On the Importance of Cleaning Up After Your React Component

For the past few months, I've been working on/leading a pretty large feature generically named "Assignments." It provides the ability for any admin on our platform, Learn, to give a student something to do. That sounds simple enough in theory, but we had to build this feature with a lot of flexibility.

Each assignment is due at a certain time and can have several collaborators who are also admins on Learn. In addition, each assignment has multiple tasks that have many types. For example, a task can be either a code challenge or a to-do, can have a submission type of url or checkbox, and can have a reviewable type of none, confirmed, or graded.

The abundance of types makes this project unwieldy. That and the conflation of task with assignment because although we were designing this system to be generic, the primary immediate use case (for code challenges) was incredibly specific. I'm not quite convinced that we handled the types sustainably, but it suffices for now. As the credo goes, make it work, make it right, make it fast. We definitely made it work...so I'm okay with that.

Here are some sick gifs from our QA pass of the feature for your viewing pleasure.

Admin Assignments Dashboard and Editor

Admin Assignments

Student Assignment Submission

Student Assignment

Admin Assignments Grading

Admin Assignments Grading

Anyway, the feature has a React-Redux front end and a Rails backend. We designed the backend using domain-driven design (DDD), and as a result, in many places, the backend feels more like the Phoenix framework than Rails. By the way, Rails gets super angry about autoloading when you heavily namespace. And when Rails gets angry, I also get angry, well, more frustrated than angry.

The Problem

There are a ton of complex views that need varying amounts of data. But one issue that kept cropping up repeatedly while we built this feature was that we kept forgetting to clear out the old assignment data when our routes and views changed.

We're using React Router to manage routes in our front-end app. This allows us to display different components when the routes change, or, in other words, maintain state in the URL. But, when you try to render two different components based on the state of a data at the same URL, things can get tricky.

To illustrate the problem, I'll point to a specific case I recently solved. When an assignment is in a draft state, it's URL is basically BASE_URL/assignments/:id, where the id is the primary key of the assignment record. However, after the assignment is published, the URL stays the same, but we instead display a grading view of the assignment rather than the editing view. One URL: two very different components.

To determine which view we display, we need to know some information about the assignment. However, we won't know that information at the time the component renders because we have to ask the backend for that data.

I thought about this for a long time and the simplest solution I could think of was to have a component that renders and mediates which component to display: the Editor component or the Grading component. I also tossed around the idea of having the grading portion live at a different URL, but that became a little unwieldy because the grading view has another two subviews that we display: an overview as well as a master-detail view.

So, I started with creating a new component I titled the AssignmentDirector.

Here's a snippet from the pack file where our primary routes are declared:

  render((
    <Provider store={ store } >
      <Router basename='/admin/assignments'>
        <Switch>
          <Route path='/:id(\d+)/:activeTab?' component={ AssignmentDirector } />
          <Redirect from='*' to='/search/assignments' />
        </Switch>
      </Router>
    </Provider>
  ), assignmentsContainer)

When the route matches, we render the AssignmentDirector component, and we don't yet have the data we need. Even those few microseconds of waiting can throw an error in the view.

The AssignmentDirector component below is a Redux-connected component reponsible for determining which sub-component to display.

class AssignmentDirector extends Component {
  componentDidMount() {
    const { fetchAssignment, history } = this.props
    const { id } = this.props.match.params

    fetchAssignment(id)
      .catch(e => history.replace('/search/assignments'))
  }

  componentDidUpdate(prevProps) {
    const { fetchAssignment, history } = this.props
    const { id } = this.props.match.params

    if (prevProps.match.params.id !== id) {
      fetchAssignment(id)
        .catch(e => history.replace('/search/assignments'))
    }
  }

  render() {
    if (this.props.loading) {
      return <Spinner containerHeight={125}/>
    }

    if (this.props.published) {
      return <GradingContainer
        history={this.props.history}
        id={this.props.match.params.id}
      />
    }

    return (
      <EditorContainer
        activeTab={this.props.match.params.activeTab}
        history={this.props.history}
      />
    )
  }
}

const mapStateToProps = ({assignments}) => {
  return {
    assignment: assignments.editor.active,
    publishAssignmentModalOpen: assignments.editor.publishAssignmentModalOpen
  }
}

export default connect(mapStateToProps, {fetchAssignment})(AssignmentDirector)

