Reuniting with an old familiar course after a long layoff

As you could probably tell from the radio silence, things have been crazy around here. December and the first part of January were a blur of grant writing (and frantically finishing up simulations/analysis to generate data for the grant proposal) and job applications, and oh yeah, some holidays and travel. And in the midst of this craziness, class prep for a course I last taught in Spring Term 2012 (almost 3 years ago!): Intro to Computer Science.

Intro CS used to be my bread-and-butter course. I taught at least one, and typically 2, sections of intro each year through most of my time here. Intro is probably one of the most challenging courses to teach, partly because students come in with wildly varying backgrounds and partly because there’s so much to learn and grasp early on—the learning curve can be steep, and trying to keep track of all the syntax while also learning to think in a completely different way about problem solving is tricky and can be daunting. But it’s precisely because of the challenge, and because the students learn so much and grow so much over the course of the term, that it’s one of my favorite courses to teach.

Recently, we’ve handed over much of the teaching of intro to our visiting faculty. Part of this is because we often haven’t hired our visitors by the time we have to craft the next year’s schedule, so it’s easy to assume that whomever we eventually hire can teach intro. Part of this is also to give our new and visiting faculty a break—by teaching multiple sections of a course over the year, they are doing fewer new-to-them preps, which eases their burden. And our visitors tend to do a nice job with the course. The price of this, unfortunately, is that old fogies like myself don’t get the pleasure and the privilege of introducing students to the discipline like we used to.

Last year, when I was making the schedule for this year (one of the “perks”(?) of being chair), and weighing everyone’s teaching preferences, I saw that I had an opportunity to teach a section of intro, so I scheduled myself for one of the sections.

The re-entry has been a bit rough. Fortunately a lot of what I used to do and a lot of my old intuition about how to approach various topics has come back as I’ve reviewed my old class notes and my sample code. We’ve switched from Python 2 to Python 3 since I last taught, which I’ve taken as an opportunity to rewrite most of my sample code (which also helps with the recall). However, I tend to over- or underestimate what we can get done in the course of a 70 minute class (mostly overestimating at this point), and I’ve forgotten just how much trouble students have with a few key concepts early on in the course. My timing is off, too—I feel like I’m spending too much time explaining things and not leaving enough time for coding and practice in class—but I think I’m starting to get a better handle on that mix of “talk” and “do”.

There have been some benefits to the long layoff, though. I have some new ideas that I’ve been trying out—for instance, starting class by having students work on a problem by hand for 10-15 minutes, to get the intuition behind whatever we’re coding up in class that day—that I might not have considered if I was teaching intro more consistently. I’m reading the textbook more carefully (because none of the readings are familiar anymore and I’ve switched textbook editions), so I have a better sense of the level of preparation students have when they come into class after completing the daily targeted readings and practice problems. I’ve done more live-coding in class, because as I’ve been re-working my code examples I’ve noticed places where it would benefit students to see me code and think out loud in real time, rather than just walking them through pre-written code. Basically, I get to see the course with fresh eyes, without all the stress of it being a completely new prep.

So I’m immensely enjoying the intro experience again, and while on balance the layoff was partly beneficial, I hope that I don’t go quite such a long time between teaching intro sections again.

#AcWriMo final progress report

Yesterday marked the close of #AcWriMo 2014, that month-long festival of academic writing. At my last two check-in points, I was making slow but steady progress towards at least one of my goals. So how’d I end up doing this year?

  1. Revise my failed NSF proposal from 2012: MET (with some caveats). I’m calling this one “met w/ caveats” because I did ultimately move forward on this goal, just not in the way I originally intended. See, I thought I’d spend my time this month on the actual narrative of the grant, rewriting the prose and using that to figure out what experiments and analyses and such to run in December. However, when I started writing, I realized right away not just where the holes were, but exactly how I had to fill them. The act of writing made the experiments and analyses immediately clear, so I decided to switch gears and concentrate on that aspect of the proposal instead. I’m so glad I did—I made such great headway, and honestly this was something that had me stuck for MONTHS. (As a bonus, I did make some headway rewriting the supporting docs.)
  2. Draft my next conference paper: FAILED. Despite my best intentions, I never quite got around to this one. I kind of knew at the outset that this goal would be a stretch, but I thought I’d at least spend a couple of sessions on it. Nope. However, in its place I did spend a lot of time coding up a pretty significant simulation, which is something I did not envision happening at the outset. And I’m thinking about my data in more productive ways. So I failed, but I failed for a damn good reason.

