#ScholarStrike

On Tuesday and Wednesday, September 8-9, I am participating in the Scholar Strike for Racial Justice, a mass action of higher education professionals protesting racist policing, state violence against communities of color, mass incarceration and other manifestations of racism.

Due to my participation, my email response may be delayed. Let me encourage you to follow #SCHOLARSTRIKE on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and to engage with the teach-in occurring on the Scholar Strike YouTube channel. I’d also encourage you to read any of the following books, which delve more deeply into the intersection of race and technology:

Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism, by Safiya Umoja Noble

Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, by Virginia Eubanks

Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech, by Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, by Cathy O’Neil

Scholar Strike is meant to disrupt the everyday routines of academia, and to show solidarity with other workers striking for Black lives, particularly the athletes of the WNBA and NBA. On these two days, in a variety of ways, academic professionals are disrupting the status quo and refusing to stand by while racism and violence devastate Black Americans’ lives and communities.

— my email away message

When I originally conceived my #ScholarStrike participation plans, I expected I’d write a blog post in the “teach-in” spirit of the strike, discussing some of the many ways that white supremacy and technology intersect. Instead, I found myself tweeting a bit about educational disparities (as this video highlights, the connections between racist policing and the education system are iron-clad) and amplifying some of the excellent content on the ScholarStrike YouTube channel.

Here are some other ways I’m participating in this two-day action:

  • Donating 2 days’ (gross) pay to organizations working on hunger, educational justice, and development. “Hunger” might seem out of place on this list, but I wanted to do something to address immediate and basic needs in my local community as well as address bigger, systemic changes.
  • Finishing a working draft of our department’s first broadening participation in computing plan. A colleague and I participated in a workshop this summer to help departments develop plans to broaden participation in computing in meaningful ways. As a result of some sustained efforts yesterday, we now have a concrete set of steps to move forward. Our goal is to address a particular course that sets the tone for the major and where we lose students from particular demographics disproportionately. We’ve got a ton of work to do to bring our plans to fruition, but at the same time I’m eager to put this plan into action!
  • Centering anti-racism in my STEM leadership. As STEM Director, I set the agenda and focus for our STEM Board meetings and activities for the year. I’m eager to move some great conversations we started last year into tangible actions to broaden participation in STEM at Carleton, and more importantly to ensure STEM at Carleton is a space where all can thrive. I’ll spend a good chunk of today finalizing our agenda for the year — which is really the culmination of a lot of hard work that the STEM Program Manager and I put in this summer to get to this point.

Admittedly those last two activities don’t exactly scream “strike”. But I see them as foundational to the work I want to do this year to change the systems I participate in. And as someone with some power and privilege in those spaces, I want to be clear in how my intentions manifest into actions. In that respect, the activities fit the spirit of the strike, and thus I feel comfortable spending time doing that necessary work.

If you haven’t been participating in, or paying attention to, the #ScholarStrike, I encourage you to do so today. Take advantage of the incredible educational videos made by academics. Follow along on your favorite (or most tolerated) social media platform. Follow the links, watch, listen, and learn. Educate yourself on what’s happening in your local communities around race and policing. And then, find a way to take action, to put into practice what you’ve learned, to make our systems and our spaces anti-racist.

Planning for Fall (a story in pictures)

I’m overwhelmed.

Fall term classes don’t start for another week and a half, and I’m already at the stage where I’m semi-catatonic by the end of the work day. (Yesterday I gave up and took a nap. At 4:30pm.)

This time of year is usually full to the brim anyway — the mad rush to finalize the syllabi, helping advisees navigate changes in their schedules, setting priorities for the year for STEM at Carleton, meetings meetings meetings (and, hey, more meetings!), … the list goes on. This year, it’s that … times a thousand.

Yesterday as I navigated through various windows and apps on my laptop, I marveled at the juxtaposition between my “normal” workflow of preparing for the term and the additional preparations for a pandemic term. At the end of the day, I took some screenshots of some of the apps and sites I used throughout the day, to put together a mini photo-essay highlighting a “day in the life” of a professor preparing for the upcoming COVID-influenced term.

  • Checklist containing items to complete for preparing a course for the start of the term.
  • Mind map of a computer networks course.
  • Backward design worksheet with learning outcomes and evidence.
  • Class meeting times schedule.
  • Moodle landing page with course listings
  • Screen shot of part of the faculty COVID-19 FAQs
  • Teaching toolkit, pandemic edition: iPad, pencil, headset

(I did, however, spare you the screenshots of the multiple Zoom meetings I’ve participated in over the past few days. And of the firehose of emails. And of the various ways my family interrupted me mid-meetings. You’re welcome.)

Looking at these pictures, it strikes me that even though everything seems completely out of whack, the basic things I do to prepare for a term — wrangle with Moodle, finalize my learning outcomes, assemble my teaching toolkit — remain largely unchanged. The details may look different, but the broader strokes resemble what used to pass for normal. And that provides me with a teeny bit of comfort as I head into what promises to be a strange and stressful term.

