On Saturday, the Saturday at the end of 8th week of winter term, our computer science seniors gathered to present their Comps (group capstone projects, for those readers outside of Carleton). The day typically has a celebratory feel: this is the culmination of 2 terms of hard work on their part, and this is their chance to present their work to their friends, family, and classmates. The morning started, as it usually does, with a welcome from the CS faculty, which this year I gave.
Except instead of welcoming the students, friends, and family like I normally would, I stood in front of all those gathered, with the rest of the CS faculty at my side, and tried to speak words that would make some sense at all of the tragic events of the day before: the loss of three students, including one of our junior majors, and the serious injuries to two other students.
Someone asked me later what I said. To be honest, I have no idea. The shock and grief were too much. I remember going to the front of the room and picking up a microphone (and then handing it off to one of our seniors when I couldn’t figure out how to turn it on). I remember talking, but not the actual words. I remember asking for a moment of silence. I remember thanking everyone. And the next thing I remember, I was sobbing in the ladies’ room.
Our students carried on admirably, given the circumstances. I think it helped that we were all together that day, as a department, and that we had something else to concentrate on for a while. It helped that we rearranged the schedule so that we could attend the memorial service in the middle of the day. But I’ll admit I was splitting my time between listening to the presentations and figuring out what we, as a department, should do: for our grieving students, for the family of Paxton, for each other.
There is nothing in the chair’s handbook that walks you through what to do as a department when a student passes away. There is nothing in the faculty handbook that indicates what you should do the first class meeting after a tragic event plunges a campus into grief, or how to counsel students who are struggling to make sense of something that makes no sense at all, who are grief-stricken and in shock and maybe feeling even more alone than before. There is nothing in my years of on-the-job experience that remotely prepares me for what I, as a faculty member and as a department chair, am dealing with now.
So I’m figuring things out as I go along. I didn’t plan any special remarks for class—I went with what I was thinking at the moment, and I honestly told my students that I wasn’t sure how to proceed, either, but that I would just try. That we’d be flexible and figure things out together and see where that left us. That it was important to reach out and to keep talking and to use the available campus resources. That I am also a resource that they can lean on, even if I don’t exactly know what I’m doing. That the next days and weeks and months would be sad and hard, but that we are a strong community and that ultimately that will get us through.
This afternoon and this evening, we will gather as a department to remember Paxton especially, but also James and Michael, and send healing thoughts to Will and Connor. It won’t be enough. It won’t be nearly enough. But it’s something, and we’ll figure out the rest as we go along.
Today, for the first time in weeks, I am working at home, in my sun-drenched home office, with my work tunes playing, a steady supply of hot tea, and my feet propped up. Save for a few phone calls and a flurry of emails earlier, my day has been blissfully interruption-free. I’ve actually had time to think for more than 5 minutes! I tackled (and finished) a task that I knew would take me a while that I’ve been saving for a day like today. I’ve caught up on the million little things that have been piling up over the past month-plus, and will tackle a bunch more this afternoon. I may even finish the draft of the exam I’m giving in class on Friday. (Dare I dream that I’ll even get to “read a research article”, the last item on my list for today?)
The past month and a half has been a whirlwind of running from one thing to the next (sometimes literally). Service activities that I thought would be quite manageable morphed into time-suckers. Some unbloggable things happened that required more time and energy than I had to spare, but that had to be dealt with immediately. (If there’s a silver lining there, it’s that I now know an awful lot more about the existence of various campus resources, and that info will definitely come in handy in the future.) Then there’s scheduling, scheduling, and more scheduling—finalizing the spring term schedule, making the schedule for next year and the year beyond. At least the spring schedule was easy—a room change here and there, perhaps a change in the course capacity. I’m quickly learning that making a schedule and satisfying a million usually conflicting constraints is hard, hard, hard. And hiring, which has pretty much taken up all of my time for the past month and a half. (Logistics! Campus visits! Entertaining! And that’s after going through the amazingly challenging work of reading applications and narrowing down the strongest pool I’ve ever seen.) If it weren’t for my research student this term, there would be no research happening this term. And thank goodness I’m teaching one course that I’ve taught many times in the past, with an incredible group of students who has made my job as a teacher so much easier this term, because otherwise I’m sure I would not be sleeping at all.
