Prioritizing rest

Earlier this year, in a YOLO/carpe diem moment (or possibly a moment of insanity), I decided to sign up for a marathon. I’d been contemplating the marathon for a while as something I’d do “someday”. But I’d been running injury-free for over a year, completed a few half-marathons and was enjoying running longer distances, and realized that schedule-wise, I could train for a full marathon this year with minimal disruption to our family’s schedule and my husband’s racing schedule (he’s a Cat 3 cyclist). So I signed up, found a training plan, and jumped in.

Things were going well, really well….until they weren’t. (Damn you, weak glutes!) I injured my IT band and had to scale back on my training for a few weeks. Luckily, I have a fantastic doctor and a fantastic physical therapist, and thanks to them I’m healing, getting stronger, and most importantly, back to training.

Yesterday, my physical therapist and I sat down to sketch out a modified training plan for the remaining 32 days (eek!) until the marathon. The plan I’d been following had 4 days of running, 2 days of cross-training, and 1 rest day, which is typical. To allow me to continue to heal and ensure I get the necessary training miles in, the modified plan has me running 4 days (and doing therapy exercises on those days as well), and 3 days of complete rest. No cross training, no “oh come on, just a really easy workout?”—REST.

It should come as no surprise to long-time readers that the rest part is hard for me. Really, really hard. But I know that my physical therapist is absolutely correct. My runs have felt harder lately because the right muscles are now firing and doing what they’re supposed to do, and my body got used to doing things the wrong way biomechanically for so long, so now everything is SORE and I fatigue a lot more quickly. (It’s kind of like I’m a beginner again.) The rest, therefore, is as crucial to my training as the speedwork, the long run, the tempo run, etc. Without the rest, I won’t be able to run the distances I need to do or hit the speeds I need to reach during training, which means I won’t be fully prepared for race day.

Of course it’s not lost on me that this same principle should apply to my work life, too. In my last post I wrote about the very real burnout I was feeling, and how this burnout was as much a result of overcommitment as it was a result of not having a break this summer. I’m not prioritizing rest, and when I don’t prioritize rest, my productivity (and health!) suffer. My dad, many years ago when I was in grad school, pulled me aside and said “it’s great that you work so hard, but you need to take weekends off. At the very least, you need one work-free day per week.” And he’s absolutely right—we all need time away from work, time to do other things, time to let our thoughts wander and to breathe. These things all help with focus, and productivity, and creativity.

So as I’m completing my marathon training this month, and as we head into a new trimester in a couple of weeks, I’m working on incorporating the “rest mentality” beyond my athletic life into my work life. I’m figuring out ways that I can incorporate rest and rejuvenation into my daily and work life, in ways that are both sustainable and useful to me, so that I can be a better, more productive worker, but also, more importantly, a happier, healthier, more relaxed person. I’m reminding myself that rest is as important, and indeed more important, than Inbox Zero or ticking off every single thing on the to-do list or basically working myself into the ground.

Let’s see if I can actually make this work this time….

End of summer musings on (lack of) rejuvenation and (too much) service

Summer is supposed to be a season of rejuvenation for academics. While research and service obligations remain, we get a break from teaching. Theoretically, since teaching is the major part of my job, this should mean that my summer schedule is (a) more low key, (b) more relaxing, (c) less time consuming, and (d) less stressful.

This summer, my schedule was none of these.

In retrospect, it was a perfect storm. By the end of spring term, I was exhausted and completely burned out. However, I went right from spring term into finals grading frenzy and graduation, and from that right into working with my (amazing, wonderful, and extraordinarily productive, thank god!) undergraduate research students. (I finished my grades on a Friday, went to graduation on Saturday, and was in the lab with my students on Monday.) I had a couple of major service tasks that carried on into the summer, one of which took up about 3 orders of magnitude more time and 4 orders of magnitude more drama than I anticipated. I had the drama of submitting a paper at the last minute, finding out it was accepted at the last minute, and then having to create and ship a poster off overseas since I couldn’t travel to the conference (see: last minute notification). And I once again taught in our CS program for high school students (while juggling the paper drama, service drama, and supervising undergraduate research). Oh, and chairing a department, unfortunately, does not take a hiatus during the summer.