On balance, then, it was an excellent month, and I’m very pleased with my progress, despite the fact that my goals morphed and my month was every bit as crazy as November typically is.

So what lessons did I learn from AcWriMo this year?

  • Slow and steady wins the race. I reminded myself that I don’t need big blocks of time to accomplish things in my research—almost every day, I worked for an hour or less on my research, and I made tremendous progress (I have almost an entire simulation coded up, start to finish, in under a month!).
  • Productivity begets productivity. Working on research one day makes me want to work on it the next day, and the next day, and so on. And making progress one day makes me really want to get back to my work the next day.
  • Stuck? Just write. I am kicking myself that I didn’t try this sooner. I am still amazed by how quickly the pieces fell into place once I started writing.
  • Go with the flow. My goals changed pretty much right off the bat this month, and instead of trying to force myself to stick with the original plan, I recognized the shift as a big opportunity, jumped on it, and never looked back.
  • Rituals are important. I usually don’t need to trick myself into working, but I appreciated some of the little rituals I developed around my writing/research time: brewing a cup of tea, starting up some instrumental music or ambient noise, setting my notebook and favorite pen at the ready nearby. (And of course, afterwards, checking the #AcWriMo tweets!) It was fun to have the physical reminders of “now it’s time to hunker down and work”.

I plan to continue with my own version of AcWriMo in December. Despite not teaching this month, I still have a lot on my plate, and I think the structure of something AcWriMo-like will help me continue to make progress even as I’m pulled in many different directions. My plan is to carve out 1-2 hours per day (depending on the day) just for research, and specifically for the grant proposal, setting daily/weekly goals much like I did in November. By the end of the month, I’d like to have my most of the major analyses done for the grant proposal, and most of the major edits to the narrative and supporting docs done. I think I can make pretty good headway on this.

To all those who participated, and particularly those who shared their ups and downs on Twitter, thank you. (And special thanks to Charlotte Frost for wrangling this together this year and every year!) It was, and always is, much more fun working in (virtual) community than working alone, and the community aspect of AcWriMo is one of the aspects I enjoy most about the experience. I’m already looking forward to participating in AcWriMo 2015!

The disappearance of faculty downtime

It started last year with a simple request, and then another. “We’re holding this workshop during the December break. We’d love to have representation from your department. We need to have representation from all of these departments. Will you or someone else from your department attend?” (In some cases, repeat until I said I’d attend or found someone who agreed to attend.)

This year, November rolls around, and bam—more requests from workshop organizers for this December’s workshops.

I didn’t think much of it last year—this must be one of the many things they forget to warn new chairs about, I thought. But this year, when the requests came in, I wondered: is this normal? Have chairs always dealt with such requests, or does it seem like these requests are more frequent these days (and, in some cases, more fervent)?

I consulted with the previous chairs of my department, and yes, as I suspected, things were not always this way. The requests, in fact, are more frequent and more fervent.

Welcome to December Creep.

When I took this job, one of the perks I most looked forward to was the long break between Fall Term (which ends right before Thanksgiving) and Winter Term (which begins right after New Year’s Day). Five weeks! Sure, there are some major holidays in there, but still, five weeks! Time to do research! Plan my courses! Not work insanely crazy hours! Reflect! Heck, maybe even take a day or two off to go shopping or bake cookies!

(And yes, we do end up paying for this luxury, with our Death March between January and June, with little break between Winter and Spring Terms.)

There have always been workshops in the first few weeks of December at my institution. In theory, it’s a great time for them: people’s schedules are freer, they are not exhausted from the go-go-go of the term, and the break fosters reflection anyway. When I started, it did not seem like there were very many workshops, and other than the new faculty workshop my first year, there was not much pressure to attend. (Perhaps this is one of the many things I was shielded from as junior faculty, but I don’t think so.)

This year, there are eight workshops (including the new faculty workshop, which also seems like it’s longer than it was when I attended lo these many years ago). And as I mentioned in the opening to this post, there seems to be more pressure to attend and to represent at these workshops. They are theoretically “optional”, but perhaps not always practically or politically “optional”.

And so, all that free time starts to vanish, eaten up by Yet One More Responsibility.

I wish our breaks really could be breaks. I wish that we didn’t feel the need to Fill All The Time With All The Things. I wish that we recognized that downtime—unscheduled time—is necessary and important for faculty (and staff!). That we recognized that this workload is really not sustainable.

