Summer planning in the time of COVID-19

notebook page listing summer 2020 goals

In a typical year, as soon as I submit spring term grades, I pull out the planner and the ginormous desk calendar and plan out the summer. It’s one of my favorite rituals, marking the end of another academic year and the start of a block of “me time”. Well, for a work definition of “me time”, anyway.

But “typical” ceased to exist in March. And the transition from spring term to summer research happened in a blur. Summer planning was superceded by webinars on remote teaching design, administrative tasks popping up like the overeager clover in our backyard, onboarding two brand-new research students, and oh so many meetings.

So that’s how I found myself on June 30, whiteboard marker in hand, finally ready to sketch out a plan for the summer.

June 30 marks the end of the first half/second quarter of the year. A day of either nerdy joy or nervous reckoning for the planners among us (like me!). Time to review yearly/quarterly goals! Make new quarterly goals! Get those colored pens and checklists ready!

Except…what do you review when you abandoned quarterly goal-setting in March, in favor of just surviving the anxiety and uncertainty? How do you set goals beyond the next week, or the next month, when everything is up in the air?

In March, I switched to monthly goal setting, which while not perfect seems to be the right mix of long-ish term thinking and short-term focus in these times.

Notebook page with July goals listed
Research goals for this month. I’m collaborating with students on the first 2, so it’s not quite as daunting as it looks.

But summer’s a slightly different beast — less scheduled time, more open time. And even during a global pandemic, I’m reasonably confident that my core work activities won’t change. Granted, on some aspects, like teaching, I’m making predictions as to whether I believe I’ll be teaching in person or online. But even there, designing courses as if we’ll be online buys me, and my students, the most flexibility and accessibility, so no real harm if I guess wrong.

So I made — not quite a quarterly plan, but July-through-mid-September plan. Which seems like just the right amount of looking-ahead time.

notebook listing teaching and research goals
2 of my 4 goal categories. “Leadership” and “Personal” are on the next pages.

A few notes:

  • I’ve wanted to completely overhaul my Networks elective for years, and it’s never risen to the level of urgency. What better time than a global pandemic to just throw everything out and start from scratch, amiright? Short term pain and lots of it, but definitely for long term gain.
  • I’m advising two sections of our capstone (“Comps”) next year, in Fall and Winter terms. One should be easy to morph to partially/mostly/all online. The other is with a community partner (on local digital divide issues! so excited about this project!), and that’s going to take a lot of creative planning to pull off. I see a lot of August meetings around this….
  • There’s a ton of stuff under “Leadership” (not pictured, because some of it is not bloggable), that will take up a bunch of my time and energy this summer. I’m hoping to compartmentalize that as much as possible. I’ve also made time and space for things like getting my administrative CV together, updating my LinkedIn, etc., so that when a leadership opportunity presents itself, I’ll have my materials ready to go.

As I finished up my planning, I realized that I did in fact have a version of yearly goals to review — my #20for2020 list!

#20for2020 goals update. Some things clearly were not going to happen, but surprisingly much of the list survived the triage.

Given how much is on my plate lately, I was pleasantly surprised that the entire list was not a train wreck. And at how much was still relevant and do-able, in some form. Also, clearly I need to get cracking on those handwritten notes….and the signature mocktail…and our will!

Are you a planner? How have you been planning in these uncertain times? What strategies work for you?

Kicking off a virtual research summer

Before everything in the world changed, I hired two amazing student researchers for the summer. Both rising juniors, both amazingly talented, both with skill sets and interests perfectly fit to my summer project. Both completely new to research.

I fantasized about poring over new datasets together, teasing insights out of troubleshooting comments. Sketching out schema and models on a shared whiteboard in the lab. Daily check-in meetings and random coffee/cookie breaks. Puzzling over what research questions we could feasibly start to answer in 7 weeks. Watching my student collaborators learn and grow and become independent problem solvers. In short, all of the reasons I so very much enjoy mentoring students in research.

Instead, we have Virtual Summer Research, with the three of us in different cities spread across 2 time zones. Much like the spring, all of us confined to small Zoom boxes, Slack messages, and git commits.

We’re now in Week 2 of the Great Virtual Summer Research Experiment, and things are….going. Actually, that’s not at all fair. They are going quite well, all things considered. My students are learning just how much they don’t know about programming in Python. As am I. 🙂 They’re playing with BigData queries and figuring out more complex SQL than they used in Software Design with me this year. We’re all learning how to write web scrapers and use NLTK. I think we’re pretty close to settling on a specific set of research questions.

So, how do you mentor brand new research students, students who’ve never done research before and were hoping to learn what computer science research is, when you’re all online?

Well, honestly, I’m still trying to figure that out. But here’s what I’ve done so far.

