External service calculus

Service plays a non-trivial role in most academics’ work lives. The type and amount of service varies depending on where you are in your career and the type of institution you inhabit. So, for instance, academics at research-expecting and research-producing institutions peer review papers and grant proposals, and the volume of such requests likely changes as your reputation in a field grows.

There are certain types of service in academia that require specific standing. In many, though not all, cases, only associate and full professors vote on tenure and mid-tenure review cases, and only full professors vote on promotion to full professor cases. When a department undergoes an external review, they turn to associate or full professors to serve as external reviewers. (I am sure there are exceptions to this. In my experience, though, I started receiving requests after earning tenure.) And except in dire or unideal circumstances, department chairs should be tenured, and ideally a few years past tenure at a minimum.

If you’re doing the math, you’ve likely noticed that as you become more senior in your academic career, the service requests — and expectations — skyrocket.

Service requests tend to ebb and flow for me. Sometimes I’ll go a few months with zero requests. At other times, like the past few months, service requests pop up like dandelions in the spring.

I’m in the service sweet spot in my career. I’m a female-identifying full professor at a small liberal arts institution in a male-dominated field and with administrative responsibilities. I check many of the boxes on the representation checklist. So I tend to get a lot of requests, mostly to serve as an external reviewer of scholarship in a tenure or mid-tenure review, or as an external evaluator in a department review.

I wish I could say that I’ve developed an exact science for determining when to say yes and when to decline a request. In general, I try to say yes as often as possible to external scholarship reviews when they come from liberal arts schools. In these cases, it’s important to have someone doing similar scholarship and coming from a similar institution weigh in, because they are uniquely qualified to comment on the person’s scholarship in the context of the demands of working at a liberal arts school. That said, the work involved is significant, particularly since 95% of the time the person’s scholarship is in a related area but not my area and I have to read the work pretty carefully. So I limit myself to at most one per year. I find it particularly hard to turn these down, mainly because I know how hard it can be to find someone at a liberal arts school who’s (a) tenured and (b) qualified to comment on someone’s scholarship. But weighing in on someone’s tenure case is something you want to do well and get right, so overcommitting is a Bad Idea.

I really enjoy doing external department reviews. I find it fascinating to learn how other Computer Science departments structure their major requirements, teach their courses, and foster community among their students. Witnessing different institutional cultures is also endlessly fascinating to me, and something I view as “field research” for moving into administration. And sometimes, my fellow reviewer is a colleague-friend from another institution, which makes the process even more fun. But these reviews also require a significant amount of time and energy: reading the department self-study report; traveling to and from the institution; spending several days at the institution talking to faculty, staff, students, other departments, and administrators; and compiling the report afterwards. I do one of these every few years because of this time and energy commitment. These requests definitely come in batches — I know if one appears in my inbox, I’m likely to get 2 more within the next month. I’ve gotten a tad choosier here — I’m more likely to say yes if the institution is one I’d like to learn more about anyway, or if there’s a particular circumstance the department finds themselves in that I think I can lend insight into.

I’ve become more comfortable declining requests through the years. Early on, I worried about not being asked again, or about people getting mad at me for turning them down, but that hasn’t been the case. People understand when you say “I just can’t add this to my plate right now” and appreciate your honesty. When possible, I try to recommend someone else. Oftentimes this person is already on their radar, but it can’t hurt to endorse that the person would be a good pick. I still sometimes feel guilty, though, particularly if I’ve already said yes to something and then another request comes in that I really want to say yes to. I wish I could say the guilt’s subsided over the years, but nope, it has not.

How do you perform the calculus of deciding to accept or decline a service request, whether you’re in academia or some other field?

Productivity trouble spot: Shutdown routine

If you’ve been reading this blog for some time, you know that I am a productivity nerd. I read books and blog posts and listen to podcasts about productivity. I love experimenting with different digital tools and planning systems. I set goals and routinely check in with them. I hold a Sunday Meeting to plan out my week, and start each morning outlining my daily priorities. But try as I might, one trouble spot persists in my carefully constructed routines:

My lack of a shutdown routine.

What is a shutdown routine, you ask? A shutdown routine is a set of tasks you complete at the end of the workday that allows you to reflect on your accomplishments and set the table for the next day. Cal Newport summarizes the concept well. There are many different variations, as a quick Google search will demonstrate, but they all seem to share the same themes: review what tasks you completed, prioritize your tasks for the next day, clean up your physical and digital workspace, etc. This post at Doist reflects these themes nicely.

I’ve tried to institute shutdown routines in the past. I tell myself I’m going to stop work 5 minutes early and reflect on the day before packing up to head home (or in pandemic times, preparing to leave the home office to make dinner and check in with the kiddos). I tell myself I’m going to shut my laptop at 8pm so that I can wind down before bed. I’ve made calendar events and set my phone alarm. Nothing sticks.