How does preparing for the upcoming term/semester look for you? What new things are juxtaposed into your normal workflow?

Breaks are not optional

View of trees and a distant river from a ridge in Whitewater State Park, MN
View from atop a ridge on one of the hikes we did last week, in Whitewater State Park in Minnesota.

This summer has been difficult for many reasons, not least because, unlike most summers, there hasn’t been any sort of let-up in the workload. We rushed right from the end of the academic year into discussions and debates about Fall Term, and from there into preparing for a very complicated Fall Term. Many of us juggled this with mentoring research students and trying to get some semblance of scholarship done. We count on the firehose of work in early June to subside to a more steady gardenhose flow from mid-June through at least the first half of August, but this summer has been one long firehose of work.

Not to mention, of course, the underlying mid- to high-level stress of living through a pandemic.

Taking a true and sometimes extended break from work at some point in the summer is non-negotiable for me. I’ve learned over the years that I need to take at least a week, if not longer, to completely unplug and detach from work (and from social media). Otherwise, I enter the new academic year burned out, and that almost always spells disaster by Spring Term, if not sooner.

This break often entails packing up the car and the family and hitting the road for some quality time with Mother Nature. My family loves camping, and loves national and state parks, and it’s a rare year when our break doesn’t feature some or all of these. We usually take off in August, although last year’s epic romp through Colorado and parts of Utah happened in June, just to mix things up a bit.

We’d just started kicking around ideas for this summer’s adventure when everything shut down. As the spring wore on, we resigned ourselves to the fact that there would be no epic road trip this summer, and likely no getaway at all. I started thinking about what a “break” might look like in a summer with no child care and no place to go.

Fortunately, things are under enough control in Minnesota that in-state camping seemed to be a relatively safe option for a getaway. So we scaled back our epic road trip aspirations, picked a state park we’ve been wanting to visit, and made camping reservations.

My partner and I suffer from Cram-Vacation-Too-Full-Itis, as our kids like to point out. So this year, we worked hard to unschedule our trip. (And yes, I realize how ridiculous that sentence sounds.) Only one park over the 4 days, not several. Only one campsite, no moving around from park to park. We hiked in the (late) morning, once everyone was up and fed; took a long break back at the campsite for lunch, board games, and naps/reading; went swimming/fishing in the late afternoon; and relaxed around the fire in the evening. I started and got through half of a novel that’s been on my reading list for a while (which I’ve since finished) and worked on two small crocheting projects.

Yes, there were a couple of times where I found myself thinking, “should we get out and explore the area some more?” I am, after all, a textbook Type A personality. But for the most part I relaxed into the un-schedule. And I made sure to take the rest of the week off once we got back, instead of diving back into work.

I started this week fresh and able to work on some longer-term vision-y stuff I was blocked on pre-trip. Things still feel hard, but they feel more manageable. And that’s why taking a break is so valuable, and so non-negotiable for me.

Have you been able to take a break this summer? How are you rejuvenating yourself this weird summer?

Rethinking assessment

When we moved online and moved to mandatory S/Cr/NC grading (basically, Carleton’s version of pass-fail) this spring, I vastly simplified the way I graded projects and other major course assessments. Here’s what I wrote in my syllabus:

Each assessment that you hand in will be evaluated against a checklist related to one or more of the course learning objectives. I will rank each learning objective, and the overall submission, according to a three-point scale: Does not meet expectations; Meets expectations; Exceeds expectations. If an assignment does not meet expectations overall, you (and your team, where applicable) will have the opportunity to revise and resubmit it to be re-evaluated.

… You will earn an S in the course if at least 70% of your evaluated work (after revision, if applicable) is marked as “Meets expectations” or “Exceeds expectations.” You will earn a Cr in the course if between 60 and 70% of your evaluated work (after revision, if applicable) is marked as “Meets expectations.” You will earn an NC in the course if less than 60% of your evaluated work is marked as “Meets expectations.”

CS 257, Spring 2020 syllabus

I’d heard the term “specifications grading” and I knew that what I’d be doing in the spring was in the general spirit of specifications grading (if you squint hard enough). And it worked surprisingly well. Students knew exactly what they had to do to earn a particular grade in the course, and on individual assignments thanks to targeted rubrics. Allowing revision on any major assessment meant that students could recover from the inevitable hiccups during a pandemic term (and a term marked by grief, loss, and protests over George Floyd’s murder). And at the end of the term, when some students could just not give any more to their studies due to all that was happening around them, the system extended some much-needed grace — if they’d already met the threshold for an S, they could bow out or step back from the final assessment, assuming their teams were on board with their decisions.

I wondered: what would it take to do something like this during a graded academic term? I wanted some more guidance.

And so, I did what I always do when I want to learn more about something: I hit the books. Two books, in particular: Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time, by Linda B. Nilson (2014); and Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms, by Joe Feldman (2018).

