Fall term theme: Maintenance

It’s now been just over a week since Fall Term classes started, and just over 2 weeks since my kids started school. We haven’t quite nailed down our routines yet, partly because we have yet to have a “normal” week: out of town guests the kids’ first week of school, a half week for me last week where my classes met at different-than-scheduled times, one kid starting at a new school, and both kids home for 2 days this week while we waited for the results of a COVID test (negative, thankfully).

I finally sat down this week to set my Fall Term goals, a task I usually eagerly complete in early September before the chaos starts. I’d found it hard to identify an hour-ish block of time to evaluate my summer goals, figure out where various projects stood, review the landscape, and set priorities for the next few months. Today’s too full, I said. I just want to finish up this one task from the summer and then I’ll make my fall plan, I said. I should do this other, more pressing thing instead with the hour I have in my schedule this afternoon, I said.

Once I started my “brain dump”, the first part of the process, I realized that my foot-dragging had very little to do with lack of time to plan and everything to do with the theme that emerged. Rather than exuding energy and excitement and new beginnings, my lists reflected things like “staying on top of things” and “put the rest of these pieces in place” and “finish this handoff”. Not exactly ground-breaking, transformative tasks.

I realized that I’m firmly in a Maintenance Phase, in pretty much every area of my life. I’m not training for any fall races, for the first time in a long time, concentrating instead on building strength as a way to recover from consecutive ankle injuries. In my leadership position, I’m working to rebuild relationships and connections that we kind of lost when we went online. I’m teaching a brand new course this fall and don’t have a lot of energy for other projects, because new courses take a lot of energy. And as I look to rotate off of a couple of leadership / director positions, I want to make sure my successors have clear and concise information and records of what I’ve done, to ease their transitions.

So MAINTENANCE is my theme for the fall. I’ll concentrate on keeping things moving forward slowly and steadily. I’ll fix the things in need of repair from 18+ months of pandemic chaos. I’ll prioritize what I’ve already started instead of starting up new things. And, most importantly, I’ll make sure I don’t run down my energy reserves and stick to my limits, so that once I am ready to take up new initiatives, I’ll have the space to do so.

What is your theme for this fall?


What I’m reading: Finishing up Race After Technology, by Ruha Benjamin. (I got within about 10 pages of the end before it was automatically returned to the library, so I’m back on the hold list so that I can eventually finish the book!)

What I’m listening to: The latest Best of Both Worlds podcast episode with Dorie Clark, on “Playing the Career Long Game”. I guess you could consider my maintenance phase this fall, where I focus on putting things in place, as one way to play the career long game!

Day 1

Carleton’s Fall Term officially started yesterday.

The first day of Fall Term feels different from the first days of Winter and Spring Terms. The first day of Fall Term is a culmination of several months of planning and anticipation, unlike the first days of Winter and Spring Terms. There’s the frenetic anxiety present at the start of any term around meeting a new set of students and wondering whether your carefully-designed course will go as planned or go off the rails, of course. But since Fall Term also starts off the academic year, I’ve found this heightens our already-heightened anxiety, and adds to the anticipation. And the first day of Fall Term has its own special schedule, with shorter classes, Opening Convocation, and the president’s reception for faculty and staff. I think this is why at the end of the first day of Fall Term, I’m ten times more exhausted, and more relieved, than after the first days of other terms.

Perhaps the first day of Fall Term’s wardrobe changes also contribute to the heightened exhaustion at the end of the day.

I’m teaching one class this term, a first-year seminar on Ethics of Technology. It occurred to me, right before classes began, that given my class’s time slot, this would likely be my students’ FIRST CARLETON CLASS EVER. No pressure, right? And after 4 consecutive terms of teaching fully online (except for Comps), I worried a bit about being rusty with how to run and pace an in-person class. Turns out, the majority of my students spent the better part of the last school year virtually, so we’re all rusty and re-learning how to learn with others in the same physical space.

Class went really well. I’m really liking this group of students and, from what I could discern in one 50 minute class meeting, their collective energy. I used an icebreaker activity to get students thinking about how their experiences build frameworks through which they make judgments, which then segued into having them think about one of our central course questions (on balance, is technology a net positive, net negative, or neutral for society?) with their frameworks in mind. (We had a particularly lively discussion about chocolate vs. vanilla ice cream.) One icebreaker question was “do you prefer coffee or tea?”, a question I end up asking most of my classes at some point in the term. I’ve found over the years that the younger-skewing my class, the less likely they are to prefer coffee, and that held true in this class as well. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s definitely a consistent trend.