I attribute a big part of this to the nature of academic work and to how I tie my self-worth to my work output. At my last therapy session, my therapist reminded me of an interaction from one of our early sessions a few years back, where he asked me to reflect back on the academic year and I spent 5 solid minutes listing everything I’d failed to accomplish that past year, without listing a single win.


While I’m now much better at recognizing my accomplishments and at extending myself some grace, I still feel that pull to do Just One More Thing before I leave the office/home office, or before bed. Sure, I could spend 5 minutes reflecting on the day — or I could try to answer 2 more emails. Sure, I could shut my computer off at 8pm — but that one task keeps migrating from day to day, so let me just do it now. The siren song of checking one more thing off the list hides the fact that there will always be another thing to check off, or three more things to add, or another article to read, or or or….

Thinking back to my pre-kid life — which, admittedly, is hard to do since it’s been so long — I think there was part of me that thrived on the adrenaline rush of working right up until I left the office. Probably because I knew I’d have an opportunity to wind down at home after work, or go off to do something fun just for me, even if I did “have to” work later that night. With kids and a family, I don’t have the luxury of downtime when I come home — I walk in the door and I’m instantly in Mom Mode. But I never unlearned the habit of working up until the last minute. While my commute provides some down-ish time, it’s not the same — and I usually spend it stressing over things that happened at work or things waiting for me at home, or both.

Some recent health issues have me rethinking all sorts of aspects of my relationship to work. In recent years I’ve improved immensely in setting boundaries and saying no, but there’s still much more I can do. I sense that setting, and sticking to, a shutdown routine at this particular point in my life will produce outsized benefits to my mental and physical health. I just need to figure out what that looks like for me, for now.

Do you have a shutdown routine? I’d love to hear what you do and how well it works for you.

I’m trying out something new at the end of my posts. I always enjoy hearing and reading about what other people are reading and listening to, so at the end of my posts I’ll list one thing I’m reading (or have read this past week) and one thing I’m listening to (or have listened to recently).

What I’m reading: Just Work: Tools to Tackle Workplace Injustice, by Kim Scott.

What I’m listening to: “The Agile Academic”, a podcast hosted by Rebecca Pope-Ruark.

Working with students in a transition summer

When I hired students back in March to work with me this summer, we were unsure of what summer would look like. Would students be allowed or required to live on campus? How many? Would we require vaccinations? Masks? Could students opt to live in Northfield and/or otherwise off-campus? Would labs have capacity limits? Because of this uncertainty, I erred on the side of maximum flexibility. I offered students the option of fully on-campus, fully remote, and (if circumstances allowed) a hybrid option where they could be mostly remote but in-person sometimes, and vice-versa.

Interestingly, I ended up with three students choosing three different options. I have one fully in person student, one fully remote student, and one student in person for the first half of the summer and remote for the second half. (Technically, the hybrid student will only be working remotely for me for one week, since they are taking a break to TA a virtual summer program.)

I thought the logistics of this would be more challenging, but after a few days of hiccups we figured out systems that work for us. I’ve used Slack with my research group for ages, so we are already in the habit of communicating with each other that way. (My students set up a private channel so that other students who are not working with me this summer don’t have to mute the entire workspace.) We’re using GitHub’s built-in wiki regularly to record our weekly team goals and check in to see how we’re progressing towards those. Students keep notes and papers in a shared Google Drive. We have a daily check-in meeting with a Zoom option. I thought we’d use one of the conference rooms in our computational research suite (which we share with chemists, physicists, astronomers, and biologists) for these daily check-ins, since they have projectors and fancy whiteboards. We tried this the first day and realized that the technology and layout of the room hindered our ability to get things done! We now meet in our research space, firing up Zoom on my laptop and gathering around it. (We do use an external microphone because it makes it easier for the remote person / people to hear everyone in the room.) We move the laptop closer to the whiteboard if someone wants to sketch something out. If we’re looking at code or a website, we make sure to tell anyone on Zoom specifically what file / document we’re looking at, and we’re (mostly) in the habit of referring to line numbers in code.

We’ll have another logistical change next week, moving the fully in-person student into a space with other CS research students from a different group, so that they are not all by themselves. I need to figure out if we’ll still do check-in meetings in the room my students currently occupy or if we’ll move these to my office. I suspect we’ll try both.

