out; we have to be careful with our resources. That should be clear.

Of course, there are some situations, where you have no choice – you have to give everything in this specific moment. So, please, imagine, you have to give everything, but are very stressed out because you never take a break. When you are constantly giving everything or nearly everything, you have no resources left for the moment you will need them the most. Easy enough to understand, I guess. So, just take care and take a break when it is necessary.

3) Leave your cozy cavern.

The next thing is: After you know how to use the word “no”, learn to be fearless. One only grows with new situations. Therefore, if you really want to get to the next level in your life, you have to leave your comfort zone. Moreover, as always: Start with the tiny steps and the little things. It will be that you make a terrible fool out of yourself, as it happened very often to myself, but hey, we can get up again and try the next time. This leads us to the next step.

Ninja’s addition,  a nice quote: “Never be afraid to ask. Someone might be willing to show you her answer to your question. Despite all the necessary baby steps, it is OK to aim high. Always aim high. But you have to do all the baby steps in order to eventually get there. ” (Karl Posch, A Lesson On Programming, Graz 2018. p. 177. https://kcposch.wordpress.com/

4) Never back down.

Just because you are making a fool of yourself, your life does not end, you know? I know of what I speak here, because I had some tough times in my life, but guess what – they are past and gone now. I cannot act like they never have happened, but I can cope with them. Sometimes, there are dark days where feelings like shame will hit you hard, but still, you survived all of your worst days so far. You are doing great. Therefore, never let them get you down. You have to try again. You have to work on yourself.

My four steps

Now, this should be a post on time management and somehow it came out as what – four steps to be a better person with self-care? Well, yeah, seems like that. I will end this post in giving you an example (actually, I am talking about myself, because that will be a very valid example) on how you can do all these steps.

1) My next step is finishing my PhD – and I have a job at a research project, so two deadlines and some pressure. However, I want still see my friends and my family and spend quality time with them, next to time alone, because I love to read, alone, in my room. So, how to do that?

I have timeslots in my workdays, where I go and have a cup of coffee – actually taking a break after some hours work, but also meeting friends and talking and laughing. Next thing, I meet some of my friends in our climbing hall, because we exercise together. With my partner, I look for one evening in my workweek, where we will have a cozy dinner together and watch TV on our couch, talking to each other about the current important things in our lives.

2) I am the one who will stand next to you, cheering on every good idea. So… guess, who always has a very hard time on saying “no”? Nevertheless, I am trying to make my choices consciously. I have to work 30 hours on my project, so I try to work hard in this time slot to get my project stuff done. Always giving the best I can and certainly leaving after 30h. I get up early in the morning and work for my thesis. I have some free evenings that way (as long as I can go to bed around 10 pm). On my weekends, I have no plans for work, just for people I love and for me and myself. In addition, if there are some extra tasks that I have to do, then it is like that, but if they are unnecessary, come often and just lead me in the wrong direction, I will say “no”. It is a very complicated game to play, very complicated, if you are working in academia, I know. This might fill another big discussion on how much unpaid work to do and when to refuse, etc.

3) Leaving my comfort zone was and is very hard. I gave talks at conferences which scared the hell out of me. Back in my classes and university courses, there were always people who liked me, so I had support, you know. I am actually a very good presenter, but in front of strangers…?

I practiced my talks in front of my mirror, in front of my boyfriend, in front of my parents. I learned to live with that fear (a fear I cannot name…). I am one of this kind of people who are actually frightened of calling strangers on the phone or writing emails to strangers Yes, I am weird, it is called being an introvert. And it is not helpful, knowing that many people telling you that you actually have to be an extrovert, because of – *insert any reason*. It was getting on my nerves, but then I got it – you cannot see that someone is introvert. You can see that a person is nervous, but that does not mean that this is an introvert. So, deep breath and go.

4) I rushed into very bad situations very often, but I survived them and I am somehow getting over them. It takes time. I had actually a very hard time in learning that all those things take time. You will have to give yourself that time. Moreover, for your next try, just try to make it better in some way. I am trying not to be afraid when I know I am right and the other person is definitely wrong. Introvert-style, you know. Nevertheless, no, I have to stand up for my opinion and my thoughts. In addition, if there is a mistake in my work, I will correct it, but you have to show it to me first.