We’ve seen this during the summer already at my institution. We don’t hold classes in the summer, but between supervising student research and teaching in summer programs, there’s very little downtime/unscheduled time. My summers are largely no longer my own.

I really don’t want the same thing to happen to all of our breaks.

Last year I attended both of the workshops to which I was, er, “invited”. This year I decided to be “selfish”, and only said yes to one such request. I have a grant to write, research to conduct, and job apps to read, and ultimately carving out time for those things will serve me better than representing my department. And I hate that prioritizing in this way is somehow “selfish”.

In some small way, I like to think I’m taking a stand to Bring Back The Break. And I really didn’t wish I had to take such a stand.

Does anyone else experience this at their institutions? How do you protect your break?

#AcWriMo progress report, 2/3 of way through

We’re in the homestretch now for #AcWriMo 2014! It’s hard to believe there are less than 10 days left in this madwriting frenzy.

I’ve made some really good progress on my first goal (revising my grant proposal) since I last posted an update on my progress. I’ve spent much of my writing time writing code instead of words, but it’s been time well spent. (And as one of my colleagues in the writing program here likes to point out, coding IS writing!) I’ve been programming a simulation that will hopefully “prove” (for some definition of “prove”) that the ideas that I’m putting forth in my grant proposal do have merit and are feasible.

It was writing words in the first place (“writing when I have no clue”, from my last post) that led to the coding frenzy of the last week and a half. And when I got stuck on the code for my simulation, which is largely what I’ve been writing, I went back to writing about the simulation, and boom, I figured out how to get unstuck. With any luck, I’ll be able to start running some simulations with the code the first week in December, and then integrate the results into my grant proposal.

The awesome progress I’ve made on my first goal makes up for the fact that I haven’t even touched my second goal—drafting a conference paper. Oops. At this point, I’ll be happy if I just have a rough outline of a conference paper by the end of the month, which I think is do-able given the time I have left.

The good news is that fall term classes ended on Wednesday, so aside from grading (projects and final one-page papers), my time is largely my own for the rest of the month. This means I (theoretically) will have more time per day to devote to AcWriMo from here on out, and can be a bit more aggressive in this final push.

So what do I want to accomplish between now and the end of the month?

  • Write for at least 2 hours every weekday (excluding Thanksgiving!), and at least 1 hour on Sundays.
  • Finish coding up the simulation.
  • Start reviewing and revising some of the supporting documents for the grant proposal.
  • Read over the grant narrative and highlight the main areas I need to revise.
  • Figure out the topic for my next conference paper and make a rough outline of the paper.

I’m not sure how far I’ll actually get on these goals, but hey, it can’t hurt to aim high. Regardless, I’m excited for the writing days ahead, and excited about my research in a way that I haven’t been for quite some time. That alone makes this AcWriMo completely worth it and completely successful in my book!

#AcWriMo progress report, one-third of the way through

I’m 1/3 of the way through AcWriMo 2014, and I thought I’d give an update on my progress so far. (I laid out my goals for the month in my last post, but to quickly review, my goals are: (1) revise my failed NSF grant proposal, and (2) draft a conference paper.)

What’s working

  • Setting out specific, measurable goals for each session. Often, when I’m stuck on a hard problem, I tend to procrastinate by laser-focusing on minutiae. This is what derailed me last year in AcWriMo. This time, I’m setting goals for the week (usually on Sunday evenings), as well as for each day. (I keep track of these in Evernote, as part of my weekly to-do list). I set the following day’s goal based on my weekly goals and where I ended up that day. That’s made it easier for me to get the challenging work done, rather than just putzing around on paper for an hour.
  • Being flexible with my schedule. As department chair, I don’t always have complete control over my schedule. Things come up, and I don’t always have the luxury of saying no to meetings (or crises) that happen to fall during the time I’ve blocked out for writing. Rather than despairing, I’ve done a good job finding other pockets of time to write if my original block of time doesn’t work out, and of re-prioritizing things so that the writing gets done.
  • Writing when I have no clue. I’m in a challenging part of my research—the problems are harder and the path forward is not exactly clear. My goal for the first week was just to write as if I already had the answers. The simple act of doing so clarified a lot of the problems that got me stuck and helped me to think about solutions more productively. In one writing session, I was able to develop the framework for an entire simulation, which I am now starting to code and which, if it works, should answer a lot of the outstanding questions in this project. Yay!