I really, really, REALLY needed a day like today. When you’re in the midst of such craziness, you almost lose a sense of your surroundings—you’re so focused on getting something done in the moment so that you can move onto doing something else in the next moment, and you don’t dare stop to breathe because the sheer volume of what needs to be done may drown you. But that’s not healthy or sustainable. (In fact, the moment things calmed down a teeny bit? I got sick. Of course.) We need time to reflect, time to work carefully and deliberately, time to sit and stare out the window and think. Time to not be interrupted. Time to consciously decide what to do next. Time away from the tsunami of tasks and demands. Time to control the to-do list, instead of having it control you.
The next few weeks are still packed—our seniors present their Comps on Saturday, we’re still in the process of hiring, the term ends soon, and I’ll be at SIGCSE next week (yay!). So this respite is brief. On the other hand, these upcoming weeks are at least manageably packed, and you can bet I’ll be making time to, if not fully re-create today, at least partially re-create it, even if it’s just closing my door for an hour and consciously deciding how *I* want to spend that time.
The other day, a student left my office, beaming. She and I had just finished discussing some project ideas she might pursue, with me serving as a technical mentor (and mentor in general). I was also beaming—the projects and the potential collaborations sound exciting! There’s lots of stuff of interest to pursue!
Then I put my head on my desk and groaned, as the Impostor Syndrome and doubts started to creep in.
For much of my career, I have been a Networking Person. Not as in “someone who schmoozes and hands out business cards” or “one who is always on Facebook” (ok, maybe that latter one is true), but as in someone working in the field of computer/communications networks. I was a Networking Person when I was still an electrical engineer. I was a Networking Person in my Master’s project and PhD dissertation. I was a Networking Person in my post-doc. I am “the” Networking Person at Carleton. I do research in the broad areas of Computer Networks, publish most of the time in networks-related conferences, journals, and workshops. I always have, and continue to enjoy, networks as a field (other that the dismal percentage of women)—I find the field fascinating, the possibilities endless. I geek out on RFCs and traceroute; an afternoon playing with Wireshark is my idea of fun.
However, lately I’m finding that I have a new passion in an entirely different subfield. It started off as mainly a teaching interest: a module in a Software Design course, a dyad, and eventually an A&I (freshman) seminar. At some point I realized I was actually doing some of this stuff in my research. And then I started working on a project where this other subfield is as much a part of the project as the Networking part. And started getting excited about other projects—like the one at the start of this post—that are clearly and firmly in this subfield.
I think this means that I’m not just a Networking Person anymore. I’m well on my way to being a Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Person.
When I was just “dabbling” in the field, or just teaching it, I felt more comfortable with this dual role—perhaps because Networking Persona was still the dominant persona. But as time goes on, that’s becoming less true. It’s definitely not half-and-half, but it’s getting close. HCI Persona is here to stay, and is growing. I’m just as fascinated, and sometimes more fascinated, with the HCI research questions in this project (and in general) as I am with the networking questions.
And this has me somewhat panicked. Philosophically, I’m thinking about the point of the PhD. Is the point more to make you an expert in a tiny corner of your chosen subfield? Or is it more to teach you the skills you need to become an expert in a tiny corner of any subfield? Some skills obviously do transfer—how to do a literature search, how to evaluate sources and conferences and journals, how to learn something quickly, how to envision further extensions and applications of a concept. But a lot of your time in graduate school is learning a particular piece of a particular subfield: what are the seminal works and ideas? what is the main corpus of knowledge and main skill set that everyone in this subfield should have and know? what are you going to be the expert in?
To what extent are you “stuck” in your subfield post-PhD? And how far afield can you go, successfully?
In some respects, this whole internal discussion and line of questioning is moot, because I’ve clearly already headed down the HCI Persona road and don’t particularly want to turn back. But it is something I continue to reflect on, as I work hard to catch up to speed on something I have never, ever formally studied.*
Have you gone far a(sub-)field of your dissertation subfield, or discipline? If so, I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments!
* The irony is not lost on me that I’m choosing to stress about switching subfields within the same discipline, when in fact I switched an entire FIELD and have never formally studied the field in which I now work.