Both books tackle the same general problem: grades and grading are imperfect, biased, and measure lots of things other than how well students achieved learning outcomes. Nilson solves the problem with a straightforward up-or-out approach: work is either acceptable, or it’s not. Feldman’s solution is a bit more nuanced: work is somewhere on a (short!) continuum between “insufficient evidence” and “exceeds learning targets”, but nothing resembling a formative assessment and/or “life skills” gets a grade.

Specifications Grading is faculty-centered in its approach, at its heart. A key goal of specifications grading is to save faculty time while still maintaining high quality feedback to students. The specifications grading approach is two pronged. First, all individual assessment grades are pass-fail. The assignment either meets the standard of acceptability, or it does not. No partial credit, no wrangling over how many points something is worth. The standards of acceptability are spelled out in a detailed rubric, or checklist, so that students know exactly what constitutes an acceptable submission. Second, a student achieves a particular course grade (A, B, etc) by completing either a specified set of activities (“bundles” or “modules”), or by demonstrating more advanced mastery of the course learning outcomes (“jumping higher hurdles”). The bundles/modules/hurdles are spelled out in detail in the syllabus, so that it’s crystal clear how a student earns a particular grade. In my spring course, for example, the bundles were simply percentages of course assessments acceptably completed. In a graded course, a bundle is often more complex: extra assessments, for instance, or more challenging assignments. While setting up the bundles/modules/hurdles seems like a really time consuming process, it is front-loaded, done before the course starts, so that the grading itself during the term is more streamlined. Basically, the instructor decides what constitutes meeting learning outcomes, and constructs the assessments and bundles/modules/hurdles accordingly. At the end of the course, then, the grade more closely indicates the level of mastery of course learning outcomes than a traditional partial-credit focused grade.

Grading for Equity is, I would say, more student focused. (And more K-12 focused, although I certainly found enough in the book worthwhile to consider for the college context.) Grading for equity is based on three pillars. First, grades should accurately reflect student achievement towards learning outcomes. This means grades should not include things like formative assessments (homework, in-class activities), extra credit, behavior, or “soft skills” — they should only reflect the results of summative assessments, and only the most recent result of a summative assessment. Feldman also cautions against using the typical 100-point scale, which is skewed towards failure, in favor of more compact scales (a 4 point scale, for instance, or a minimum score). Second, grades should be bias-resistant. They should not reflect a teacher’s impression of student behavior, which is flawed for many reasons, nor reflect a student’s life circumstances (for instance, their ability to complete homework outside of school hours). Third, grades should be motivational. It should be transparent to students what counts as mastery of a learning objective and how to achieve a particular grade. Formative feedback should not penalize mistakes, because this promotes a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset. For the former, Feldman is a fan of detailed rubrics and the four-point scale (something like “Exceeds expectations”, “Meets expectations”, “Partially meets expectations”, “Insufficient evidence”).

Both books agree that students learn at different rates, and any summative assessment should take this into account. Both systems, thus, allow for retakes and redos. Specifications grading puts some limits around redos to make things easier on the professor, recommending some kind of “token” system where students have some limited number of redos/late passes over the course of the term/semester. Grading for equity favors as many retakes (up to the end of the term/semester) as a student needs or wants in order for them to meet learning targets. (Theoretically, anyway; the book acknowledges that there could be a snowball effect particularly when later work depends on earlier work, and suggests that time limits on retakes would be appropriate in this context.) Grading for equity argues that later assessments should replace earlier grades rather than, say, averaging them, It gets into the weeds a bit on the freedom of faculty to count anything that demonstrates a learning objective as an appropriate assessment of that objective, including things like discussions in office hours. I get the spirit of this, but it seems like something like this would be ripe for bias.

So, how am I using what I learned from these books about assessment as I plan my fall course, a CS elective? And what am I struggling with?

Plan: Retain the meets/exceeds expectations scales, with minor changes. I really liked the ease and clarity of the three-point scale in the spring. Grading for equity makes a compelling argument for the inclusion of a “not yet demonstrated” category, allowing teachers to differentiate between “handed in and not sufficient” and “not handed in”. So I may move to a 4-point scale for some assessments (“insufficient evidence”, “partially meets expectations”, “meets expectations”, “exceeds expectations”). Roughly, “partially meets” in my head equates to C-level work, “meets” to B-level work, and “exceeds” to A-level work. Moodle likes to convert everything to percentages, which is not as useful for this type of grading. I need to figure out how to hack Moodle to show students something closer to this scale rather than “you’ve met expectations so you’ve earned 50% on this assignment”.

Plan: Allow for revisions and be flexible with deadlines. We’re still in the midst of a pandemic. We still live in a white supremacist society. And the 2020 elections….well, need I say more? Fall will be tough emotionally and mentally for many of us. Extending flexibility and grace to my students, being willing to meet them where they are, is the least I can do. And while I’ve used revisions on exams previously with pretty good results, I’m eager to extend that to all major assessments, as I did in the spring, with later grades replacing earlier grades. I still need to figure out what revision looks like for my “deconstructed exam questions”, though.

