AcWriMo 2015: Baby steps back to research productivity

I have a confession to make: I seriously, seriously considered skipping AcWriMo this year.

Let me back up for a minute, for those of you new to the rodeo: AcWriMo is a month-long academic writing extravaganza! AcWriMo is the academic’s equivalent of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. Basically, you as an academic pledge to set some writing/research goals for the month (ideally, that stretch you a bit), sign up so that you’re publicly accountable for those goals, track those goals, get encouragement from the community, and celebrate your accomplishments at the end of the month. I’ve participated the past 3 years (2012, 2013, and 2014), and have found it tremendously beneficial each time.

So why, if AcWriMo’s been so good to me, would I consider skipping it?

Well, in a nutshell, I’m exhausted and sooooooo very far behind on absolutely everything in my work life. Teaching an overload is kicking my ass in the most serious of ways. The last time I even thought about research was back in September, when I ambitiously and optimistically set out a research plan for the term, as the picture below shows.

Research plan gone awry.

Notice the lone checkmark, in week 1. That’s pretty much the extent of my research accomplishments this term. We’re now in Week 7.

In short, my time has seriously gotten away from me this term, and this makes me very, very unhappy. It’s been so very easy to justify ignoring the research blocks I also optimistically scheduled on my calendar way back in September—there’s always grading, or class prep, or some “crisis” to consume my time. So, what could it hurt to take a year off from AcWriMo, right?

But honestly, I’m a much better, more focused, happier teacher when I’m regularly working on my research. And honestly, there’s no good reason why I’m not prioritizing research. And I know that it’s so very hard to pick back up with the research after a long layoff—and that’s especially true at this point in my project, where the problems are hard and the path ahead is not clear (and the paper/grant rejections have been coming in fast and furious—seriously, it was a rough end of the summer in that regard).

So I decided to go for it and sign up for AcWriMo again, but with the compromise that the theme this year for my goals is what I stated in the title of this post: “baby steps back to research productivity”. My only goal for AcWriMo is a time goal: 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week. Any research counts, whether that’s reading one of the many papers that’s found its way to my “to read” pile, or working on the Simulation Code That’s Still Not Done, or outlining my potential next conference paper, or writing imagined hate mail to the reviewers that have rejected my work lately. (OK, maybe that last one doesn’t count.) One activity that I will definitely incorporate into my research time is to draft my own, private research “proposal” for my upcoming sabbatical, to help me solidify my thinking about what I want to accomplish next year (when I have the WHOLE YEAR to devote to research!). I’ll be tracking my progress on Twitter (@drcsiz) and occasionally here as well.

If you’d like to participate, this link has all the details. If you’re a fellow academic, I hope you’ll consider joining me! Let’s be productive together!

Gearing up for the start of a new academic year

Monday marks the start of a new academic year at Carleton—it’s the first day of classes for fall term. As I write this, it’s the Friday before classes start, and I’m in my usual Friday-before-classes-start full-fledged panic about the start of the term.


I don’t look very panicked in this picture, though. (H/t to my colleague Dave for taking this photo.)

I’m actually in pretty good shape compared to previous years in terms of preparation. I’ve got the first week’s worth of readings and daily assignments posted on Moodle for both of my classes. I have a vague sense of what I’m doing on the first (and second, and third) days of each class, although I still have to find/tweak my handouts for the first day (and print out my photo rosters!). I revamped the problematic rubric for the first major project in my Computer Networks class. I’m in conversation with all three of my Comps (senior capstone) groups to nail down specific meeting times (two of the groups are sharing a class time slot so we need to subdivide the slot, and we won’t need the full time slot for the third group).

I also locked in specific times for research on my calendar and filled in my known meetings/obligations, too.

So why am I so panicked?

Some of it is just general teaching nerves. I’m meeting a whole bunch of new-to-me students on Monday. Surprisingly, I only know about half of the students in my Computer Networks elective (a side effect of having so many majors is that I no longer know all of our majors). I’ve taught a few of the students in my Data Structures course before, but most of them are strangers to me right now. I know that in a couple of weeks, the students will be familiar to me and I’ll have a good sense of the dynamics of the class and of individual personalities, but meeting new people is stressful.

A lot of it is a sense of dread over my workload. We failed to hire all of the visiting professors that we need to staff our courses this year. This means that we are still looking to hire people to teach Intro in Spring term (and maybe Winter, too), and that we had to cancel a bunch of classes, but it also means that I am teaching an overload so that we did not have to cancel one of our core courses for majors in the fall. Also, due to some bizarre scheduling constraints, all of my courses are loaded into just two terms (Fall and Winter). So, originally I was scheduled to teach 4 courses this year (1.5 in the fall, 2.5 in the winter, 0 in the spring). Now, I’m teaching 5 courses, with 2.5 each in fall and winter.* Luckily, they are all repeats for me (and I teach one of the courses twice this year), but that’s still a considerable load.

Adding to the workload, too, are my chair duties, which on top of the usual chair shenanigans include running another tenure-track search (our third in three years, which means I’ll have run a search in each of my 3 years as chair). Plus two of my junior colleagues are being observed in the classroom this year, leading up to a tenure review and a third-year review next year. (Which, thankfully, I won’t have to chair!) So there are meetings and all sorts of other things related to preparing my colleagues for their respective reviews too.

