Grateful

It’s the day before the Thanksgiving holiday here in the US, and like most people today I’m pretending to work.

Whoops! I meant to say: I’m thinking about all the things I’m grateful for.

I could use this post to talk about all the obvious things I’m grateful for: wonderful friends, supportive colleagues, loving family, etc. But I thought it might be fun to write a post about some less-obvious things on my gratitude list.

So, here, a random list of three less-obvious things for which I am grateful:

  1. Meditation. I mentioned in my last post that I started meditating this summer, and how much it has changed my life, both work-wise and in my personal life. I never imagined that I was the meditating “type”, but now my day does not feel complete until and unless I meditate. 10 minutes each morning is enough to center me for the day, and I honestly think it makes me a better version of myself.
  2. Slack. Slack is a team communication platform. (Kind of like instant messaging on steroids, for those of you old enough to remember IM.) Our students have been using Slack for a bit, but I didn’t really use it until I went on sabbatical. Then, I used it as a way to keep in touch with my superhero lady gang/support group/close friends. This year, I’m using it extensively to keep up with my Comps groups. We’re also using it as a department to replace our normal “hallway conversations”, as a way to keep those of us with offices outside the building and everyone on leave in the loop. It’s easy to feel like an outsider when your office is literally all the way across campus from your colleagues, but Slack has pretty much eliminated that for me. (It’s also changed how we communicate as a department, but I’ll save that for another post.)
  3. Online communities. Some people find it weird to consider people you’ve never met in person as friends. To me, it seems like the most natural thing in the world, thanks to the online communities in which I take part. A group of amazing and powerful women and I trained virtually together for marathons in Fall 2016, and most of us still keep in touch. Turns out, we have much more in common than our love for running crazy long distances, and I’ve found these women to be invaluable sources of inspiration, non-judgmental listeners, and providers of well-timed comic relief. Dealing with my layoff from running has been easier thanks to the injured runners Facebook group I joined — the group provides a safe space to vent and whine and share those small victories and setbacks that happen when you’re coming back from injury. And this year I ponied up for an individual membership to NCFDD, which gives me access to faculty development resources and, best of all, a community of faculty who support and hold each other accountable for writing and generally making forward progress in research.

To all of you celebrating this weekend, have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday, and hope you take some time to focus on the less-obvious things that make you grateful, too.

 

 

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Reflecting on the transition back

As fall term comes to a close (our last day of classes was yesterday), I’ve been reflecting on my experience coming back from a year-long sabbatical.

Overall, the transition has been easier and less painful than I anticipated.

One of the big concerns I had was the loss of my “free” nights and weekends. While on sabbatical, I took weekends off (except for my Sunday night meeting), and only worked on weeknights occasionally. I worried that the sheer volume of work I’d be facing would translate into squeezing work in every night after the kids went to bed (thus skimping on sleep) and trying to squeeze work in on already-packed weekends.

Luckily, I’ve been able to mostly avoid working on the weekends, save for an hour or two on Sunday evenings, and my weekday evening workloads have been manageable. Yet I seem to get more done!

I credit a couple of things for this:

  • More deliberate scheduling of tasks. I’ve done the “put your writing/research time on your calendar” trick forever, and that helps me prioritize writing and research even during the craziest times of the term. I’ve started doing that with other things — blocking off time for class prep, or administrative tasks, for instance. In addition to providing more structure to my workday, it eliminates the worry over when certain things will get done.
  • Meditation. I started meditating this summer, at the suggestion of my therapist, as a way to manage my anxiety and depression. I know it is not for everyone, but it has worked wonders for me. In addition to helping with my anxiety and depression, I’ve found it easier to focus on one thing at a time — so when I’m working on something, I’m thinking only about that and not the million other things that I could also be doing at this particular time. Not surprisingly, this increased focus means I complete things more quickly, and my work is of higher quality.

The one thing I did not expect? My lack of stamina, mentally and physically.

Before sabbatical, most days I’d be able to power through mentally until the end of the day, before my energy started to wane. Now? By 3pm I’m EXHAUSTED, mentally and physically. And it feels like it takes me longer to recover from that exhaustion; taking a short break doesn’t help as much as it used to.

Perhaps this is partially due to our family’s schedule this fall, where I’m often picking up one or both kids after work and going straight to one or more sports practices or other evening activities. There’s no real downtime for me until later in the evening, so perhaps anticipating that, my mind shuts down early as a means of self-preservation?

