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Exaud Xperts’ Talks: Alda Canito (Part II)
Welcome to the second part of Alda’s interview! We talk about being a woman in IT, Covid-19 challenges and her super duper cool webcomic. If you missed the first part, click here!
How did Covid-19 change your teaching methods due to remote classes? How was your adaptation to this new reality?
The strategy adopted was basically as follows: one week with in-person lessons at the labs, with a class divided into two separate labs as to keep the social distance. The next week, all classes online, and so on. I could go and say that it’s good that we were all forced to rely more on the technologies and that is some sort of gain, but there’s still a big loss when you don’t have face-to-face contact.
Students don’t open up as much online as they do in person, and the whole class dynamics change too. Engagement with students gets harder. You don’t have that eye-to-eye contact that immediately tells you a student is not catching up with what you’re telling them, so how do you correct your teaching method? I’d frequently find that although we’d had online classes the week before, we’d all have to do a lot of catch up in the next in-person lesson. So while it wasn’t 100% like they were only having classes every other week, it sure felt like that sometimes. So it’s not like adaptation was on itself a hard process, but it came at a price that I personally don’t enjoy seeing.
How do you think COVID-19 will change our schools in the future?
Let me tell you one thing, while ISEP was never empty, it was very quiet. My feeling is that we don’t know yet what we are dealing with, on the long run. We’ve had two years of COVID now and the results are not pleasant. But it’s hard to know exactly what needs to be changed so we can get the students back on track; we’re only now starting to get results of the approaches selected for last year and assessing whether they are good results or not.
I don’t think anyone was ready for this and it’s easy, I suppose, to dismiss and say “well, the students have made it through the year, we have X% approval, this is going fine, everything is still happening fine.” Because we don’t really know that yet, we do not have enough data to reach conclusions. And my personal experience is still purely anecdotal, but I felt the students had a lot more trouble this year than ever before. I saw a lot of questions and doubts that I didn’t use to get on the previous years. But is this because of COVID, is it just a coincidence? It’s hard to say. If anything, at least for me, it just goes to show that learning at a distance is clearly not for everyone. On the other hand, this entire ordeal has shown us that we do in fact have the ability to hold a lot of classes online, and I feel like even after all of this is over and we’re all back, some habits may be different. Maybe we’ll have more online courses, which would be super interesting.
Over 80% of the students pursuing Informatics and Software Engineering are male. What’s your opinion when it comes to gender inequality in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics? And as a teacher what do you think we should do to change that reality?
I remember when I was a student there were some… ten girls, for my entire year? It was a little bit of a shock at first. But we got used to it, and after a while it stops being something you notice. Don’t get me wrong – there is still a stigma attached to being a woman in STEM, and if you happen to be competitive… You’re going to hear some things you don’t like. Sometimes, especially in workplaces, sexism is very subtle and even unconscious; you can never be sure if something is being done on purpose, and how do you call that behaviour out? Am I being singled out because I did something wrong, or is this happening because I am a woman? Why do my ideas sound so much alluring to the other people when they come from the mouth of a man? Still, I have always been very lucky in that regard and my positive experiences far outweigh the negative ones, both as a student and as a professional.
Things have gotten much better since my college days, although they are still far from ideal. I still get one, two female students per class. I think the best thing – and perhaps the only thing – I can do in my position is to be an example. The mere fact that I am, in my age, in the position I am in, should be enough of an incentive for students, particularly female students, to know that it is possible. But I have always been very lucky on that regard, my positive experiences far outweigh the negative ones, both as a student and as a professional. And I should note that, while yes, the vast majority of students are male, the same is not true when it comes to the faculty members, or in the research facilities (at least in my experience, we know the world-wide numbers….). I’m happy to have been working with many wonderful professors and researchers and my research group is very well balanced.
You’re also a comic book artist. Would you like to share with us what you’re currently doing and how you can keep this researcher/teacher/artist/storyteller balance?
Is this question going to make me embarrassed? Oh no! Okey, how do I describe this… I like telling stories, and I love drawing, and comic books are the best wedding between these two, right? I can’t imagine a life for me in which I am not working on some creative project. It comes naturally to me, creating characters and moments, and after I’ve had them in my head for a while, they scream to get out.. And things need to happen. That’s it. It just has to happen. It’s not magic. I’m currently working on a webcomic – the kind of comic you can read on the web! – called O Sarilho. I have been at it for the last four years and it’s been a blast! I don’t even remember exactly how I had the initial ideas for it, but you know the saying that you should write about what you love? I thought to myself, well… You like roman history, you like sci-fi, you like space and you like computers… Let’s put that in a mixer and see what comes out! And it’s been a very interesting experience seeing what it was when I started and what it evolved to be. Because it is a webcomic with a release schedule of one page per week, it gives me a lot of time to think about what will happen next, and to expand upon the story principles.
Balancing it with work is… Everything boils down to setting objectives. I have deadlines for work, and I have deadlines for comics. And I take them very seriously, because it’s very easy to say “I don’t really have to do this, not now” and then drop your projects indefinitely. And my projects are very personal, so if I’m not doing them, who will? Nobody else can tell my stories. If I want things to get done, I have to be organized. So I have timetables to work on all types of projects, and every now and then I can go “Oh, I have done enough comic work to last me for two months, I can take a break” and that’s it. And then you have work, and you can’t not do it! There’s not much to be discussed there.
A big thank you to Alda for taking the time to speak with us and let us in her busy researcher/professor/artist schedule! You can expect more interviews like this one in the future.
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