SIGCSE 2010: Sally Fincher v. Barbie

Jack Rosenberger
CACM Senior Editor Jack Rosenberger

Before delivering her keynote speech titled "Useful Sharing," Sally Fincher, a professor in the School of Computing at the University of Kent, was presented with the 2010 SIGCSE Award for Outstanding Contributions to Computer Science Education. In discussing why Fincher received the award, the SIGCSE presenter read comments from several computer scientists who had nominated Fincher. The comments included gems such as "Sally’s not content being the best educator she can be. She also wants her fellow educators to be the best they can be, too." Another nominator mentioned Fincher’s rigor and influence on her colleagues, who will examine their work and ask it’s "Sally-proofed"—i.e., "Does our work stand up to her standards?"

Fincher started her "Useful Sharing" keynote with a discussion of representation, and showed a color slide of a simple black t-shirt whose front bears the slogan "This is what a feminist looks like." The t-shirt, Fincher explained, was a gift from a friend who wrote in an accompanying note, "As I get older, this means more and more to me." Fincher, who was dressed entirely in black—a large black blazer, black shirt, black pants, and black boots—then proceeded to pull open her blazer to reveal her t-shirt, which proclaimed "This is what a feminist looks like."

The theme of Fincher’s keynote was the importance of representation, such as how computer scientists represent their work, how they represent their work to each other, and how they represent themselves to the world. Representations, she noted, can help or hinder our work.

Fincher talked about research and teaching, and mentioned their differences (research is largely external, as it is reviewed and published outside the confines of an institution, and teaching is largely internal as it is situated and site-specific).

In terms of improving one’s teaching, Fincher offered the observation that "computer science colleagues from other institutions have little incentive to improve my practice." Fincher noted that the community of practice for her teaching, unlike research, is her computer science department.

Fincher referenced Max Boisot and his model of information space, which was developed to examine the organization and diffusion of knowledge.

Fincher discussed two types of knowledge: concrete knowledge and abstract knowledge, and the often-large gap between the two. She used a London taxi driver as an example of concrete knowledge, noting that before a person can legally become a taxi driver in London, he or she is required to study for several years and pass a rigorous test of their knowledge of routes from one point to another in London. As an example of abstract knowledge, Fincher discussed a person who comes to London, rents a car, or uses a map or a GPS system to navigate the city environment.

Which is better at getting you from Point A to Point B? Fincher clearly prefers the London taxi driver, but acknowledges that abstract knowledge has its good qualities, but also suffers from limitations.

The Use of Narrative
Too often there is a large gap between concrete and abstract knowledge for students and teachers, and Fincher suggested that one effective way to bridge the gap is through the use of narrative.

She showed a slide of the text of an "Experimental Section" of a paper published in a scientific journal as an example of representation, and noted that the “Experimental Section” provided a method for others to precisely duplicate the paper’s experiment and attain the same result. Why, Fincher asked, isn’t "the replication of our practice guaranteed by the scientific method" in teaching? For instance, why can’t the best practices transfer from one classroom to another?

Narrative knowledge, she proposed, can help close the gap between concrete knowledge and abstract knowledge. “Narrative mediates the embodied and the symbolic,” Fincher said. “It encourages the representation of complex associations. It gives us structure to embodied experiences and thereby become amenable to sharing.”

Narrative, Fincher said, is conducive to both the teller and the listener, and a narrative representation means that you can draw from others’ experiences, which then become your own (and thus easily shared). This knowledge transfer via narrative storytelling, Fincher pointed out, is practice-based, situated, and useful.

Three Fincher Projects
Fincher has employed this useful sharing in three projects: Bundles, Disciplinary Commons, and Sharing Practice.

Fincher’s work in Bundles builds on patterns and pattern languages, which is a way of capturing good design practice. It’s structured around problems that designers face, and it’s a model of useful sharing. In pattern language, narrative isn’t always just a story, but can contain suggestions, examples, problems, and solutions. As an example of this, Fincher discussed the EPCoS Bundle Form, which includes a problem statement, body, and solution statement.

Among the relevant work Fincher cited is A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein, and her own Computer Science Project Work

For more information on Bundles and the EPCoS Bundle Form, visit:

Disciplinary Commons
Devised with Josh Tenenberg, Disciplinary Commons involves situations in which individuals take collective responsibility for common resources. In Fincher’s context, Disciplinary Commons is used to document and share knowledge about teaching and learning.

In a typical Disciplinary Commons setup, there are 10-20 practitioners who share the same disciplinary background. They host monthly meetings through the academic year and during these meetings, their best practices are shared, peer-reviewed, and documented in course portfolios. Also, practitioners also visit other similar institutions to learn about their practices and share them with the group.

One result of a Disciplinary Commons is the creation of a course portfolio, which contains six sections (context, content, instructional design, delivery, assessment, and evaluation), which provide useful narrative knowledge.

These course portfolios are not perfect, Fincher acknowledged, as they are large, dense, and unwieldy. Also, there’s no index, and you have to read it all the way through to get the meaning of the narratives, but the portfolio contains a wealth of useful information and helps bridge the gap of what Samuel Johnson called "useless truths."

Sharing Practice
Sharing Practice is a new, crowdsourcing project by Fincher and colleagues and is build around an evolving Web site ( to obtain "authentic stories" of teaching and learning from around the world. In short, the site tries to answer the question, "How do educators discover ‘what works’?"

Representation (Again) 
At the end of her speech, Fincher returned to the theme of representation. She showed a color slide of the "This is what a feminist looks like" t-shirt and then a slide of the same style of t-shirt, only this time the slogan read: "This is what a computer scientist looks like."

"Computer scientists need to represent themselves," Ficher said, "because if we don’t represent ourselves, someone else will do it for us." Fincher then displayed a slide of the latest Barbie doll, whose new occupation is computer engineer—and, not surprisingly, with her pink eyeglasses, pink laptop, and pink plastic shoes, she didn’t look at all like Fincher or anyone else in the ballroom.

Addendum, 3/12/10
Before the start of Carl E. Wieman’s keynote speech, Symposium Co-Chair Gary Lewandowski of Xavier University addressed the audience and announced that SIGCSE had a special present for Sally Fincher. Then he pulled a black t-shirt out of a bag and, holding it above his shoulders, showed it to the audience. Its front slogan: "This is what a computer scientist looks like."

For more information about this essential component of every computer scientist’s wardrobe, visit this link at

Jack Rosenberger is senior editor, news, of Communications of the ACM.

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