#AcWriMo, Sabbatical Edition: The Final Reckoning

As I’ve done for the past few years, last month I participated in AcWriMo, the month-long academic writing extravaganza. I started the month with two goals:

  1. Complete an almost-submission-ready draft of a conference paper.
  2. Complete a rough draft of a new research study.

I chose this particular set of goals as a way to address some clogs in my research pipeline. Right now I have a lot of work in preliminary stages and/or various stages of write-up, but nothing out for review. I chose the first goal as a way to move something closer to the out-for-review stage of the pipeline, and the second goal as a way to move a project from the half-baked idea phase to the gee-I-could-start-collecting-data-soon stage.

So, how did I do?

I completely met my first goal. I have a complete draft of a conference paper ready to be tweaked for a particular conference. I did not start the month with a particular conference in mind. Instead, I decided to write a generic draft — more like a tech report — that I could then slightly tweak and reframe for particular venues. So all the source material is there, and all I need to do is edit it. And as luck would have it, a few days ago I found a conference with a mid-December deadline that’s a pretty good fit for it. I’ll need to cut 3 pages and I’ll need to reframe the intro to better fit the conference’s focus, but that should be pretty straightforward. So, bonus, this paper WILL be out for review soon!

I completely met my second goal. My literature search confirmed what I suspected — that this new study area is pretty underexplored. Reviewing the literature, and working through my stash of HCI books, gave me some good ideas for how I might explore this space, and I feel pretty excited about my study plan. Also, terrified, because the new study involves qualitative research methods that I’ve never, ever used before. (I am setting up a lot of meetings with my social scientist friends in the near future!)

I wanted to keep track of how I spent my writing time, so I logged my writing time, number of words, time spent coding, time spent on each project, etc. every day.

research time plot

Time spent over the month on the two projects. “Coding” was code development I did in conjunction with the conference paper.

As expected, I spent more time over the course of the month on the conference paper. This makes sense, because there was a lot more work to do on that particular project and it had a more defined finished product. I also find it interesting that the majority of the work on the new research study was done early in the month. I made a lot of progress early in the month, getting me almost all the way to my goal, which freed up my time to focus on the conference paper. (You can also clearly tell where the weekends are and where the long holiday weekend fell.)

number of words written

Number of words written over the month on the two projects.

It’s a bit demoralizing to see your word count go down over the course of the month, but this reflects the edits on the conference paper. There’s also a faster rate of word production (most of the time) for the new study, because most of that was “new” writing, so it was less edited and vetted. (It also includes the word count for notes I took while reading articles and books for the project.)

I’ve liked the experience of logging my output like this. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that you’re actually making progress when you’re slogging away day after day, but charts like these drive home the point that daily effort does add up over time. I also experimented with journaling about my research every day, and I’ve found that useful as well. I plan on continuing both practices beyond AcWriMo.

As always, I’ve enjoyed the community aspect of AcWriMo, and I will miss that. One of the many things I’ve been thinking about while on sabbatical is how I can recreate some of that supportive community around research and writing at my institution. I hope to come up with some concrete ideas and try them out next year.

I’m so glad I decided to do AcWriMo again this year. I almost didn’t participate because it felt like “cheating” since I am on sabbatical and I’m supposed to be laser-focused on my research. Participating provided me with a chance to reflect on my research practices and experiment with ways of working, as well as set specific and scary goals and make myself publicly accountable. And these are lessons that I’ll take with me beyond AcWriMo and into the new year.

#AcWriMo: Sabbatical Edition

Longtime readers of this blog know that November brings that annual rite of productivity for academics: Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo for short. The premise of AcWriMo is simple: you set some ambitious research/writing goal(s) for the month and do your darndest to achieve those goals, with the support of a virtual writing community. I’ve participated in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015, and have always found it to be a worthwhile experience.

I’m a little late to the party this year — I didn’t finalize my goals until today. And it feels a teeny bit like cheating, since the purpose of being on sabbatical is to have the space to work on your research, so I don’t “need” this challenge to jump-start my research or get back into good research habits, which is my usual motivation for participating. But I really love the community and support around AcWriMo, and I really love the challenge of setting and trying to meet ambitious goals, so that’s reason enough in my book to join in!