I debated whether I should attend Opening Convo in person, given that we’re not done with baseline testing, but I did and I’m glad I did. Instead of our usual speaker, several faculty, staff, and students read stories submitted by the community about Carleton community members who went above and beyond during the pandemic. It struck exactly the right tone. A tradition at Opening Convo is the singing of the alma mater, which made me very nervous, but instead one of the Carleton choral groups sang it for us. And now I want us to have them sing at every Opening Convo, instead of having us all muddle through.

Between class, lunch with colleagues, and Opening Convo and the reception, I was pretty peopled out by the time I left campus. I ended up hanging out with the neighbors when I got home, so I’m starting today with depleted people reserves and a schedule full of meetings. Whoops.

It was lovely to be back in person, and it was lovely to start of the term on such a positive note. I’m really looking forward to the term ahead!


What I’m reading: Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, by Ruha Benjamin. HIGHLY RECOMMEND so far.

What I’m listening to: The podcast Depresh Mode with John Moe. This week’s episode touched on how family traumas shape us, and I thought it was really well done.

Random thoughts, week-before-classes-start edition

I attended my first in-person retreat yesterday — our annual Department Retreat. I was surprised by two things in particular:

  1. How much I didn’t know I missed meeting with, and discussing things with, my colleagues in person. While we’ve certainly had our share of deep and important discussions over Zoom and Slack over the past year and a half, there’s just a different level of engagement, particularly around difficult topics, that occurs when you’re all sitting in a circle in the same physical space.
  2. How draining meeting with people in person is, after a year and a half of meeting online. I had a few things I meant to tackle post-retreat, but instead I found myself looking at everyone’s first day of school pictures (school started in my kids’ district yesterday) and tackling my email backlog. I have another retreat today, and will try to remember to give myself some grace if I’m mostly brain-dead and unproductive afterwards.

I have a longer post brewing about my goals for the year, including (especially) my leadership goals. I spent a lot of unproductive time this summer beating myself up for all the things I wanted to do as STEM Director this year that…just didn’t get done. Conveniently forgetting, of course, that perhaps leading and shaping a brand-new collaborative model among independently-operating departments DURING A GLOBAL PANDEMIC and *waves hand at everything going on in the world* is, perhaps, an accomplishment in its own right. And, after taking a few weeks “off” from STEM Board stuff, I am able to reframe some of the past year as “growing pains” for this new model.


As I alluded to above, the kiddos started school yesterday. 9th grade and 5th grade. One kid was excited / nervous, the other more of the “let’s get this first day over with” mentality. (I’ll leave it as an exercise to the readers who know my kids in real life which kid was which.) By all reports, the first day went well. I’ll admit that I feel less panicked about the school year now that our district requires masks in all the elementary and middle schools. (Do I wish they’d included the high schools? Yes. But this is better than nothing.) Fingers crossed that we get through at least a few months of “normalcy”.


What I’m reading: We Begin at the End, by Chris Whitaker. I got this recommendation from What I’m listening to, which is Episode 251 of the You’ve Got This podcast. I’m still on the fence as to how I feel about this book, because it’s not exactly a light-hearted romp, but it’s so far managed to suck me in.

Squeezing in some summer fun

Most years, I try to preserve time in August for relaxation and rejuvenation. I opt to start working with students right after Spring Term ends so that we’re wrapping up by the last week of July or first week of August. We don’t sign the kids up for camps or other activities. We take our family vacation. I spend time with the kids. We go to the State Fair (although not this year, with the lack of masking / vaccination requirements). I often end up doing some work, but I try to limit this to a few hours a day if I can.

As the kids get older, this prolonged August break gets harder to pull off. The Resident 9th Grader plays a fall sport, and we learned that practices start early-to-mid-August for these. (School starts after Labor Day in our district.) The Resident 5th Grader had 2 weeks of “band camp” this year to prepare for 5th grade band with a new-to-him instrument. School orientations and assessments dominate the latter half of August. Next summer, the Resident 9th Grader will likely be working. Squeezing in a vacation amidst all these moving parts starts to resemble a Tetris game.

"Welcome Parents Class of 2025" slide projected on an auditorium screen.
Not quite sure I’m ready for this.

I also waffle as to whether I’m better off front-loading my prolonged break in June and working into August, which seems to better match the reality of our schedules. On the one hand, I like having a break heading into the new academic year. On the other hand, if I’m already burned out at the end of Spring Term, summer feels like a slog.

Regardless, this summer we stuck with the August Break schedule, even though it meant the Resident 9th Grader missed some sports practices. And despite the pandemic, I managed to take two short, fun trips.

