Top 10 reasons I love the Grace Hopper Conference

or, more specifically, this conference.

10. Location, location, location.  This year it’s in sunny (and hot!) Tucson; I’ve also gone to it in Chicago, San Diego, and Colorado.

9. Great keynotes.  Last year:  Fran Allen.  This year:  Megan Smith, of Google, and Fran Berman, of RPI.  Sally Ride was the keynote speaker one year—she was incredible!

8. Chance meetings.  I’ve run into people from my old company (and even someone from my old lab!), as well as old professors and mentors.  And I’ve met some fabulous new people every year, too.  I feel much more comfortable striking up a conversation w/ a stranger at GHC than at any other conference.

7. Technical talks.  I still remember a talk I went to last year (I wish I remembered who gave it!) on robotics research at CMU.  It was highly entertaining.  Many of the technical talks I’ve attended at GHC have been high-caliber, and I always learn a ton.

6. Role models!  It’s awesome to see cool technical talks given by strong, successful women, and to meet highly successful women from all walks of life.

5. For once, letting go of that feeling of isolation.  It is such a powerful experience to just look around and see yourself surrounded by talented, intelligent, successful, TECHNICAL women.  (I still remember the first opening session I attended—at the 2004 GHC in Chicago.  It was overwhelming to be in the room with so many other women computer scientists!  When you are the “only one” or one of a few, you tend to forget that there are others out there like you.)

4. Hearing about using technology for good.  By far some of my favorite talks are the ones in which people describe how they are applying CS for the greater good, in communities in need and in less well-resourced areas.  One of the knocks on CS is that people don’t see how it’s relevant to bettering society.  These talks are truly inspirational.

3. Networking with other junior professors and professors from smaller schools; with professors trying to make a difference by changing the curriculum, trying new things in the classroom, trying to form community within their departments among the women.  I’ve gotten some really good tips and advice from informal conversations (and formal sessions, too).

2. FREE CHILD CARE!  (I won’t be using it this year, but I did last year and it was fabulous.  I wish every conference would do this.)

And the number 1 reason I love GHC?

1. It’s the ONLY CS conference I’ve attended where, for once, men are the distinct minority.

Look for my trip reports over the next few days!

How to write a conference paper

  1. See call for papers for conference that might be related to your research area.  File away and/or note date and URL in spreadsheet.
  2. Ignore spreadsheet until 90% of the due dates have passed.
  3. Suddenly remember conference deadline coming up in less than a month.
  4. Confidently assume that you can submit a paper based on that fabulous research you and your students did last term/last summer/last year/sometime since you got this job.
  5. Start tracking down the data and results files and/or the students’ writeup.
  6. After a week of searching, begging, pleading, and/or threatening, realize that the data and results are either (a) lost forever or (b) in a format no one understands anymore.
  7. Start rerunning relevant experiments.
  8. Restart relevant experiments after you find an error in your software.
  9. Download style files from conference web site.
  10. Struggle with style files for several days.
  11. Write the intro and methods sections.  Try to avoid the temptation to copy the intro and methods section from your last paper.
  12. Finally, some results!  Make some pretty graphs.
  13. Fight with Matlab for several days to get pretty PDF versions of said graphs.
  14. Redo graphs after figuring out a better way to present the data.
  15. Screw graphs, let’s just use tables.
  16. Time to add some text to the results section!
  17. Lift and paraphrase key sentences from intro = instant abstract.
  18. Damnit, the paper is 5 pages too long and I haven’t written the conclusion yet!
  19. Cut out all important details and explanations.  Realize the peer reviewers will skewer you for lack of detail later.
  20. Still too long!
  21. Paper triage time—cut out any text that’s non-essential.
  22. Made the page length!
  23. Try to remember which undergrads contributed to the original research.
  24. Struggle with the author ordering for the undergrads, then decide to just list them alphabetically.
  25. Add cringe-worthy title.
  26. Time to submit!
  27. Fill out 80 zillion fields in the paper registration form—all with info that can be easily gathered from your paper.
  28. Fight with the online submission system to actually get the paper submitted.
  29. It’s in!  And with 5 minutes to spare!
  30. Wait 2-3 months.
  31. Get reviews back.  Realize after reading the reviews that the reviewers (a) completely missed the point of your paper, (b) feel that your paper, even though it does contain research relevant to the conference’s scope, is “actually more of a paper for X subfield”, and/or (c) were clearly having a bad day when they reviewed your paper.
  32. Sigh and go back to Step 1.

Finding balance, one weekend at a time

In honor of my (academic) new year’s resolutions, I am trying a new experiment this term:  working more (or more efficiently) on the weekdays so that I can have my weekends, or at least most of my weekends, free.  I am proud to report that, except for checking email this morning (I have 2 assignments out that are due tomorrow) and about an hour of work this evening, I have gone entirely work-free this weekend.

And it felt wonderful!  Sure, the weekend was a bit hectic, and I didn’t get to relax at all, but at least I caught up on lots of stuff around the house that’s fallen through the cracks lately (such as 3 weeks of mail and 3 weeks of crumbs on the kitchen floor.  Ick.), and got to spend some quality time with family and friends.