  1. Drastically modify my expectations. I’m usually pretty laid back about setting super specific deliverables, because there are so many unknowns when pursuing a research question and I find that following my students’ lead usually yields excellent results. We’re all exhausted after spring term and unsure about fall and beyond. Because of that, my goal for my students this summer is: let’s play with some datasets and new-to-us tools and learn something we didn’t know at the start of the summer. Any progress is forward progress.
  2. Daily short morning check-in meetings via Zoom. Daily morning meetings are the norm in my research lab in any year, in-person or virtual. Everyone reports out on what they’ve been working on, where they’re stuck, and what they want to work on that day. With our CDT/PDT split, meetings happen a bit later (11 am) than in an in-person summer (usually 9 or 10 am). On the plus side, this gives me plenty of time to get some of my own work done, run/workout, and wrangle/feed my night owl kiddos before the daily check-in.
  3. Building community. I make sure to start our daily check-ins by checking in with everyone — how are you feeling, what fun things are you up to, etc. Yesterday I found a site of 200 getting-to-know-you questions, and you can bet that I will abuse the heck out of those questions this summer.
  4. Asynchronous updates over Slack. We use Slack throughout the day as a low-key way to keep each other updated. We all post questions or issues we’ve run into. So far it’s just me answering the questions, but I suspect as the students become more comfortable with each other and with the research, they will chime in.
  5. Modeling question asking and help seeking. Based on lessons learned teaching online in the spring, I’ve tried to be more explicit than normal in modeling question asking and help seeking. I share my own mistakes throughout the day. I walk students through how I found bugs in my code/queries and through how I’m debugging the code/queries. When I learn something new, I post that, too. I want students to know that it’s ok to mess up and ok to ask for help — and that in fact messing up is par for the course when doing research.
  6. More specific how-tos. I didn’t realize just how much time I spend physically showing students how to do something (install a script, use a module, debug code) until now. When students struggle, I can’t just sit down with them in pair programming mode, with them driving and me directing (or vice versa), as I normally do. So I’m writing a lot more sample scripts than usual, and creating very specific step-by-step documentation. (I probably could create some videos, too, but I haven’t done that yet.) As a bonus, I’ll definitely use this documentation in the future to orient new students to the research.

In a normal summer, we build community among our students within Computer Science and within the broader STEM at Carleton community. Students work side-by-side in the same lab as the other CS research students. STEM professors talk about their research at weekly Tea Talks. This virtual summer features a weekly virtual professional development seminar for STEM students, run by our STEM Program Manager, with topics such as how to read a scientific paper, how to use library resources effectively, STEM careers/grad school, and how to build a relationship with your research mentor. In CS, we’re working on ways to re-create Cookie Hour, and we have a (so far lightly utilized) Slack workspace for everyone doing summer research as a way to try and re-create “computer lab culture”. Only about half of our summer students in CS have started, so we’ll see if traffic picks up when more people are researching.

Here are a couple of other things I’d like to try:

  • Co-working time. My dismal office hours failure this spring has me thinking about ways to encourage office hours attendance. One idea: rebrand some number of office hours as “drop-in co-work time”. Open up Zoom or Google Hangouts, and work “side-by-side” as we’d do in my office or in the computer lab. This mode of working would be especially ideal as we dive into new datasets — staring at the same data and thinking aloud as we’d do in an in-person summer.
  • Presenting results virtually. We do a lot of informal show-and-tell at daily check-ins during in-person summers. We haven’t done this yet, virtually. I want to get into the habit of frequent, low-stakes presentations, as a way to share work in progress. Bonus: this will help hone our Zoom skills, preparing us all for another term or year of at least partial online learning (which seems likely at this point).

If you’re working virtually with research students this summer, I’d love to hear how it’s gone for you. How are you building community? What’s worked and what’s failed? What tools have you found most and least useful? Comment here, and/or tweet and @ me (@drcsiz). Let’s continue the conversation.

Virtual spring term wrap up

With all non-senior grades due yesterday morning (senior grades were due last week), spring term is finally and officially in the books!

Given that my research students started this week, and looking ahead to my schedule for the week (so! many! meetings!), I completed and submitted all of my grades at the senior grade deadline. I’ve now had a week to regroup and reflect on the term, and figure out what lessons I’ll take away from it.

In this post I’ll talk a bit about what went (surprisingly) well, what fell flat, and what I’d do differently next time, whether we’re in person, online, or some combination of the two.

What went well

Specificity. I tend to be very specific in my assignment prompts and in my assignment rubrics. Over time I’ve recognized that this is good and inclusive pedagogical practice, but honestly it was born out of necessity — as junior faculty in a male-dominated department, it was a defensive mechanism against students who questioned my pedagogy and right to be in the classroom, and/or felt I wasn’t qualified to “appropriately” assess their work. Specificity, it turns out, really helps students focus on what’s expected of them, particularly when they’re already feeling overwhelmed in an unfamiliar learning environment.

Organization. When most of your course delivery is asynchronous, Moodle gets unwieldy quickly. Even in non-virtual terms, Moodle gets unwieldy quickly. I’ve developed a template of sorts over the years for organizing my course weeks on Moodle with judicious use of labels and the assignment module, and I modified that to fit the flow of our virtual class. I also discovered that Google Calendar, when you embed it in Moodle, provides a much easier interface for students to figure out what’s due when than the built-in Moodle calendar, so I relied on that quite heavily. Finally, I’d never used Activity Completion before, but I leaned heavily on that to both control access to material (“complete this to unlock that”) and to give the students a way to keep track of what they’d completed and what they had left to do.