We’re in Week 4 of 8, and the project’s progressing about as I expected. Lots of false starts and dead ends, mixed in with some promising directions. My students are playing around with natural language processing libraries to determine if we can use natural language processing techniques on our tech support dataset to extract indicators of expertise (and, somewhat relatedly, confidence). They’ve spent most of their time figuring out how to slice and dice the dataset various ways: filtering out “noisy” tickets, attempting to separate out various constituencies (clients from IT workers, e.g.), identifying “superusers”, and so on. We decided yesterday that we will likely have enough data and analysis to put together at least a poster / extended abstract this fall, so that’s exciting!

One unexpected thing: the return of spontaneous tangents and rabbit holes during our meetings! Now, granted, we do and have gone off on tangents on Zoom meetings (last summer, with my fully remote students, and during the spring when we were all meeting remotely). But Zoom can’t capture that certain energy in the room that happens when you go down a rabbit hole or explore a peripheral path. And I didn’t realize (a) that I was missing that energy in the first place and (b) how much I missed that energy until the first time we went off on a tangent during a check-in meeting. As a result, our tangents feel more productive, and definitely more enjoyable. Yesterday, for instance, a student question about conferences (earlier this summer I mentioned that I wanted to try and take them all to an in-person conference once those are a thing again) led us to look up where various conferences in our field would be held in 2022, which led to parallel conversations about travel and about academic publishing. Another tangent last week helped me connect the dots between one of my Comps projects this past year and a particular avenue one student is exploring. Of course, not all tangents are productive, nor should they be. At the very least, they help me get to know my students better — and that’s something I also missed last summer, because again, Zoom conversations can only get you so far down that road.

While I’m a bit panicked that we’re already halfway through the summer of research (how did that happen?!), and while we have and will continue to experience hiccups, I’m very much enjoying this summer of research. I’m proud of my students’ progress and growth and proud of the work we’re co-creating. I’m enjoying getting to know my students, and interacting with “3-D people” again. And I’m excited to see where the second half of the summer takes us.

Friendship and guilt

Earlier this month, I found myself in the enviable position of having both a week to myself and the house to myself. My partner participated in a road race series nearby his parents’ home and brought the kids with him to spend a week with their grandparents.

As one of the captains of Team Introvert, I was way more excited than anyone should be about the prospect of a week to myself. Yet I also knew that the last time I had a week to myself, I found myself in a pretty precarious mental state. Plus, after 15 months of pandemic living and with all of my close friends fully vaccinated, I wanted to get out and spend time with friends “in 3-D”. No problem, I thought. I’ll just send out a few texts and rally the troops and get some things on the calendar!

And that’s when I hit an unexpected wall.

The voices in my head clamored, “Why do you think anyone will want to spend time with you? Oh, so NOW you have some free time and you just expect people to drop everything and hang out with you? They’ll probably be pissed off because you haven’t asked them to do anything in a while. You’re just doing this because it’s convenient for you. You’re not a real friend to anyone.”

This unexpected wave of Friend Guilt caught me off guard. Where was this coming from? Did I honestly think my close friends would be pissed off by a request to get together? How much of a weirdo am I?

Serendipitously, this very subject of Friend Guilt came up over lunch with one of my close friends a few days later. Turns out, I am not that much of a weirdo, at least where Friend Guilt is concerned. (Or maybe this close friend and I are alone in our weirdness on this? I doubt it.) Friend Guilt is a thing! Other people feel Friend Guilt!

I’ve spent some time reflecting on the source of my Friend Guilt since then. In my case, I think there are two main mitigating factors.

Organizing fatigue. Like many women, I carry the bulk of the mental load at home, making sure that the house and the family don’t descend into chaos. (This is something my partner and I are actively working on correcting, not least because the stress of many things, including shouldering this mental load, is negatively impacting my health in tangible ways.) My job requires a lot of planning, organizing, and decision-making throughout the day. I’m mentally fried by the end of the day. Texting or (horrors!) calling people to try and set something up, requiring at least several rounds of decision-making, often seems like an insurmountable barrier, the thought of which exhausts me further. So I often don’t send that text, or initiate the plans. This leads to two different sources of guilt: the guilt of “I’m such a free-rider because I rely on others to initiate plans with me”, and the guilt of “if I was a *real* friend, I would make the effort to initiate plans even when I’m exhausted, because that’s what real friends do.”

A “history” of bailing at the last minute. I put “history” in quotes because honestly I think this is something I make a bigger deal out of than anyone else in my life. One of my kiddos, when very young, was very needy, and often unpredictably so. Now that we have some diagnoses, the behavior back then makes much more sense. At the time, though, all I knew is that I could never quite predict when this kiddo would have a major meltdown, or Very Big Feelings That Need To Come Out Right Now. When this happened, 9.5 times out of 10 kiddo could only be consoled by me. So I’d find myself canceling plans at the last minute, and sometimes those plans happened to be with close friends. Now, my friends are not monsters, so of course they understood. But over time, I started to tell myself a story that I was a bad friend because I couldn’t keep to my friend commitments. And since I couldn’t keep my friend commitments, how dare I make plans to see friends when it was “convenient” for me? You can see the vicious cycle this started. It just became easier to not initiate plans, to avoid the guilt and shame of “neglecting” my friends.