Time Management part follows in the next post

Now we can dig in the dark mystery of time management, if you still want to. Next time, I will tell you on how building good habits to strengthen your workflow and organization. However, remember, it is always your own life, your own time, your own way. Everybody has the same 24 hours a day. You just need to make them count.

Riding higher waves

At the risk of boring you all with my frequent thoughts on better teaching, I wanted to give you another metaphor on good teaching, inspired by a surfing class I took. To sum it all up, surfing was great fun. But this year, I was a bit unfortunate to get teachers who were a lot worse than the ones I’d had previously. The high waves and the shallow water make for good metaphors for the basics and the advanced topcis I frequently drone on about in my philosophy of teaching well. So, there you go.

The shallows and the high waves

The teachers were over-protective of us in the shallow waters. They helped more than we would have needed help and thereby, didn’t teach us to act independently. I wanted to do so, but it was not encouraged and we weren’t given any instructions on how to catch a wave on our own. They wouldn’t even let us paddle onto the wave ourselves, but rather pushed the board for us. This might seem very nice and thoughtful. At least, that’s how I felt at first.

But then, once we got to the higher waves – waves high enough for me to find them somewhat scary and thus, distract me quite a bit – they hardly helped at all! But since they had been so overprotective with the basics, doing everything for us, I didn’t have a feeling for how to catch a wave on my own. And this doesn’t exactly get any easier when you are panicked by the high waves. The more difficult situation we got thrown into all of a sudden made it difficult to think clearly, let alone grasp a skill on my own which no one had explained to me beforehand. The deep water is not a place to learn the basics. They should have told us those in shallow water. I think this is a very good analogy for teaching since this is exactly what happens in many classes as well. And then the teachers act like you’re an idiot for not being able to figure out the difficult stuff on your own. Because “that’s just what you do and we all had to learn it the hard way”. But really, this means that the teachers are not doing their jobs and there’s no excuse for that. Don’t blame your failings as a teacher on your students! Don’t turn your lack of teaching competence into a ‘character building’ opportunity for your students. This will not make them better people. It makes you a worse person. And a teacher I would fire on the spot if I were in the position to do so.

Don’t excuse your bad teaching as being a ‘character building’ opportunity

This is very apparent in technology classes at technical universities. In the class, you get this ridiculously simple mini example which is so easy that everybody understands it rightaway. Subsequently, teachers go on to over-explain this for 10 minutes. All students, by now, are lured into a false sense of security because the example was easy. Then they set the task for the assigment and it’s 500% more difficult than the example. This, they pretend, is a learning progression. Hint from someone who actually is a qualified teacher and has experience with training with a systematic progression in sports: No, don’t be ridiculous. This is not a progression. A progression challenges you but doesn’t set tasks which are practically impossible to achieve with the basics training provided beforehand. A progressions means setting a challenging, but doable task – not a sink or swim experience. In these programming classes, usually only those survive who had more knowledge beforehand, came from schools where they’d had years of programming practice, or else, they had more advanced friends or relatives who agreed to help them.

This creates the illusion for teachers that the class is actually doable if you’re willing to put in the work. This is a joke. If you pretend to be a teacher whatsoever, your class should be understandable without help from relatives who are experienced programmers! In some of the classes, I even read all the suggested introductory books and 2-3 more but the class was still difficult because you had to look up hundreds of programming libraries and so on. I managed because I worked hard and had some emergency help from more experienced friends. Having to look up stuff is normal in programming, of course. But as a seasoned programmer, you already know what to search for and know where the new information fits into your previous knowledge. A newbie can’t – I repeat – can’t know that. Don’t blame them for your lack of understanding of how learning works!

Maybe it’s a mistake so many people teach at universities who have never gone through teacher’s training. That is not to say that teacher’s training only produces great teachers. We all know that, sadly, it doesn’t. But at least people necessarily have heard about how learning is supposed to work in theory. Having teachers who do not know nor care how learning and teaching is supposed to work should not be allowed. Yet this is the norm at universities. Students are lucky to come across a natural every once in a while. But it is no coincidence self-help gurus stress the importance of mentors: Not to say that you couldn’t learn it on your own. But your results are just going to be a million times better and faster if you happen to come across a good teacher.

Clear instructions for the ‘danger zones’

Danger zones provide excellent opportunities for accelerated learning progress. But especially before being thrown into ‘dangerous situations’ the students are barely qualified to handle at their stage, giving out clear instructions is crucial. With the guidance of a good teacher and very, very clear instructions of what they should or shouldn’t do, treating students to  a difficult challenge will greatly speed up the learning process. If not done well, however, it will be a nightmarish experience which might even end up deterring students from going on with their studies!