Perhaps it’s because I got used to a different, more deliberate pace of working while on sabbatical, with some down time built in between tasks. Now, I often move right from one task to the next out of necessity — which means fewer mental and physical breaks over the course of a day.

Whatever the reason, it’s a pattern that’s persisted over the course of the term. I know that winter term will be even more hectic than fall term: we’re hiring (we’re hiring! come work with us!); I’ll be selecting a new cohort of Summer Science Fellows (and faculty research mentors) and helping our current cohort find summer positions; there’s lots of Comps stuff that happens winter term and I’ll be doubly hit with that as advisor to 3 groups and our department’s Comps organizer. And my family’s schedule is not going to get any less hectic this winter — in fact, my daughter is moving up an age group on her swim team, which means we’ll have to figure out how to get her to one additional practice per week, on top of everything else going on.

For me, the solution probably lies in finding ways to work downtime into my workday so that I don’t exhaust my cognitive resources early. And that’s something I’ll reflect on during our long break between fall term and winter term.

#AcWriMo 2017: Slaying my research demons

It’s November 1, which long time readers of this blog know means that it’s time once again for #AcWriMo! Academic Writing Month is the academic’s version of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Academics commit to 30 days of research progress of all types — getting articles/book chapters/book proposals/dissertations completed and/or out for review, starting a new project, completing a literature review, writing simulation code, etc.

I’ve been a long term participant in AcWriMo (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). Every year I think “maybe this is the year I skip it”, but every year I come back. There is something about the public accountability, the thrill of keeping research momentum going during a crazy busy time of the academic year, and the community that keeps me coming back. Even this year, when I have a daily writing practice that’s going rather well and projects that I’m making clear progress on.

This year, I’m using AcWriMo to not only make research progress, but also to confront some of my own research demons. You see, there’s this research project that I started on sabbatical — an interview project — that’s stalled. Yeah, part of it is because I’m busy, but a bigger part of it is because I have completely psyched myself out about it. I’m at the stage where I should be interviewing subjects that I’ve recruited, and I’ve stalled out on the recruiting stage. Because recruiting participants is Scary and it means I might have to Talk To People I Don’t Know or, worse, Ask People I Know And Like To Give Up Some Of Their Precious Free Time To Help Me. (And I hate asking people for help.)

But stalling out means that I probably missed out on an opportunity to submit this project to a Late Breaking Work track at CHI. And I am kicking myself because that would have been a primo opportunity to present this work, or at least get some early feedback.

So while I have some other projects I’m working on — a fellowship application due mid-month, a conference paper with a January deadline — I’m only going to specify one goal for this year’s AcWriMo. And that is to get back on track with this interview project. With one goal, I won’t be as tempted to work on my other projects as a means of avoidance, and prioritize them over the interview project. The interview project becomes the priority.

Here is what I plan to do this month:

  • Revamp the project timeline. Given I probably can’t make this late breaking work deadline, where is the next logical place to send this work? Preferably something with an early spring deadline. And then work backwards from there to figure out what to do each week.
  • Rethink my recruiting strategy. The way I’ve positioned this study is not working. I need to rethink how and where I’m recruiting subjects, and redo my “advertising campaign”.
  • Schedule and conduct some damn interviews already! I do have a few people who expressed interest in participating….er, months ago. I plan on following up and hopefully scheduling at least one interview by the end of the month.
  • Complete some of the writing on the eventual conference/workshop paper. There are sections I can draft — the intro, the methods, the lit review — that will save me lots of time later when deadlines loom.

As always, you can follow my progress (and others’ progress too) on Twitter, using #AcWriMo. And as always, I’ll have an update here at the end of the month on how I did.

Good luck to all of those participating! May the writing gods smile upon you.

Dealing with the circumstances you have, not the circumstances you want

Fall is my favorite time of year to run. The colors of the trees and grasses, and the angle of the sunlight, along with warm but comfortable temperatures, make running outside in September and early October a joy and a sensory delight. As the leaves fall and the temperatures drop, as we move from October to November, I enjoy the crisp air and the cooler temps — and the changing landscape too. I tend to do a lot of trail running in the fall, and my favorite marathon is also in the fall. Running in the fall is just a happy experience for me all around.

I thought about this all as I walked back across campus yesterday on an impossibly warm, beautifully sunny day. A perfect day for a run, especially a marathon training run. Which, according to my plan, was exactly how I’d be spending my September.