I’ve decided on two main goals for AcWriMo this year:

  1. Complete draft of conference paper. I spent a lot of time this summer thinking about restructuring my research. In the process, I identified a line of research that I thought I could complete and submit as a conference paper by the end of this calendar year. I’ve made really good progress so far on this paper. I really really want to end the month with a completed draft that’s pretty close to submission-ready, because if memory serves there’s a submission deadline in early December for a conference that seems like a fairly good fit. To complete this goal, I’ll need to write, debug, and test some simulation code and run some experiments in addition to writing the paper. This is my main goal.
  2. Complete rough draft of new research study. The idea for this study also came out of my Summer of Reflection. I’ve been chipping away at it, but not making as much progress as I’d like. (So much to read! So little time!) With this project, I just need to buckle down, complete a preliminary lit review, and sketch out one or two possible study designs in some detail. The challenging part of this project (and probably what’s been holding me back) is that it’s way more of a “pure” HCI (human computer interaction) project than I’ve ever attempted, and is likely going to involve research methods that I’ve never used before. Exciting! and also terrifying.

As usual, I’ll be updating my progress here and on Twitter (@drcsiz) under the hashtag #AcWriMo. This year, there’s also a fancy schmancy tracking app that I’ll be using. And since I’m planning on writing anyway, I’ll also be participating in a  14 day writing challenge in the middle of the month. If all this doesn’t keep me accountable, nothing will!

Happy November writing, everyone!

Trip report: GHC 2016

I’m writing this post on the plane ride home from Grace Hopper on Friday afternoon. Unlike previous years, I escaped the conference early: a compromise with my kids since I was at a conference last month and will be at a workshop next month. Still, it feels like I managed to squeeze about 10 days into 3, so while on one level I’m sad to be missing the last keynote and tonight’s party (and dinner with Carleton folks present and past!), on another level I’m just done with conferencing.

It’s been several years since I’ve done a proper conference trip report — I used to do them semi-regularly (see here, for example), but in the past few years life’s gotten in the way. But I wanted to honor my time at the conference this year, so I’m resurrecting the trip report tradition.

I should come clean first, though: After last year’s conference, I swore up and down that I wasn’t going to attend this year. I’m not a fan of Houston (sorry, Houston!), and logistically last year was kind of a pain. Plus I knew I wanted to attend Tapia and wasn’t thrilled about going to 2 conferences so close together. But then I was tapped to be Posters Co-Chair, and it sounded like too good of an opportunity to pass up. And then since I was going anyway, I agreed to speak in the CRA-W early faculty career track and volunteer in the Student Opportunity Lab. On top of that, I had my LACAFI booth organizing/setup/wrangling duties.

Apparently my conference motto is: If you’re going to attend, be busy!

The days and weeks leading up to the conference were busy: working with my co-chair to select and assign ACM Student Research Competition (SRC) poster and finals judges; working with my co-presenter on our slides and role-play scenarios for our CRA-W session; stressing over whether we had enough people to cover the booth during the Expo hours. (This year a lot of our usual booth-staffing suspects took GHC off, either because they were at Tapia and/or they’re going to SIGCSE. We missed you, intrepid volunteers!) Then there were receptions and breakfasts and meetups to keep track of. I actually had to put everything on my calendar and set multiple alarms so that I knew exactly where I had to be and when. It was looking very likely that I was not going to make it to any sessions that I was not leading or speaking at, so I didn’t even bother to look at the program.

To add more excitement to the mix, I realized a few days before the conference that my constant desire to sleep and my low-level ever-present funk was not due to recovering from the marathon I had just run, but was in fact my depression flaring up. Good times. I was worried, because I knew I’d have to be “on” a lot of the time I was at GHC, and was starting to dread going. I decided to give myself permission to skip out on anything that was not absolutely necessary if need be, to be a hermit when I needed to, and to escape the conference when possible, to recharge and try and keep the depression at bay. I’m happy to say that my strategy worked, and I was able to cope and function at a decent level. The knowledge that I was leaving the conference early also helped. This meant that I didn’t seek out people I knew to the extent that I normally do, but it was worth it for self-preservation.

I arrived in Houston on Tuesday afternoon, along with what felt like half of the 15,000 attendees of the conference. I was hoping to have some time to relax before attending the HP Inc reception as an NCWIT member that evening, but a longish wait for my luggage and a taxi meant I had enough time to quickly unpack and then head to the reception. The reception was at a really cool place, and I spent a lot of time chatting with someone I haven’t caught up with in a while. It was weird to be at an HP reception, given my former life as an HP Labs post-doc, but it was neat to hear about what HP’s up to now and to share stories about my time there. All of the HP women there were so friendly and welcoming, and it was a lot more fun than I expected.

I skipped the keynote on Wednesday morning, sadly, to set up our LACAFI booth. I had to get more creative than I intended with our limited space, but I made do. Once the Expo opened, our swag disappeared quickly, so we’ll definitely have to bring more next year.