Struggle: Not grading homework. While specifications grading allows forms of preparing for class to count towards a bundle, grading for equity adamantly opposes the idea — even just giving points for students completing the homework before class, regardless of correctness. (Which has been my policy for years.) Again, the argument is compelling — homework is formative, not summative; grading homework for correctness penalizes making mistakes in the learning process; there are many good reasons students can’t complete homework outside of class. But I still want students to take preparing for class seriously, so that once we get into class we can be an effective learning community, ready to engage with ideas. Feldman indicates late in the book that keeping track of homework submission can be valuable in pointing out effective and less effective learning strategies to students, and that awarding a small percentage of the overall grade to homework is not horrible. So I think I will compromise and continue to grade homework for completion only, but reduce the percentage it’s worth (maybe from 10% to 5%?).

Struggle: Bundles and modules and objectives, oh my! I’ll admit that I had to put specifications grading down for a bit and come back to it later once it got into specific examples of bundles. Ditto when I tried to wrap my head around deconstructing my usual assessments around course learning outcomes, as grading for equity describes. I got stuck on how I’d translate this to my elective. On reflection, it will take a lot of up front work, but the increased transparency will be worth it. I plan to use the “higher hurdles” approach from specifications grading, measuring hurdle height with the 4 point scale from grading for equity. I’m still not sure if I can achieve complete separation of learning objectives when an assessment covers several of them, grade book wise, so I may have to let that go for now and try separating those out more cleanly in the grade book in a future term.

There are other struggles, of course — grading for equity has me puzzling over my approach to grading group work, for instance — but these are the key ones on my mind as I piece my course together. I’m eager to continue my experiments with assessment and curious to apply what I’ve learned from my spring experiences and from these two books.

Small gratitudes, summer edition

Any hopes I had for a bit of a respite between the end of my students’ summer of research and going full steam ahead with planning for fall term evaporated more quickly than you can say “can you make room on your calendar for….”. This week features All Of The Meetings, anti-racism education, two pedagogical webinars/conversations, and a two day virtual workshop. All good stuff, to be sure, but not at all conducive to catching one’s breath. Not to mention the ever-present and very real stress about what the school year will look like for the kiddos — the school district’s decision doesn’t come out until August 14 — and whether we should wait and see what the plan is or just go ahead and enroll them in the district’s online education program.

In the midst of a heavy week in the middle of spring term, I shared some small gratitudes, little things getting me through a difficult time. This week, when life feels overwhelming, I find myself reflecting on the small things that are getting me through the difficult times this summer:

Kayaking. I think in a past life I was a fish. I grew up swimming every day in the summer, and I worked as a lifeguard and swim instructor for half of my teens and 20s. I love everything about the water; it calms and centers me. Bonus for introverts: on a kayak, it’s easy to get far far away from people and close up to birds, muskrats, and turtles.

My blood pressure is dropping just looking at this picture…

Family food traditions. The formerly-7th-grader-now-8th-grader and I continue our Friday morning drive-through coffee tradition, although we have a new rule that she must be up by 9am or it can’t happen. The best weeks are the ones where she plugs in her phone to the car stereo and shares the music she’s listening to with me. I’ve discovered some new music through her! We also started, back in the spring, ordering takeout once a week on Tuesdays to support local restaurants, and we’ve continued it ever since. We take turns, so that everyone gets their favorites once a month.

I still dream about this meal.

Disc golf. The formerly-3rd-grader-now-4th-grader participated in a socially distanced “frisbee camp” one week in July where he learned how to play disc golf and ultimate frisbee. Long story short, we now own 2 sets of discs and we’ve been out a few times on one of the local disc golf courses. Neither of us are particularly good at it, but we have fun and we laugh at each other’s bad throws. And it’s easy enough to get in a quick 9 holes as a mid-afternoon break (well, at least on days that don’t feature wall-to-wall Zoom meetings).

My new home office. Despite the sometimes spotty Wi-Fi (I think we’ve finally pinpointed the cause and have a possible solution), I am loving my new office space. I love that I’m surrounded by my favorite color on the walls all day long. I love the view of the garden on the side of the house from my window. I love being close enough to the kitchen that I can get a quick coffee refill in the middle of a Zoom meeting. (This proximity also makes getting snacks more convenient, which is both a blessing and a curse.) And surprisingly, I love that I’m closer to what’s happening in the rest of the house (and have the option to close myself off from the chaos, too).

Not pictured: the crochet project in progress, which I now also keep in the office to work on during meetings where I’m listening and not taking notes.

What are you grateful for this summer?

My checklist for wrapping up summer research with students

This week marks the end of my summer research collaboration with my students. I usually wrap up research by the end of July/first week of August so that I can spend some quality time with my family and particularly the kiddos before school starts back up. Granted, this is more of a perk when we haven’t been cooped up together for months….