When my friend voiced some of the same phrases that regularly swirl in my head, I realized how ridiculous they sounded and how little truth and weight they hold. When a friend texts me to make plans, I never calculate how long it’s been since they initiated plans to get together. I have never once uttered or thought, “geez, who does this person think they are, texting after all this time?” Heck, my inner bullied middle schooler is thrilled that someone wants to hang out with me at all, to be honest! But those damn stories we tell ourselves hold so much power over us, that it’s hard to be rational in the moment. I’m hoping this a-ha moment with my friend will help me start dismantling this particular set of stories and replace them with truer stories about what “good friendship” looks like.

Do you feel friendship guilt? In what ways does it manifest itself in your life?

Summer plans

One of the first things I do, or at least try to do, in the transition from Spring Term to summer is sit down and make a concrete work plan for the summer. Doing so prevents me from falling into the trap of “It’s summer and I am now going to Do All The Things!” and then hating myself at the end of the summer for doing None Of The Things, or Only A Small Portion Of The Things. I still tend to overestimate what I can do, because that’s my nature, but over the years I do think I am getting better at being realistic.

(As a semi-related aside: Those of you familiar with Sarah Hart-Unger — blogger, host of the Best Laid Plans podcast and co-host of the Best of Both Worlds podcast — know that she plans in quintiles instead of quarters. I just realized that I, too, have a de-facto quintile planning system! Three of the quintiles match up with our 3 academic terms (Winter, Spring, Fall), and the other 2 are summer, and winter break, our 5-week break between Fall and Winter Terms.)

I was a tad late with the planning session this year, because it didn’t happen until the end of my first week with my summer research students. But hey, better late than never!

What does this process look like for me?

Step 1: Capture. I always start with a brain dump of everything in progress, everything I meant to get to but didn’t, every “hey, it would be nice if I could do X when I have a bit more breathing room”. I do a pretty good job of keeping track of things that fit into this category, although they’re not all in one place. I go back to meeting notes, look through my notebooks (paper and Evernote), look at my research Trello boards, review emails I’ve flagged, and glance at my yearly goals list. This year, I’d already done a bit of this processing before sitting down to plan. One of the productivity tools I was using to keep track of projects and tasks no longer worked well for me for that purpose, so I’d already transferred all of that information into a paper notebook while I figured out a new system. And, as I transferred info, I did some organizing and re-evaluating and triaging of tasks and projects.

Step 2: Summarize. Once I have this all on paper — writing things down helps me process them — I look for larger themes. Do distinct projects emerge? What concrete things are due, and when? I make a list of things that are due, projects in progress, workshops or conferences I’m attending, and so on.

List of things that are due and projects in progress
Second step: organize the brain dump.

Step 3: Confront the calendar. I didn’t have my trusty big-ass desk calendar handy during my session, so I printed out regular-sized blank calendar pages for June-September. Referencing my Google calendars, I wrote down all of the big stuff happening this summer: kids’ camps, trips, conferences, due dates, and so on. It might seem a bit ridiculous to write things down that are already on a calendar, but again, writing helps me process, and having things on paper that I can then spread out on my desk helps me see the bigger picture of the summer more clearly.

Step 4: Schedule in the projects and triage. To the whiteboard! Armed with a list of projects and the reality of schedules, my next move is to assign projects to weeks. Doing so forces me to be realistic about what can get done in a summer by looking at how many weeks I have and thinking about what I can reasonably accomplish in any given week. I try to do this in order of priority, starting with the project(s) I deem most important to do now. If I run out of space before I run out of projects, I might re-prioritize, but whatever’s left over at the end gets moved to the fall (or even further in the future). I also try to have a mix of projects each week so that I’m not spending weeks “bingeing” on a particular project. (Gradual progress for the win!)

Since making this chart, I realized that textbook orders are due a week earlier than I thought. Whoops.

Step 6: Transfer. My final step is to make sure my project grid is somewhere accessible to both work and home. Evernote is my organizational tool of choice right now, so I repurposed a yearly goal-tracking template to store my summer project grid.