I knew that the afternoon/evening would be crazy full, so I escaped the conference for a while to recharge and grab some cheap Tex-Mex food. Once the Expo opened, I came back to check on our booth, then wandered around the Expo. I kept running into alums, which was awesome. I promised some of them I’d find them later, a promise I did not keep. (Sorry, alums! Nice to see you briefly, anyway!) I also randomly ran into my posters co-chair, whom I’d never met in person, so we chatted for a bit. She is awesome, and I hope I get to work with her again someday.

Wednesday afternoon was the poster session and the first part of the SRC. Hilarity ensued (only hilarious now in hindsight) when the first poster judges came back to tell us that they could not find the poster numbers we assigned them — turns out we had posters listed by submission IDs, but they were actually numbered by position in the hall, and there was no easy mapping between them. Whoops! Luckily our judges did not revolt, and were super patient as we figured things out. (We joked that we gave them an encryption problem to solve before they could judge the posters.) Judging took way longer than we expected, but we finally figured out the finalists from the judges’ scores and got that info to our awesome ABI contact. At this point, my co-presenter for the CRA-W talk showed up so we could go over our slides and plan for our talk the next morning, after which we headed to a reception for CRA-W scholars. The reception was a great end to the day, but I was totally wiped afterwards, and collapsed into bed as soon as I got back to my room.

Thursday morning began with our CRA-W talk on balancing teaching, research, and service in academia. The talk was way better attended than I expected given the early hour and intended audience. And the role-plays we planned (my co-presenter’s idea) were a hit! The audience was game to participate, asked great questions, and offered great tips and advice to each other.

Afterwards, I met up with my colleague David, who was wrangling the students this year, and chit-chatted about sabbatical and department stuff. While I’m really enjoying sabbatical, I do miss the day-to-day encounters and conversations with my colleagues, so it was nice to reconnect. I then escaped for a bit to recharge, then headed back to the Expo to snap up some swag for my kiddos and chat up some people at the booths.

Thursday afternoon was as tightly packed as the previous day. We had the undergraduate and graduate SRC finals back-to-back, one of my duties as posters co-chair. The talks were fabulous and our judges were simply amazing and thoughtful. (One of my regrets for missing the Friday keynote is that I was not able to see these six incredible finalists receive their awards.) My co-chair and I then headed to one of my favorite annual events, the NCWIT reception. I met new people and caught up with some colleagues from liberal arts schools, took a picture with the rest of the CRA-W speakers, and got to hear a surprise speech from Megan Smith, the US CTO, who stopped by the reception. I always love what Megan has to say, so that was a fabulous treat. By this point, I was exhausted and my brain was mush, so I again collapsed (after stopping for gelato on the walk back to my hotel — priorities!) as soon as I got back to my room.

Friday started early with the CRA-W scholars breakfast. I sat with my posters co-chair; a colleague I see every year at GHC, SIGCSE, and NCWIT’s Summit; and some very enthusiastic students. If I have to be at something that early, it’s worth it when the conversation is that fabulous. I then went to an actual conference session (on motherhood in academia), then volunteered at the Student Opportunity Lab talking to students about how to get into undergraduate research, in somewhat of a speed-dating format. One last check of the LACAFI booth and the handoff of exhibitor’s credentials and I was on my way to the airport and back towards home.

My relationship with GHC has definitely changed over the years. While I think the conference is now way too big and way too career-fair focused, and while I think these are detrimental changes, I’m still surprised by the ways in which the conference rejuvenates me. What I get out of the conference now is very different from what I used to get out of the conference, and changes every year. This year, I definitely felt like my role was to mentor and give back to the community, but in giving to others in this way I was immensely fulfilled. I networked less, but felt more fulfilled by the interactions I chose to have. This year’s conference reaffirmed that GHC does still hold relevance to my professional life — maybe not on an every year basis anymore, but definitely within a rotation of conferences.

Structuring a sabbatical

We’re now three weeks into September and I’m still trying to figure this whole sabbatical thing out.

In a post a few months back, I acknowledged that a big challenge for me while on sabbatical would be structuring my unstructured time. So I knew I’d have to think carefully about setting manageable goals and milestones for my projects, as well as working with the ebbs and flows of my energy levels, to keep my motivation going and my progress moving forward. I spent a lot of time this summer thinking about how best to accomplish that.

I looked forward to using the first few weeks of September to get back into a schedule of sorts after a less-intense summer and after taking most of August completely off. Unfortunately, the first couple of weeks “back” were anything but typical — my husband was out of town for over a week on a business trip overseas, and about 24 hours after he returned I flew off to a conference. That first week, I juggled settling in to a work routine with handling the first week of school for the kiddos (including the return to sports and such), single parenting, and having to squeeze my marathon training (including a 20 mile run!) in while the kids were at school. Oh, and a full day of retreat/meetings for me, too.