Last week was a bit exhausting, so I won’t declare the experiment a success just yet.  But last week was also the first week of classes, so I don’t want to make any judgments based on that week.  And I have a clear plan in place this week which, I think, will allow me to get everything done for the week and get ready for Monday’s classes, all before I leave school on Friday.  We’ll see how it goes.

I have found, so far, that I’m less likely to space out at work, because I know that whatever doesn’t get done during the day will have to be done at night, at home.  So that’s been a really good motivator, surprisingly.

Here’s to a good week 2!

We need better PR

Last night we had our first-ever departmental reception just for intro students.  As a department, we’ve been talking about various ways to improve the culture—heck, to create a culture in the first place—and thought this would be a good way to get students hooked into the department early.  It was a great reception, with a great turnout, and I got the chance to talk to a number of the women students there.

What struck me the most, after talking to these students, is that we’re doing a pretty shitty job of advertising ourselves!

No one there really had any idea of how exciting CS is, nor how extensive it is, nor all the cool ways it can be applied.  Or, for that matter, what CS is, really, beyond programming.  Many of the students said that it had never even crossed their mind before to take a CS class.  I talked with many of them about my own research, some other cool things that I’ve been reading about in the field, even the classes I’m teaching.  The reaction was universally “wow, that’s so interesting!  I had no idea that could be part of CS!”  And many of them are excited about their current class, too, and from what I can gather, surprised about all they are learning.

Why are we not capitalizing on this?  Why are we not getting out the word on all the neat things we’re researching, the cool classes we’re offering, all the reasons why everyone should take at least one computer science course?  Why are people lining up to take Psychology and English, but not CS?

Maybe it’s because people know, or at least think they know, what English and Psychology are all about.  CS….well, we have all these nice definitions, but they all have words like “computational thinking” and “algorithms” and yeah, that does explain what we’re doing, but are “algorithms” as catchy as “learning about the mind?”  Probably  not, to most people.  Do most people know what computer scientists do?  I’m guessing not.  More specifically, does anyone know what we do beyond teach some “nerdy” classes?  Probably not.

So how do we capture our students’ attention, and their imagination?  Getting more visible on campus?  Taking a hard look at our catalog descriptions (we’ve been doing that)?  Educating the faculty?  I’m not sure.  But someday, I’d love to hear students talking about CS as a discipline the same way they talk about, say, Psychology and English now.

Playing games in school?

While skimming Slashdot this morning, I found a link to this article, which describes a new public school in NYC (set to launch next month, if memory serves) with a curriculum based entirely on games.  In a nutshell, the school appears to be eschewing the traditional subject-based school curriculum for something more interdisciplinary and creative, with a focus on gameplay and collaborative projects as a means of both content delivery and content mastery.  Some of the games will be video games, but some of them will be role-playing or board games as well.  In addition, it looks like there will be a focus on content creation as well—the article alludes to the use of Adobe Flash and Maya, a 3D modeling program (although, annoyingly, it provides no further details).

I think this is a super-interesting experiment, and I am very curious to see how it all turns out.

As a computer scientist, I should be most excited about the use of technology to foster learning.  And don’t get me wrong—I think that’s very, very cool.  Getting students to create their own content is definitely a good thing, and exposing them to the tools of the trade is a smart move.  (Those tools ain’t cheap, either, so I’m assuming they have some good partnerships going on with tech companies?)  There’s a growing body of research on the effectiveness of games as educational tools, too, and it will be interesting to see if an entire game-based curriculum bears out some of the positive research findings.

But I actually find two other parts of this more intriguing:  the fact that the curriculum is entirely interdisciplinary, and the focus on collaborative learning.  Both of these make a bold statement as to what skills are important to foster right now for future success for our kids, and what the future world of work and school and society will look like.  I think the move away from “silos of learning” to a more holistic way of presenting and engaging with material—one that touches on multiple subjects at once—is the right way to go, and is the only way we’re really going to prepare students to deal with the Really Big Problems, like climate change and globalization.

As a professor, I am always thinking about context.  How do I best frame and present this information, or teach this concept, in such a way that I engage my students’ interest and meet them at their current level of understanding?  Often, my context comes from other fields, many of which have nothing to do with technology.  This school basically takes “context” and puts it on steroids:  figuring out a context that will touch on multiple learning goals from multiple areas.  This is way more difficult than what I do, and requires, I’m guessing, a ton of collaboration among the educators themselves.  But ultimately this harder work can have a much bigger payoff:  not just in what and how the students learn, but in the very fact that the educators themselves will be modeling the very collaborative behavior they wish to foster!

So I will be watching this experiment with interest.  I hope it succeeds.  And I’m curious what it can teach us, at the college level, about interdisciplinarity and collaboration.

First day of class

I’m sitting here in my office right now, with about 15 minutes to go before I head on down to meet my first class of the term.  For the first time in….well, ever….I actually feel pretty comfortable about my classes.  I feel a bit nervous (which is always a good thing), but not panicked or terrified as I usually do.