Instead, my thoughts centered on how happy I was to stand and teach for 70 minutes without foot pain. And when I’d be able to squeeze in my physical therapy exercises that night.

Yep, I’m injured.

I did 2 marathons within 8 months, the last one being in June. My body, surprisingly, handled the back-to-back training cycles like a champ. I optimistically registered for the Twin Cities Marathon in October — which would have been marathon #3 in the span of a year. I thought I was in good shape. I felt pretty good after the June marathon.

Then I went on vacation, right after that marathon. And walked around Disney World for 5 days.

For those of you who are not runners: this is probably the Worst Marathon Recovery Plan in the History of Humankind.

So, yeah, my body finally rebelled, and to make a long story short, I haven’t run since the end of July. Plantar fasciitis. My original plan to stop running for 2 weeks and “let my foot heal” morphed into “I need to drop out of the marathon” when my foot did not improve. Cue a doctor’s visit, a (thankfully) negative X-ray (no stress fracture!), and a round of PT that just got extended.

The good news is that I’m healing. The bad news is that I am the slowest healer in history. OK, not really. The bad news is that this seems to be a really, really stubborn bout of plantar fasciitis, and that it really does not want to leave my body.

Instead of running down sun-dappled trails, I’m swimming laps like a boss and riding my bike a lot more, including taking up a new pursuit: mountain biking. (At least that gets me out on the trails!) Doing PT exercises like it’s my job. Taping my foot for taekwondo and cursing the fact that the kicks I currently have to master for my next belt are jump side kicks, which involve both a heel strike to the bag (or board) and a heel strike to the ground when I land the jump. Ouch.

And exercising patience like I’ve never had to before, because this injury has no set in stone recovery timeline.

Patience has never been my strong suit, so this has been an especially difficult experience for me. And the stages of being injured resemble the 5 stages of grief. Right now I’ve mostly reached the acceptance stage, with occasional forays into the depression stage.

What’s helped is reminding myself that this is temporary. That the layoff from running allows me time to pursue other things that I haven’t had time to do. I love swimming, but that fell largely by the wayside when I started taekwondo because I couldn’t do the amount of running marathon training requires AND taekwondo several times a week AND swimming. I may now be slightly addicted to mountain biking, and can’t wait to spend the fall exploring new trails and honing my skills (and running into fewer trees). I wouldn’t have had time to develop these passions if I were still training for a marathon. And yeah, it’s not running, but…it’s still fun, and it still restores me.

Dealing with the reality I have, and not the reality I wanted or expected or planned for, is sometimes frustrating. But it’s also helping me accept myself better, and be more forgiving of myself. It’s reminding me that I can’t control everything, and that I’m much happier and better adjusted when I work with my circumstances and not against them. And that, perhaps, is the best lesson I can take away from this experience.

Now, about those PT exercises …..

Random thoughts, Friday before first day of classes edition

The week before classes is traditionally very busy. Lots of meetings, faculty retreat, Academic Fair, advising especially if you have first year advisees — not to mention, the rush to get everything ready for the first day of classes. And the busy-ness and franticness, I’m finding, is amped up to 11 (on a scale of 1-10) when you’re coming off sabbatical.

I’m finding a few things more challenging than usual:

  • Interacting with people. Oh, so many people! Comparatively at least, since I’m used to working by myself at home with only my cats for company. I’ve found I need a lot more alone time to recover after these encounters, more time than usual. Tuesday and yesterday afternoon were especially brutal — Tuesday because of faculty retreat (a half day filled with people! ack!), and yesterday due to a combination of meetings + Academic Fair (where first years can go and learn about the academic departments and services) without a break. Last night I could barely function or think. Good times.
  • Emails. Emails emails emails. I’m realizing I was spoiled on sabbatical: not only was I getting way fewer emails, but also I could ignore about 90% of the ones I did get. Not so anymore. I’ve fallen way behind on email processing this week, so in addition to the 1000 other tasks I have to do today to get ready for next week, I have to pencil in time to tackle at least the more pressing ones. And let’s not mention the Slack channels I’m on, where conversations have ramped up quite a bit in the last week.
  • Getting all the logistics in place for the term. This includes things like coordinating meetings with community and campus partners for our capstone projects, which affects the times and days of the week I meet with my capstone groups. And reserving lab space for in-class labs. And finding a meeting time and place for the science fellows seminar. Which, you guessed it, means lots of emails. Oh yeah, and figuring out office hours and blocking off time for research and class prep and and and …. ok, deep breaths.