Now things are settling back to somewhat normal: no one’s out of town, I only have one meeting this week, and I’ve started my marathon taper so I’m running less, and less intensely. (Although I am still hungry all. the. damn. time.) And so I finally get to settle in to a working routine.

I decided that at any given time during my sabbatical, I will work on three main “projects”. This gives me some variety in what I’m working on from day to day, but is manageable enough that I don’t feel like I have too many pots on the stove.

Every month, I’ll evaluate where I am with each of the projects. For each project, I’ll then set 1-3 goals for the month, along with week-by-week “deliverables”. That way (as long as I’m realistic about what I can accomplish in a week!), I’ll have specific and measurable tasks to tackle, and hopefully won’t spend as much time spinning my wheels. Once a project is completed, I’ll consider adding a new project to the mix.

For example, this month my projects (by code-name) are:

  1. Conference paper: this is the part of my research that’s furthest along, and for which my goal is to get a paper out by the end of the fall. My goals for this project this month are to finish the first iteration of the model on which the paper will be based, which entails going back to the literature as well as reviewing my own experimental results.
  2. Mental models: this is a brand-new project related to my current work, but with a more pure HCI focus. My goals for this project this month are to see what’s out there in the literature already and to read up on some qualitative research methods that I’m considering using.
  3. Fun exploration: This will be a standing project throughout my sabbatical, in which I learn things for the fun of it or because I’ve had “learn X” on my to-do list for forever. This month, my goal is to learn some Processing.

On a day-to-day basis, I make sure that my to-do list contains tasks related to at least 2 projects (see: avoiding boredom), as well as some other things related to other obligations (this week, it’s a number of things related to Grace Hopper next month, since I’m giving a talk and co-chairing the posters track).

So far this system is working out pretty well. I’m finding that I’m staying focused during the day, even (especially) during the periods of the day when my energy is typically lower and I’ve historically found it hard to stay on task. I’m making steady progress on each project and meeting most of my weekly targets. And I haven’t gotten bored, yet.

The one thing I’m still trying to figure out is email. I want to only be checking it once a day, but I find myself checking more often than I probably should. I’m not sure if this is my attempt to feel connected, or if this is just an old habit that refuses to die. I need to figure out a better plan and stick to it. (Also, I think maybe once a day is actually unrealistic, and perhaps I should aim for twice a day.)

On a related note, I think I need to schedule some time where I spend time talking to other people during the day, so that I don’t feel so isolated. So far that’s not been an issue, but I could see it becoming an issue down the road.

It will be interesting to see how this experiment plays out. I’m confident that I’ve found something that seems workable, that allows for flexibility, and that reduces the chance I’ll beat myself up over not producing enough. We’ll see if that actually happens.

Thoughts on my son’s first day of school

Dear son,

By the time this is posted, you’ll have boarded the school bus, arrived at school, been welcomed by your new teacher, and settled in to the new daily routine. Today you start a new adventure, one you’ve been waiting for and anticipating all summer long.

Today, you start kindergarten.

Kiddo eating pudding with chopsticksI know that you are more than ready for this. You’ve come so far since you joined our family when you were 18 months old, leaving behind your country and culture and language and everything you’d ever known to join our crazy family. You love to read (and can probably read more words that you’re letting on!). You love to learn. You’re crazy passionate for anything science or engineering related. You keep asking when you’ll get to do math in kindergarten. You love art and you have such a creative mind.

You’re the most inquisitive kid I know. Why, why why? you ask. Me, your teachers, the neighbors, any adult within earshot is fair game for your questions. Your teachers and daycare providers up until now have been so patient and welcoming with your questions, so open to your curiosity, so eager to help you learn. I fervently hope you find the same patience and openness in your new school.

Pre-K graduationI’m less of a wreck nervous now than when your older sister started school. We know the school, know the teachers, know the routine. You already know some kids on your class and on your bus, and you’ll know some kids in your after-school program, too. You’ve been to school already countless times, for your sister’s stuff, over the years. That might make the transition easier for me, tomorrow, knowing that you’re in somewhat familiar territory, and that you’ve got lots of older kids (neighbors, sister, sister’s entire girl scout troop) looking out for you. (Might.)

My wishes for you this year: that you continue to ask lots of questions, that you make new friends, that you continue to share your kindness and joy with those around you, that you open your heart and your mind to all of the new experiences that school brings, and that you hone your passions and find new ones.

Your dad and I are so very, very proud of you, and we can’t wait to see what this year brings you.

Love,

Mom