Challenges

  • Life events beyond my control. Our daycare was unexpectedly closed for most of last week, we don’t have backup child care, and my spouse had an even crazier week scheduled than I did. Guess who had to scramble to take care of the kiddos? I tried to squeeze writing in when I could, and I did ok except for one especially crazy day where no writing happened.
  • End of the term craziness. My institution is on trimesters, and our fall term ends right before Thanksgiving. Classes end next Wednesday. Everyone is freaking out and everyone wants something from me RIGHT NOW. Prioritizing in this environment is challenging.
  • Damn kiddos sharing their germs. Thank god for cold medicine, which is the only thing that kept me halfway functional yesterday.

What’s keeping me motivated and productive

  • Slow and steady progress. I’ve accomplished something concrete each session, and more importantly, something I can build upon. The next step is always clear, so it’s easy to pick up where I left off the next day.
  • Ambient noise generators. A student in my first-year seminar shared A Soft Murmur as a design example in class one day. After class, another student showed me Noisli, another background noise generating site. I generally listen to music while I work, but I’m really enjoying working with these sites in the background. (My current favorite combo on A Soft Murmur is waves + birds + a very light singing bowl, while on Noisli it’s forest + stream. I also like the coffee shop sounds.)
  • The support of local participating friends. The fabulous @adriana_estill and @mijavdw are participating too, along with another good friend and colleague who’s “stealth-participating” (i.e without the public accountability). It’s hard to slack when you don’t want to let your friends down!
  • Twitter! I love reading the #AcWriMo tweets. Some days I read them after I’ve met my goal, but some days I read them before writing if I find my motivation lagging. It’s awesome to be part of this academic writing community.

So I think I’d give myself a B+/A- so far in AcWriMo. A solid effort, with some room for improvement. Here’s hoping the momentum continues for the rest of the month!

All in for AcWriMo 2014

November is just around the corner, which means once again it’s time for AcWriMo! For those who don’t know, AcWriMo is the academic’s version of NaNoWriMo (in which people pledge to write a novel during the month of November). The academic version is a bit more fluid—participants set their own academic writing goals for the month, declare these publicly, then write write write “like there’s no December!”.

I’ll admit that I waffled a bit on whether to participate or not this year. I’ve participated the past 2 years, with considerably more success in 2012 than in 2013. I already know it’s going to be a busy, busy month. And yet, I sort of need a kick in the pants as far as my research goes—I’ve stalled a bit and have been spinning my wheels, so if properly executed, this challenge might just get me unstuck and moving forward again.

So, I’ve decided I’m in!

I have 2 goals this month:

  1. Revise my failed NSF proposal from 2012. This was the plan for last year, but ultimately I was not able to revise the grant sufficiently enough for resubmission. I need and want to resubmit it this year. My goal here is to get as much of the narrative and supporting documents done as possible, meet with our awesome grants person, figure out where the holes are, and make a concrete, specific plan to fill in those holes before the deadline (and, more realistically, before I have to start reviewing applications for our tenure-track job, in mid-December).
  2. Draft my next conference paper. I have nothing in the publication pipeline right now. There’s some old data that I’ve never written up for publication, and I sense that some of our newer work might be almost ready to send out. The work-in-progress paper that we successfully submitted this summer shows me that there’s definite interest in our new work, so the sooner I can get some of this data out, the better.

Up until last week, I was really good about protecting my research time (although I don’t always spend this time productively—see “spinning my wheels”, above), and I already have time blocked out on my calendar for research 3 days a week. I plan on carving out a bit more time (20-30 minutes) on my busier days (Tuesdays and Thursdays), and carving out some time on Sunday evenings as well (which I’m hoping will set the mood for the week).

To combat some of the problems I had last year making progress, I plan on having specific, measurable goals/tasks for each writing session (word count, sections revised, checklist written, etc), which I’ll try and set out every week in advance. I’m also going to embrace the strategy of writing as a means of figuring out what to do next, i.e. start with drafting a section as a means of figuring out what data I need, how I will present it, etc. I think this will be the key to get me unstuck in my current work. I’ve done this with great success in the past, so I just need to get back into this habit (and then follow through with actually doing the rest of the work!).

You can follow my AcWriMo exploits on Twitter (@drcsiz), or follow AcWriMo more broadly on Twitter using the hashtag #acwrimo.

Here’s hoping for a productive November!