My no-plan summer

My backyard home officeI am sitting in my backyard on my porch, sipping a cold beverage. I glance at my to-do list, which has a few small items. I tackle two of them, and decide to table the rest for tomorrow.

This scene is not atypical for a summer work-at-home day for me, but there are a few things missing this time around:

  • Undergraduate research assistants working away in my lab.
  • A lengthy to-do list for the day
  • A “master plan” for the summer
  • General panic and stress

Summer is supposed to be a time of rejuvenation for academics. There’s work to be done, sure, but unlike during the school year this work doesn’t (a) take up 60+ hours of your week and (b) have strict unmovable (and frequent) deadlines. (This of course assumes that you don’t have any summer school teaching responsibilities—in that case, summer is definitely less rejuvenating and more like the academic year, for sure! We don’t have summer classes outside of the various high school programs at Carleton.)

On one level I recognize this, yet most summers I still whip myself into a frenzy of work and panic and stress about work. I typically start my summer with a lengthy and ambitious plan. I end up working 40 hours a week to try and get it all done. I stress out when I’m not working, because there’s so! much! to! do! before fall. I feel guilty about working at home, because I’m not physically there for my research students. I take some time off late in the summer, but by then I’m stressing about getting ready for the fall. I forget about the “rejuvenation” part of summer, and start fall burned out and frazzled.

This summer, I decided enough was enough.

Last fall, when decisions had to be made about this summer, I kept one obligation (teaching in our summer high school program for 3 weeks) and jettisoned the rest (mainly, supervising research students). I said no to a lot of servicey-things that I knew would take up my summer. I scheduled and staggered my kids’ camps to force myself to take some time off early in the summer (driving kids around cuts into work time, and since my kids are in 2 different age groups, their camp start/end times are different, so more driving [or biking!] for me). I decided not to train for a marathon or really for any race this summer, although my almost-but-not-quite-gone plantar fasciitis sort of made that decision for me.

Most importantly, though, I decided to let go of my beloved summer “master plan”, the list of goals I so lovingly (ha!) craft at the beginning of each summer, the major source of my summer stress.

Oh sure, I have some general ideas for what I need to do this summer: finish coding up a simulation (started last winter, largely abandoned during hiring season and when my father became ill and passed away), revise the projects in my Computer Networks class, pick textbooks for my 2 fall classes, prep for the summer program, and various chair duties. But I refuse to put these on any kind of “master plan”. Because then I’ll feel guilty about not working towards them when I’m out kayaking or hiking or spending 3 days at Girl Scout day camp with my troop. Because I don’t want to feel accountable this summer. Because I know they’ll get done anyway.

Because I’m sick of the cycle of guilt and stress that each summer brings, and I want to try something different to break that cycle.

So on my work mornings (or afternoons), I’ll come up with a to-do list, but just for that day. I’ll work for a few hours, or heck, all day if the mood strikes. But I’ll listen to my brain, and stop when we’ve had enough. And I’ll actually take days off—yes, even days when I’m not driving kids around anyway.

This summer I want to focus on the important things. Exploring the area waterways on the kayak I got for Christmas. Hiking my favorite (and finding new favorite) trails. Eating lots of ice cream and fresh fruit. Pulling my kids out of daycare early to hit the pool. Reacquainting myself with my bike.  Finding new paths to run. Camping. Sitting on the back porch, playing with my kids or chatting with neighbors or working on my latest cross-stitch project. Reading actual books (not work-related). Not panicking.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a very important lunch date….with my kayak on a nearby lake.883176_10152589971972188_6000740674393881188_o

Professing while grieving

My dad was a runner. Every day he woke up at some ungodly early hour, did some work (before he retired), then headed out for a short run, typically a couple of miles. Every day, rain or shine, snow or sleet, steaming hot or bitterly cold, he ran. When his Parkinsons made it too difficult for him to run, he continued to walk every day, at least a mile, usually two. My dad is part of the reason I became a runner.

I was about a minute into a morning run from my parent’s house a few weeks ago when the cellphone on my arm buzzed. It was my mom. The hospital called. Dad was gone.

I sprinted all the way back to my parent’s house.