Trip #1 was a family vacation to a mountain biking mecca in our state, a transformed former mining area. My partner is a HUGE cyclist, and has never met a bike he didn’t like. A few years ago, he got me a mountain bike. I’d done some mountain biking since then but never felt really comfortable on the bike or the trails. This summer, I saw an ad for a local women’s mountain biking class and signed up. BEST DECISION EVER. I learned so much and, more importantly, gained a ton of confidence in my abilities. So I was excited to try out my new skills on our trip.

We rented an acquaintance’s airbnb. Our kids were not really into the biking aspect of the trip, so my partner and I rode in the mornings, and we all swam in various local lakes in the afternoons. (Some of which are former quarries, so they are deep, clear, and cool.) We played lots of board and card games, read a lot, and sampled the local coffee and ice cream.

The classes made a HUGE difference in my mountain biking. I felt braver. I embraced speed rather than panic braking. I took more calculated risks and embraced failure (and also succeeded more times than I expected). Biking was a lot more fun! And, much to my surprise, I am now seriously considering getting a fat bike so that I can continue riding the trails in the winter.

Red dirt mountain bike trail in the woods.
Whee!

Trip #2 came straight off my 21 for 2021 list. The Resident 9th Grader and I escaped to Chicago for a few days. We planned this trip before the pandemic took a turn for the worse, so we were both a bit wary about the plane trip in particular, even though we are both fully vaccinated. But I’d accumulated enough miles to put us both in first class on both flights, and we also double-masked on the plane and in the airport. So it was a bit unnerving, but mostly ok. Chicago has a city-wide mask mandate in place, which made us feel safe-ish when we visited museums and stores. We did mostly takeout, with some outdoor dining. And we spent a lot of time outdoors, even though it was hot and humid for much of the trip.

I lived in the Chicago area in grad school, so it was hard not to Do All The Things!, but I kept our plans mostly in check: one scheduled adventure per day to leave time for relaxation and spontaneity. We visited the Art Institute and the Field Museum. We took an architecture boat tour. We visited some of my old grad school haunts and the Northwestern campus. We went thrifting. We rode the ferris wheel at Navy Pier. We swam in Lake Michigan. We rode the L and walked for miles. And we saw a really cool art installation.

View of Chicago Skyline from the mouth of the Chicago River.
I’ve missed this skyline.

Mostly, though, we just enjoyed spending together. Middle school is rough in the best of times, and, as it turns out, particularly rough during a pandemic, and high school brings a host of new challenges and adventures. So it was nice to have the time and space to hang out in silence together, to share experiences, and to talk without interruption about the mundane and the important.

August was mostly frenetic and involved a surprising amount of driving people around, but these two short getaways provided a much-needed reset going into what is sure to be another challenging year. While I didn’t take as many day adventures as I’d like, I’m grateful for the time off I managed.

Did you take some time off this summer? Do you front load, back load, or spread out your breaks? I’d love to hear how you think about taking time off in the summer.


What I’m reading: A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload, by Cal Newport.

What I’m listening to: Back in the day (way back in the day), when I was finding my way as a new mom, I discovered the Manic Mommies podcast. They retired in 2014, but un-retired during the pandemic. I discovered the reboot just before they re-retired, and I’m now working my way through the pandemic episodes. Listening to the unfolding pandemic through the episodes and re-living the last year and a half through their eyes is an interesting and sometimes surreal experience, but always laugh-out-loud funny.

What does it mean to belong? Thoughts on Lisa Nunn’s College Belonging

I wish I could remember how College Belonging: How First-Year and First-Generation Students Navigate Campus Life, by Lisa Nunn, made it onto my ever-growing reading pile. (If you were the one who recommended it to me, a very big thank you and apology for not giving you the credit you deserve here!) I started reading it earlier this month, both in preparation to teach my first-year seminar and more broadly as I think about DEI issues at Carleton and within STEM at Carleton specifically.

The book focuses on in-depth interviews that Nunn conducted with a diverse set of students, both continuing-generation and first-generation, on two different California college campuses — a large public school and a smaller private school — over their first two years. The book centers on questions of how, and whether, students find their places at their institutions, and how institutions foster, and fail to foster, belonging among their students. It presents first-person accounts of how students “figure out” college, particularly in their first year as they adjust, make friends, and hone in on their academic major. It’s a compelling account of the ways institutions both serve and fail to serve their students.

I recommend this book, particularly if you find yourself teaching or advising first-year and/or first-generation students. Rather than providing a comprehensive review, I wanted to highlight a couple of points I’m taking away from the book.

“Belonging” is complicated.

Nunn breaks down belonging into three areas:

  1. Academic belonging: you feel confident and comfortable in your courses, you are adequately prepared and appropriately challenged, and you feel empowered to utilize resources like tutoring, office hours, and writing assistance.
  2. Social belonging: you have people you call friends, you are socially connected to one or more groups on campus.
  3. Campus-community belonging: you feel “at home” on campus, and campus reflects your identity(ies) and preferences.