I digress.

The last research week is always hectic. No matter how on track we’ve been all summer, there’s always a lot to do to wrap things up. Finish the analyses. Make sure all the code is in the repo. Make sure all of the code is commented. Get a rough draft of the eventual conference paper to some stage of “completion”. And so on. A million little details, some of which inevitably slip through the cracks.

Every summer I tell myself I will make a checklist of what needs to be done. Every summer I fail to do so. Maybe it’s because I see my students every day, or almost every day, so part of me assumes that it will come up during a meeting, or that I’ll pop into the lab and remind them to do whatever just popped into my head.

But this summer, we’re all online, in 3 different cities in 2 different time zones. I’ve gotten in the habit of putting more things in writing, more formally. More lists, more systems in place. More structure.

Turns out, this put me in the perfect mindset to finally write that checklist.

Here’s my checklist for this summer. I suspect that in the future, particular details might change based on the nature of the project, but that the overall categories and most of the items will largely stay the same, or at least very similar.

I. Complete project writeup. (I always have students write something up about the project, no matter where we ended up. I think it’s important for students to get some practice writing for a technical audience.)

  •  Write up the methodology for each of the analyses you completed.
  •  Write up the results for each of the analyses you completed. Include graphs/tables.
  •  Write up the takeaway points for each of the analyses you completed. What did you learn? What do you think the results indicate? What are the next steps that should be done?

II. Check in and clean up all code. (I’ve learned the hard way over the years that students need to be reminded of this, and also of specifically what I mean by “clean up”.)

  •  Make sure all code is commented. Think of You, Six Months From Now. What does You, Six Months From Now need to know/remember about what’s in this code?
  •  Write a TODO list for each of the (major) scripts you wrote. (You can put this at the top of the file, in the comments.) What’s not working that needs to be fixed? What’s working imperfectly that needs to be fixed? What are the things you hoped to get to, but ran out of time?
  •  Write up how to execute each script. (You can put this at the top of the file, in the comments.) What data files does this operate on? Where are they specified in the code? Are there command line arguments? Any other assumptions that you made that others should know when running the script?

III. Write up onboarding docs and next steps for next set of students. (This is still a work in progress. Students, understandably, find it difficult to anticipate what others will struggle with, and invariably forget what they struggled with early on in the project.)

  •  Make sure all README files are up to date.
  •  Write up a “Start Here” document that describes what students starting on the project should know about the project, the code, and the data. (I ended up outlining this document for them, because they were really struggling with what to include.)
  •  Make sure all metadata documents (on all datasets) are updated, correct, and easy to find.

IV. Write up a short reflection for me about your experience. (You can defer this until next week if you’re overwhelmed!) Email is fine for this. (I don’t always remember to ask for this, and I always regret when I forget! I learn so much from these reflections.)

  •  What were you hoping to get out of this experience?
  •  How much of that do you feel you accomplished this summer?
  •  What, if anything, surprised you about your experience?
  •  What were you hoping to accomplish/get out of this experience that you did not?
  •  What work are you most proud of, and why?
  •  When/if I write letters of recommendation for you, what parts of your contributions to this project would you like me to emphasize?
  •  What advice would you give to future students on this project?
  •  What advice would you give to me to help me better mentor future students on this project?

V. Celebrate a job well done! (Admittedly, this is trickier to do in the time of Covid. Usually I take them out for lunch, but that doesn’t work when we’re all in different locales. I will likely send my students a little gift of appreciation and a note, but I’m still trying to figure out what to send.)


Do you use a checklist with your research students to keep track of end-of-the-project todos, or at other stages of your research project? I’d love to hear your experiences.

Course design for resilience

Last week, I participated in two simultaneous online workshops around the same topic: resilient course design. One workshop was part of an ongoing series of online workshops around rethinking course design put on by the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM, of which Carleton is a member). The other was a Carleton-specific “design challenge” sponsored by our Perlman Learning and Teaching Center (LTC).

The ACM workshop followed the same format as the others in the series: a Monday webinar, with content presentation and a bit of small group discussion in breakout rooms; and Friday smaller group discussions around a more specific subtopic. For instance, the discussion groups last week focused on lecture courses, discussion courses, lab courses, research seminars, and arts/performance courses. (I participated in the lecture group since that seemed to be the closest fit. Turns out, most people in the group shared similar inclinations to lecture/activity split as I do, so it was indeed a good fit.) Sometimes, there is homework assigned Monday for the Friday discussions, as there was this week. Last week, we designed a typical week in our course as homework, paying attention to a set of guiding questions about student participation in various modes.

The LTC challenge included participation in the ACM workshop, or at least viewing the Monday webinar/recording, and asked us to do the same homework as in the ACM workshop. In addition, the challenge included discussion forum postings (some in the larger group, many in smaller assigned teams), a couple of synchronous discussions, an entire day of drop-in sessions with various staff and faculty on specific aspects of course design (Moodle, Panopto, thinking through learning goals and activities, etc.), and a final reflection. The challenge setup mimicked a mini-course setup, allowing us to experience aspects of an online course from a student’s perspective.

