Building Community

The Community of Carpentry Enthusiasts at the University of Wisconsin

Authors: Lauren Michael BLOG

I am so thrilled that we have been asked to comment on our growing Software and Data Carpentry community at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While I initially joined the greater Software Carpentry community as part of my ongoing role in providing local workshops (four years ago!), I must say that I’ve been happy to contribute back, well outside of my typical work week. These organizations do so much for the UW-Madison campus, as does our local community of ‘Carpentry’ enthusiasts.

In this second week of January 2017, we’re teaching our 12th Software Carpentry (SC) workshop since early 2013 and our 4th Data Carpentry (DC) workshop since summer 2015, with roughly 20 instructors and helpers, almost all of whom donate their time! As a result of prior ties with SC-extraordinaire Greg Wilson, we actually began cultivating this local group of enthusiasts when we ran more casual “boot camps” of test curricula even before Software Carpentry got it’s name. It was that early enthusiasm, and the successful leadership of individuals like Greg Wilson, Paul Wilson (UW-Madison), Katy Huff (previously UW-Madison), and several others, who set us off on the right foot with a small community that I inherited leadership for. While I’m not sure that same dynamic and timing could be replicated, here’s what we do today that I believe strengthens our community and could be applied anywhere:

Recruiting members

Even at our very first “Software Carpentry” workshop in April 2013, we invited attendees of the workshop (in wrap-up discussion) to join us for future workshops if they thought they would like to contribute as a helper or instructor. To this day, our thriving community of helpers and instructors is made up primarily of prior attendees who are research graduate students (mostly), post-docs, or staff. We also have 2 faculty and a few campus staff who are not prior attendees, but who have a professional interest and/or role in enabling others through computation/data practices and who heard about the workshops via adjacent efforts on our campus. Therefore, our members’ inherent interests and our methods of recruiting them mean that everyone values our ‘Carpentry’ work for enhancing the computational capabilities of others and for enhancing their own teaching skills/credentials. Aside from myself and Christina Koch, who are lead hosts/organizers of our workshops, everyone else effectively donates their time to workshop decisions and execution.

Evolving community members into effective contributors and instructors who keep coming back

The two primary practices that have worked in developing the interest and contributions of our members have been to:

  1. give work back to the people, by cultivating a culture that values fresh perspectives from new members and invites all members to contribute to our goals and work, and
  2. invite gradual escalation of contribution by each member, within their comfort zone.

As a prominent example of the second point, our unofficial cultural expectation within our community is that everyone serve as a workshop helper, when available, and that anyone wanting to instruct is expected to have prominently helped at one or more prior workshops. Given that we have several certified instructors, we can allow non-certified community members to try instructing while still providing a ton of support from those who are more experienced and have gone through Instructor Training. This advantage of having a local community lowers the barrier to entry as a workshop instructor. (Of course, all of our members who were available were ecstatic to attend our first on-site Instructor Training in fall 2016!!)

On the first point, our two main organizers have gradually given more work to members with each workshop we offer, by even increasing their roles in logistics planning, mentoring each other, and leading sub-projects that complement our workshops. Our first Data Carpentry workshop, for example, was made much easier when our members leveraged their professional networks to gather help from instructors on- and off-campus with relevant experience in DC topics. We are also finding that our members are interested in having regular meetings (monthly) outside of workshop planning, and that this helps to make helpers feel even more invested and to impact how we execute our workshops. It also allows us to extend #1, above, to the following …

Giving the community a purpose beyond local workshops

When your instructors and helpers reflect on workshops and how to make them more effective, find ways to channel that energy into benefits to your local community and to the greater Software Carpentry community. In an earlier time when very few institutions taught and regularly contributed to the Software Carpentry curriculum, we encouraged our members interests in holding hackathons, at that time, and continued to develop and teach some older curricula even after Software Carpentry made its first major change to more-novice materials in early 2014. Why fall a bit behind the SC standard? Because it kept our instructors and helpers motivated, kept our curriculum fresh, and allowed us to contribute more insights to Software Carpentry’s new (2014) materials when we did transition to it in 2015.

More recently, our own Sarah Stevens led an effort to create the installation video tutorials that now appear in the Software Carpentry workshop template, after we had the idea come up in a post-workshop discussion. Given less-than-successful attempts by ourselves and DC/SC to have open office hours (with few learners showing up), we’re also trying out an email help list to provide on-demand assistance after workshops. And we’re excited to report back our findings after we’ve had time to reflect. Bottom line: when we encourage our members to think critically about the workshops and community, the entire DC and SC communities benefit, and our members are invested in the cause.

Let us know what YOU think

We may have had a unique start to our local community years ago, but the methods above truly reflect what keeps our Carpentry community effective and productive, with members who keep coming back to continually improve our workshops and to contribute to the greater community. That said, we are far from perfect, and there are likely additional strategies that we’d love to learn about from other sites. We’re also happy to discuss the activities of our local community more, should anyone like to get in touch, and hope that this blog post helps with our goal of being more formally involved in the international Carpentry communities. Please feel free to write to us (swc-dc-help-AT-lists.wisc.edu) or to me, directly, if you’d like to get in touch (lmichael-AT-wisc.edu).

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