Grid in Evernote of my high-level tasks for the first few weeks of the summer.
Final step: transfer to Evernote so I have access at work and at home

Of course, the most important step is the step that follows all of this: actually doing the work! So far, the grid has kept me on track this week, and while I might not fully complete everything, I’ll have made really good progress on each of the focus areas for this week. The act of putting this grid together also helped me get out of a really bad headspace and restored a sense of (at least a bit of) control over my work to-dos. And finally, the act of putting the grid together helped me solidify my summer goals. For instance, what exactly do I mean by “finish Card Sort 2.0 draft”? (Answer: Finalize the results and analysis and write enough of the supporting sections to form a coherent story, so that I can start figuring out which venue(s) we should target first.) How about “plan A&I seminar”? (Answer: Finalize the learning outcomes, the central course question, and the major assignments / due dates, before September.)

How do you keep track of your summer projects, or projects during less-structured times in general?

Fridays off

Even though it’s already summer — spring term is done, graduation happened, grades are in, and my research students started this week — I’m still digging out of my spring term hole. Which means I haven’t had a chance to set my summer goals, figure out my summer schedule, and do my normal summer / Q3 planning. (I should be able to do all of that this weekend, fingers crossed!) That said, there is one key part of summer that’s already penciled in:

Fridays off.

I’ve been taking, or at least trying to take, summer Fridays off for quite some time now, as I explain in this post. I do it to stave off burnout and to nurture the non-academic parts of my life. I do it to spend time with my kids — or, at times when the kids are in some kind of camp program, to spend solo time doing whatever I want. I do it so that I can spend time outdoors, where I’m happiest.

This summer, Fridays off seem more necessary than ever. I did not get much of a break last summer, or really since the pandemic started. The end of spring term was very difficult for me, for various reasons (some family, some professional). And an already full summer plate became even fuller when the person I work most closely with in my STEM Director role, the STEM Program Manager, left at the end of last week, leaving that position vacant for the foreseeable future. I need this type of a regular break more than ever, if I don’t want to start the next academic year depleted.

There will be a couple of Fridays that I won’t be able to take completely off, but outside of those I will do my best to keep those days completely free. Both kiddos are (mostly) unscheduled on Fridays too, so there will likely be lots of adventures with them. We bought a season pass for a nearby amusement park towards the end of summer 2019 for summer 2020, which is now good this year, so I’m sure we’ll spend at least a few of our Fridays there. We have a state parks pass and will likely explore some old favorites and some new-to-us places. I can usually convince one kiddo to go on bike rides and the other kiddo to go to the beach. And this might just be the summer we make a bucket list of ice cream places to try….

Of course, now that my kids are in the teen and tween years, they (shockingly!) don’t want to spend every waking moment with me. So I’ll likely have some time for solo fun, too. I’m looking forward to revisiting my favorite local lakes on my kayak, and maybe exploring a new-to-me lake, too. I plan on spending plenty of quality time curled up with a book on our back deck in the heat of the afternoon.

Do you take time off in the summer? How do you spend that time?

5 Pandemic Teaching Practices I Plan to Keep

As Spring Term wound down and hints about the structure of Fall Term (and the summer) emerged over the past few weeks, I found myself reflecting on the past year+ of pandemic teaching. I talked in my last post about returning to some of the normalcy of interacting in person, and how much I’m looking forward to little things I used to take for granted. At the same time, I recognize how much grief and trauma we carry forward, individually and collectively, and wonder / worry about what that will look like and how we will deal with it, next year and beyond.

Somewhere in the middle of those two spaces lies pedagogy — what it was in the Before Times, what it became in Pandemic Times, and what it will look like henceforth. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the “henceforth” part. What have I learned in the last 4 terms of teaching online? How will this carry over into my future courses? What’s going to “stick”?

This, of course, is not a one-time reflection — I’m sure my thoughts will morph as we settle into whatever becomes our normal. But at this point in time, I keep settling on the same 5 things, which makes me think these will be the most likely to “stick”.

1. Weekly grid

I first saw this idea in a Resilient Pedagogy workshop last summer (and blogged about it here). The grid communicates expectations to students about what’s going on in class in a particular week, in what mode, and how long each item should take them to complete. I’ve found the grid invaluable for planning out each week. It shows me whether activities are balanced across modalities or whether I have to switch things around (e.g., do I have too many asynchronous team activities planned?). It keeps me honest in my expectations of students — I can quickly see if what I’ve planned will take 8 hours or 16 hours, and adjust accordingly. And I find it much, much easier to parse than looking at a list of activities on a Moodle page. So much so, that I embedded the grid for the week into that week’s Moodle page.

Screen shot of Moodle page for Week 6 in Software Design, highlighting the activity grid.

I’ll continue this because: It makes planning easier for me! And it has all of the key information for the week in one place for the students, including when office hours are and how to access the lab assistants.