Consistent, stable teams. I decided early on to make the term-long project teams “collaboration teams” for the entire term. While a few teams struggled to connect with each other, the majority of teams connected effectively and formed mini-communities within the course, and these teams worked pretty much how I intended them to work. I suspect this “saved” a few students who might otherwise have gotten lost from completely falling off the wagon. (Unfortunately, it did not save all of these students.) For the most part, teams provided much-needed community within the larger course, and helped replicate some of the “table culture” that emerges in the face-to-face version of this course.

Team meetings. Boy, I wish I had done this earlier in the term! I met with each team over Zoom in the second-to-last week of the term, after peer and self evals came in and around the time the penultimate deliverable was due. I spend about half a class period doing this during in-person terms, and use it as a way to help teams figure out what to focus on for the final version of their project (are there features to jettison? are they focusing on user goals? what will get them closest to the vision they had at the start of the term?). This also provides a way for me to talk with students about team dynamics that emerged in the peer and self evaluations. I think the students were relieved to get some one-on-one focused time with me, something more personal than the weekly Zoom class meetings. And I made sure to do a quick non-course check-in with the students during this time, to focus on their well-being. This was a huge success.

Class discussions. It took me a while to figure out how to conduct these in a more authentic and engaged way. I used stable breakout rooms so that students were always paired up with the same students (their project teams), with some minor shuffling if only one student on a team showed up to class. I quickly realized that me jumping from room to room to check in did not work at all — it was clunky and immediately halted conversation. I started using Google Docs, placing all of the discussion prompts and spaces for notes there. (Sometimes I used a single document for the whole class; other times, each team had their own Google Doc.) Instead of room-hopping, I monitored the Google Doc(s), jumping in with comments in the Doc to redirect discussion or elevate a point, and popping into breakout rooms when it appeared a group was heading off-track or clearly lost. As an added bonus, the Google Docs provide a record of the discussion, so that students who could not participate in real time could still reference the notes and take-away points — and even students who participated could go back and review the take-away points. I definitely plan to use this strategy much more in the future, even in face-to-face courses! (And this might be the only effective way to conduct discussion in a socially-distanced, mask-wearing classroom.)

What fell flat

Building community. I had modest hopes at the start of the term that Slack could provide an acceptable way to build community asynchronously. I seriously underestimated the amount of work that building community online takes. Despite my best efforts (which were pretty lousy, I’ll admit!), interactions on Slack were pretty much one way between the students and me. My attempt to wrangle together a virtual project demonstration/feedback session (as several smaller combination showcase/office hours during Reading Days and Finals) failed to yield a single participant. I delve a little more deeply into the issues (and how I attempted to use badges to salvage the community) in this post on Carleton’s Learning and Teaching Center blog.

Office hours. Try as I might, I could not get students to utilize office hours on any sort of regular basis. I had both drop-in hours (no advance appointment necessary) and office hours by appointment, and both went over like lead balloons. I am not sure why students did not utilize these — fear? lack of a pre-existing relationship? (although even students I knew before this course failed to take advantage of office hours.) branding? I wonder if requiring students to make an office hours appointment with me in the first couple of weeks in the term would help fix this. At least it would remove the barrier to setting up the meeting and then showing up to the meeting.

Timing of deliverables. There was a mismatch in my head, over how I thought each week would flow, and how this matched up with when I had readings and reading activities due. Often this meant that our Wednesday synchronous class meetings hit on things that technically weren’t due until Friday. Luckily, this is easily fixable moving forward, particularly since now I have a slightly better sense of how to manage flexibility with keeping everyone roughly on the same track.

Flexibility in deadlines. Let me preface this by saying that flexibility was absolutely the right call, given all of the things students faced this spring and continue to face. For many, this flexibility allowed them to successfully complete and pass my course. Every major deliverable in the course had a de-facto 48 hour no-fault extension built in. Once students realized this, however, many of them treated that 48 hour buffer as the actual deadline. This made it more difficult for my grader and me to keep up with assessments, and to manage deliverables that built upon other deliverables. When most work revolves around team deliverables, there’s also the tricky balancing act of handling a student who needs some flexibility with the needs of the other students on the team — how does everyone navigate this minefield while meeting everyone’s individual learning goals and needs? I don’t have any great answers, but I did learn a lot this term and will use those lessons to craft better ways of handling this in the future.

Concrete takeaways and homework for the summer

I realized as I compiled my thoughts for this section that all of the takeaways revolve around one theme: providing students more autonomy and independence over their learning. Moving online forced us more into that mode, but continuing this mode offline is a good idea pedagogically anyway. So, what can I do to help students become more independent learners?

First, I want to explore the ideas of specifications and/or contract grading. I sort of did specifications grading-light this past term, with my rubrics following a “does not meet expectations”/”meets expectations”/”exceeds expectations” format, but I want to expand this idea out further. I also want to look into working with students on what they want to get out of a course and how to structure the pieces of the course to help them craft that for themselves.