Around the start of the new year, some friends started a Facebook conversation on their new year’s themes and resolutions. For various reasons mostly relating to exhaustion and burnout, I was in a pretty foul mood at the time, and I jokingly posted that my resolutions were to cut myself some slack, take more bubble baths, and eat more good chocolate.
Except something funny happened: I realized that these, in fact, were brilliant resolutions, and that I should, in fact, adopt them this year.
I haven’t made much progress on the “eat more good chocolate” front. I’m doing slightly better in the bubble bath category. I have, however, made a lot of progress on the cutting myself some slack front.
Here are some ways I’ve been cutting myself some slack since the start of the year:
- Making the (tough) decision to not resubmit my failed NSF grant this round. I’d fallen behind on the revisions and some of my experiments didn’t end up panning out as I’d hoped. It would have taken a herculean effort to submit it on time, and with all my other obligations (particularly as chair of our hiring committee), I decided that sleep and eating and not whipping myself into a frenzied panic was worth a year’s delay in resubmitting it. (This ended up absolutely being the right decision—right after I emailed our grants person, my schedule for the week exploded. I seriously would not have slept at all that week.)
- Recognizing when to let work go undone/taking care of myself. Several times this year I’ve gone to bed right after my kids, even though my to-do list overfloweth. Guess what? I’m way more productive when I get a proper night’s sleep, and the work gets done anyway. (Duh!) Or it doesn’t. And that’s ok too.
- Saying no. One of the ways I repeatedly get myself into trouble is by way overestimating the amount of “free time” I have. This term, I am ruthlessly saying no as much as possible and being very, very selfish of my time. Partly this is to rebalance my workload so that I have more time for research and spend less time on service. Partly this is so I can, oh, have some semblance of a life outside of work (unlike fall term, which was all work all the time, hence the burnout).
- Letting go of the working parent guilt. I sometimes tend to beat myself up that I don’t spend every waking minute from the time I get home until my kids are in bed having Meaningful Experiences with my kids. Surely, I think, I should leave the dinner dishes until later, and play with my kids now! Surely we should be doing art projects and playing games so that they have happy childhood memories! One night this week, as I was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner and the kids were playing in the next room, the parental guilt showed up. (I was also single parenting, so the guilt was doubled, as it usually is.) But then I realized: Yes, I could leave the dishes and cleanup until later, and play with my kids, but then I’d spend all evening fixated on the fact that I’d have to do dishes and clean up the kitchen after the kids were in bed, instead of doing something for myself after the kids were in bed. And I was having a great time listening to my kids play together, and they were having a great time playing together without me. If we were all doing things that were making us happy, why on earth was I feeling guilty? Problem solved; guilt extinguished.
I still have lots to work on—sometimes less-productive days will still send me into a tailspin of guilt, and darned if it isn’t really hard to say no and to get to bed at a decent hour and let the inbox grow. But being more mindful of my sticking points, and working hard to overcome them, has been a tremendously freeing exercise.
Now, however, I need to go do something about that good chocolate resolution…
By some accounts, this year in research was a failure.
One of the challenges of being at a teaching institution is that there is an expectation of research productivity, but the exact/precise expectation is not always clearly articulated. There are good reasons for this, of course. Different fields, and even different subfields within the same field, can have very different ideas of what constitutes “scholarly activity”. Additionally, leaving the expectations a bit vague allows for more freedom for individual faculty to define or explore various scholarly activities, whether that’s pedagogical research or, particularly after tenure, exploring new subfields. But it does often lead to angst, especially among junior faculty, who are not sure where exactly the research bar sits.
When I was junior faculty, I dealt with this uncertainty by coming up with heuristics for my research productivity. I looked at what my peer scholars produced in a year and calibrated this for my teaching load and service responsibilities to come up with my own “research productivity rules”. My rules: (1) at least one publication every year, approximately (journal or conference paper); (2) one journal publication every 3 years. So far, these heuristics have served me well.
Now, of course I don’t expect to hit these exactly every year, and if you look at my CV, I have years with zero pubs and years with several pubs. So they do tend to average out. I recognize this, and when I have an “off” year I just assume I’ll have multiple pubs the next year (which is usually the case). And so much of this is dependent on other factors, like whether reviewers like or abhor my work, what point a particular project is at, family/life circumstances, etc. (Although looking at my CV, I tend to be very productive around big life events, like the birth of my daughter or when my son joined our family. Go figure.)