What this means is that I’m still burned out and exhausted, and I’m worried about being in this state of mind going into the new academic year. However, the good news is that we’re on trimesters, so we still have a few weeks before the fall term starts. (Whew!) Also, next week I finally, FINALLY, get to take a break (although, sadly, not from email, since we’re too close to the start of the year). While I know this won’t completely rejuvenate me, it’s a start.

One of the silver linings of the Summer of Craziness is that I’ve done some serious reflection on the ways in which I commit and overcommit myself. By the end of the last academic year, I was burned out in general, but mainly burned out on service. The service activities I did that used to bring me joy were now causing me stress, either because the workload was larger or different than I’d been led to believe, or because people weren’t sharing the load equally. I also took on too much, because I misestimated the lifecycles of various projects. I’ve since quit the activities that were no longer bringing me joy, and said no to a bunch of requests that have come in recently. (I’ve discovered a magic phrase: “I am overcommitted, but here’s the name and contact info of someone who might be able to help.”)

Jettisoning a lot of this service work has been very freeing. And it’s allowed me to jump on an opportunity that really excites me. For a while, I’ve been lamenting that I don’t have time to volunteer in my kids’ lives. Now I do, and so this year I’ll be co-leading my daughter’s Brownie Girl Scout troop! I should note that this is something that’s a bit out of my comfort zone, and there have been moments that my co-leader and I have said to each other “what did we get ourselves into?”, but I am super excited to do something totally different in the name of service, and be a role model to younger girls. My daughter is excited, too, and happy that we’re doing something we both share and believe in together. And who knows, maybe we can work some CS concepts into one of the badges or journeys or whatever!

So this year, after my much-needed and much-deserved break, I’ll return to whip my syllabus into shape, help our new faculty member settle in, advise our newest students, and figure out realistically what the attention span is of the second grade set. And that is a challenge I’m really looking forward to.

Thinking about space, part eleventy-thousand

I’ve posted here in the past about my obsession concern with spaces and what they signal: who’s welcome here, what kind of work is done here, etc. I’ve been thinking about space again recently—specifically, research space and recruitment to the field and how the two intersect.

A bit of background: Last year Carleton started a new computer science summer program for high school students. The program lasts 3 weeks, and consists of classes in the mornings and guided research in the afternoons. I teach an HCI (human-computer interaction) module in this program, and my guided research group works on HCI projects related to my actual research.

Last year, when I taught in the program, I had pretty much the perfect lab space for my guided research group. It was one of our CS labs. Only half the room has computers, and these are pretty nicely spaced out. The room also features windows/natural light, lots of whiteboard space, and a sitting/collaboration/conversation area. The space allowed people to move around freely, sketch out ideas, and step away from the computer from time to time.

lab space sketch

Figure 1: A sketch of last year’s lab space.










Due to room availability and other issues, I won’t have this lab space again this year. Instead, my research group will be housed in our new teaching lab. While this space is great as a teaching space, it’s not so great as a collaborative space. Here’s what the layout looks like, roughly:

lab space sketch

Figure 2: The lab space I’ll be in this year. Much different from last year’s space!









The computers are in rigid rows on immovable tables. There’s a fair amount of whiteboard space, but it’s all in the front of the room. It’s harder to move around, and there’s no space to step away from the computers.

The worst part for me? No windows! (The horror!)

My challenge is to find a way to turn this space into a more collaborative, welcoming space. Not only do I want to make it more workable for the type of research work my students will be doing, but I also want to make it less clinical/sterile and more warm—because this will be the primary working space for high school students whom we’d like to become computer scientists someday, and there’s not much about this space that says that computer science is fun or welcoming or collaborative.

So how do I plan to pull this off?