2. Sunday night videos

I’m pretty sure I got this idea from Small Teaching Online, by Flower Darby and James Lang. The Sunday Night Video, so named because I often ended up recording and/or posting the video on Sunday night, is a short, 5-10 minute video which presents a high-level review of what we did in class last week and what’s coming up this week. The review and preview focus on how the course activities, concepts, skills, etc. fit into the learning goals and the larger arc of the course. Similarly to the grid, it provides orientation and context within the course — why are we doing this set of activities now? How will this get us closer to achieving the learning goals in the course?

Screen shot of the weekly review/preview video, a.k.a. the "Sunday Night Video"

I’ll continue this because: It’s a quick and accessible way to remind students of how all of the pieces fit together. It shows students how we’re progressing towards the learning goals for the course. It helps them connect the dots.

I might modify this by: Instead of recording a video, I could start off the first class meeting of the week with this content. I don’t know if that’s the best use of limited class time, but I could probably do a variation of this in a shorter amount of time. I may experiment with this in the fall, when I’m teaching a first year seminar.

3. Collaboratively annotated readings

I’ve posted previously about my use of Hypothes.is in my Computer Networks course (also written up here), and I’ve also used Hypothes.is in Software Design. When I first experimented with it, I thought of it exclusively as an asynchronous team tool, for students to label and highlight course concepts together. (For instance, in Software Design I have students apply Steve Krug’s Trunk Test to a web site, finding and highlighting answers to each of the Trunk Test questions.) The more I used it, the more I realized how I could use it to focus students’ attention on key concepts in particularly dense readings, or guide students through reading a recent paper related to course concepts, or (in the case of Computer Networks) walking students through a protocol specification. The example below shows my annotations in our online textbook for a particularly tricky topic.

Annotated text using Hypothes.is, explaining the finer points of TCP Congestion Control in a Computer Networks course.

In turn, students can add their own highlights, comment on my annotations, and so on — which leads to a dialog about the material before we even get to class!

I’ll continue this because: It’s an effective way for me to communicate how students should read a particular selection and what to focus on, and help them be more effective readers of technical content. It allows students to communicate with me as they are reading so that I can get a clear sense of what’s confusing and what’s piqued their interest. The act of annotating a reading also serves as a valuable check to me — I can hone in on what’s really important, and cut out sections that I may have assigned in the past but that don’t carry much weight in terms of student comprehension of a particular concept.

4. Using Google Docs during small group activities

When we moved to online teaching, I lamented the loss of in-person group work and of teaching in my favorite classroom space, a large room with tables and walls of whiteboards. How would I reproduce the collaborative brainstorming, the collective question-answering, the creation of communal artifacts, and my walking around the room to answer questions and redirect the wayward group?

Answer: collaborative editing of Google Docs.

Example of a collaboratively edited Google Doc from Software Design, where teams analyzed different websites.

Collaboratively-edited Google Docs allowed me to reproduce the spirit of all of those things. Student teams either had their own document to edit, pre-populated with the discussion questions and prompts, or had a section of the document to edit, also pre-populated with the questions / prompts (shown in the example above). I’d send student teams to breakout rooms after setting up the activity. Sometimes I’d travel from room to room, but because I found this more disruptive than helpful, I’d usually just monitor the activity on the document(s). If I wasn’t seeing any typing for a while, I’d stop by the room. If someone in a team wrote a particularly interesting, insightful, or good point, I’d add a comment. I also used comments to ask guiding questions if a group seemed to be heading off-track or in the wrong direction. The document(s) provided a record of class discussion, which students could revisit or, if they’d missed class for whatever reason, use to catch up. (This was particularly valuable when I had students literally on the other side of the world for whom class met in the middle of the night and who rarely attended synchronous class meetings because of that.)

I’ll continue this because: In addition to providing students with a record of what each group produced, this provides me with a record of what each group produced. Even when I walk around the room, I miss things.

I might modify this by: having students take pictures of the whiteboards and post those to Google Drive, when we use the whiteboards in class. (It might also be an interesting learning activity to have teams annotate the pictures after the fact, as a way to consolidate their learning from a particular class session!)

5. Instructional videos / walkthroughs

I tried, as much as possible, to avoid lecturing in synchronous class meetings, instead opting to record smaller-sized lectures and posting those along with targeted readings. As the pandemic wore on, I found other valuable uses for instructional videos:

  • Walking through worked examples of problems.
  • Providing feedback on things that many students missed on an assignment or exam, to help students who wanted to revise figure out how to approach the revisions.
  • Walking students through the steps of a lab activity — showing them how to do something, and then asking them to stop the video and do a particular section of the lab (shown in the picture below).
  • Providing feedback to individual students and/or teams on an assignment, when it was easier to show them where they went astray instead of trying to put it into words.
Screen shot of a video walking students through a lab on Flask.