Second, I want to continue integrating activity completion into my courses, to help students keep better track of expectations and due dates, and to control the release of information better (“do this before you can unlock that”). Ideally, this will also help students connect the dots of how all of the pieces relate and inter-relate.

Third, I suspect we’ll be in pandemic mode for quite some time, and that things may never quite get back to “normal”. Students may continue to engage in courses in multiple ways: in person, completely virtually, some fluid combination of these. How accessible are my courses, really? I learned a lot this term about the barriers to learning in my own materials — unclear labs, dense readings, opaque tool documentation, etc. I want students to grapple with the course concepts, not the how-tos.

Finally, I want to empower students to seek help and form connections with me and others in the course. How can I be more explicit in how I connect students to each other, and ensure that all students feel like they belong and are valued? How can I foster more back-and-forth interactions in both face-to-face and asynchronous conversations?


While this was not at all the term I was supposed to have, the struggles, the constant adjusting and readjusting on the fly, the dealing with students’ (and my own) trauma, have all made me a more reflective, more compassionate, and more effective educator. I am eager to apply these lessons moving forward, in making my courses more inclusive and accessible to all.

Week 9: Teaching during trauma

I had a different post planned. But that post will have to wait.

I had different plans this week. I don’t even remember what they were, now.

I planned on relief and closure.

Instead, I mourn. I rage. I despair.

I worry. For my Black students, grieving and raging and (once again) doing the emotional heavy lifting and educating and wondering if, not when, they will ever see justice and equity in our institutions in their lifetimes. For my friends, students, and colleagues living in the Twin Cities, with front row seats to the protests, the destruction of neighborhoods, the police violence, the National Guard marching down their streets. For my friends, family, and students living in other cities, with their own front row seats to their cities’ protests and police violence. For what’s going to happen as our president threatens more violence and military action, rather than calling for reflection and mourning and reform.

I flail at what I should be doing. How do I put into words what can’t be put into words? How do I let my students know that honestly, at this point coursework does not matter? It just does not matter. But in a way that doesn’t put the burden on them to advocate for themselves to me, at a time when their emotional and physical energy is already overdrawn? What about a statement of solidarity? How can you draft a coherent statement of solidarity when all you want to say is “We’re furious. We despair. It’s all a mess. We don’t know how to fix it. But we owe it to you to try, and to not make you do any more heavy lifting. It’s our turn now. You need to rest.”

I do my best. I put something into words for my students, giving them an out if they need an out from the end of the term obligations. I check in on people (but not as often as I should). I put something into words for our department, to get us started on a statement of solidarity. Others will finish it, because I’m out of words. I do the same for the STEM Board. It’s clunky. I hope others will help me make it less so. I make sure to be present, more so than I have been. I give myself permission to just keep up, just for a few days until I regain some footing.

I read. I recommend books I’ve already read to others. We all should have done this years ago. But now is better than never.

I take a good, hard look at what I’m doing. What am I doing? What concrete actions am I taking, can I take, will I take? How will I ensure this drive and commitment doesn’t fade away with the news cycle? How can I lead others in taking concrete actions, too?

I meet my class synchronously for the last time later today. I’m still not sure how I’m going to spend that time with them. I’d planned on having them reflect on the course learning goals in the context of their coursework this term. I may still do that, but instead with an eye towards how we can apply the learning goals they achieved to practicing software development in an ethical and just way. I may just listen, and let them lead.

I listen. I observe the conversations of the students and activists. I learn. I read. I catch up to where I should have been years ago. I take action, baby steps, not enough steps.

It’s a start.

Week 8: The hard stuff

We’re heading swiftly toward the end of the term: next Wednesday is the last day of classes, and June 8 is the last day of finals. While at many times this term seemed like a colossal slog, now that we’re finishing up it seems to be moving at warp speed.

At this point in a normal term, I tend to ease up a bit. I know my students are stressed and tired (heck, I’m stressed and tired), so I refrain from assigning new, heavy things. The key focus now in Software Design is on finishing their term-long website projects, which keeps them plenty busy anyway. Integration is hard, so I want to give them the space and time to grapple with those tricky integration issues and annoying well-this-worked-before-why-is-it-crashing-now? bugs.

I’ve eased up this term, too, and perhaps it’s even more important now, as we’re all worn down by the fatigue of uncertainty, the struggles of learning in community online, and too much Zoom.

There are two course activities I typically do in the last couple of weeks in the term: a code review, and project presentations. Both, it turns out, are challenging to rework in a fully virtual environment. I still haven’t figured out how to pull off the project presentation piece, to be honest, although I really need to figure out something ASAP! But I did find a way to pull off the code review, and I’m eager to see how it goes.

Code review should be easy to pull off if you do it the way it’s normally done — as a way to review/test/try to break code for which you’ve submitted a pull request. This assumes access to a common repository and that you’re all working on the same codebase, which is not true here. My version of code review in Software Design resembles peer writing workshops. I divide students into “feedback groups” (usually two development teams per group), have them exchange code (usually a specific class and any helper classes necessary to understand that class), and have them review code more like you’d review writing. Groups project code onto one of the many monitors in the classroom and gather around tables to discuss it.