Having something like a life line or a safeboat might be enough to circumvent this. Or having more time or trainers to guide students as much as needed. Don’t rush into these situations without carefully planning them. Students need thoughtful teachers who are there to help students when they need it. Maybe even teachers who anticipate pitfalls students are running into because they can’t know themselves due to lack of experience. If you don’t have a lot of means to make this experience as good as possible, use the one most important element: very clear instructions and some abundant background information before you start. It is also important that students understand why certain rules or behaviours are imposed on them or why certain actions might be dangerous. You can always limit the scariness scope of an overly taxing situations by limiting choices and options through clear instructions and rules. Reduce the scope of a problem and you’ll make success much more achieveable.

Another experience from surfing was on this utmost importance of clear instructions, especially with difficult tasks. On a side note, to avoid any confusion: Surfing was a lot of fun overall, not to give a misleading impression, I just wanted to use the opportunity to point out some interesting observations on teaching. Anyway. In the high waves, the teachers hardly took any notice of me at all. As a novice, I had a hard time paddling against the force of the high waves and was constantly being carried away by the current. I was busy remembering where I was and keeping a vague orientation by looking for where the teachers were. Now was the time when I would have needed their help they had so over-abundantly and unnecessarily given to me in the shallows. I didn’t know whether I should just take the next wave I deemed ok (how the hell should I know which wave is ok? But anyway…) or if I should wait for the teacher to make that choice for me, which they had previously done most of the time.

In this difficult situation, however, they made no clear announcement of what I should do and when they took notice of me after I had spent almost 10 minutes paddling against the waves and waiting around for directions from them, both teachers gave me conflicting instructions. They told me to come over to them but my arms were so weak from paddling and the waves had gotten pretty violent, so it wasn’t easy for me to get to them. Then they decided I had drifted off too much and should just carefully get out of the water. I was shocked. Had I just wasted so much of my energy and didn’t even get one wave to ride? The situation had not only drained the physical energy of my arms and the heat out of my body, it had also drained me emotionally since there was no reward for putting in the effort. Afterwards, I sat on the beach resting a little bit and felt that I didn’t really want to get back in at all. I had lost my trust in the teachers. What if they’d let me rot out there in the waves again? I already didn’t have much energy left. Also I didn’t want the emotional blow of having to get back out again without getting one single wave. Maybe I was just tired, cold and stressing about the situation too much. But then again, I think this is exactly how most students feel when taught difficult subjects. They are left alone at sea in conditions nobody prepared them for. 

Just a thought for now 😉

Best,
the Ninja

PS: Oh, and my experience would probably be a starting point of discussion on multiple teachers who are teaching overlapping topics in parallel but contradict themselves. But that’s a topic for another time…

 

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“Student journals” – The good, the bad and the ugly

In this post, I want to share some experiences regarding “student” or “young researcher” journals. By “student journal” I mean journals which specialize in supporting young researchers, mostly only accepting publications from authors who don’t yet have their PhD. While this is a great idea in general which should absolutely be supported, I find that it can often be misleading and less-than-great in reality. In these journals, often even undergraduate students (before finishing their Bachelor’s) would be qualified to submit. But I find that they tend to be too much of a hassle, especially as they are not perceived as ‘high quality’ journals. Also, like the title suggests, my own experiences were mostly not so good.

So, the gist of what I am going to say is: I wouldn’t recommend them. “Student journals” are “worth less” in your CV and, confusingly, I have found them to be more trouble than normal journals are. So, mostly a total waste of time and energy if you ask me. Read on for the details on good aspects and my own experiences which influenced this judgement. In short: The student journals I have tried had given me the illusion that it would be easier and more quick to get a publication out here than elsewhere. The complete opposite was the case! (If you just want the summary without my ramblings, it’s in the last paragraphs.)

What do I mean when I speak of “student journals”?

By “student journals” I mean journals accepting only authors until at maximum their dissertation / PhD thesis is finished. This is done in the goal of creating a “safe space” where young researchers can get publishing experience early on without having to worry about being in competition with full professors.

The good and the bad

On the up side: You, as a young researcher, maybe even without a degree at all, will get heard.