Part of this, I’m sure, is because I’m teaching two classes that I (a) love to teach and (b) have taught 3-4 times apiece.  Sure, I’m changing things up with assignments (both classes) and the order in which I’m covering the material (one class), but there is a certain level of comfort that comes with really knowing the material inside and out.  Or, at least, having a strong sense of what you know cold and what you need to brush up on before the fact.  There is also a certain amount of comfort that comes from knowing where the problematic areas for students will likely be, and planning in advance on addressing those issues.

But the other part is that, for the first time ever, I’m not under a microscope.  No one is observing my teaching.  These students will not be evaluating my teaching at some later date.  I’ve handed in my tenure materials, and so in a sense I’m finally free to do exactly what I want to do in the classroom.  And that is a feeling I’ve never had before.  For the first time, I truly feel fully in control of my classroom, and free to be totally authentic in my teaching.

I’m not sure yet how I’ll use this freedom, but I do know that I am very, very excited for this term to begin!

(Academic) New Years Resolutions

I’ve always thought of September as the start of the new year, probably because I’ve spent the better part of my life in school and thus my life flows more with the academic calendar than the actual calendar.  Which means that when it comes to resolutions, I tend to make them in September rather than in January.  Now that the summer is officially over (sob), it’s time to make some resolutions for the year.

I’m going up for tenure this year, which means I’m in a weird state of limbo.  After Friday, there will be nothing, absolutely nothing, I can do to influence my fate anymore:  it will be totally out of my hands until the decision comes down in December.  And it’s hard to be definitive about anything from a state of limbo.  Plus, I’m in a place where I actually feel comfortable with where I am professionally:  my research and teaching are pretty self-sustaining right now, and there’s nothing specific I want to or need to accomplish, so I’m happy to sort of let those proceed along without interference and let them take me where they will.

Which frees me up to think more holistically about how I work.  Not only “what do I do”, but “how much time and energy do I devote to work as opposed to other parts of my life” and “how effectively do I spend my work time” and “am I working in a way that allows me to enjoy and spend time on the other aspects of my life too”.  Given that I end every school year stressed out and burned out, and that I’ve let my job literally make me sick, I’d have to say that I’m probably not working effectively or sustainably.  Admittedly, it’s hard at a place like Carleton, where there are so many demands on our limited time and where everything is jammed into intense 10 week periods.  But what I’m doing now is clearly not working.

So this year I have one resolution:  To find the sweet spot in my own life that allows me to work productively and sustainably.  To figure out how to work effectively and efficiently and to make the time for my family and for taking care of myself.  To not end the term, or the school year, in a frenzied and frazzled state, but rather to work calmly, consistently and productively.  To find a balance that makes me happy and fulfilled, but still allows me to get my job done to my satisfaction.

It’s not going to be easy, and will require a lot of self-reflection and probably some serious examination of priorities.  But I know that for the sake of my sanity, I need to do this, and do it now.  So I’m committing to taking the time to put in the necessary work, even if it means letting a few other things slide.

What are your resolutions for the new school year?

Sunk costs

I go up for tenure this year (as in, right NOW), and as part of the hazing process, I have to write a prospectus.  A prospectus is kind of like a mongo personal statement/teaching philosophy/research statement/where do I see myself in ten years sort of thing, all in 10 pages or less.  Good times.  Anyway, as part of the writing of the prospectus, I’m reflecting on my past six years at Carleton, and particularly the last three or so since the third-year review.  Since I had a rather lengthy pre-tenure sabbatical, one of the things I have to discuss in my prospectus is how I spent this sabbatical time and how it helped my research.

The thing is, on paper, my sabbatical looks kind of like a failure.  I had a long list of things I meant to accomplish, that I really wanted and thought I needed to get done….and I did approximately none of those.  In fact, the one thing I spent the most time on during my sabbatical was working on a journal article that ultimately I never submitted.  F-A-I-L-U-R-E.

This got me thinking about “sunk costs”—time we spend on things that never see the light of day.  On paper, this journal article is a sunk cost, time and research energy I will never get back that didn’t ultimately pan out.  My research notebook is full of sunk costs:  things we tried that didn’t work, analyses we performed that didn’t yield conclusive results, sketches for systems never realized or implemented. Wastes of valuable research time which is all too precious of a commodity at a liberal arts college.

Except that my sunk costs, my failures, have a funny way of reinventing themselves as successes.  While I was writing that doomed journal article, I kept having to rerun analyses and rework some results, which ended up yielding some insights that got me unstuck from a totally different aspect of the project that I had given up as a dead end….and is now a conference paper.  The act of redoing the analyses also helped me refine some of my analysis methods and some of the ways I was looking at the data….which led to yet another conference paper.  And part of that doomed conference paper helped me with an invited paper I had to submit last week on very short notice….which, most likely, will be published this fall.

So now, I’m less likely to think of research failures as sunk costs, but as opportunities.  The failures, after all, are often way more interesting and fruitful than the successes.