“Is it sequel (siːkwəl) or SQL (ˈɛs ˈkjuː ˈɛl)?”… and other questions you might answer when instructing your first Carpentry

Author: Stephen Worthington
Posted: 13 Jun 2019 | 14:44

The Carpentries is a community of instructors and learners promoting the importance of good software and data practices in research. If you’ve not heard of The Carpentries, I encourage you to read more. And if you’re Edinburgh based, learn about our own branch of The Carpentries.

Perhaps, as was the case with me recently, you’ve signed up to instruct on your first Carpentry and don’t know exactly what to expect. Read on for an account of some of the questions you may be asking yourself (or that I asked myself, at least) and some questions you may be asked while instructing. Hopefully I can provide you with some useful answers to these.

“Is it sequel (siːkwəl) or SQL (ˈɛs ˈkjuː ˈɛl)?”

This one is more likely to come up if you’re teaching a Data Carpentry on SQL as I was. The correct answer is “either” (though my strong preference is for siːkwəl, you save an entire syllable!).

“Will I be asked questions I don’t know the answer to?”

Unless you are a complete expert in every facet of the topic you are instructing, then yes, most likely.

“Is that a bad thing?”

Of course not! “By teaching, we learn” is, a hasty Google search informs me, a Latin proverb perhaps derived from Seneca the Younger (whose youthful moniker evidently belied great wisdom).

As I explained the application of SQLite’s ‘nullif’ function, one inquisitive student asked if it could be used to omit certain rows when performing joins in tables (joining being the function by which we can bring together related data from separate relations in a database).

Cue a short pause, followed by my answer; “I don’t know, but I can find out for you later”.

But it turns out it’s ok to not know, because the students are grateful for you taking the time to find out and answer the question, and it means next time you will know.

(The answer was yes, in this case)

And not only will you be learning new techniques, you’ll also be consolidating what you already did know, reframing your knowledge as you think about how to relate it to others.

“If I’m live coding, what happens if I make mistakes?”

You correct them, explain them to the students. Both yourself and the students will learn something, and you’ll demonstrate to a group of people who are newly learning a particular skill/tool that everybody makes mistakes.  

“What will the support be like?”

Excellent! While I was instructing, I had three very knowledgeable helpers giving guidance to the students (and myself). There were some teething issues, as there will be when you take on any new challenge for the first time (and likely second and third times too). But more pertinently, there was also the help needed to get through these and continue to deliver.

“Is this worth doing?”

Absolutely. If, as was the case with myself, you’ve not taught in an academic setting before, it’s a fantastic first experience. It’s a great opportunity to share knowledge and contribute to a community built around excellent values, and a chance to learn new things too.

If this sounds like something you would enjoy, contact your local Carpentries organiser and get involved!

“Last question. If I do this, and subsequently write a Q&A-style blog post, will it become tiresome to read?”

Quite possibly, best not let it run on for too long.


Stephen Worthington, EPCC

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