On the down side: The reviewers they have might not be specialized in your field – which will either make the publication less good and the review less trustworthy or it might even generate conflicts (as it happened to me, read below). Also, reviewers are usually aware that they are about to review for a “student journal”, ergo they know that you don’t have your PhD yet which might cause them to scrutinize over your work in a way they might not with a real journal (so the ‘blind’ part of ‘blind peer review’ is not actually a given anymore). This is probably the main factor that leads to publication being more difficult here than in a ‘regular journal’. Another main aspect of the hassle are, sorry to have to point this out (I won’t give any details on the journals I tried to retain anonymity), the inexperienced editors.

Inexperienced “student editors”

These “student journals” are mostly students’ initiatives and so the editorial board consists of, you guessed it, people in the same stage of their career as the early career scholars trying to get published in this journal. This might sound like a good thing at first – believe me, it’s not!

This means they don’t really have experience yet and since most “student journals” cover really broad topics (such as “Classics” in total) which would be difficult to have a full overview about even for a full professor, the editors themselves are not qualified to judge your work. In a great majority of cases. (Sorry editors, nothing personal.) Yet, since they are not yet experienced and – sorry again – mostly feel slightly pompous about themselves being first-time editors of a journal, will tend to interfere in ways which they are not qualified to do. Also, arguing with them on an objective basis will probably not be possible since they have no clue about what you’re talking about.

One of the editors in my cases even lacked knowledge of a basic technical term of our field which I found quite shocking (and wrote a comment like: “What does XY mean?”). Still, since the editor was in a position of power over me, in a way, I had to bend to their feedback even though they had displayed a frankly astonishing lack of basic knowledge of the field we were talking about. Since the editor works on a very different sub-field than me and was on the exact same career stage as me, I totally lost confidence in the editors and had a hard time taking them seriously after that.

To continue the not-so-professional processing, they subsequently assigned me a new editor (probably the editor in chief with more experience) after the situation had gotten weird. I don’t generally criticize the fact that they did but rather the fact that they did so without providing any sort of explanation. At that point, I already felt like they didn’t actually want my paper anymore and were merely looking for an elegant reason to reject it. The tone had changed drastically as well. I had built up somewhat of a personal relationship with the old editor (which probably already was the first mistake) and then it all was very cold and written in a very politically correct way like they were trying to weasel out of the situation and get rid of me without honestly saying they intended to.

Also, another interesting fact: They were really religious about anonymity. That is until they compromised my identity in the “blind” review. Which I only know because I requested to get the full written reviews after that one paper had been rejected and saw that the reviewing person noted in a comment that they should take better care when anonymizing the papers. I had initials in the footnotes indicating some of the translations were my own and of course, I cited one of my own papers on the topic in the references. Thus, my identity was disclosed to the reviewers within seconds, without them having to google me or anything. Not that I cared particularly much (it had no further consequence), but it just added to the overall impression of lacking professionality.

The reviewer’s board is not specific to your field

Also, the reviewers board, while mostly consisting of full professors who (should) know their stuff, will not be specific to your field and only be able to cover the topic in a very broad way which might cause conflict as well.

So if you’re in for bad feedback, rather go get it from a journal pertinent to your field. In case you get bad feedback (which you probably will in any case), you can at least be sure that the editors and reviewers are competent and relevant to your field of study. I have had the experience of getting feedback from reviewers as well as the editors themselves who totally distorted some of what I had said. Regarding some of their feedback, I would have been able to provide 5+ standard publications indicating I was right. After all, I hadn’t “invented” this “bold and coloured statement”, like they claimed –  I had merely repeated (and cited) it from standard sources where it is common sense. Which they obviously were not aware of. I am not sure how a mutually beneficial review can happen under those circumstances. After the reviewer had criticized this general tone of my article (which was in totality a summary of standard works on the field, the statements weren’t even intended to make a point – they were just the introduction), the editor seemed to think me incompetent and got really strict with me, asking me to change those things. I agreed to leave out one whole “problematic” paragraph, but refused to correct statements I believe to be correct in general. This whole problem emerged from an authoritative opinion of the reviewers which they hadn’t backed up with one single reference. It was my word against theirs. This is not good scientific practice, as they should very well know. I can merely assume this situation was produced through the power situation of the review situation which is not “peer review” but a teacher reviewing a student. One of the reviews even mentioned grades in the review. Like, “some changes would make the paper from a C to a B”. I am sorry, but being treated like a stupid pupil was not what I had hoped to get in a peer review publication. Had I not submitted in a student journal, there was no way for them to know I was less senior than they were (at least no official ways).