This year was a zero pub year. I submitted a journal article (rejected) and a grant application (also rejected) and started a new research project, so it’s not like I was sitting around eating bon-bons. I recognize this, and on one level am proud of what I was able to accomplish given everything else that was going on in my life this year. (Particularly submitting the grant, which was a huge personal step for me). And last year I had 2 pubs, so again, it averages out. Still, when I look at my CV and see nothing marked with the year “2013″, it does disappoint me a bit. (OK, more than a bit.)
I am my own worst critic, sometimes.
The bright side to this—and there always is a silver lining—is that I tend after less-productive years to focus more closely on developing a publication plan for the next year. And that’s what I’m doing now: re-evaluating things that are in the queue that I never finished writing up, thinking up new experiments that should lead to quickly-publishable results, etc. This is also a great way to get my confidence back up and to drive back the panicky feelings of I’ll-never-publish-again. It’s also made me recognize how much I’ve missed my interdisciplinary writing/gossip group—we’ve not met recently because our schedules are way mismatched, but we have managed to meet a few times this break and are hoping to continue into the winter term and beyond.
Wherever you are, and whatever you did or didn’t accomplish this year, I hope you have a merry, restful, joyful, and productive holiday season!
Here at Carleton, we’ve been finished with Fall Term since right before Thanksgiving. While most of the rest of the academic world frantically writes, administers, and grades finals, we at least have a respite from the daily demands of teaching. The tradeoff, of course, is that right after Christmas we frantically scramble to get ready for the start of Winter Term, which starts right after New Years, while most of the rest of the academic world gets their respite.
Of course winter break is really only a small break, a break from the daily demands of teaching. Yet the myth persists, even among some who know me well (*cough cough* MIL *cough cough*), that I get to spend my 5-week break lounging on the couch watching Hoda and Kathie Lee, baking cookies, leisurely getting my Christmas shopping done, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, and in fact I will struggle this year like most years to get all of the holiday stuff done in time for the holidays.
So what is it that I’m spending my 5 weeks doing?
- Wrapping up Fall Term. The first week+ of break is always spent finishing up the previous term. Lots and lots of grading, for sure, but I also like to take notes on what worked well in each class and what I want to change next time around.
- Prepping for Winter Term. I’m teaching one class next term (thank goodness), and I’ve taught it before, but that doesn’t mean I can just waltz into class the first day and start teaching. I need to prep my syllabus, plan out all the projects, figure out exam dates, get the first few weeks of readings and reading exercises posted (this is particularly important when you flip your classroom, as I do), determine my office hours, and in general plan out the flow of the class for the term. Plus, since I’m teaching outside the building, I at some point need to take a field trip over to my classroom/lab and make sure all the right software is installed and ready to go.
- Grant writing/research. This is the biggie. I still need to finish up some simulations that I didn’t get to last month, and then analyze the results. I need to look more closely at the data my students generated last summer and figure out if I can use it, or if I have to run more experiments. I need to revamp and revise the grant narrative, revise some supplementary documents, and add some new sections and language given some new language in the call for proposals. And did I mention I found a bunch of recent research that I have to skim through?
- Other research activities. As odd as this sounds, I need to start planning for the summer now. I need to figure out how many students I want to hire, determine what I want them to do, write up a job description, recruit, and find them funding. I also need to start thinking about what I want the high schoolers to do and start figuring out how to recruit an undergraduate RA for that program. Plus I have some data lying around (and a rejected journal article) that I need to write up/revise and send out (again) for peer review.
- Workshops. This week is the week of workshops. Earlier this week I went to one on a graduation requirement that many of our CS courses fulfill. Today and tomorrow I will be attending one on academic civic engagement in STEM. The former was tremendously helpful in helping me understand the requirement further and how the requirement is playing out on the ground, which will help me be a more effective chair as we set curricular designations for our courses. The latter is something I’m interested in for some of the courses I teach (as well as for Comps, our senior design projects). As useful as these are, though, they are time-consuming: all morning Monday and Tuesday, all afternoon today and all day tomorrow.