The phone call was the latest in a whirlwind saga that started last summer. My dad’s Parkinsons symptoms inexplicably took a sharp turn for the worse. My mom sensed something was not right. Lots of doctors, lots of tests, several MRIs. The discovery of what looked like a brain tumor in January. The surgery to remove the tumor, the size of a fist, during my spring break. The subsequent diagnosis of a very aggressive brain cancer, malignant, stage 4, months to live. Canceling all of my spring travel plans and offloading as much of my responsibilities as I could, so that I would be able to fly home on a moment’s notice if need be. The inexplicable seizures. The frantic phone call from my mom just two days before that run, with the news that “months to live” was now “days to live”. The hastily arranged leave of absence and one-way plane ticket purchase so I could be with my dad during his final days. Seeing my dad one last time, saying “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Not realizing there would not be a tomorrow.

No blog post could ever come even remotely close to conveying what a special and amazing man my dad was. He was the kindest, most generous, hardest working person that I’ve ever known. He was quiet, but knew how to have fun, knew how to make people laugh, knew not to take himself so seriously. He believed in me completely and was my biggest cheerleader. He was convinced that I could do anything I put my mind to. (I don’t think he ever fully forgave me for not applying to Harvard and MIT for college and grad school, respectively.) He was the type of person that never pressured me, but still motivated me to give 110% effort because I wanted to make him proud. He taught me the importance of hard work and perseverance. He taught me how to pick my battles, something that’s served me well countless times in my career. He taught me the importance of giving back to my communities, of volunteering, of leaving the world a better, happier place through my words and actions. When faced with a difficult situation at work or in life, I often find myself asking “what would Dad do?” And usually, what Dad would do works out for the best.

I spent a week at home holed up with my mom and my siblings, unplugging ourselves mostly from the rest of the world. We took my mom out places, something she hadn’t been able to do in a very long time while caring for my dad. We shared memories of my dad. We ate lots of carbs, thanks to generous friends and neighbors who dropped off food. We tried to process, among ourselves, the new reality we were all facing.

Re-entry has been hard. I’ve been back for almost 2 weeks, trying to ease back in to my “real life”. I’ve been taking back my responsibilities slowly. Grief is non-linear and unpredictable, though. Some days I function mostly fine, and can mostly pretend that everything is “normal”. Other days, the grief is so all-encompassing that achieving one small thing on my to-do list seems like a monumental hurdle. I’m exhausted most of the time, trying to juggle my job and motherhood and this big burden of sadness. I try to cut myself a lot of slack. It helps that my colleagues and students have been amazingly helpful and understanding, giving me space to figure out what I’m capable of handling. But it’s still hard.

Friends who have been through this say that things will get easier. The grief won’t be quite so overwhelming. I’ll figure out the new normal. Getting back into a routine has certainly helped some. But I know I still have a long way to go, and that there’s no set timeline for healing. Unfortunately the frenetic pace and crazy-heavy workload of the academic life makes it hard to carve space out for reflection and healing. And as far as I can tell, there’s no entry in the faculty handbook that discusses how to find that sweet spot between not sucking at your job and leaving yourself enough time to mourn.

So for now, I’ll just do what I have been doing: stumble along, take more time than I normally would at this time of the term for myself, and try to get to the end of the term with most of my sanity intact. And when I don’t know what to do, I’ll ask myself what I always do:

“What would Dad do?”

By the numbers

As chair, I spend quite a bit of time with numbers of various sorts. There are budget numbers and enrollment numbers. There’s the number of sections of courses per term and per year. Relatedly, there are FTE numbers, or how many warm bodies do we have to teach courses and how many courses are they teaching at any given time….you get the idea.

At this time of year, when sophomores declare their majors, I hyper-focus on numbers related to the sophomores. This includes the number of students who’ve declared as computer science majors, the difference between the size of this year’s class and the previous few years’ classes, the percentage of women and underrepresented minorities, and the “yield” from certain courses, among others. Looking at these numbers gives me the opportunity to assess the state of the department on a mini-scale: a quick way to determine if we’re where we want to be and heading in the right direction.

In many respects, our numbers are excellent. My quick and possibly inaccurate sampling of the usual suspects indicates that we are now the largest department on campus in terms of majors in the sophomore, junior, and senior classes (tied with Biology), and that we have the largest number of majors in the sophomore class (followed by Biology and Economics, who if memory serves are tied). At the time of this writing, we have 50 majors, which is right in line with the past 2 classes (55 in the current junior class and 54 in the current senior class). I suspect we will stabilize in the mid-50s once the double majors declare—there are some omissions from our current list that I’ve already talked with about double-majoring, so I am just waiting for them to come to me with forms in hand at some point over the next few weeks.