I considered several different ways to do this virtually and asynchronously, and weighed using various tools. In the end, I decided the costs of throwing yet another unfamiliar tool at my students outweighed any small benefits they’d derive from learning that tool. So students will use Google Docs, copying and pasting the relevant code into a Google Doc, and optionally applying syntax highlighting with one of the myriad tools out there. (I suggested Code Blocks, and I just found an online highlighter that actually connects to a website, unlike the others I tried.) Students will use the commenting feature to highlight and provide feedback on specific aspects of the code, and set up Slack channels in our course workspace for longer discussions about the code under review. This way, I can dip in and monitor the level, type, and content of feedback that teams exchange with each other. Which is actually a net benefit, because I’ll get much more information on how students review each others’ code than I do normally when I’m flitting around the room trying to listen in on each group’s feedback! (And I can provide a better post-mortem after the fact, using specific comments and examples.) In our synchronous class meeting today, before they start code review in earnest, I’ll have them work in teams to review a short snippet of code, so that they can practice the workflow and get feedback from me on how they’re reviewing code. I’m really eager to see how this goes.

The hard stuff, as I alluded to in the title of this post, leveled up this week, not just in my course, but in pretty much every aspect of my job:

  • I received unexpectedly bad news about my planned research project with students for the summer, and scrambled to work up a replacement project (after panicking, swearing, and throwing things, of course).
  • In a similar vein, I’m working with others on how to create a community of student researchers when they are all isolated from each other and remote. It’s not impossible, but it’s new to us and tricky to do well.
  • Students who struggled all term continue to struggle, meaning I’ve had some difficult conversations about what it will take to pass the course (even with our version of pass-fail grading, which is basically “pass with a C- or above”, “pass with a D”, and “fail”).
  • Discussions about next year continue, maybe not as fruitfully as I’d like and maybe with fewer answer and many more questions/unknowns than I’d like. It leads me to question whether the right conversations are not happening at all behind closed doors, or whether the right conversations are happening behind closed doors and the failure is in communicating this information to faculty and staff. Regardless, the end result is the same — more angst, more uncertainty, more anxiety about the future.
  • I have some big tasks on my plate — make sure research students get paid this summer (no small feat when it seems like everyone’s projects keep changing), assigning Comps (capstone) groups for next year, conducting oral exams for this year’s Comps students — that take plenty of time and mental/emotional energy, both of which are in short supply lately.

The best I can do is to do my best in managing my time and my energy levels, doing what I can when I can, and taking the time for self-care so that I can be present, mentally and emotionally, for all of the hard stuff on my plate. And to remember that now, especially, good enough is good enough. This will let me get to the end of the term in one piece, and leave me with enough emotional and mental space once the term concludes to reflect on the term and apply what I’ve learned to….whatever fall term and beyond look like.

48

Today I turn 48.

47 was a challenging year. On the plus side, I achieved some big goals. I started my first big academic leadership role, STEM Director, and while I’ve scrambled to fit my responsibilities into a schedule with too few course releases, I’ve really enjoyed the challenge and the ability to think and act within a wider and broader scope. I revamped one of our core courses and taught it 3 times this year, and it’s been such a joy to teach it (yes, even online this term!). I taught my first taekwondo classes, as I work towards earning my instructor certification. I wrote a memoir as part of NaNoWriMo. I ran 2 trail races. And, last but not least: I earned my black belt in taekwondo!

The last two goals I’m especially proud of, not just because they’re the result of hard work and perseverance, but also because they show that you can do new, hard, athletic things no matter your age.

47 also saw a global pandemic that upended pretty much every aspect of our lives, and continues to do so. It brought a tough (although not altogether unexpected) diagnosis for one of my kiddos, one which we struggle with every day and which truly requires a village to handle. (The absence of that village, even with some of them being on hand remotely, has made daily functioning in this pandemic very difficult for the kiddo, and for us.) Then there was the sprained ankle that derailed my half-marathon training the same week I started. And work, particularly the first half of the academic year, proved grueling and demoralizing for various reasons I can’t get into here.

48 starts off with a ton of anxiety, uncertainty, and angst. So much remains up in the air, about what summer and fall will look like (particularly a summer without child care, which I’ll talk about in a future post), and about how this pandemic will play out. How can anyone plan in this type of environment, when plans may very well prove to be fiction?

But 48 brings a lot of hope, too. I’ll test for my second degree black belt next winter. I plan on running a half marathon, virtual or otherwise, this fall. I’m advising 2 exciting Comps projects, both of which will catapult me clear out of my comfort zone. Our entire Science Complex will be open and fully online in the fall, and I’m so excited to lead the sciences in our new space (and with ALL of the course releases I’m supposed to have!). And I have a few projects in the works that I’m eager to move forward in the coming year.

I’m also looking ahead to the big 5-0, planning a big, epic adventure. Hopefully the state of the world will allow for big, epic adventures at that point….