While students seek out belonging on their campuses, the institution also needs to offer belonging to its students. This is particularly true for students from traditionally excluded groups, whose experiences, identities, and preferences are less likely to be reflected in campus culture. I kept thinking of the phrase “death by a thousand paper cuts” while reading this book, because of example after example of seemingly small things that add up to a big ol’ “you don’t belong here” vibe. What snacks are offered for sale at snack bars? Are intro-level courses pitched towards people new to the material or as a review of what students “should have learned in high school”? Where is the academic support center, or any of the cultural centers, located — central to campus, or on the outskirts? Which student organizations receive the most focus, or funding? Details matter, and the institution has a responsibility beyond “welcome, here’s a list of clubs, here is a small group of fellow students you should get to know well, good luck, you’re on your own!” in offering belonging to its students.

We spent a lot of time last year within the STEM Board delving into different aspects of the student experience. We used the ever-popular “hidden curriculum” terminology in our discussions, but I now realize that what we were really doing was exploring how we do and do not offer belonging in to the students who show up in our classrooms. (And, by extension, to the students who never show up in our classrooms.) This book filled in some much-needed context for me, such that I feel more confident leading and directing these discussions, as we move from “what did we learn?” to “now what can we do?”.

I’m also thinking more carefully about the ways I invite and fail to invite students fully into my classroom, and department, communities. What hidden messages do I send? How can I foster trust in my students around my invitations into the community? What barriers do I not see, that I can work to break down? (And how might this work be hampered by the disruption of an ongoing global pandemic?)

Race frames and “White*ness”

Nunn devotes two chapters to ethnoracial diversity and how it plays out in students’ sense of belonging. There were two particularly interesting aspects to this section of the book. One was the presentation of three of Natasha Warikoo’s “race frames”, or ways of thinking around the intersections of race and success:

  • Colorblindness frame: “success is completely due to individual effort; there is no social or societal aspect to whether someone is successful or not.”
  • Diversity frame: “diversity is desirable to the extent that it culturally and intellectually enriches me.”
  • Power-analysis frame: “power differentials exist between ethnoracial groups because of how society is structured.”

These frames helped me contextualize some of my own observations and experiences within DEI discussions and work, particularly around the insistence on “niceness” and “civility” and the reluctance to go to uncomfortable places in discussions around race and identity. I think this will help me more effectively challenge students, and colleagues, and myself, to examine their current frames (likely to be colorblindness or diversity) and their engagement in race and “meritocracy” discussions.

The other interesting and new-to-me aspect was the idea of White*ness. White*ness indicates the adoption of a primarily or fully White identity (cultural or otherwise) in an individual with multiple ethnoracial identities — biracial or multi-racial students, for example. Particularly, if a White* student is White-passing, their sense of belonging, and the extent to which belonging is offered to them, mimics that of White students much more closely than that of non-White students. Nunn shares a stark example illustrating how including White* students as part of non-White demographics can provide a skewed picture of how well an institution is serving students from traditionally excluded groups. As I read this part of the book, I kept thinking back to various discussions around numbers and “counting” over the years: who are we counting / not counting? should this group be included in our count? what potential insights do our aggregated “small numbers” hide? I appreciate that I now have better language to use when talking about and thinking about measuring the student (and faculty / staff) experience.


I sense that College Belonging is one of those books I’ll revisit from time to time. It’s given me quite a bit to think about in my dual roles as an instructor and as a campus leader, in terms of my / our responsibilities and practices in fostering and offering belonging. It’s introduced me to language and frameworks that will enhance how I engage in discussions with others around what it means to create an inclusive campus. And it’s given me additional perspective on some of my students’ experiences as they navigate Carleton. I look forward to translating what I’ve learned from this book into my work on campus and in the classroom.


What I’m reading: I just finished Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. I can’t stop thinking about it! Incredible storytelling.

What I’m listening to: The Teaching in Higher Ed podcast (most recently, Episode 374 featuring James Lang talking about the 2nd edition of Small Teaching)

The once-again shifting landscape of COVID

I had another post that I was planning on for today, on Lisa Nunn’s book College Belonging: How First-Year and First-Generation Students Navigate Campus Life. But as I was putting the finishing touches on that post (which will now appear next week, hopefully), I got hit on all sides with COVID-related news and updates — and, understandably, that’s where my mind now is. So, this post instead will be a bit of a reflection / update / worryfest about how rapidly things are changing and how I am (or am not) handling the changes.