- Hiring/chair stuff. One thing I’ve learned in my brief tenure as chair is that there’s always something unsavory or time-consuming that comes up that you have to deal with. Break time is no exception. Plus our application deadline for our TT position is looming, which means I need to both start dealing with the search stuff (figuring out who reads which applications, answering questions, scheduling search committee meetings, etc) and start reading and ranking applications.
- And I almost forgot, ’tis the season for recommendation letters. Fortunately I’m only writing for a few students this year, but it’s still time-consuming—the drafting of the letter, but also the letter submissions, as each school has their own (different) process for doing things (their own rating scales, their own upload procedures, etc).
Reading this list makes me want to retreat to the couch with a plate of cookies!
There will be small breaks, of course—quick trips to visit family, days of fun with the kiddos when daycare is closed—and for those, the extra flexibility in my schedule really helps. But this, as with all my “breaks”, is definitely a working break, and demonstrates just how many hats I as a faculty member need to wear on a daily basis.
Back to work, then!
AcWriMo 2013 is over and done and in the books, and so it’s time for the final reckoning…er, accounting. So, how did I do in meeting my goals?
Goal: Spend at least 30 minutes a day (6 days a week) on research or research writing. To meet this goal, I needed to spend 25 days on research for a total of 750 minutes this month. In reality, I spent 15 days on research for a total of 620 minutes. Thankfully, on over half of the research days I worked for more than 30 minutes, which bumped my minute total up. If we go just by minutes spent on research, I’m only about 4 days short of my goal.
My big enemy here was not procrastination, but time. I had some days which can only be described as bat-shit crazy, plus I had a few work travel days interspersed in there as well which messed with my productivity. I could have easily let this demoralize me, but instead I just treated every day as a separate and independent day. Didn’t have time to do research the previous 4 days? So what—today is a new day and I can squeeze my 30 minutes in today, which means I’m 30 minutes closer to reaching my goal of finishing my grant application.
Goal: Finish all of the major experiments that I need for my grant resubmission. This was the most nebulous and thus hardest goal to meet. As I mentioned in my previous post, “all of the major experiments” is a moving target, since it seems like every experiment I run leads to more questions than answers. Luckily, towards the end of the month I switched tactics and started writing some simulation programs to get at some of the same questions from a different angle. This was much more successful: I got unstuck and now have a clear(er) path forward.
Actually, it was all that spinning of wheels in the first part of the month, where I felt like I was hitting dead end after dead end, that led to the insights that led to the simulation code. So once again, failure saves the day!
Goal: Draft an outline/plan for the rest of the grant narrative revisions. I didn’t even begin to address this one. However, in reviewing some old notes when analyzing some data, I did find a partial outline from several months ago, so at least I have a starting point.
So I didn’t fully meet my stated goals, but I still accomplished a lot this month. AcWriMo refocused me on my research, which in turn reenergized me. I’m not where I want to be with my grant resubmission, but I’m definitely further along in the process than I was at the start of the month, and I gained some much-needed focus and perspective. I’m disappointed that I wasn’t more disciplined and didn’t work more days out of the month, sure, but on balance I think it went well enough.
One thing I do enjoy about AcWriMo is the community that forms on Twitter—I enjoyed reading everyone’s tweets about progress made or not made, milestones met and goals accomplished (or not). Towards the end of the month, there was some grumbling on Twitter about how November is the wrong time for AcWriMo—it’s a busy time! Too busy! It should be at a less busy time! I understand the sentiment behind that. But I think that largely misses the point about AcWriMo. It’s easy (or easier) to commit to writing/research when you have fewer things on your plate. The real test is how well you can commit to writing/research when life is at its craziest. And I think that’s part of the point of AcWriMo: it helps you form that crucial habit of writing/research every day, even when (especially when) you’re too tired or have eleventy-million things going on. Because if you can find time for your research when you don’t have time for research—well then, finding time for research the rest of the year is easy-peasy by comparison. If you can form a habit under the worst of circumstances, you should be able to maintain it under better circumstances. So I hope that AcWriMo continues just where it is, just for that reason.
I’ll probably sign up to do AcWriMo again next year, but honestly, I aim to continue on with AcWriMo every month of the year—continuing on with the habit I re-established during the month of November. And that, I think, means that AcWriMo on balance was ultimately a success for me.