The end of an (Internet) era

Tomorrow, Yahoo! is shutting down GeoCities.  This move is a bit unusual, in that Yahoo is not just taking GeoCities offline, but deleting it altogether.  And thus, it is taking a large part of early web history with it.

GeoCities was the first true consumer-friendly and free web-hosting service, at a time when web hosting was pricey enough to lock out hobbyists and others who just wanted to experiment with HTML programming.  GeoCities pages were often popularly maligned for their amateurish design (example: the infamous hamster dance).  And GeoCities was confusingly organized, around a model of content “cities” which hosted pages on different topics (such as “Hollywood” for fan/celebrity pages).  But because GeoCities was free to all, it holds a rich history of the early Internet—not all of which is archived in other places.  And, it is still the 198th most popularly-visited domain, according to Alexa.

GeoCities’ passing is troubling, because it points to the ephemeral nature of web content.  With so much of our lives online, we really are dependent on the companies that host our data—in a sense, it makes it much easier to rewrite history.  Luckily, there are a few efforts to save as much of the GeoCities domain content before everything goes away tomorrow—one by the Internet Archive (home of the Wayback Machine), and one by Jason Scott.  It remains to be seen how much will ultimately be saved, but it sounds like both groups have been working very hard to get as much archived as possible, and thus preserve a bit of Internet history.

RIP, GeoCities.

Tenure limbo

There are some things that one expects about the tenure process:  the deadlines set by the dean’s office, the format of the prospectus and the student letters, the general flow of events, etc.  And then there are the many things that don’t come to light until one is going through the tenure process.

Nobody warned me about “limbo time”.

My dossier was handed in a month ago, and earlier this week I got the call that my student and external reviewer letters are in and ready to be read.  I made appointments to read the letters, and to meet with the dean to discuss the letters, for next week.  I finally get to see the letters on Tuesday afternoon, for the first time.  Since then, I’ve felt very much….detached, for lack of a better word.  In a sense, like a dead man walking, or maybe a living ghost?

I’m guessing this is because right now, my future truly is in limbo.  I don’t know what those letters say, but I do know that they will have a huge impact on what happens between now and December.  I also know that next Friday, when I meet with the dean, will be my last chance to have any say in my tenure case.  But I can’t actually do anything at this point: all I can do is wait, wait, and wait some more.

Campus life, and real life, of course, go on, and I go on with them.  But I really do feel detached.  I discuss future plans with my colleagues, about hiring and what we all want to teach next year and what I might want to do on my next sabbatical.  I go about my committee work, plan my classes, think about textbooks for next term.  But in the back of my mind, I’m wondering if I even have a future here.  I think and discuss and do all of these things almost in the third person, because I can’t really commit myself to them unless and until I know whether my future lies here.  And it’s not that it’s scary, it’s just….weird.

I don’t know if limbo will go away even after I see the letters, or if it will just persist until the final decision comes down.  I suspect there will be different shades of limbo between now and then.  But I do know one thing:  I really dislike being in limbo.

Anatomy of a successful class

On Monday, I had what I would specify as one of my best teaching moments ever.  I’ve certainly had my share of good moments and horrendous moments, but this class was truly special.  I didn’t do anything particularly revolutionary or ground-breaking—rather, it was just a “perfect storm”, in a sense—so I wanted to outline not just what I did, but why I think it worked so well.

The inspiration for the class actually came from my boredom with lecturing.  I try to mix up my classes—some lecture, some group work, some discovery-type work—in all my classes, but particularly with this class, because the material is very practical and hands-on.  I’d hit a patch, though, where I found myself lecturing more than I liked.  So I already knew that I wanted to present the material in a non-lecture format.  The trick was finding a good way to do this and to still get the important conceptual points across.

Which led to inspiration #2:  I’d just gotten back from Grace Hopper, and one of the sessions I attended there talked a bit about successfully using team-based learning/problem solving in the intro-level CS courses.  So I’d already been thinking about identifying “good” in-class problems in a more general sense.  It was just a matter of tuning my thoughts to this particular class and this particular topic (the design of peer-to-peer networks).

I came up with the framework for the class first:  divide into groups of 4-5 (which ended up being 5-6), hand out the problem, have them work through the problem, and present their results at the end of class.  I now needed a good problem:  something that was non-trivial but accessible within a single 70-minute period; something that would be relevant and interesting to the students, but still compact enough so that it would showcase the conceptual points I wanted to highlight.

Problem inspiration comes in strange places sometimes, and mine came the next morning, when I was wrestling with Moodle.  Ding!  We were going to pretend that Moodle went down and that I was instead going to distribute the rest of the course documents via a peer-to-peer network that the class would design.  The students have more of a love-hate relationship (mostly hate) with Moodle than I do, so this was both an easy sell and a plausible problem.

I wrote up the scenario, and then came up with some directed questions to help narrow down the problem into something manageable.  Essentially, the students were responsible for figuring out how to distribute content throughout the network and how peers would search for content.  The handout also indicated that they would have to present their design to the rest of the class.