  • Removing some of the computers and half of the chairs from the room. This will free up some table space for sketching, conversations, and planning away from the computer, and improve the walking flow around the room.
  • Large sticky note pads and markers, to make up for the lack of whiteboards around the room. I’d love for the walls of the room to be covered with sketches, lists, mockups, user stories, etc. by the end of the program!
  • Designating the front of the room as our large group meeting space. Sometimes we’ll need to discuss things without the distraction of the computers, and it turns out there’s enough room in the front to pull up chairs and chat as a group. (It will be a little tight, but it will work.)
  • Pictures on the walls, to make up for the lack of windows. I’m thinking nature pictures, so that maybe we’ll forget about the lack of windows!

I haven’t been able to do any of this yet since there’s some construction going on in the room, but I’ll be curious to see how things work out next week when I’m able to get in there and start rearranging things, and see if I can make my vision a reality. It will also be interesting to see if these few cosmetic changes will really change the feel and environment of the room, or if the signals in the room will be too strong to overcome. Regardless, it’s an interesting experience and challenge, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out in the end.

Reflections on my first year as department chair

Yesterday marked my one year anniversary of becoming department chair. (I celebrated by driving my kids around to various appointments all afternoon and making about 1,000 rainbow loom bracelets with my daughter. Ah, the exciting life of a working mom.) While the first year went quickly, I won’t lie: there were times when I wasn’t sure I was going to survive the year, or not come into work sleep deprived yet again. As with everything in life, there have been good parts and bad parts, and I thought it would be useful to reflect and summarize how my first year went.

The good

Being in this position has reminded me that I work at a truly terrific institution, with thoughtful and creative colleagues and a supportive administration. We’ve dealt with some tricky issues as a department this year, and the conversations around them have been thoughtful and considerate. We listen to each other even when we disagree with each other. I’m so grateful to work in such a highly functioning environment with colleagues that I both like and respect, and in many ways they have made my job so much easier this year.

While there is a lot of truth to the observation that being in charge of faculty in any capacity is like herding cats, I have actually been able to “be the change I want to see” in my department. For a long time, I’ve had a vision for the department’s environment, the way we present ourselves, and the way we carry out our business, and I’ve been able to start implementing parts of that vision this year, with some early successes. I’m grateful that my colleagues are on board, but it’s also thrilling to know that I can actually cause change in our department and that I can influence our environment and policies.

On a related note, I enjoy that I’m in a position that allows me to think more long-term about the success of the department, and to direct how we have those long-term conversations. Being chair allows me to set the priorities of the department—in consultation with my colleagues, of course!—and to direct our collective attention. Every time I craft a department meeting agenda, I get to engage in this type of thinking: how do we balance the things that need immediate attention with the things we need to discuss for the long-term health of the department? It’s a different type of creativity.

Finally, I’m a problem solver at heart, and this job involves a lot of problem solving. Sometimes I have to think quickly on my feet, and sometimes I get the luxury of taking a step back and weighing the different options. I enjoy the challenge of both types of problem solving, and the satisfaction of finding a solution that, if not everyone is happy with, at least everyone can live with.

The bad

Workload. Workload workload workload. There’s only so much I can delegate, and even with judicious delegating, the workload still felt oppressive at times. There’s always some paperwork that needs my attention, or some task that needs to be done, or a budget item that needs to be reviewed, or a question/issue from a student or colleague. It. Never. Ends.

My time is no longer my own. In an ideal world, I’d start my day with my office door closed, working on research or doing some last-minute class prep, for an hour or so, before even opening my email. In the real world, I check my email first thing because there’s usually something I have to deal with Right Now (or more commonly, 5 Minutes Ago).  My research in particular has taken a huge hit as a result, but there were some days that I’d go into class less prepared than I’m comfortable with because something came up at the last minute.

Relatedly, running a search is a major time suck. Everyone in the department is busy during hiring season, especially in a small department like ours where all tenure-track faculty and all staff participate in the process. But traditionally in our department, department chair = search chair, and the search chair’s load is at least 5x everyone else’s load (save for the admin). And calling perfectly wonderful people to let them know they are no longer under consideration for our position? Well that sucks about as much as you can imagine. (That said, making the call to invite someone to campus or offer them the position, and getting to meet our short list via Skype interviews? That stuff is fun!)