For reference, 3 of the 4 members of my household are fully vaccinated. (Fun fact: with 3 different vaccines! We’re like our own little science experiment!) The 4th member — the Resident 5th Grader — is a year too young to be vaccinated (and will likely be first in line for vaccination once it becomes available to his age group). We decided as a family to continue masking together in public, to protect the Resident 5th Grader and to show solidarity. While our county’s vaccination rate is over 70%, almost no one in my town wears masks indoors. Our school district plans to bring everyone back to full-time in-person learning with optional mask wearing and, if I understand correctly, no quarantining of classes or other close contacts if there’s an exposure.

Yikes.

I feel mostly ok about the precautions the vaccinated household members are taking. The Resident 9th Grader always masks indoors (and sometimes outdoors), is smart about choosing when to be indoors with people outside the household, and plays a lower-risk, non-contact fall sport. My partner works at home full time and is selective about his bubble, and mostly hangs out socially outdoors. I work with fully-vaccinated students and colleagues, and have decided to move to always masking indoors vs. mostly masking indoors.

But figuring out how to best protect the Resident 5th Grader is tough. He has an IEP and other accommodations and virtual / hybrid school was…a nightmare. He really wants to do 5th grade band, and when we had to make that call last spring everything looked ok enough. This is his last year (and our family’s last year!) at our elementary school. So there are many reasons why in-person school makes sense. Ideally, people would do the right thing and mask, but based on the district’s summer program and the band lessons … well, let’s just say my kiddo was the ONLY one masked up at “band camp” and one of very few in the summer program. This, in a population where none of the kids are vaccinated (and who knows among the adults, since I don’t think the district requires our teachers to be vaccinated).

Predictably (and maddeningly!), the 5th grader was exposed at band camp…11 days ago. The email we got stated that “quarantining is recommended but not required” [emphasis mine]. !!! Luckily, his COVID test came back negative. But this does not give me warm fuzzy feelings about how the school year will go down, unless we go back to requiring everyone to mask up. I’m not holding my breath about that.

Carleton’s plan to bring everyone back to campus, require vaccinations (plus a flu shot), but no testing and no masking, has been a significant source of stress for me and others lately. Particularly when I think about bringing 2000+ students back from literally all over the world, many of those places COVID hotspots. We just received an update indicating that we will have testing AND indoor masking this fall, which makes me feel a bit better about controlling my exposure. And I suspect after the first few weeks, assuming we don’t have an outbreak on campus, I’ll be able to relax a bit. But a part of me is also (still) squeamish about trusting my health to the decision making of 18-22 year olds once they are back on campus.

So I find myself back in a place of imperfect decision-making and second-guessing almost everything. I sometimes successfully remind myself that I can’t control what choices others make, but it’s so hard when others’ choices affect your family’s health and possibly survival. I’m trying to walk a very thin tightrope between taking precautions and doing what’s best for my kids’ emotional and mental health. I wish these decisions were easier. It’s a really sh*tty time to be a parent, that’s for sure.

What is your COVID mindset like lately?


What I’m reading: I’ve just started Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead, edited by Susan Blum.

What I’m listening to: Groove Salad on SomaFM. My go-to work / concentration music. (I’m a supporter, too!)

5 Questions as I Design a First Year Seminar

Due to the high demand for computer science courses, my department rarely offers a first year seminar (or, as we call them at Carleton, Argument and Inquiry seminars, or A&Is for short). We last offered one in 2014: Human-Centered Computing, taught by me. So when the opportunity arose for us to propose an A&I seminar for 2021-22, I jumped at the chance. This fall, I’ll be teaching Ethics of Technology as an A&I seminar.

I adore teaching A&I seminars. I like having a class solely comprised of brand-new Carleton students, and watching as they adjust to college and to life at Carleton. I like having a hand in helping them navigate this strange new place. I appreciate the A&I as a gentle introduction and/or a “sampler platter” to a particular subject, rather than a comprehensive overview. The point of an A&I, after all, is to introduce students to how scholars ask and answer questions in a field — which means I can be creative in how I interweave the course topic with this goal. This venue gives me an opportunity to teach something we don’t currently offer in our CS curriculum — and perhaps a way to try out what this might look like as part of our regular curriculum. (Case in point: our Human-Computer Interaction elective grew out of that Human-Centered Computing A&I seminar.)

Designing an A&I seminar is challenging in the best of times, but even more so in I Thought We Were Post-Pandemic But Apparently Not times. As I plan out my course, I keep coming back to the same five questions.