I’ll continue this because: Not every student is going to catch everything in a lecture or demonstration the first time around. Allowing students the opportunity to review and rewatch things at their own pace provides more opportunities for real learning — particularly if the students work the example, step through the problem, etc. along with the video. And the students who received video feedback indicated that they found this form of feedback particularly helpful, because they could see what part of the assignment particular pieces of feedback matched.

I might modify this by: finding ways to record the lecture / problem examples portion of class, maybe not all the time, but when I’m teaching a particularly difficult concept.

In reading over this list, I’m struck by the fact that all of these pedagogical practices increase transparency. They expose how students approach and apply the course concepts, and the work of small teams. They give students a glimpse into how I think about the pieces of the course and my expectations for their learning and engagement. They make more of the construction of the learning process visible. And hopefully, by being more transparent and not assuming students know why I’m doing what I’m doing, I’m also being more inclusive.

If you’ve taught during the pandemic, what new practices do you plan to continue?


Spring Term wound down this week in its usual haze of academic year exhaustion and frenzied race to the finish. Amidst all the usual chaos — the grading, the last-minute meetings, the grading, the discussions with students and the Dean of Students office about extensions, and did I mention the grading? — there were glimpses of a return to some sort of, well, normal.

Carleton modified some rules around gathering sizes outdoors, which allowed us to have a casual outdoor gathering for our senior majors who are on campus, in and around one of the classroom tents. I didn’t expect the extent to which seeing people “in 3-D” would be a source of joy and relief. I talked and laughed and ate with faculty I haven’t seen since last March! (Some of whom have not been back on campus since then, or have only been back once or twice to pack/unpack last summer when we moved into our new space.) I marveled at how tall students I hadn’t previously met in person are in real life. I caught up with students who used to stop by my office semi-regularly and, again, marveled at how tall they were in real life. (Zoom has really messed with our perceptions of height!) I talked with one of our early graduates from one of my Comps groups who returned for graduation. I realized how much I missed the flow of conversations in a group, a flow that is quite different than on Zoom. It was a bit bittersweet, too, as I realized what we’d missed this year with our classes and interactions with students being completely virtual (save for a few Comps groups who met in “mixed mode” in the fall and winter).

My family developed a “Takeout Tuesday” tradition during the pandemic, a tradition we plan on continuing, where we get takeout from a local restaurant and everyone takes turns selecting the restaurant. Due to unusually busy evening schedules, this week I ended up taking the kids to a Real Live Actual Restaurant Where We Ate Indoors on Wednesday, in lieu of our takeout day. The last time I’d been in a Real Live Actual Restaurant Where You Eat Indoors was March 13, 2020 with the resident 4th grader. Our plan was actually to eat outdoors, but with an hour+ wait the kids decided that indoors was ok, even though one is unvaccinated and the other is halfway vaccinated. It was…fine! A bit weird at first, but fine. Our family rule is that we wear masks when we’re out together since the 4th grader can’t get vaccinated yet, and so we all wore masks when we weren’t eating and drinking. We were the only ones in the restaurant with masks on, but we didn’t get any dirty or strange looks that I could tell. I very much miss eating in restaurants, and the kids do, too, so on many fronts this was a really nice way to dip our toes back into “normal”.

Finally, I got to see the research spaces my group will be using this summer, a surprisingly emotional experience.

To be honest, I’m still a bit giddy thinking about filling the whiteboards with sketches and ideas in a space that’s entirely ours, and remembering how just being in the same room together facilitates the flow of ideas.

What ways have you found yourself emerging out of the pandemic and back to some sense of normalcy?

Midterm … ish … update

We’re currently in Week 7 of 10 of Spring Term, and the only good thing I can say about this state of affairs is THANK GOD the administration moved fall term registration, and advising, to the summer, because if I had to meet with all of my advisees on top of everything else going on this week, I would probably run away to join the circus.

No one is ever at their best at this point in our academic year. Every other institution in the universe (it seems) is out for summer, and we’re all sick of each other and exhausted and cursing our calendar. This year those feelings are amplified. I poll my class every Wednesday (anonymously and when I remember) to see how they’re doing, and this week over half the class responded with some level of “not great”. A good number of my students are dealing with some pretty serious stuff. The other day one of my colleagues said “I wish we could just give everyone an A and send them home at this point.” Which, to be honest, sounds like an excellent strategy.

I have to say that I’ve mostly struggled through the term, too. Work continues to be a firehose, and I continue to work more hours on weekends than I’d like. There are difficult growing pains connected to my leadership role. My course grader went MIA for a good chunk of the term. Both kiddos are really struggling. I’m dealing with a level of exhaustion I haven’t experienced since I-don’t-know-when.

And yet.