Classtime came, and the students dug right in.  Right away, I could see that the problem was almost perfect, because the students started discussing the issues right away and never deviated from the task—which is highly unusual in my classes, which seem to attract the group-work skeptics.  My plan, as I wandered around the room, was to listen in on the discussions, clarify points, and ask key questions to keep them on track.  That was the plan.  But I only ended up doing the wandering, because the discussions were completely self-supporting and driven.  They were clarifying their own points, asking each other key questions, coming up with and discarding design ideas.  They were also digging much deeper into the problem, considering key but unstated issues such as “what happens when someone new joins?  what happens when someone leaves?  should we have a central point of control?  should the content be digitally signed?  should membership be restricted?”  In other words, basically all the important design issues and problems were coming out in the discussion, and the students were engaging with them in thoughtful ways.

I had been purposefully vague in terms of how they were to present their designs, so halfway through the class I revealed the format of the presentations:  they were to act out an example scenario (which I scripted out on the board), using the members of their group as nodes of the network.  I fully expected the eye rolls to come out at this point, but instead, the students dug right back into the discussion in earnest.

I had heard snippets of the design decisions, but had no idea what each group had come up with finally, until I said “Time’s up!” and started the presentations.  After each of the three groups presented, I asked them to summarize their 3 main design criteria, and wrote these on the board.  The result was truly amazing:  There are essentially three different models for peer-to-peer networks (centralized, completely decentralized, and hybrid)—and each group came up with one of these designs, independently.  Better still, the combination of the presentations and the identification of key design principles covered everything that I would have covered in a lecture.  And, the students asked just the right clarifying points of each other—I didn’t ask a single question other that “what were your 3 key design principles?”  I was floored—never has one of my activities been this much of a complete success.  And I made sure to mention this to the class—and judging from the students’ expressions, I think they also understood what fabulous work they had done as a class that day, and just what a great class it had been.

So what worked?  I think it was the combination of willing class + properly-targeted scenario + properly-targeted discussion questions + appropriate scope.  That, and I think the personalities in the class were distributed evenly among the groups (which I did completely randomly, by shirt color), such that everyone felt comfortable contributing to the group discussions.  In a sense, it was the perfect storm—but unlike the perfect storm, I feel pretty confident that this experience is something I can re-create in the future.

Trip report: Day 3 of Grace Hopper

This is my fourth Grace Hopper conference, and one thing is universally true about my experiences at GHC:  by the end of day 3, I am mentally EXHAUSTED.  The days are so jam-packed and the networking and energy so intense that it really is hard to sustain over 3 days.  So if this post become incoherent at some point…well, you have been warned.

This morning’s keynote was by Fran Berman, VP of Research at RPI.  Fran talked a lot about the challenges of all of this digital data we are generating, amassing, and storing, and a bit about developing CS and engineering talent.  She had a lot of interesting factoids sprinkled throughout her talk:  for instance, by 2023, the number of pieces of digital data we will have will be greater than Avogadro’s number.  That just blows my mind.

I missed the rest of the morning sessions to attend a planning meeting for regional women in computing conferences.  Yesterday, I caught up with someone I had met on an NSF panel, who invited me to this meeting, but was kind of vague as to what the meeting was about.  Turns out that attending meant that I was volunteering myself to co-organize a regional conference!  After I got over my initial shock, and once I figured out why I was at the meeting, and after fighting the urge to flee (“what?  I’m not ready to do this!  I’m not qualified!  help!”), I did enjoy the meeting, and am looking forward to making this happen….soon, apparently(!).  Stay tuned to this space for more details.

Today was the annual Systers lunch.  Systers is a mailing list for women in computing.  I have been a member for about 10 years now (wow, has it really been that long?), and this lunch is always one of the more enjoyable lunches.  I shared a table today with an industrial researcher, a winner of a Pass-It-On Grant who runs a technology camp for girls in Nigeria, an undergrad finishing up her CS degree, a software engineer, and a woman who owns her own web design firm and is going back to school to get her CS degree.  To say that the conversations were interesting would be a gross understatement.  The coolest part of the lunch, though, was when the Pass-It-On Grant winner spoke about what getting the grant meant to her, which led to someone deciding to pass around a wine glass or three for impromptu donations, which resulted in over $500 raised for the next round of grants….in 5 minutes flat.

In the afternoon, I went to a talk by Susan Landau, of Sun, on telecom security and security policy.  She did a great job making the topic accessible and had some interesting stories.  Interesting gender phenomenon:  I never saw more than 1-2 men at a single session during the conference, except at this talk—I am fairly certain that almost all of the men in attendance were at this talk.