What supports will my students need to adjust to full-time, face-to-face learning? Incoming first year students experienced all sorts of learning models over the past year and a half: fully online, fully in person, hybrid, hyflex, Hi-C (ok, maybe not that last one). Whether they graduated in 2020 and took a gap year, or graduated in 2021, their high school experience ended weirdly. What expectations will these students carry into the college classroom? How can I create an environment where we all feel physically safe to share the same air and the same small space? What can I do to help them learn in the presence of others, something we all took for granted as the norm pre-pandemic?

How can I best design my in-person course for flexibility? I remain skeptical that everything will be hunky-dory, back to normal for the entire term. Don’t get me wrong: I take a lot of comfort in the fact that the vast majority of our community will be fully vaccinated. But students will likely get sick or have to quarantine. Heck, I have an unvaccinated (because of age) kiddo at home who (as of now) will be back in school full time around (as of now) unmasked people. So I may get sick or have to quarantine. I feel like there’s less course design support for flexibility this summer, and while the lessons I learned last summer are definitely valuable, I still feel a bit lost here.

What trauma will we all carry into this year, and how will it manifest? Earlier this summer, I naively thought that we’d be heading into post-pandemic life more fully, and not back into the thick of the pandemic. Which, I think, means that some of the trauma we carry is the same old trauma of living through a global pandemic. But there’s also pandemic weariness, pandemic anger over how preventable this current wave was, pandemic grief over all those we’ve lost, pandemic uncertainty about the future, pandemic despair that we seem to be heading back to “business as usual” and not taking away any lessons about the precariousness of so many in our society….you get the picture. We’re grieving, we’re exhausted, we’re angry, we’re fed up. Our collective mental health is a dumpster fire. We don’t have the resources — at my institution, in our medical system, in society writ large — to deal with trauma on this scale. How do I help my students navigate this — particularly while I’m trying to navigate my own trauma?

What should my students read? This is more of an “embarrassment of riches” question. There is so much good writing on all sorts of aspects of ethics in technology. I flirted with the idea of a textbook for a bit, but abandoned that idea because there’s so much non-textbook reading I could assign instead. Should I have students read a few books and deep-dive into a few topics? Should I go broader and have students read more long-form journalism articles on a wider set of topics? I need to decide soon (technically, I needed to decide when textbook orders were due earlier this month), but I’ll admit to a bit of decision paralysis here.

What is the one thing I want my students to walk away from this course with? I haven’t settled on my central course question yet. And that’s certainly a big part of what I want students to take away from my class. But I also want my students to walk away with a sense of resilience. A sense of belonging. A sense of agency. And a strong support network. I want my students to leave my class thinking that it was a safe place to learn and to try out ideas, and feeling that Carleton is a home for them. To me, particularly this year, that’s at least as important — if not more so — than any of the course content or core ideas.

What questions are you asking yourself as we head into the later part of summer and the transition to a new school year?


What I’m reading: Black Boy Out of TIme: A Memoir, by Hari Ziyad.

What I’m listening to watching: The Olympics! Particularly swimming, and some of the taekwondo.

External service calculus

Service plays a non-trivial role in most academics’ work lives. The type and amount of service varies depending on where you are in your career and the type of institution you inhabit. So, for instance, academics at research-expecting and research-producing institutions peer review papers and grant proposals, and the volume of such requests likely changes as your reputation in a field grows.

There are certain types of service in academia that require specific standing. In many, though not all, cases, only associate and full professors vote on tenure and mid-tenure review cases, and only full professors vote on promotion to full professor cases. When a department undergoes an external review, they turn to associate or full professors to serve as external reviewers. (I am sure there are exceptions to this. In my experience, though, I started receiving requests after earning tenure.) And except in dire or unideal circumstances, department chairs should be tenured, and ideally a few years past tenure at a minimum.

If you’re doing the math, you’ve likely noticed that as you become more senior in your academic career, the service requests — and expectations — skyrocket.

Service requests tend to ebb and flow for me. Sometimes I’ll go a few months with zero requests. At other times, like the past few months, service requests pop up like dandelions in the spring.

I’m in the service sweet spot in my career. I’m a female-identifying full professor at a small liberal arts institution in a male-dominated field and with administrative responsibilities. I check many of the boxes on the representation checklist. So I tend to get a lot of requests, mostly to serve as an external reviewer of scholarship in a tenure or mid-tenure review, or as an external evaluator in a department review.

I wish I could say that I’ve developed an exact science for determining when to say yes and when to decline a request. In general, I try to say yes as often as possible to external scholarship reviews when they come from liberal arts schools. In these cases, it’s important to have someone doing similar scholarship and coming from a similar institution weigh in, because they are uniquely qualified to comment on the person’s scholarship in the context of the demands of working at a liberal arts school. That said, the work involved is significant, particularly since 95% of the time the person’s scholarship is in a related area but not my area and I have to read the work pretty carefully. So I limit myself to at most one per year. I find it particularly hard to turn these down, mainly because I know how hard it can be to find someone at a liberal arts school who’s (a) tenured and (b) qualified to comment on someone’s scholarship. But weighing in on someone’s tenure case is something you want to do well and get right, so overcommitting is a Bad Idea.