To be honest, Pandemic Birthday will not be all that different from Normal Birthday. Normal Birthday typically entails lots of solo time for this introvert to rejuvenate from Too Many People During the Week/Too Many End of Term Shenanigans. Pandemic Birthday? Also lots of solo time, although more out of necessity than out of a need to escape people. I’ll head out for what counts for a long run these days (5 miles). Rumor has it that the family is planning some kind of breakfast and some kind of coffee treat for me post-run. I’ll alternate between doing my own thing and hanging out with the family, spending as much time as possible outside. We’ll order in to support a local business, instead of eating out. And hopefully there will be chocolate cake with plenty of frosting to end the day.

Here’s to a new year of adventures…hopefully more of the good kind than of the bad kind!

Week 7: Research….?

The end of the term rapidly approaches, and while I’m way far behind in grading and checking in on student engagement (I just cannot spend another minute staring at Moodle logs, ugh!), I’m actually slightly ahead in course prep. This is good, because the other parts of my job demand my attention this week (let’s just say there are some deadlines I’m coming right up against, a bit uncomfortably). This also means I have a bit more time to think about…

…research.

On the one hand, it seems completely ludicrous to worry about scholarship at a time like this. With all the uncertainty, the death, the sickness, the despair — the very real, troubling issues and impossible decisions facing us — pursuing scholarship seems downright frivolous some days. For those of us dealing with anxiety and depression, there are simply some days where doing anything beyond the bare minimum is nigh impossible, too. Apply sustained focus to messy problems? No thank you.

But for me, research is a regulating force, a welcome intellectual escape of sorts. I get my best teaching ideas when I’m steeped in my research, as odd as that sounds. I’ve found a community of writers in the NCFDD forums that I enjoy engaging with. I’m working on several diverse projects that excite me, that I really want to move forward. I’m currently writing up one, with a goal to publish it by the end of the calendar year. Bolstered by my NaNoWriMo experience last fall, I’m also working towards publishing (for some definition of “publishing”) my work for non-academic audiences.

And, of course, I committed to working with students this spring and summer…so I need to keep up with them!

In short, I had some good momentum going before the world fell apart in March. And while some days I just can’t muster the energy to do just. one. more. thing., most days I find myself making time for scholarship.

Now, granted, this is scholarship with a lighter touch. I know I don’t have the energy or attention span to tackle the toughest research problems on my plate. When the pandemic hit in March, I actually took writing up that project I mentioned above off my plate temporarily, because I knew sustained writing was not happening. Instead, I did some lower stakes work, playing around with BigQuery on Kaggle and exploring alternate datasets for our summer project. I did a lot of reading, a lot of list-making, and a lot of free-writing. I explored the proceedings of new-to-me conferences and the table of contents of new-to-me journals, to identify possible publishing venues. Only within the past few weeks have I felt energized enough to go back and tackle the writeup.

My goals are smaller, my expectations lower. And that’s ok. I may be moving forward more slowly, but I’m moving forward. That’s more than enough for now.

My perspective of the reach and scope of my research morphed in the past few months. I recognize that my academic civic engagement work with our capstone is, actually, part of my scholarship now. With that realization, I now treat my work in that space as serious academic work, worthy of my research time and attention. I also recognize that my other work also has a public scholarship angle that I should and can pursue. Recognizing this opens up more paths and possibilities — and an opportunity for my capital-R-Research to cross paths with my curricular civic engagement work in the fall. In addition to clarifying my priorities in life more generally, I guess the pandemic clarified my priorities in my work life.

I’m dealing with some more practical aspects of my research, too. The dataset I counted on for this summer’s project might not be ready and available for us by the summer. I have ideas, outlines, and drafts of IRB proposal documents for two studies I could conduct — but I hesitate to commit to either, struggling with the ethics of asking people to devote time to my research when they’re already stretched thin in so many other areas. I need to resolve these ASAP, since summer’s fast approaching (my students start on June 15, officially!), but answering these questions is…not easy.

Research-wise, though, I’m fortunate in many aspects. My work does not require physical lab space or specialized equipment and materials. I can work anywhere, as can my students. I did not have to cancel my students’ research experience, because I can mentor them remotely. I have tenure, so I don’t have to worry about productivity hits or hiccups.

(I spend a lot of time thinking/worrying about our junior faculty: how best to support them and mentor them, and more importantly how best to advocate for them when they go up for tenure. This is one place I can use my power and my position to be a strong voice for fairness and compassion in the tenure process, and maybe make a real difference in the tenure experience for my junior colleagues.)

It will be interesting to see what a summer of remote research looks like. Schedules, I think, will be more important than ever, to provide some sense of normalcy and certainty. Schedules for me, of course, but also for my students — how can I help them figure out what works for them? This is a hard skill to master, so how do I facilitate this skill-building remotely? All but one of my kids’ camps have been canceled for the summer, so what does a summer without child care look like? And how will I juggle my research work and childcare responsibilities with what’s likely to be heavier time commitments to course prep (and possibly moving an entire elective online)? Without a chunk of vacation in August, how will I give myself time to truly unplug, something that’s necessary for me to thrive and survive the academic year?

I guess we’ll see how it goes.