My personal advice: Steer clear of “student journals”

It’s really not worth the pain. I have done it twice and had trouble both times.

I felt, not to be mean or anything, that the young editors wanted to “use their power” on me. That they felt superior to me even though they were not at a higher level of qualification at all.

I am sure not all young editors are like this and I sure as hell am not trying to suggest that. I just have to state that, sadly, this was my experience. It seemed to me that these young researchers just lost sight of where they stand and what their competences are or where they end.

Also I somehow felt that the reviewers (which were probably important professors mostly, judging by the board) were more strict with me than they might have been had they not known that I am still “at the beginning of my career”. They did not trust me to have knowledge in my particular narrow field of expertise. Even though they didn’t seem particularly well-informed on it themselves.

The ugly: Lengthy rambling with examples of my personal experiences

Here follows a lengthy rant about how it went for me (without calling names, of course). Skip it if you’re not interested. However, I think my experience might be relevant to you when choosing where to submit your paper (which probably represents the distilled sum of months of your time). Please note, however, that all of this is my personal opinion and might not be representative of your experience or the phenomenon of “student journals” in general. Just some innocent, highly subjective observations of mine.

“Student journal” fail story number one

The first time, everything went well until basically the day before publication. Then, all of a sudden and for no discernible reason at all (I suppose it was just stress-induced), the editor started yelling at me via email that I was not being grateful enough because it is an honour for me to publish in their journal. Which, I have to add, I don’t really see to begin with. It’s a student journal without reputation and I am very well able to publish with “real journals” and have done so. Publishing with a “real journal” would be better for me and they don’t ask me to be grateful. I mean, honestly, what the fuck?! An unsolicited aggression like this from a person I have never met, had never happened to me in academia before. And it’s not like weird things didn’t happen to me in the wondrous land of Academia on a regular basis (ass-grabbing during a panel and the like).

If the editor doesn’t think my paper is good enough for their journal, they should not have accepted it in the first place. Also, both the student journals I have published with (I will not name names and don’t want to blame anyone here), had like a maximum of 2-3 papers per issue. So it’s more the other way round: They needed my contribution (or any contribution whatsoever for that matter) or else they wouldn’t have anything to publish. Which isn’t much of a quality indicator for the journal I handed the precious fruits of my labour to. I was frankly pretty angry at this out-of-nowhere yelling via email (I honestly don’t think I did anything wrong up to that point and felt I had put in tons of effort in being polite). Then – seeing as I have quite a temper myself 😉 – she got the full blow back. Like, does she honestly think she’s the only one working crazy hours for free in the Humanities? That had been one of the points, that she works for free and I’m not grateful etc. And, hell, I really get how this can be frustrating seeing as that had been my exact situation at the time as well. Working 60 hours to get this grant proposal done and getting paid for 10 hours which was totally not enough to live off. But hey, that’s the Humanities. You signed up for this and you knew it was going to be like this. Don’t take it out on fellow PhD students who suffer from the same system…

Student journal fail story number two

So that was story number one. Story number two was after that. First I had this really (a bit too) good relationship with the editor who was overly friendly and helpful. At some point – once the review had come in and I had worked in the suggestions – the editor kept accusing me of not having integrated the suggestions etc. The paper was sent into review again to see if it had improved and the reviewers said no. I was a bit confused about the fact that I didn’t hear back from the editor in months and was only told afterwards that they had sent it to the reviewers once again. Which would have been fine by me but I kind of felt attacked having not been informed about this and then criticized after the review had come back. Apparently, the reviewers could not see how I had worked in their remarks. But seeing as I work on a very narrow field, I pretty much know mostly everyone in that field. The reviewer had made some comments on a historical person which led me to frankly doubt their ability to judge my paper since they were ridiculous, not at all backed up by any literature I know of and seems to me totally contrary to current opinions.  Of course, the esteemed reviewing professor is not asked to back up their claims by literature, while I am. Maybe I misjudged this, but I still found that highly dubious… Also, before, having worked in the suggestions from the first review, I gave the paper to multiple professors from “my circle” to criticize and worked in their feedback as well. I had done a private round of, not even peer- but “boss-review”. So I really felt a bit hurt at the accusation of not having worked in the suggestions. I don’t think most people add in private review rounds in between peer-reviews (nor have professors around who are willing to take the time to do this, which I am grateful that I do)… The longer this went on and the longer the emails between me and the editor became, I had the suspicion (which I had secretly been doubting since the very first feedback) that they didn’t want me to make some changes. They were not happy with how my paper was done in the first place.