I’m fully vaccinated, as is my partner, as are many of my close friends here. I’ve hugged people I don’t live with, for the first time in over a year! And one of my kids is now vaccine-eligible, and is hounding us to schedule their appointment ASAP.

I’ll be hosting students IN MY RESEARCH LAB, PHYSICALLY in a few short weeks.

My Software Design students are awesome and a lot of fun to teach. I am having a blast.

I submitted an article to a journal earlier this month! Something I’d been thinking about writing for a while and then struggling to complete for months. I convinced one of my favorite staff people to coauthor, and writing with her was one of the high points of this academic year. And I’m currently working on another paper, on work I did with students a couple of years ago, which I hope to get out for review by mid-summer.

I was elected to the college’s tenure-and-promotion committee, a 3-year stint. This is super important (and hard!) work, particularly as we figure out what faculty reviews and evaluation look like post-COVID. I’m humbled that my colleagues trust me to be a thoughtful voice in these discussions and deliberations.

Most importantly, despite everything else going on, I feel a rare sense of … calm. A sense that all of the important stuff will get done, maybe not quite on the timeline I’d like, but still, done. That the stuff that doesn’t get done wasn’t really important in the first place. That the current state of affairs, no matter how frustrating or difficult, is temporary. This is a rare state for me in normal circumstances, but especially during the spring, where my depression and anxiety are typically at their worst. Perhaps all that hard work in therapy is starting to pay off.

I hope this week, despite whatever else is on your plate, that you are able to find some small bit of calm among the chaos.

5 good things

The past few weeks have been hard on many fronts — the COVID front, the work front, the home front, the news cycle front, the everything-is-a-racist-mess front, the I-am-so-done-with-people front (not my students — they have been a bright, bright spot this term!) — ok, you get the picture. Suffice it to say the heavy, contemplative, possibly a bit navel-gazing, post I’d planned for today felt impossible to finish and not the kind of heaviness I wanted to pile on today.

When life gets impossibly hard, I draft a resignation letter that I have no intention of sending (or, at least, not yet) and fantasize about disappearing to a cabin in the woods and living as a hermit. But I also remind myself of the not-sucky things happening in my life. This is one part of the suite of tools I use to manage my anxiety and depression — and boy, have I needed those tools recently.

So when I did this exercise this week, as life spiraled downward, this is what appeared on my list.

Deep family conversations. We tend to have lively conversations (ok, sometimes those “lively conversations” are my kids fighting) over dinner, and given the nature and interests of my kids, I’m never sure where we’ll end up. This week’s topics included the geopolitical situation in the Middle East; sex education and what my kids are learning about healthy intimate relationships; the origins of capitalism; alternate economic systems and their pros and cons; how slavery built White wealth in the US. Lest you think we’re all deep topics, all the time, popular dinnertime conversation topics also include Why What Mom Cooked Tonight Is Gross and 20 Reasons Why I Hate School. I like how these conversations allow me a window into what’s on my kids’ minds and how they’re currently processing the world around them.

Morning reading habit. This year I added “read something vaguely work-related for 15 minutes” to my morning routine, right after I meditate. I’ve been able to finish a few books I’d been working my way through for a while, and generally get more work reading done. Reading is one of my favorite things, and starting the day with one of my favorite things usually starts me off on the right foot for the rest of the day — or at least keeps me somewhat zen through the first few crises of the day.

Injury rehab. Now admittedly, this seems like an odd addition to the list. But I’d kept injuring the same ankle and finally made a PT appointment. And learned that the ankle I badly sprained last spring never quite healed — and oh yeah, my calf muscles are so tight that they’re completely screwing up my running biomechanics. PT is hard and not always fun, but I appreciate knowing what’s causing my injuries and, especially, having a specific plan to follow every day to recover. When everything else is falling apart, there is real comfort in knowing that I have to do 50 reps of these 4 exercises and this many minutes of run/walk intervals and 2 minutes of those stretches — and that no matter what else happens, I can control this small part of my day.

Coffee. Coffee is always a good thing.

Vaccinations. I got my first dose of Moderna earlier this month (one of the first ones at Carleton!!) and will get my second dose at the end of the month. My partner got the Johnson and Johnson vaccine right before they paused it. The resident 8th grader is eager to get vaccinated once anything is approved for the 12-15 age group. I think all of my siblings and their partners, and my mom, have either finished their doses or are in between doses. And more of the people in my life are getting their first and second doses. Getting vaccinated has been a HUGE relief, easing some of the underlying stress and anxiety I’ve held for over a year now. I haven’t seen my family in forever and am looking forward to being able to travel to see them again. And I look forward to hugging local friends again. It’s been way too long.

What positive things are happening for you right now?