Week 6: Engagement

We’re firmly in the second half of our abbreviated Spring Term now, and everyone is….looking ahead, anxiously. Looking ahead to the end of the term, yes, but also, increasingly, looking ahead to the summer and to next year.

I’ve spend much of my time this week getting a handle on the research funding situation for the student grants programs I oversee. Who’s still doing research? Who lost their opportunity? Who’s eligible to defer funding to next year? What might that process look like? And who, without that experience, finds themselves in a precarious financial situation, now that the summer income they banked on no longer exists?

In a similar vein, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking through how to train and mentor new undergraduate researchers in the art and science of research….remotely. So much of that first research experience (and beyond, too!) relies on ready access to your research mentor — popping down the hall to ask questions, working side-by-side in the lab, impromptu whiteboard sketching sessions. How do I replicate that when we’re all just boxes on a screen? How do I encourage students to “bug” me with their questions? How do I mimic the side-by-side work sessions in a way that feels natural? In short, how do I make sure students don’t fall through the cracks?

This last bit was one of the main points of discussion earlier this week in a meeting of the research cohort program I direct. I asked the students, “who feels comfortable going to a professor’s office hours to ask for help?” (they all were), then pointed out that seeking help from your research mentor is largely the same thing, except it’s like your research mentor has office hours all day long, just for you. Hopefully that sticks in their minds.

I’m thinking about engagement in my course, too — how to reach those who are not engaging with the material/their classmates, and how to incentivize engagement generally. I spent some time earlier this week creating Moodle badges, which seems like a small gesture but one that I’m willing to try. I have a badge each week that’s automatically awarded if they check off all of that week’s activities by Sunday night (of the following week). I have a badge for “attendance” (awarded to those who show up to EVERYTHING), badges for asking good questions and making astute observations, a teamwork badge, and a “helper” badge for anyone who helps out a classmate on Slack. These roughly correspond to the engagement I’d like to see in the class. We’ll see if that moves the needle at all.

Of course, the big question on everyone’s mind is “what happens in the fall?” (And beyond, because to think we’ll be back to any sort of “normal” anytime soon is…wishful thinking.) To that end, I’m already thinking ahead to what the elective I’m teaching, Computer Networks, should look like. How do I replicate the hands-on, exploration-heavy nature of that course if we’re partially or completely online? How do I best engage students in such a complex subject under still-unfamiliar-to-us learning conditions? I’ve already decided to forgo my usual tried-and-true textbook in favor of a freely-available, open-sourced, online textbook, which, because of the way it’s organized, forces me to radically redesign the course. I’ll have to think hard about what’s really fundamental content, and be comfortable with scrapping the rest. And I’m excited to try out a set of assignments that I first heard about at SIGCSE a few years back, which never quite fit into the way I taught the course — but is a much better fit with this other textbook.

As the term winds down, and as we head exhaustedly into summer, I’ll continue to look for ways to keep engagement — of those around me and of myself — alive and sustained. I’ll continue to encourage self-care to those around me — and to remind myself to do so, too. And I’ll do whatever I can to end this term on as much of a high note as possible.

Week 5: Small gratitudes

This has been a hard week in many respects. Amid more uncertainty about the fall (and beyond), my institution postponed advising days and fall registration until the summer. We reveal next year’s Comps projects (senior capstones) today, despite not knowing if and when we’ll be back in the fall. As “Comps Czar” for next year, I’ve been scrambling to get everything in place — and there are a lot of moving pieces to make that happen. I need to figure out which of the many students awarded STEM research grants this summer need to defer or decline said grants because of project cancellations — and help students deal with the uncertainty, sense of loss, and stress these cancellations bring. And of course, the news continues to be a raging dumpster fire, bringing its own uncertainty, sense of loss, and stress.

I surprised myself the other day, then, as my thoughts wandered to small, positive changes in my professional life and routine. There’s much that’s hard and frustrating, for sure. But there are also things to be enjoyed and celebrated.

Morning routine. Pre-pandemic mornings found me racing against the clock to squeeze in research OR a workout before getting the rest of the family off to school and myself off to work. Nowadays, my night owl family happily sleeps in, giving me a couple of hours of uninterrupted morning time, and plenty of time to meditate, get some research or writing done (or record videos), and get out for a run/workout. (Assuming I get up in time to take advantage of this time block, which is not always the case….)

Better breaks. When I’m stuck on a problem, I go shoot hoops in the driveway, or drag a kid outside for some chalk art or a short walk. Midday spontaneous card games are now possible. (Bonus: this kind of counts as math!) Even just stopping what I’m doing to check in on the kids sometimes leads to interesting and unexpectedly deep conversations about life. (Mostly the kids use it as an opportunity to proclaim their boredom, but hey, nothing’s perfect.)

Tackling that tech tool someday/maybe list. Past Me thought, about once a year, about mixing up my teaching with new-to-me technologies. Should I make videos to mix in with my targeted pre-class readings? Is there a digital way to have students annotate web pages, rather than having them scribble on paper copies which then gather dust in my office? Should I have more reading quizzes for immediate feedback? Well, the pandemic sort of forced my hand on this one. That said, now that I know more about lecture recording (and captioning!), Hypothes.is, etc., I plan to use them more, even after we return to face-to-face instruction. On a related note….