Since I don’t think this is what peer-review is for, I only corrected the smaller issues. If the editors don’t like the overall making and idea behind the paper, they should just reject it straightaway, shouldn’t they? That would have been fair to me since at that time, it would still have been easy to make minor changes and send it in to another journal. After a million very specific corrections which had ever only made sense to the editors, not to me, I didn’t have that choice anymore. The paper had been altered so fundamentally according to their requests and wishes that already, I felt it was not really “my initial paper” anymore.

Also, I had to furnish lots of justifications of my choice of words which I deemed unnecessary and a bit weird, to be honest. One of the main issues had been my language (which nobody else has ever had a problem with in the past). Apparently, I am not “reflected” enough, whatever-the-hell that means… It went to a point where you were not even allowed to normally use any word anymore. You had to justify every choice of words, put any term which could possibly be misunderstood in quotation marks. Ambiguity is an inherent characteristic of language, folks. Sorry to have to break it to you. I wasn’t even really allowed to talk about my topic anymore (it was about superstition) because that is such a judgemental word. Science needs to be objective and free of judgement, blah blah. But I had stated about five times already that I don’t intend to judge any historical practices and just wanted to discuss religious deviance which was regarded as potentially superstitious. Honestly, I have hardly ever lived anything more annoying and frustrating than this.

To end this story, I have just received a rejection of my paper (after the draft for this post had already been done). They had sent out the paper for a third review, this time by a neutral other person. (And they, of course, hadn’t bothered telling me because why should they… It’s only a question of being polite and professional.) Since that person had criticized similar points than the other one and the atmosphere between me and the editors had gotten rather cold, they rejected me. Annoyingly, however, all of the reviews had stated they thought my paper was really good and interesting, except for the continuously problematic parts.

Reviewer 1 had criticized me using subjectively derogatory words to describe certain religious practices and “had used vocabulary worthy of conspiracy theories” (which I rather find to be a quite derogatory and subjective statement in itself). Reviewer 2 had criticized the presence of some ‘problematic terms’ which weren’t reflected upon enough, so I assume they must have concluded, I hadn’t made the changes they had asked for. Interestingly however, the words which had been criticized in the first review weren’t even present in that third version of the paper anymore since I had fully deleted the paragraph in question. So the criticism could not have possibly pertained to the same problem, even though the problem description / issue was a similar one. My view is that the new reviewer just had other preferences – which will probably always happen once you invite a new person into a discussion.

The same things were criticized in the paper, though the paper had been changed quite substantially between the three reviews. I felt I had responded to everything I had been asked to do. I am still at a loss of what the problem was in the end since both reviewers stated that the article was generally really interesting and they recommend its publication, if some minor changes are made. The changes I have made in this process were far from minor. I am now left feeling like this would have spun into an endless story hadn’t they put an end to it by rejecting me. I am not sure they knew what they wanted from me.

I am not the only one to feel like this about student journals either

You might think now that my rant on “student journals” is only due to my personal “fail stories”. Fair enough point. I respect that opinion. I probably wouldn’t believe it either without further proof to sugest the point is valid. I would love to say that my case is the only one. Since I really believe in the idea behind those “student journals”.

But I have heard equally disastrous, disappointing and unnerving stories from others as well. Papers ending up not being published after all, even though there had been no problem before and the author really needed this publication before a job application, etc.

Also, a professor I work with told me she was really disappointed because she wanted to look into these journals and support them and was treated in a most impolite way. Sentences in her paper had been changed without telling her by somebody who obviously didn’t understand her field of specialization very well, so they ended up not making any sense anymore.

Other friends of mine have similar stories to their portfolio.

Not an opportunity of a ‘quick paper’ but a lot of trouble

So, sadly, as much as I would like to encourage you to try those “student journals”, I really have to advise you to stay away from them. I can’t see one single advantage to you. The process is not easier than in any other journal. The editors who don’t get lots of contributions have “too much time” to spend on your paper and since they are not in the habit yet, you will probably end up as their lab rat (which clearly happened to me one time). They will take your paper apart more than senior editors probably would do but they don’t even really have the competence to back them up in this endevour.