I also went to a (surprisingly sparsely-attended) session on recruitment and retention at primarily undergraduate institutions, where I discovered that St. Scholastica (yes, the one in Duluth) is kicking our asses in terms of percentage of women faculty and percentage of women CS majors—and that they have set a goal of gender parity in CS by 2019.  Go, neighbors!  The most popular recruitment/retention strategies seem to be (a) recruit student TAs and/or lab assistants who are women (check), (b) have women teach the intro CS courses (check—I’m teaching 2 of our 5 sections this year), (c) have women in computing groups (nope, sadly), (d) send women to represent the department whenever possible (nope, but we could do this), (e) personally invite good students in CS 1 to take CS 2 (check).

The day ended with the annual Friday night sponsor party, with the requisite t-shirts and blinky things and food and dancing.  I met up with a recent Carleton grad and got to catch up with her, which was lovely; and dispensed some random career advice to various strangers (always entertaining).  I did bail early though, due to the whole exhaustion thing I mentioned at the start of the post.

So, another year, another GHC in the books.  All in all, it was a great conference.  I met some junior faculty, networked with some senior faculty, and talked with a ton of graduate students at various stages in their careers, some of whom I hope will apply for our tenure-track position.  And I’m now at the point where I run into people I’ve met in previous years, too, which is always a treat.  I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference, in Atlanta (yay, Delta hub!).

Trip report: Days 1 and 2 of Grace Hopper

Greetings from Tucson!  I’m sure Tucson is a lovely, lovely city….but I’ve been so busy that I haven’t been able to do anything beyond enjoying the desert and mountain views through the hotel windows every day.  That’s the thing about the Grace Hopper Conference:  they sure do keep us busy!

As always, being here is such an incredible experience.  This year the conference once again broke attendance records:  over 1600 attendees!  And nearly half of them are students.  Think about it:  1600 technical women all in one place at one time.

It’s been a very busy 2 days.  Here are some of the highlights so far, by day:

Day 1:  Wednesday

This year, since we’re hiring, I decided to go for the full first day so that I could attend the PhD Forum in the morning.  These are technical talks given by students who are finishing up their PhDs.  I was blown away by the research I saw!  CS, I have seen the future, and it is interdisciplinary.  Highlights:  a machine learning talk that was so excellent, it almost made me want to change my field; and a talk by a student from New Zealand basically on the same topic as my Comps group’s project.  (I spoke with the speaker, Andrea Schweer, at length afterwards, and she gave me some excellent tips and resources to check out.  Thanks, Andrea!)

At lunch, I ended up sitting next to someone who is from Haifa….my husband’s hometown.  I should note that I often meet people at conferences and other random places who are from Haifa.  Small world, indeed!

The afternoon’s schedule had some workshops sponsored by CRA-W, with tracks for undergrads, grad students, and early career researchers.  Highlight o’ the day:  I got to hear Justine Cassell, who’s done incredibly creative and interesting work, speak—she is amazing.

The evening of the first night is always the poster session.  I meant to just drop in and drop off some flyers, but ended up staying the whole time.  There was so much interesting research represented!  And again, a good percentage of it was interdisciplinary.  Weirdest moment:  I saw someone who was basically doing the topic I did for my Master’s degree, only she’s exploring the same topic for 4G networks.  When I worked on the topic, it was for the analog cell network!  How times have changed in 15 short years.

Day 2:  Thursday

There are always a bunch of welcoming talks the first day.  During these speeches, the Anita Borg Institute unveiled a new promotional video called “I am a technical woman”:

(Update:  Forgot to mention that the footage for this was shot at last year’s Grace Hopper.)

Then it was time for the keynote, by Megan Smith, VP of New Business Development at Google and General Manager of  All I can say is WOW, was she great.  She talked a lot about technology as the great equalizer, and spoke at length about the importance of bridging the technology gap (and bringing more Internet connectivity!) in Africa.  A powerful message, and she is clearly very passionate and very committed to following through on this goal. (Fun fact:  she and I share the same hometown:  Buffalo, NY.)

I went to one session in the morning about best practices in teaching intro CS.  There, I learned about a version of team-based learning, or problem-based learning, specifically tailored to CS, called Peer-Led Team Learning.  I think this might be a better fit than straight-up TBL, and am wondering if I could try this out in 111 this winter and/or spring.  The panel also talked a lot about the value of pair programming and hands-on problem solving, both of which I do in my intro course, so it was nice to get that affirmation.  I also attended an interesting panel on interdisciplinary research.

In the afternoon, I saw 2 excellent speakers.  Martha Pollack, Dean of Michigan’s School of Information, was supposed to talk about her work in assistive technologies, but instead gave an excellent talk about the importance and challenges of doing CS research “outside the box”.  Manuela Veloso, of CMU, gave another highly entertaining talk about her work with robots, which was peppered with humor, candor, and insights about work-life balance and effective mentoring practices.  We have got to get her out to Carleton to speak!

As always, I met up with a lot of cool and interesting people today.  While I am usually very good at meeting new people at conferences, I have to say that the best meetups and conversations always happen at GHC, and today was no exception.

Tomorrow is another full day, and includes the annual Systers lunch and the sponsor parties.  Looking forward to it all!