I know that This Too Shall Pass and Everything Will Somehow Get Done By Monday. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. ….

* * *

I’m really enjoying my new office and my new building. My hallway consists of me, the director of our learning and teaching center, and the new writing program director. Lots of potential for great conversations and maybe projects with both. The Cinema and Media Studies/Music admin offices are across the hall, as well as CAMS and Music faculty offices and the Learning and Teaching Center. Being in such an interdisciplinary spot is going to be really interesting!

Our department has a Slack channel now, since we’re spread out (2 of us are in my building, and the rest are spread between 3 floors of another building), as a way of communicating small things and having small discussions/getting questions answered. I’m also getting used to the fact that my colleagues now call me on the phone to have once were quick hallway conversations. I’m used to ignoring my phone — I guess I can’t do that any longer.

I do hope the construction noise outside my window ends when classes start.

My building is 2 blocks from downtown, which means 2 blocks from coffee shops and the bagel place and restaurants and such. Plus there is a coffee shop in my building. I foresee a lot of coffee and bagels in my future this year. Perhaps I won’t be losing the Sabbatical 5 Pounds I gained last year. But, on the other hand, this means more interesting places to walk when I am feeling stir-crazy and need to clear my head.

* * *

And on that note, it’s back to class prep and email taming and all of the other Friday before classes start tasks. To all the Carls new and returning: see you on Monday, and have a fabulous fall term!

Theme(s) for the 2017-18 academic year

As an academic, I recognize two “new years” every year: the traditional one, the start of a new calendar year on January 1; and the academic one, in September when the new school year starts. Both new years present an opportunity for reflection, for renewal, and for a fresh start.

I don’t usually make resolutions. I’m the type of person that doesn’t wait when I want to start a new habit or change my ways, and I’m usually disciplined enough to see it through. But I do set themes.

A theme is an overarching principle that describes how I’d like to live my life and make my choices over the next year. I alternate between picking themes for the traditional new year and for the academic year. Past themes include Defining (2010), Good enough (2013), Self preservation (2015), and Healthy (2017).

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting this summer more generally on what I want my post-sabbatical life to look like. How do I contain the chaos so that I am more present at work and at home? How do I not let myself get overwhelmed with the sheer volume of work? How do I make better choices about how to spend my time? As I reflected, two themes emerged, and I realized that they are in fact linked.

So this year, I have a dual theme for the academic year: Meaning and Challenge.

THEME #1: MEANING

Meaning, to me, encompasses 2 parts:

  1. Doing important and relevant work to improve the world/my campus/my communities. I have a limited amount of time and energy, and I want to spend both in ways that “count”. I want to make sure that the projects I choose, and the actions I take every day, fit my core priorities: broadening participation in computing and STEM; integrating civic engagement and “computing for good” into computer science classes; empowering girls to become leaders; working for justice and equity more broadly.
  2. Working with purpose and intention. Sabbatical, and its relative lack of distractions, allowed me to be present and mindful in my work, and this is one of the things I enjoyed most about my sabbatical. I want to make sure to carry this mindfulness over to my post-sabbatical work days. This will be more challenging given the increase in the demands on my time and the number of distractions I’ll face (no more hiding out at home ignoring the world for hours!). Working with purpose and intention also means setting, and honoring, my priorities, particularly when it comes to deciding when I should say “yes” to an opportunity, or how I decide what tasks to work on during the day.

THEME #2: CHALLENGE

Working with meaning and purpose means getting out of my comfort zone, and doing hard and uncomfortable (and possibly unpopular) things. It means being brave enough to stand up for what I believe in. As a newly minted full professor, I believe I have a responsibility to do so — to be brave enough to use my power and my voice to improve my communities. I don’t like being uncomfortable, so this will definitely be a challenge for me.

But I also want to pursue the fun parts of “challenge” this year by taking new risks and testing my limits in new ways. I’ve thought about doing a triathlon for a while, and I think I’m going to plan for one for next summer. Taekwondo continues to be a fun challenge for me (particularly now that we are sparring in class!), and I might try competing in a tournament this year.


 

I’m very excited to see how these themes play out this year, in my work life and my home life.

What are your themes for the year, readers? I would love to hear them in the comments.

