Joslenne Peña is an Associate Professor of Computer Science in the Department of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science at Macalester. Peña began teaching at Macalester in the fall of 2020 and has recently begun her path to college tenure. Tenure is a process by which an assistant professor progresses to become an associate professor and then a full professor, and is the traditional path to job security for scholars.
A first-generation college student, Peña discovered her love for computers after visiting her mother at work as a child in New York City. His work focuses on combating prejudice in computing, the importance of cultivating safe and welcoming spaces for marginalized students in academia, and teaching students to accept 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 do you think is the goal or the key argument of the work in which you are involved?
Joslenne Pena (JP): Something important to me has always been awareness; give back in some way if I can through informal learning. This could be offering workshops or camps, or helping to be part of them as an instructor or teacher. I think if you can have an outreach or a community component by engaging people in a different way that’s not just a traditional classroom, that helps. My thesis was related to this to some extent.
I ran workshops at Penn State called Code For Her and it was for people already in their professional careers because I’m interested in impacting them as well. I think they should also have the chance to learn. I think offering them workshops and courses to learn programming is also part of the outreach that interests me. I did this 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 this kind of outreach, in my spare time, if I can.
Another thing I’m thinking about, particularly with regard to Mac, is integrating ethics into the computer science curriculum. I feel like it’s a way to make sure students are involved and exposed and actually interested in programming. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with the technical component, but rather has everything to do with “what’s the impact?” What are the social issues at stake here? How can we make a connection between what students are building and the impact it will have, whether harmful or not? That’s one of the main things I try to keep in mind and push, especially here at Mac, in our program.
One way to do this is to talk about a real world impact or a specific social issue or social context: what if you built something like this? How is this potentially problematic or harmful for a group of vulnerable people? I want to get students thinking about that and having that light bulb moment like, “Oh, my God, I had no idea that if I built something like this it might negatively impact this group of people.” These are the things I’ve done in the past, things I’m doing a bit now, and definitely want to continue.
I’m also working on trying to find a way to incorporate what I call socially responsible computing. It’s not just about ethics: it’s also about social justice, prejudice and understanding microaggressions, culture and identity. All of this needs to be integrated and built into the way someone learns to program, as there are unconscious biases built into every tool developed, as we all carry our own biases that we are unaware of. Being aware of this is probably the first step in working to dismantle them.
MMT: Can you discuss an interesting discovery or realization that you have made through your work or learning?
JP: I’ve learned that no matter who it is, whether it’s older adults or kids in kindergarten to grade 12: people crave learning opportunities that are truly , really unimportant and that are fun and provide safe, welcoming and inviting spaces. One thing that we struggle with in IT is the perseverance and retention of BIPOC students. It may seem trivial, but what’s so important to retaining students is creating an environment where people actually feel comfortable learning and where they feel safe and invited.
I think as an instructor it’s important that you help create a positive classroom climate and allow students, whoever they are, to accept failure, because part of learning Programming is really about trial and error and accepting failure. .
I learned that people really like informal learning opportunities; it’s kind of the best of both worlds. It doesn’t have to be like a traditional college course where you worry about grades because grades create stress and anxiety for people. It has to be more about having fun and creating a low pressure environment. It will actually help people believe they can learn the material. It could be a gateway to someone learning other programming languages or involved in other computational activities.
MMT: Have you ever hit a low point in your learning or in the work you do? If so, what have you done to address those feelings?
JP: I feel like I’m learning every day. Even after earning a PhD, the learning doesn’t stop. I always learn from my students. As for having a bass, I would say learning can be difficult. Learning everyday is great, but learning can be hard if, say, you’re really hard on yourself if you don’t grasp a concept right away. As a teacher or someone who learns every day, sometimes it’s easy to get very frustrated when you don’t grasp a concept or learn as quickly as you “should”.
I would say that these are moments that I have experienced and which help me resonate with the students and identify with them. As teachers, we are not perfect either. Sometimes we may find it difficult to learn different things, especially things that are outside of our field or region. I’m trying to be mindful that I’m going to have those moments, and I’m trying to think about how someone can regroup and come back from this, and how someone can afford to embrace this failure and keep moving forward.
MMT: Is there anything you would like to know before starting your job?
JP: For me, it’s not even about the work you learn or the concepts, it’s more about navigating the university landscape and environment, especially if you’re thinking of going to graduate school or becoming a professor. As a first generation student, I had no role model in my family because they failed to do so. The things I wish I had known were hidden types of knowledge, like knowing when and how to contact a professor and potentially not being so afraid to do so. It’s more about navigating the logistics landscape that allows you to study safely and in the best shape possible. Because if you have difficulties in any aspect, it would prevent you from paying attention to your studies.
MMT: If you could manifest a vision for your work, whether in the very long term or in the immediate future, what would it be?
JP: I work to create informal learning opportunities where people can be exposed to and learn programming here at Mac. It’s for people who might be new to it, or just people who haven’t had a chance. In the future, I hope there is a sustained effort to promote this type of learning and that we create opportunities for people, whether they are people in Macalester or people outside of Macalester as well .
I hope we can say, “Macalester is a place where you can come and find these safe spaces for informal learning. It’s one of those safe spaces where you can learn to program and learn computer science without feeling like someone is talking to you badly or that you feel unwelcome, uninvited or unsafe.
All of these things create a classroom climate and learning community that is really engaging for people and actually impact their learning in general. Hopefully eventually I will see some real implementations of informal learning workshops, or maybe even camps in the summer where people can come to Macalester and Macalester is a place where that can happen; it’s a place people can rely on to learn something they might perceive as extremely difficult, but feel really good to have come and actually learned.