Also, my hope of just getting a “quick paper” out using this approach did so not work. While the first paper was published in time, with the second one I wasn’t sure anymore whether the journal still wanted it after a whole year of back-and-forth. It ended up being rejected. After this year now, however, I have moved on to a new focus and don’t  currently have the time to rework it to submit it elsewhere. This is sad and stupid. A publication lying around for another year might not matter to a more senior researcher, but for my growing publication list, this is still a blow.  I had already been thinking about withdrawing the paper (which my professors had urged me to do due to lack of professionality from the editors) but I since had made so many changes already which the editors had specifically requested that I would have had to undo to hand it in anywhere else. So I kept hanging in even though professors from my circle of friends and colleagues strongly urged me to withdraw the paper straightaway at this unprofessional behaviour.

This is, honestly, a most ridiculous situation. These ‘young journals’ are supposed to be a source of empowerment and a safe space for new researchers. Yet in reality, they use their power to put pressure on you or let out their bad temper and frustration out at you.  They should be an opportunity for you to get taken just as seriously as a “grown-up” researcher and yet a reviewer talked about ‘grading my paper’. This didn’t feel exactly empowering to me, in any case. At least that was my experience and not only in one single case. In a third journal where I submitted, it seems they forgot about my paper and it’s been lying around for over a year now. Here as well I had already made tons of changes which will probably have been a waste of time in hindsight.

This opinion of mine is not pure conjecture either. I honestly received this pages-long angry email by one editor at one point shortly before publication was due. The person obviously was suffering from very high stress levels. I hadn’t done anything to provoke the aggression and the editor basically accused me of being ungrateful and said things like I didn’t appreciate how she worked for free, etc. (as though she was the only young researcher in the Humanities who ever worked for free… At that time, I worked 60h per week while being paid for 10. So thanks, but I really didn’t need a reminder to what it’s like…)

You really don’t need that. Try to find some professor or senior researcher who is willing to take care and really help you in your endeavour of getting you first publishing experience if you can. Submit to a journal they trust. Include them in all parts of the experience so they can help you should things go sideways. Steer clear from student journals.

To sum it up

If you do not yet have a Bachelor’s degree and think that you actually have something publication-worthy in the pipeline, “student journals” might be for you. Maybe even if you don’t have your Master’s degree yet, although you could probably already submit to most ‘normal journals’ by then. Once you have the possibility of submitting your work to a ‘real journal’, always choose the ‘real journal’. With blind peer review you should have the same chance of being accepted as everyone else.

Since you are not so far along in your studies yet, you also don’t have millions of papers to hand out. So I suggest you don’t “waste” your one good paper on a bad journal bad (in the way that it doesn’t have a good reputation and might not be perceived as a ‘real journal’). Your first publications are about building your CV’s publications list (see the post on how to build your publication list for young academics on this), so the choices you make matter way more than they will later on. Also, don’t submit your paper to a “student journal” if you need a ‘quick publication’. While no journal will guarantee a ‘quick publication’ (whatever that means), a journal which appears quarterly and is well established is far more likely to be able to “deliver” in this respect.

So, like I said, take what I have written with a grain of salt. The post is definitely coloured by my own bad experiences but since I myself have found it difficult to find information on how to get started publishing / building a publication list, I thought my experiences might be helpful and welcome to somebody. And while my experiences are definitely coloured by what happened to me, I submitted to three different such journals and none of the results were exactly pleasing, so I do have to conclude my experience must at least be kind of valid. I am very sad to have to say so, but I really regret submitting to student journals and will never do so again in the future. Mind you, I tried three different ones in three completely different fields (none of them DH). They basically all were similar. So please, if it’s your one good idea, have some self-respect and dare to submit it to the best journal in your field (especially if it’s the summary of your MA thesis, so the result from multiple months of work). If they don’t accept it, you can still scale down.

Best,

the Ninja

Regarding comments and contact info

Dear all,

apparently the LaTeX Noob is not alone to be a noob 😉

I just realized I had to approve your comments before they are published. Oops 😉 Will see to that more quickly in the future.

Also, I heard that some of you were not able to find contact information which maybe I might have messed up too 😉 I guess I just hadn’t really thought about having actual readers who want to contact me so far. And I am very happy that you exist and do wish to contact me! I will therefore add my contact info in the about section. Sorry, I am such a complete idiot not to have thought about this before 😉

Best and thanks again for all your positive feedback!