The learning curve? Steep. Very steep. I’m hoping some stuff that seemed to take me forever this year will take me less time next year, since I’ll have done it already, but there’s so much I don’t know that I spend a lot of time learning, and looking things up, and hunting things down, and calling people when all else fails.

Finally, having to hold people accountable is difficult. I’m a pretty dependable person, and I tend to naively assume that everyone else generally behaves that way too. Not so. I spend more time than I’d care to admit chasing people down for things, many of whom should know better by now. Sometimes I also have to hold people accountable for their less-than-stellar behavior—thankfully, this is fairly uncommon, but let’s just say that sometimes people don’t think of the larger consequences (to the department, to their colleagues or students) before acting, and sometimes I have to be the one to clean up the ensuing mess.

The ugly

Oh come on, you didn’t think I’d actually be able to share the train wrecks, did you? Thankfully, there wasn’t much in the Ugly category, but the stuff there is definitely unbloggable. I will say this: the ugly stuff always came without warning and typically forced me to drop everything and deal with it immediately, and was usually people-related. If there’s a silver lining, this year’s Ugly stuff did highlight some “blind spots” in the way we operate, all of which are fixable, and all of which will be fixed. I’m not so naive to think that this will preclude any more Ugly stuff from happening, but I’m hoping it will lessen the probability of this year’s flavor of Ugly stuff from happening.


So there you have it. I survived, I learned a ton…and I need to figure out a way to clone myself. I’m looking forward to the challenges of my second year as chair and hoping that some of it comes easier, or at least is more expected, than this year.

Guest post: Constructing a summer (at Small Pond Science)

Today I’m guest-blogging over at Small Pond Science on what it takes to plan for a summer of researching with undergrads. (Hint: it takes longer than you might think!) You can read the post here.

The plan is to blog over there about once a month, on the general theme of “doing science” at teaching-centered institutions. I will still blog here as well, hopefully less sporadically than of late. I’m excited for this new blogging adventure!

The secret life of professors: Graduation edition

Unlike most of the rest of the universities and colleges in the US, our academic year just finished up (we have 3 10-week terms instead of semesters). Graduation was on Saturday (thank you, rain, for largely holding off until the OUTDOOR ceremony ended!), and I’m just now finishing up final grades for spring term.

Being at a small school means that almost all the faculty go to graduation. Yes, every year. (Well, I did skip one year when I was traveling to a conference, but other than that, I’ve gone every year.) There are definitely parts of graduation that I look forward to all year: watching the students process in, the student speeches (I can’t remember a single bad student speech in any of the graduations I attended), and my personal favorite, the “gauntlet” at the end, where the faculty form 2 lines and the graduates process out of graduation and through our faculty “tunnel”, where we greet them with handshakes, hugs, and applause.

But of course, not all of graduation is teddy bears and gumdrops and rainbows. Let’s face it, some parts are just plain b-o-r-i-n-g. And if you get a bad and long-winded speaker(s)….well, it’s gonna be a loooooong morning. (Luckily this year’s speaker was short, to the point, and thought-provoking.)

So, you may ask, what do professors do to pass the time when the graduation ceremony starts to drag? Luckily I’ve spent years observing faculty behavior in the field (literally—remember, our graduation is held outdoors!) and field-testing various strategies. This extensive research led to this list of my favorite graduation time-passing strategies:

  1. Guess the Institution: If you’ve been to a college/university graduation lately, you likely noticed the faculty sporting Hogwarts-like robes, some of them downright colorful. Those colors have meaning! The robe’s color signifies the institution of the wearer’s PhD (although not all schools offer colored robes—black is the default everywhere), and the various colors on the hood signify….other things. (Field of study among other things, if memory serves.) If you’re lucky enough to be sitting on stage, or towards the back of the faculty section (so you don’t look weird turning around and staring at your colleagues, duh), you can spend a lot of quality time trying to figure out if that particular shade of purple signifies Northwestern University or the University of Washington, which school has that interesting shade of rust, and whether everyone wearing green is from the same institution.
  2. Count the Academic Honors: A good game to play if all students walk across the stage in your ceremony, or if a speaker is really going on and on and on for a while. This game is great because it has a number of variations. If you’re short on time or lazy, you can count the students who are not graduating with honors, because this number (at least at my school) will be way smaller than the number graduating with honors (thank you, grade inflation?). The statistically minded can separate out the cum laudes from the magna and summa cum laudes, or break the counts down by major, division (STEM vs. the social sciences!), male/female, etc. (My institution has the summas walk the stage last and separates them out in the program, so some of the computation is already done for you!) The possibilities are endless!
  3. Speaker Bingo: What is it about graduation that brings out the cliches in speakers? Rather than rolling your eyes at any “two roads diverged in the wood” or “oh the places you’ll go” references, see how many cliches you can rack up. Will the president make that same cultural reference he’s made every year? Will there be an appeal to the “newest alums” to donate? Who will use the first Maya Angelou quote? The truly organized will actually make bingo cards beforehand; the rest of us will say “hey, we should make up bingo cards next year!” and then just tally them on the back of the program.
  4. Facebook/Twitter: Duh. Or, formerly, crossword puzzles (I haven’t seen these out at graduation in a few years, though).

So next time you find yourself at a graduation ceremony that’s dragging, feel free to use one of these time-tested strategies for making it through to the end. Feel free to add your favorite graduation games in the comments!

Opportunity knocks when you least expect it

I am sure I’m not the only one who’s experienced something like this: you express an intention out loud to the universe, and soon or almost immediately afterwards an opportunity related to that intention presents itself. Now, I don’t think there’s any woo-woo or fate or Higher Power reason for this—rather, I think when you express an intention, you consciously or subconsciously start paying more attention to things that might be related to that intention, and are more likely to notice when they come along.

Yesterday, between the mounds of grading and tsunami of end-of-the-academic-year tasks (our last day of classes is today), I carved some time out of my schedule to sit down and plan out my summer. I started by brainstorming all the things I wanted to do and thought that I “have” to do. I then took a step back and looked at the general trends and themes, and curated the list based on the emerging themes and the time I have available this summer.

One theme that emerged is one that I discussed with a good friend a couple of weeks ago: publications. I’m in a big publication slump right now. Typically I publish at least 1 article (usually conference, sometimes journal) a year, with the zero pub years usually followed by a multi-pub year. Last year was a zero pub year. This year? Nothing in the pipeline and nothing actively in the works, yet. Now, some of this is to be expected—becoming department chair has sucked up a lot of my research time, as I’ve tried to get up to speed. Plus I’m starting a new line of research and there are always start-up costs with that as I get up to speed (and hit lots of dead ends, and generally flounder around). But still, the thought of a multi-year pub drought, particularly a couple years out from going up for a promotion to full professor, is causing me a slight bit o’ panic.

So, on my summer to-do list: get a draft of something together to send out for review in the fall.

Today, I opened my email to find a call for papers for a small conference I’ve attended in the past. This year they are having a Work In Progress track. Perfect! This is just the opportunity that I need right now! And it’s just 2 pages! The catch, of course, is that the deadline is very, very soon (as in, I have about 10 days to throw something together). But, I do have some snippets of things written here and there that I can use as a starting point, and if I’m really efficient and ruthless with my time management (particularly with end-of-term grading), I can totally do this. Wow.

I have no idea if the end result will be worthy of publication or presentation. But at the very least, it will kick-start my writing. I suspect that even if this one doesn’t pan out, the act of putting something together for this workshop will inspire me to get one or two more things in the pipeline this year—and you can’t get pubs if you don’t get your stuff out there. I’m appreciative of the timing of this opportunity, and look forward to taking advantage of it to get my research and writing back on track.