On top of everything, there are other changes, which adds to the general stress even though the changes are positive. I’m loving my new office and my new neighbors, but still getting used to being 2 floors separated from my colleagues. (I can tell I’ll be running up and down the stairs a lot this year, which should at least keep me in shape!) We have a brand new faculty member who’s awesome and wonderful and has lots of questions about how things work here—which reminds me of how much mentoring/protecting of junior faculty the senior members of our department are doing and will need to continue doing over the next few years. My family’s all still getting used to the new schedules at home, since school started for my kiddos this week.

Finally, next year I’ll be submitting my materials for promotion to full professor. While I’m confident about my case (I have tremendous support from my department and have a solid case), nothing is guaranteed, so there’s a general background stress around “have I done enough? should I have done things differently? what do I need to do this year to shore up my case?”.

All of this has led to some sleepless nights recently and a general sense of dread about the academic year ahead. I like to go into the academic year on a positive note, but at this point I’ll take “semi-well rested” and “prepared enough to muddle through”.

I sometimes start new academic years by picking a theme or resolution for the year. If I had to pick one for this year, it would be “self-preservation”. I know things will be tough until the spring, so I’m going to focus on ways to do my job while not burning out. I’m going to focus on survival and not reinventing the wheel (i.e. revamping things in my classes just for the sake of revamping them if I have something that works well enough already). I’m going to (and have already started to) say “no” with abandon (or, “I’d be happy to participate, but not until after mid-March.”). I’m going to stop at “good enough”.

But I know I’ll also do what I do every academic year: have the privilege of meeting, teaching, and learning from an incredible group of students. And that’s what keeps me coming back year after year after year—even the years I know will be challenging.

* The half course in fall and winter is for advising Comps—we get one course credit spread over 2 terms for every 3 groups we advise.


moving boxesThis year is shaping up to be the year of transitions, for me and for my family.

After 12 years in the same office, I’m moving (temporarily, maybe?) to a different office, in the same building but separated from most of my departmental colleagues by 2 floors. Our newest hire is moving into my current office, close to pretty much the entire department, so that she can benefit from all the informal mentoring that proximity to more seasoned colleagues brings. While I’m sad to leave the only office I’ve known at my institution, the move does bring some good opportunities—my new hallway is filled with colleagues from another department, one we should have closer ties with, but don’t. I’m looking forward to making new connections, and to not having to climb 2 flights of stairs every morning!

(I discovered that the entire contents of my office fit into 10 boxes. Of course this is after a lot of purging, but still…after 12 years, I expected to have to pack more stuff.)

My son is starting a new preschool in the fall. Like many US parents of boys with summer birthdays, we’ve decided to wait one more year before sending him to kindergarten. For a variety of reasons we thought it would also be useful for him to have a change of scenery and routine to better prepare him for school. This is a huge change for him, as he’s been in the same daycare with the same provider and preschool teacher since we brought him home.

We’re also leaving the daycare that we’ve been at forever (since my third grader was 20 months old), and moving our kids to after-school care programs that work better with our new schedules. So we’ll have 2 kids at 2 different schools and in 2 different after-school care programs. Luckily the schools are just down the street from each other, and the schedules are mostly the same, but I can sense some tricky logistics days in our future. We have a really good daycare situation going right now, so it will be hard for us to say goodbye to that at the end of this month.

There are other changes, too. Our department continues to grow—we’re hiring tenure-track AGAIN this year. We’re no longer a small department, an identity we’ve worn proudly since we amicably separated (consciously uncoupled?) from the Math department 10 years ago. We’ve worked really well together as a small department, but now we need to figure out how to work well together as a medium-sized department. What does that even entail? I’m not sure, but I feel like I’ve made a few missteps lately as chair, and that I haven’t done a great job of making people feel heard and in the loop, so clearly some things have to change.

I’m also in my last year as chair, which means I’ll be starting to think about transitioning over the chair to the next colleague in line. (Complicating things is that this colleague is on sabbatical all this year, and I will be on sabbatical the following academic year. So much for easy transitions…) I’ll relish all of the “lasts” that will happen this year (last department retreat to plan! last department annual report to write!), but I’m sure I’ll also spend a fair amount of time thinking about what I still want to accomplish this year as chair.

Even our girl scout troop is changing! We’ve pretty much had the same core group of girls in our troop since kindergarten. Three, possibly 4, girls are leaving the troop, and it looks like we’ll have at least one new girl (possibly more, since we’re doing a bit of recruiting this year). It will be interesting to see how the social dynamics of the troop change, both as the girls grow up and as a different mix of personalities comes in.

I’ve always dealt pretty well with transitions. I tend to like new opportunities and new adventures; thinking about new possibilities excites me. So I’m approaching this year mostly with anticipation, with just a bit of anxiety thrown in. My kids are also pretty easy-going about change, so I’m sure they’ll do fine. I worry a teeny bit about my son, but that’s because we’re asking him to make the biggest changes, and so I’m sure he’ll have some rough days while he gets used to the “new normal”. (Knowing him, though, it will mostly be fine. He’s a pretty amazing kid.)

So here’s to heartfelt goodbyes and new beginnings, and lots of new adventures in the year to come!

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.