I took a LOT away from this experience, but I want to highlight a few areas in particular: rethinking engagement; weekly structure and flow; and the student experience.

(Note: The worksheets in the images in this post all come from the two challenges, and were used across both challenges.)

Rethinking engagement

One of our first activities had us remap our “typical”, in-person course activities to activities more amenable to multiple modes of participation — fully or partially online, across time zones, taking into account student illness/quarantine/family circumstances, etc. My matrix, for the elective I’m teaching this fall, is pictured below. Entries in purple indicate what I traditionally do in this course; green entries show changes for Fall Term. The entries with purple text in green boxes indicate things I did pre-Fall 2020 that I plan to continue in the fall.

CS 331 course matrix, mapping in-person activities to more online-friendly activities
My course resilience matrix. Which is not resilient from an accessibility standpoint, as it uses color to convey meaning. Ack!

The x-axis moves (left to right) from content delivery to content application/practice; the y-axis moves (top to bottom) from face-to-face engagement to online engagement. Thus, the matrix gives us the opportunity to think through where course activities fall on each of these continuums. The red box includes activities that must be completed in person, the yellow box indicates online synchronous activities, and the white space at the bottom indicates asynchronous online activities.

Since Carleton students don’t register until August, I literally don’t know where in the world my students will be this fall. In designing my matrix, I assumed that students occupied a wide range of time zones, thus the prevalence of activities in the asynchronous zone. For the team activities, I plan to group students roughly by time zone and preferred time of day to work, as I did in the spring. This should help a bit with the time zone issues.

I still have a couple of thorny problems to work through. I’m still not sure how to replace the in-class, physical simulations of network phenomenon (routing, protocol specifications, access control, etc) that I rely heavily on in this course, although I now have some ideas to pursue. And I’m still playing around with course projects, so I can’t decide on the development platform until I finalize the projects. Otherwise, I found it easier than I expected to map my activities to their online counterparts.

Structure and flow

Later in the week, we thought through “a week in the life” of our course, using two different formats: a week-at-a-glance, and a more detailed accounting of the work itself.

Here’s my week-at-a-glance:

Table showing the "flow" of a week, in terms of formal and informal course activities each day.
Overview of a week in the course, showing the modes of engagement and what’s happening each day.

To be honest, I was worried about how well I’d be able to complete this set of activities, since I’m still trying to revise the learning goals for the course. I found instead that these exercises really clarified my thinking about the course as a whole. Specifically, it helped me think through how to spend our scheduled class time — and figuring that out helped other pieces, like asynchronous work, fall into place. In particular, I’m thinking of Wednesdays as the main days for synchronous engagement, with Fridays reserved for drilling down a bit more on applications of the content and Mondays for open-ended Q&A, on either the previous week’s content or the current week’s content.

The second part of this assignment asked us to define the set of activities in a particular week. I picked a random week in the middle of the course and came up with this plan:

A week's worth of course activities for CS 331, including prep, assignments, and support.
Course activities for a week in the middle of the term, including time estimates. Which may not be accurate.

(Of course, after I completed this worksheet, we moved the scheduled course time, so now I have to revamp the due dates. Readings will now be due the night before class, instead of the day of class.)

This was perhaps the most eye-opening activity of the week. It’s one thing to say “yeah, I’ll have them watch some videos and take a reading quiz and maybe do a worksheet or two” and another to sit down and figure out how much time everything will take and why we want students to do these things in the first place. I settled on a rough pattern of preparing for class with targeted readings, reading quizzes to ensure comprehension, and mini-lecture videos. (Since the challenge, I’ve rethought this a bit — I may give students more flexibility in allowing them to read and watch content videos before attempting the reading quizzes.) Class and class-adjacent activities include engaging with the content formally (Wednesdays) and informally (Fridays), a team asynchronous activity (which might be the same one we tackle in class, expanding on the in-class work), and project work. I still need to figure out the appropriate mix, here.

In our small and larger group challenge discussions, we agreed that students may find these charts useful, too. I’m thinking of ways I can incorporate these views (a week in the life and the detailed accounting) into my course Moodle page. (This was a question I’d hoped to ask during the Moodle drop-in hours, but I had to leave before I could ask my question. More on this below.)

The student experience

Experiencing the design challenge as a student made me more sympathetic to the student experience, and I’m rethinking aspects of my course design as a result.

The first challenge: figuring out the challenge structure. What was happening each day? How do I submit my homework? What is the homework for today? How do I post/respond to just my small group? What is my small group? Why is this activity not marked complete if my teammate handed it in? Where’s the Zoom link for today’s discussion? If I, a seasoned educator and self-proclaimed Moodle power user, had trouble figuring some of these things out, then surely some subset of our students will, too! Lesson learned: I need to be even clearer than I think I need to be, when conveying the hows and whats to my students.