Designing for accessibility and flexibility. Every term, I have at least one student who, because Life Happens, misses a bunch of classes and then has to scramble to get caught up. Well, Life Happens to all of us on a daily basis now, and flexibility is the rule rather than the exception. This experience is making me reflect more deeply on how all the pieces fit together, about how students can demonstrate learning gains, and about alternate ways of presenting and assessing material. I want to carry this compassionate design forward. In a similar vein….

Deep pedagogical reflection. This is my third time this year teaching Software Design, and going into the spring I thought things were pretty set content-wise. As I put together readings, activities, lectures, demos, etc., I’m realizing that even some of this “must-include” material really….isn’t. I’ve been forced to streamline and cut. In the process, some of the things I deemed “essential” are really just, on closer inspection, “nice to have”. I can already see that preserving these cuts leave room for even more meaningful engagement once we move back to face-to-face instruction. With the uncertainty of fall, I’ll be applying this same lens to my fall course (Computer Networks), and I’m really excited to see how that evolves into a tighter course as a result.

And on a completely frivolous note:

Morning coffee rituals. Again, now that mornings are not an all-out sprint to the bus stop/car, I don’t have to gulp down coffee as I get ready or scramble to get it into a travel mug without spilling it all over myself (and/or forgetting to put the lid on tightly enough….). I’ve made a mini-ritual over savoring my coffee throughout the morning. Sure, it’s small and frivolous, but it makes the entire morning seem more relaxed and enjoyable….even if the work I’m doing while sipping is hard or frustrating.

What are the small silver linings you’ve found as your routine changed? I’d love to hear from you.

Week 4: Exhaustion and energy levels

We’re limping to the end of Week 4 of Completely Virtual Spring Term, and everyone is exhausted.

Like most weeks, I’ve spent the better part of this week in Zoom meetings of various types, and in each one energy levels were noticeably low. My learning community, which meets every other week and is normally fairly engaged, was noticeably more subdued and resigned this week. I’m pretty sure one of my students in my synchronous class meeting yesterday, at one point, put their head down on whatever flat surface serves as a desk as I was talking. I’m running a meeting later today, and I’m already assuming that it will be similarly low energy.

I think there are several reasons for the exhaustion we’re all clearly feeling, besides whatever’s going on in our personal lives. The novelty of learning online is gone. There’s a ton of uncertainty about this summer (will we have summer research? when will a decision come down?) and next year (is it even possible to be back on campus in the fall?). We can’t plan with any certainty. The administration holds off on decision making so they can weigh the many factors and integrate new information as it comes in, which makes sense. At the same time, we all just want to know what’s going to happen so that we can prepare, which also makes sense. It’s like Waiting for Godot, except Godot is a deadly virus we don’t fully understand.

I suspected at the end of last week that my students were starting to drag, so I eased up a bit this week. No recorded lectures except for the Sunday one where I review the previous week and preview the current week. Time built in to work on their project proposals, so only 2 readings for the week. In yesterday’s synchronous class meeting, I straight-up lectured with a teeny bit of interactivity, which I rarely do — but there were a lot of questions related to the reading, and I think my students have a bit of teamwork fatigue, so it seemed like the right decision. They need to complete 2 labs, but they’re structured so that students can work on parts of them here and there, and have the option to work completely solo or alongside their teammates/classmates.

Normally, Midterm Break occurs the Monday of 6th week, but this term it’s this coming Monday (of 5th week), since the term is only 9 weeks instead of 10. We all clearly need this break at this point. I’ve been reflecting on changes I can make to the flow of the course for the second half. I’ll poll my students tomorrow to check in with how much time they’re spending on various activities, and what technical (and personal issues) continue to interfere with their learning. My kiddos’ school district declared a long weekend this weekend, so they have Friday and Monday off. We rarely all have off on my Midterm Break, so I’m thinking about what kind of safe, socially distanced adventures we could do as a family that day, just to do something different. (Note to self: check if state park pass is still valid!)

In the meantime, I’m experimenting with ways to increase engagement in my classes and the meetings I run. I plan to break the participants in today’s STEM Board meeting into smaller discussion groups in the hopes that people will feel more comfortable sharing ideas with fewer “face boxes” than on a screen of many “face boxes”. I held my first Q&A Friday class session last week, and ended up working through examples with students in a much smaller group. Even with the limitations of Zoom, that felt the closest to “real” teaching that I’ve done this term, and I ended the session rejuvenated instead of exhausted for a change. I tagged specific questions (and the students who posted them) in Slack that I promised to get to in Wednesday’s class, and I used chat more heavily than usual. Even though everyone could see the chat, I made sure to read/summarize contributions and attribute them to the students who made them, as a way of affirming their participation and their ideas. A few students have started privately messaging me questions/comments via chat during class, and I want to encourage that as an option for those too shy to participate in public. Engagement still falls short of what I’d like, but I’m taking baby steps to get it closer to that ideal.

Hopefully this weekend serves as a vital reset for all of us, and we come back ready to tackle whatever the second half of the term holds in store for us.