I really enjoy doing external department reviews. I find it fascinating to learn how other Computer Science departments structure their major requirements, teach their courses, and foster community among their students. Witnessing different institutional cultures is also endlessly fascinating to me, and something I view as “field research” for moving into administration. And sometimes, my fellow reviewer is a colleague-friend from another institution, which makes the process even more fun. But these reviews also require a significant amount of time and energy: reading the department self-study report; traveling to and from the institution; spending several days at the institution talking to faculty, staff, students, other departments, and administrators; and compiling the report afterwards. I do one of these every few years because of this time and energy commitment. These requests definitely come in batches — I know if one appears in my inbox, I’m likely to get 2 more within the next month. I’ve gotten a tad choosier here — I’m more likely to say yes if the institution is one I’d like to learn more about anyway, or if there’s a particular circumstance the department finds themselves in that I think I can lend insight into.

I’ve become more comfortable declining requests through the years. Early on, I worried about not being asked again, or about people getting mad at me for turning them down, but that hasn’t been the case. People understand when you say “I just can’t add this to my plate right now” and appreciate your honesty. When possible, I try to recommend someone else. Oftentimes this person is already on their radar, but it can’t hurt to endorse that the person would be a good pick. I still sometimes feel guilty, though, particularly if I’ve already said yes to something and then another request comes in that I really want to say yes to. I wish I could say the guilt’s subsided over the years, but nope, it has not.

How do you perform the calculus of deciding to accept or decline a service request, whether you’re in academia or some other field?

Productivity trouble spot: Shutdown routine

If you’ve been reading this blog for some time, you know that I am a productivity nerd. I read books and blog posts and listen to podcasts about productivity. I love experimenting with different digital tools and planning systems. I set goals and routinely check in with them. I hold a Sunday Meeting to plan out my week, and start each morning outlining my daily priorities. But try as I might, one trouble spot persists in my carefully constructed routines:

My lack of a shutdown routine.

What is a shutdown routine, you ask? A shutdown routine is a set of tasks you complete at the end of the workday that allows you to reflect on your accomplishments and set the table for the next day. Cal Newport summarizes the concept well. There are many different variations, as a quick Google search will demonstrate, but they all seem to share the same themes: review what tasks you completed, prioritize your tasks for the next day, clean up your physical and digital workspace, etc. This post at Doist reflects these themes nicely.

I’ve tried to institute shutdown routines in the past. I tell myself I’m going to stop work 5 minutes early and reflect on the day before packing up to head home (or in pandemic times, preparing to leave the home office to make dinner and check in with the kiddos). I tell myself I’m going to shut my laptop at 8pm so that I can wind down before bed. I’ve made calendar events and set my phone alarm. Nothing sticks.

I attribute a big part of this to the nature of academic work and to how I tie my self-worth to my work output. At my last therapy session, my therapist reminded me of an interaction from one of our early sessions a few years back, where he asked me to reflect back on the academic year and I spent 5 solid minutes listing everything I’d failed to accomplish that past year, without listing a single win.

Yikes.

While I’m now much better at recognizing my accomplishments and at extending myself some grace, I still feel that pull to do Just One More Thing before I leave the office/home office, or before bed. Sure, I could spend 5 minutes reflecting on the day — or I could try to answer 2 more emails. Sure, I could shut my computer off at 8pm — but that one task keeps migrating from day to day, so let me just do it now. The siren song of checking one more thing off the list hides the fact that there will always be another thing to check off, or three more things to add, or another article to read, or or or….

Thinking back to my pre-kid life — which, admittedly, is hard to do since it’s been so long — I think there was part of me that thrived on the adrenaline rush of working right up until I left the office. Probably because I knew I’d have an opportunity to wind down at home after work, or go off to do something fun just for me, even if I did “have to” work later that night. With kids and a family, I don’t have the luxury of downtime when I come home — I walk in the door and I’m instantly in Mom Mode. But I never unlearned the habit of working up until the last minute. While my commute provides some down-ish time, it’s not the same — and I usually spend it stressing over things that happened at work or things waiting for me at home, or both.

Some recent health issues have me rethinking all sorts of aspects of my relationship to work. In recent years I’ve improved immensely in setting boundaries and saying no, but there’s still much more I can do. I sense that setting, and sticking to, a shutdown routine at this particular point in my life will produce outsized benefits to my mental and physical health. I just need to figure out what that looks like for me, for now.