There is one number of which I am insanely proud: I taught a first-year seminar in the fall of 2013 on Human-Centered Computing, and 7 of the 16 students in that course (who are now sophomores) declared as computer science majors. I was hoping for a good yield from that course, but frankly I was stunned at just how high the yield was! What an argument for the importance of teaching courses outside the major sequence. (Note to self: remember this when putting together the 2016-17 schedule!)

There are some numbers that concern me. Our major population is diversifying, but we could definitely be doing much better in this regard. Also troubling: after 2 years of 30-35% women majors, our sophomore class is just 20% women. Again, these numbers might creep up a bit once the double majors declare, but the percentage is not going to change significantly.

The decrease in the percentage of women has me pondering the possible reasons. Has there been a culture shift in the department? Are we doing something differently in Intro or in our “first-tier” required courses (data structures, math of CS, organization and architecture) that we weren’t doing 3-4 years ago? Are the larger class sizes off-putting more to women than to men? Are there things that we’re neglecting to do, now that we’re swamped with students, that we used to do, to foster community? (For instance, I used to send short, personal emails to Intro and Data Structures students encouraging them to take more CS courses, but I don’t always remember to do that to the same degree as I did in the past. What effects does this have on retention in the major?) In short, what’s changed?

Another factor I pondered on my walk across campus to class today: what effect does having senior faculty teach some of those “key” courses have on recruitment and retention? Now, we have a vibrant cohort of assistant professors and visitors who are doing a fabulous job, and many of them are teaching those key courses. But I think it’s important, for many reasons, to have us old fogies the senior, tenured folks at these entry points, too. And that’s the problem: we are so busy and so over-committed as a senior group that we’re teaching many fewer courses. For instance: There are 4 tenured professors in my department (2 full, 2 associate). The normal teaching load per tenure-track professor is 5 courses a year (2-2-1 or some variation). So among us, we should be teaching 20 courses. Next year? We are teaching 11. One person is on sabbatical all year, one is essentially teaching half-time because he was elected faculty president, and two of us have a course release (me for being chair, another colleague for chairing a large campus committee). And two of us are leading senior capstone groups as one of our “courses”, which means that we’re teaching 2 fewer “classic” courses. And because of scheduling and expertise constraints, with maybe 1-2 exceptions we’re teaching all upper-level courses.

So what are my take-away points, after this navel-gazing romp through the numbers?

  • We have a vibrant department. Our enrollments are healthy and strong, and this is translating into majors. And our majors are awesome—I’m very excited about our newest class!
  • We need to continue to prioritize “outreach” in terms of first-year seminars and similar courses. It’s definitely worth it, even it if means offering one fewer course for our majors per year.
  • We need to take a closer look at our culture. I’d like to informally talk to students to get a sense of what’s happening “on the ground”. In particular, I want to chat with the leaders of our 2 student groups, particularly our Women in Computing group, and our SDAs (student departmental advisors) and get their thoughts on what we’re doing well and what we might do differently.
  • Similarly, we need to individually look at what we’re doing as faculty to encourage our students to explore computer science, and make sure all those best practices we’ve honed over the years are still in play.
  • Frankly, I’m not sure what to do about the overcommitted senior faculty issue. I sense this issue is not going to go away anytime soon—to be honest, I’d be shocked if one of us old fogies is not tapped for an administrative post in the next 3-5 years. But are there ways we can work with the faculty affairs committee, for instance, to ensure that we can both serve the college *and* staff our courses appropriately? (For instance, could this committee check with departments before allowing a nomination for a major campus position to move forward, to make sure they are not inadvertently causing a staffing crisis for that department? In short, could opportunities be timed better for *all* parties involved?)

The CS department is a totally different place now than when I first arrived. We worked hard as faculty to grow what we hope is a welcoming, open, fun culture. I am confident that we can continue this moving forward, but just as it took lots of energy and commitment to get us here, so too will it take energy and commitment to keep us here. I hope we’re up to the task.

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?