When the AssignmentDirector component mounts, we ask the backend for information on that assignment. If it doesn't exist or throws an error, we redirect to the dashboard's home. While that assignment is fetching, we display a loading indicator. When the assignment data is received, we flip the loading key to false and because the props have changed, the component re-renders. As you might be able to tell, the AssignmentDirector is reading its state from the editorReducer.

In the render function, the next set of logic should execute. If the assignment is published, we render the GradingContainer. Otherwise, we'll render the EditorContainer.

One complication is that the fetching of the assignment actually returns all the data required for the Editor but not the Grader. In a perfect world, we'd probably rewrite that, but to cut down on network requests, I think this works for the time being.

So once again, if the assignment is published, we render the GradingContainer, which then issues a request to get the grading summary for the assignment. That request updates a different key in our redux store and is actually handled by the graderReducer rather than the editorReducer.

// editorReducer.js

export default (state = defaultState, action) => {
  const { type, payload } = action
  const { active } = state

  switch (type) {
    case RECEIVE_ASSIGNMENT:
      return { ...state,
        active: payload,
        loading: false,
      }

Here, the editorReducer responds to the RECEIVE_ASSIGNMENT action and updates state accordingly.

Let's say that when this assignment was received, it was actually published. In that case, the GradingContainer would render.

For simplicity, I'm only showing part of the component's code.

// GradingContainer

class GradingContainer extends Component {
  componentDidMount() {
    const { id, fetchAssignmentGradingSummary, history } = this.props
    fetchAssignmentGradingSummary(id, history)
  }

  componentWillUnmount() {
    this.props.clearActiveStudent()
    this.props.clearAssignmentGradingSummary()
  }

  render() {
    return (
      //some markup
    )
  }
}

const mapStateToProps = ({
  assignments: {
    grader: {
      gradingSummary: {
        assignment
      },
      gradingSummaryLoading
    }
  }
}) => ({
  assignment,
  gradingSummaryLoading
})

export default withRouter(connect(mapStateToProps, {
  clearActiveStudent,
  clearAssignmentGradingSummary,
  fetchAssignmentGradingSummary
})(GradingContainer))

So, when the GradingContainer mounts, we dispatch an action to fetch the grading data. That action eventually updates the state in graderReducer.

// graderReducer

export default (state = defaultState, { type, payload }) => {
  switch (type) {
    case RECEIVE_ASSIGNMENT_GRADING_SUMMARY:
      return {
        ...state,
        gradingSummaryLoading: false,
        gradingSummary: {
          ...payload
        }
      }
  }
}

Now, when the GradingContainer unmounts, you see that I was smart enough to remember to clean up the data in the store, but the AssignmentDirector is still hooked up to the editorReducer and looking at the state of the assignment in there.

This discrepancy resulted in odd behavior on the front end. When you clicked on a published assignment from the dashboard and then clicked onto an unpublished one, you'd momentarily see a flash of the grading view before the assignment fetch resolved. You'd also see a 500 request appear in the console.

I spent some time hanging out in the Redux Dev Tools inspector and noticed that the FETCH_STUDENT_ASSIGNMENT_GRADING_SUMMARY kept getting called before the FETCH_ASSIGNMENT action. Even though the URL was changing, the AssignmentDirector was still trying to render the GradingContainer!

And that's when I realized that the AssignmentDirector wasn't getting updated in the right order when the assignment and URL changed.

To fix this, I added an action to clear the active assignment from the editorReducer when the AssignmentDirector unmounts, which reset the defaults for the assignment and the loading state within the editorReducer and stop the GradingContainer from rendering prematurely.

  componentWillUnmount() {
    this.props.clearActiveAssignment()
  }

And that, friends, is why it's important to clean up after your React components.