Do you have a shutdown routine? I’d love to hear what you do and how well it works for you.


I’m trying out something new at the end of my posts. I always enjoy hearing and reading about what other people are reading and listening to, so at the end of my posts I’ll list one thing I’m reading (or have read this past week) and one thing I’m listening to (or have listened to recently).

What I’m reading: Just Work: Tools to Tackle Workplace Injustice, by Kim Scott.

What I’m listening to: “The Agile Academic”, a podcast hosted by Rebecca Pope-Ruark.

Working with students in a transition summer

When I hired students back in March to work with me this summer, we were unsure of what summer would look like. Would students be allowed or required to live on campus? How many? Would we require vaccinations? Masks? Could students opt to live in Northfield and/or otherwise off-campus? Would labs have capacity limits? Because of this uncertainty, I erred on the side of maximum flexibility. I offered students the option of fully on-campus, fully remote, and (if circumstances allowed) a hybrid option where they could be mostly remote but in-person sometimes, and vice-versa.

Interestingly, I ended up with three students choosing three different options. I have one fully in person student, one fully remote student, and one student in person for the first half of the summer and remote for the second half. (Technically, the hybrid student will only be working remotely for me for one week, since they are taking a break to TA a virtual summer program.)

I thought the logistics of this would be more challenging, but after a few days of hiccups we figured out systems that work for us. I’ve used Slack with my research group for ages, so we are already in the habit of communicating with each other that way. (My students set up a private channel so that other students who are not working with me this summer don’t have to mute the entire workspace.) We’re using GitHub’s built-in wiki regularly to record our weekly team goals and check in to see how we’re progressing towards those. Students keep notes and papers in a shared Google Drive. We have a daily check-in meeting with a Zoom option. I thought we’d use one of the conference rooms in our computational research suite (which we share with chemists, physicists, astronomers, and biologists) for these daily check-ins, since they have projectors and fancy whiteboards. We tried this the first day and realized that the technology and layout of the room hindered our ability to get things done! We now meet in our research space, firing up Zoom on my laptop and gathering around it. (We do use an external microphone because it makes it easier for the remote person / people to hear everyone in the room.) We move the laptop closer to the whiteboard if someone wants to sketch something out. If we’re looking at code or a website, we make sure to tell anyone on Zoom specifically what file / document we’re looking at, and we’re (mostly) in the habit of referring to line numbers in code.

We’ll have another logistical change next week, moving the fully in-person student into a space with other CS research students from a different group, so that they are not all by themselves. I need to figure out if we’ll still do check-in meetings in the room my students currently occupy or if we’ll move these to my office. I suspect we’ll try both.

We’re in Week 4 of 8, and the project’s progressing about as I expected. Lots of false starts and dead ends, mixed in with some promising directions. My students are playing around with natural language processing libraries to determine if we can use natural language processing techniques on our tech support dataset to extract indicators of expertise (and, somewhat relatedly, confidence). They’ve spent most of their time figuring out how to slice and dice the dataset various ways: filtering out “noisy” tickets, attempting to separate out various constituencies (clients from IT workers, e.g.), identifying “superusers”, and so on. We decided yesterday that we will likely have enough data and analysis to put together at least a poster / extended abstract this fall, so that’s exciting!

One unexpected thing: the return of spontaneous tangents and rabbit holes during our meetings! Now, granted, we do and have gone off on tangents on Zoom meetings (last summer, with my fully remote students, and during the spring when we were all meeting remotely). But Zoom can’t capture that certain energy in the room that happens when you go down a rabbit hole or explore a peripheral path. And I didn’t realize (a) that I was missing that energy in the first place and (b) how much I missed that energy until the first time we went off on a tangent during a check-in meeting. As a result, our tangents feel more productive, and definitely more enjoyable. Yesterday, for instance, a student question about conferences (earlier this summer I mentioned that I wanted to try and take them all to an in-person conference once those are a thing again) led us to look up where various conferences in our field would be held in 2022, which led to parallel conversations about travel and about academic publishing. Another tangent last week helped me connect the dots between one of my Comps projects this past year and a particular avenue one student is exploring. Of course, not all tangents are productive, nor should they be. At the very least, they help me get to know my students better — and that’s something I also missed last summer, because again, Zoom conversations can only get you so far down that road.

While I’m a bit panicked that we’re already halfway through the summer of research (how did that happen?!), and while we have and will continue to experience hiccups, I’m very much enjoying this summer of research. I’m proud of my students’ progress and growth and proud of the work we’re co-creating. I’m enjoying getting to know my students, and interacting with “3-D people” again. And I’m excited to see where the second half of the summer takes us.