A rough return to teaching

I’ve spent the past few summers (minus last summer when I was on sabbatical) teaching in a summer high school program. The program consists of 3 weeks of morning classes and afternoon guided research with a faculty member. I really, truly enjoy it. Teaching high school students is an interesting challenge. And by and large the students have been thoughtful, engaged, creative, and eager to learn. (It’s also very gratifying to see some of them as Carleton students post-high school!)

So when my colleague approached me last fall about teaching again this summer, I agreed. The program, I reasoned, would give me the opportunity to ease back into teaching before returning to the classroom in the fall. Plus I already had curriculum and research projects ready to go. What could possibly go wrong?

Suffice it to say that my envisioned triumphant return to teaching was anything but.

The actual mechanics of teaching? That went easier than I anticipated. The rust fell away quickly, much to my surprise. Being in front of students felt natural to me, and I found my teaching groove in short order. Pacing was still tricky at times, but pacing is always a bit of an inexact science.

What I didn’t anticipate, and what was roughest about re-entry: the small but active minority of students in my research group who decided early on that what I was teaching, human-computer interaction (HCI), was not Real Hard Core Actual Computer Science Because We’re Not Programming 24-7. And the undercurrent of disrespect for my authority, and for my RA’s authority (also a female computer scientist).

Now, I should pause and make it crystal clear at this point that THIS IS NOT NORMAL FOR THIS PROGRAM. The vast, vast majority of students are respectful and open to learning, and to expanding their ideas of what computer science is. I can count on one finger the number of research students I’ve mentored in this program who have been actively disrespectful of me and the subject matter. Sure, I’ve had some students in the past who were openly or less openly skeptical about the merits of HCI as a computer science field, but by and large those students at least came to appreciate what I was trying to teach them in the end, even if in the end they decided it wasn’t quite their cup of tea. And I’ve had some really interesting conversations with the objectors that have not only strengthened my framing of my material, but have also led me to reflect on what material I choose to include and how I include it. Both of which make me a better, more effective teacher in the end.

I spent a lot of time and energy during the program reflecting on where this particular strain of disrespect originated. Part of it likely relates to the HCI = Not Real Computer Science attitude, which is certainly not limited to the students in my class (and is still somewhat pervasive in the field, unfortunately). Part of it also likely relates to the general bro-ness and toxic masculinity that has always surrounded computer science, something that’s come into sharp focus lately with any number of recent news stories. Why did it emerge in force this year, and not in previous years? That, I’m still trying to figure out.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve had to deal with this level of disrespect in the classroom. I’ve been at Carleton long enough that I’m part of the fabric of the department — I am “accepted”. Gaining seniority (in age and in status) over the years increased my credibility with the students, giving me more authority in their eyes. The close-to-gender parity we have in our faculty also helps quell at least some of the disrespect. So I was caught off-guard.

Once I recognized what was going on, I went into damage control mode. I summoned up my Authoritative Teacher persona from the depths — she hasn’t been around much since my pre-tenure days. I blinded them with science — or, at least, hit them hard with the scientific basis for every psychological or design principle we discussed. I randomly threw out my credentials, just to remind them that Yes I Do Know What I Am Talking About As I Have A PhD In Engineering And Years Of Experience. I occasionally let out my Inner Bitch and used my Evil Mom Stare with abandon.

But I also second-guessed almost everything that I did, and said. I put up my guard in ways I haven’t had to do in a very long time. Teaching, and every single interaction in this program, took up at least twice as much of my mental and emotional energy. Teaching in this program is normally draining, but this year, at the end of the day, I truly had nothing left in my tank. And that was not fair to my family or to myself.

Lots of people have asked me if I’ll teach in the program again next year. I honestly don’t know. On the one hand, I still believe strongly in this program. I have met and worked with so many incredible teens and young adults in this program. By and large, my students are thoughtful, creative, eager to challenge themselves, whip-smart, and funny. Most of my students did outstanding work on their research projects, and embraced the experience and challenge from start to finish. And I enjoy serving as a role model to high school students, both as a female computer scientist and as an HCI researcher. But on the other hand, this summer exacted a huge toll from me. I was exhausted, and bitter, every single day. Why does it feel like it’s just my responsibility to hang in there, fight the good fight, and change their minds? How productive, and happy, would I be if I didn’t have to deal with this crap?

Hopefully, I won’t experience anything like this in the fall when I return to the classroom full time. Or, if I do, at least I’ll be prepared to recognize it and deal with it. That, I suppose, is the sad silver lining in this experience.