The second challenge: getting help! “Yay, drop-in hours!” I thought, as I skimmed the schedule at the start of the week. Come Thursday morning, I found myself in an internal dialog, which I tried to capture in this Twitter thread:

Today I found myself waffling over whether to attend virtual drop-in hours on fall term course design. Was my question “worthy” of stopping by to ask it? When should I show up — at the start, towards the middle, at the end? Am I wasting everyone’s time? 1/2

And I realized OH MY GOD my students were likely having the SAME conversations about attending virtual office hours this spring! Now, the low attendance makes complete sense — and I need to think how to make attending office hours less scary/fraught.

Originally tweeted by Dr. Amy Csizmar Dalal (@drcsiz) on July 16, 2020.

I finally got over myself and hopped onto my first drop-in session, and had a lovely conversation with our outgoing LTC director on in-class simulations in an online environment. And commiserated with the faculty member who jumped on as we were finishing up, who, it turns out, conducted a similar internal dialog before joining the call. I need to make seeking help, and participating in office hours, less scary and more natural this fall.

Emboldened by my new-found confidence, I jumped onto a second drop-in session, on Moodle. There were already several people on the call, asking questions about assessment. I listened in and learned a few things that I made a note to try. But I had to jump off of the call to head to another meeting before the facilitator could answer my question on reproducing the spirit of the weekly plan (discussed in the previous section) on my course Moodle page. And it was not clear how I could seek out help on my question after the drop-in hours and/or after the challenge. I need to think through how to accommodate multiple student questions during drop-in hours, and how to direct students to seek help outside of these hours too.

Concluding thoughts

The challenge might be over, but planning for resilience continues. I find myself thinking through the intersection of resilient design with things like anti-racist pedagogy, time management (my students’ and my own), assessment/grading, and maintaining boundaries while providing emotional support for students. I still need to do the hard work of translating my “week in the life of the course” for each week in my course, while I’m still wrestling with learning goals and the like. This challenge laid a strong foundation for this continued work.

Participating in this challenge, and in the other online ACM workshops this summer, brought an unexpected benefit, too: Confidence. I feel a lot more confident, and capable, of pulling off a strong and worthwhile online course this fall — and beyond, if it comes to that. Things I’ve learned directly translate into in-person offerings, too — the importance of clarity and structure, the value of providing choices to students to direct their own learning, the compassion of flexibility to accommodate student circumstances and acknowledge their struggles. The deep and prolonged reflection on my pedagogy is making me a more effective and more present educator.

Big questions for fall

On Friday, Carleton released their plans for Fall Term 2020, ending a long period of discussion and speculation.

The parameters of the plan are what I expected. Our calendar works in our favor here (start in mid-September, end by Thanksgiving), so I wasn’t surprised to see that hadn’t changed. I’d expected we’d move to a hybrid model, with a mix of in person and partially to fully online courses. I was pleased to see that neither students nor faculty would be required to be physically on campus if they chose to stay home/teach online. Though, of course, some faculty (in the arts, lab sciences, teaching first year seminars), and staff who support faculty, may find themselves weighing their preferences against other factors and pressures. The decision to bring back 85% of the student body to campus surprised me, as I’d read that as an upper bound, if-everything-goes-perfectly threshold. But, here we are.

So, we have answers. But the plan, as extensive as it is, still leaves many questions unanswered.

The big question left unanswered, of course, is what happens if I get sick? (The cynical part of me wants to phrase that as “what happens WHEN I get sick?”, but I’ll try to be optimistic here.) The faculty FAQ is vague on this point. The policy outlined in the link no doubt works well enough during “normal” times, when a faculty member falling seriously ill during the term is an exceptional circumstance. But in a pandemic? When it’s likely that a nontrivial number of faculty are out for an extended period, either due to quarantine, their own illness, or care for a loved one? (Or extended child care WHEN schools close down again, assuming they open at all?) We should PLAN on faculty stepping down from their courses as NORMAL this term, not hope fervently that it doesn’t happen.

As department Comps Czar this year (i.e., the person in charge of all capstone projects), I’m drafting a plan for how to step in if/when a Comps advisor falls ill or needs to step away for part or all of a term. For my own course, I’m aiming to get as much of the course up and posted by Day 1, so that it’s easier for someone else to step in if need be. This is especially important since I’m teaching an elective course, meaning there are only 1-2 others in my department with the expertise to step in and take over. But it shouldn’t fall to individuals, and individual departments, to decide that making contingency plans is necessary. And, it’s important to note that this extensive advanced planning happens at a cost — I can’t afford to take much time off this summer for a break, and I’ll be spending less time on my research projects.

(We have not held a department-wide conversation about “who takes over which class”, but I’m already thinking ahead to what I could take on if need be.)

