In the Works: Joslenne Peña on crafting educational atmospheres

Photo courtesy of Joslenne Peña.

Photo courtesy of Joslenne Peña.

Nina Rogers, Staff Writer

Joslenne Peña is an assistant professor of computer science in Macalester’s Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science Department. Peña began teaching at Macalester in the fall of 2020, and has recently begun her tenure track at the college. Tenure is a process by which an assistant professor progresses to associate and then to full professor, and is the traditional pathway to job security for those in academia.

A first generation college student, Peña first discovered her love for computers after visiting her mother at work as a child in New York City. Her work looks at addressing biases within the field of computer science, the importance of cultivating safe and welcoming spaces for marginalized students in academia and teaching students to embrace failure as part of their learning journey. 

The following is part of an interview The Mac Weekly conducted with Peña. This transcript has been edited and revised for clarity. 

The Mac Weekly (TMW): What would you say is the key focus or argument of the work that you are involved in? 

Joslenne Peña (JP): Something important to me has always been outreach; giving back in some way, shape or form if I can through informal learning. That could be offering workshops or camps, or helping be a part of that as an instructor or teacher. I think that if you can have outreach or a community component by engaging people in a different way that isn’t just a traditional classroom helps. My dissertation was related to this to a certain extent. 

I ran some workshops at Penn State called Code For Her and it was intended for people already in their professional career because I’m also interested in impacting them. I think they should have a chance to learn too. I think offering workshops and classes for them to learn programming too is also part of the outreach that I’m interested in. I did that for Code For Her at Penn State: we taught web development and had them create projects. And it was really fun! So I like to do a lot of that type of outreach, on my own time, if I can.

Something else that I’m thinking about, specifically when it comes to Mac, is integrating ethics into the computer science curriculum. I feel like it’s a way to make sure that students are involved and exposed and are actually interested in programming. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the technical component, but rather has everything to do with, “what is the impact? What are the social issues at play here? How can we connect what students are building with the impact that it’s going to have, whether it’s harmful or not?” That’s one of the major things that I’m trying to be mindful of and push, especially here at Mac, in our curriculum. 

One way to do this is to make it about a real world impact or social issue or a specific social context: what would happen if you build something in this way? How is this potentially problematic or harmful to a vulnerable group of people? I want to make students think about that and have that lightbulb moment of like, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know that if I built something this way it could impact this group of people negatively.” Those are the things that I’ve done in the past, things that I have been doing a little bit now, and most certainly want to continue. 

I’m also working on trying to figure out a way to incorporate what I’m calling socially responsible computing. It’s not only ethics: it’s also social justice, bias and understanding microaggressions, culture and identity. That all has to be baked and embedded into how someone learns how to program because there is unconscious bias embedded in every single tool that’s ever been developed because we all carry our own biases that we’re not aware of. Being mindful of that is probably the first step in working to dismantle them. 

TMW: Can you discuss an interesting discovery or realization that you’ve made in the process of your work or your learning? 

JP: I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter who it is, whether it’s older adults, or kids in K-12: people crave learning opportunities that are really, really low stakes and that are fun and provide safe, welcoming and inviting spaces. One thing that we have a problem with in computer science is persistence and retention of BIPOC students. It may sound trivial, it may not, but one thing that is so important to retaining students is crafting an environment where people actually feel comfortable to learn and where they feel safe and invited. 

I think that as an instructor, it’s important that you’re helping create a classroom climate that’s supportive, and allowing students, whoever those folks are, to embrace failure, because part of learning to program is really all about trial and error and embracing failure. 

I’ve learned that people really like informal learning opportunities; it’s kind of the best of both worlds. It doesn’t have to feel like a traditional college course where you’re worried about grades, because grades create stress and anxiety for people. It more has to be about fun and creating a low pressure environment. It’ll actually ease people up into believing they can learn the material. It might be a gateway to someone learning other programming languages, or being involved in other computational activities.

TMW: Have you ever reached a low in your learning or in the work that you do? If you have, what did you do to address those feelings? 

JP: I feel like I’m learning every day. Even after getting a PhD, the learning doesn’t stop. I’m always learning from my students. In terms of having a low, I would say that learning can be hard. Learning everyday is great, but learning can be hard if, say, you’re really hard on yourself if you’re not grasping a concept right away. As a professor, or as a person that’s learning every day, sometimes it’s easy to get very frustrated when you’re not grasping a concept or learning as quickly as you “should.” 

I would say that those are moments that I’ve experienced and help me resonate with and relate to students. We as professors are not perfect either. Sometimes we can struggle with learning different things, especially things that are outside of our field or area. I try to be aware of the fact that I’ll have these moments, and I try to think about how someone can regroup and come back from that, as well as how someone can allow themselves to embrace that failure and continue to move forward.

TMW: Is there something that you wish you knew before you started with your work? 

JP: For me, it’s not even about the work that you’re learning or the concepts, it’s more about navigating the landscape and the environment of academia, especially if you’re thinking about going to graduate school or being a professor. Being a first generation college student, I did not have a role model to look up to that was from my family, because they hadn’t actually achieved that. The things that I wish that I knew were hidden curriculum types of knowledge, like knowing when and how to contact a professor and potentially not being so afraid to do that. It’s more about navigating  the landscape of logistics that make it so that you’re able to study safely and securely and in as best shape as possible. Because if you’re struggling in any aspect, that would make it really hard for you to actually pay attention to your studies. 

TMW: If you could manifest one vision about your work, whether it be super long term or in  the immediate future, what would it be? 

JP: I’m working to create informal learning opportunities where people can be exposed to and learn programming here at Mac. It’s for people who might be novices, or simply people who’ve never had the opportunity. In the future, I would hope that there would be a sustainable effort to promote this type of learning and that we’re creating opportunities for people, whether that be people at Macalester, or people that are external to Macalester too. 

I would hope that we would be able to say, “Macalester is a place where you can come to find those safe spaces for informal learning. It’s one of those safe spaces where you can learn how to program and you can learn computer science and not have to feel like someone is talking down to you or feel unwelcome, uninvited or unsafe.” 

All of those components make a classroom climate and a learning community really appealing to people and actually have an impact on their learning overall. I would hope down the line that I would see actual implementations of informal learning workshops, or maybe even camps in the summer where people can come to Macalester and Macalester is a place where this can happen; it’s a place people can rely on to learn something that they might perceive as extremely difficult, but then feel really good that they came and actually learned.

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