Similarly, what happens if a student gets sick? The student FAQ contains some guidance about testing, contact tracing, and isolation. But what about academically? Is the Dean of Students’ office planning for mass student absences, streamlining processes for extensions and leaves, ??? I would love to know this info so that I can more effectively advise students and plan my course to be as flexible as possible. And I’m particularly thinking about my own Comps project groups — Comps is a graduation requirement, so what happens if a student can’t finish out a project? We can’t handle these as exceptional cases, because they WILL be the norm.

As a parent of a teen and a special needs tween (thoughts and prayers, please), the big unknown is how will the school district’s plans impact my family’s day-to-day? That’s right, our school district has yet to announce its plans for the fall. If they’re partially or fully online, how do we supervise their schooling while doing our own jobs? What will an online school day look like? Will all 4 of us be on Zoom at the same time? If they’re back to in-person…well, does our family want to take that exposure risk? (Particularly since cases are on the rise in my county.) Should we be looking at school alternatives this year? My head hurts just thinking about all of the planning and decision making ahead of us.

Finally: what plans are in place if (when) we need to pivot back to online-only? Do we have plans? If so, will these be shared at any point with faculty, staff, and students? Similarly, how are we planning for Winter and Spring 2021? And when will these plans be communicated?

There are, of course, a zillion smaller questions as well, enough questions to feed my insomnia for weeks. And a trillion things to do, big and small, to prepare for the term ahead, as I wait and hope for those larger questions to be answered.

What big questions haunt you about the fall….and beyond? How are you coping with the uncertainty?

Working spaces

For as long as I can remember, my partner and I have shared a home office.

For years, this arrangement worked beautifully. For many of those years, my partner worked primarily from home, running his businesses out of our house, while I worked primarily outside the home. For the past decade or so, his business occupied physical office space, so our home office became secondary office space for both of us. (This meant that I had the home office all to myself during my last sabbatical, for the most part.)

Within the past year, my partner’s business decided to downside their physical space and have everyone work from home as much as possible. He’s transitioned back to using our home office as our primary office, and we’d both planned on that arrangement for the long term.

Then, the pandemic hit, and we both found ourselves working exclusively out of the same office.

I enjoy sharing a workspace with my partner, despite his love of techno music as work music and his higher clutter tolerance. We’ve always been able to work comfortably and productively in the same room. It was nice this spring to have a Real Live Software Engineer sitting across the room when I was teaching Software Design, so that I could ask questions about how a particular concept plays out in his work/business as I prepared lectures and asynchronous activities. I’ve been able to help him with some Python questions as he’s found himself doing more Python programming lately. And there is something inspiring about looking across the room at someone completely engaged in their task at hand, doing what they love.

What doesn’t work, of course, are the meetings.

Given our positions in our respective workplaces, we both have a lot of meetings. Sometimes, these meetings overlap, in which case we play everyone’s favorite game, Who’s Going To Find Another Spot In The House With Decent WiFi This Time. But even if they don’t, they disrupt the other person. Noise cancelling headphones only block out so much. And then there are questions like, can you come back into the office in the middle of their meeting? will moving around disrupt the other’s meeting or be disruptive to the people on their meeting? are the contents of this meeting too sensitive for the other person to be present in the room? (Things like advising meetings, discussions involving intellectual property, etc.)

There are other issues sharing an office full time, of course. Recording videos is tricky when someone else is in the room. (“Hilarity” ensued yesterday when my partner declared that I typed too loudly, and requested that I stop typing while he was actively recording.) We do our best work at different times of the day, so if someone is trying to think through a thorny issue while the other is demanding they watch “just this one cute cat video, come on, it will just take 30 seconds”, that’s a problem. This also means that during different times of the day, one or the other of us is the “go-to” parent. But if a kid interrupts one of us and we’re both in the same space, they interrupt both of us.

So the other day we decided to split up our offices. We have a guest room on the main floor that’s, shall we say, lightly/not at all used right now (other than a storage spot for skis and a table we want to get rid of). This weekend, I’ll move into that space.

One of my kiddos LOVES rearranging furniture, so I’ve tasked her with figuring out where to put my desk, where to move the futon and other furniture currently in the room, etc. (Except that table — that’s going out to the curb — and the skis, which hopefully will finally make it up to the attic.) I may be able to “borrow” a whiteboard from my partner’s business, because a nice big whiteboard is a nonnegotiable part of my office setup. I need to figure out if my 2 plants can weather the shift in light, as the new office space has north-facing windows. I also need to figure out how many of my books should move to the new space with me, and take down/rehang my bulletin board and race medal rack. And I need to figure out all of those little touches that will make the space feel like my workspace.

I recognize that I am ridiculously fortunate that I live in a house with room for not one, but multiple spaces for quiet work, with decent WiFi and enough resources. I think about this a lot when I think about my students (and colleagues!) negotiating space within their own homes to work, attend class, and think deeply about thorny problems. I know that for many of them, a space of their own is impossible or difficult to come by. That, and so much about this pandemic, has reinforced just how important our spaces are to our productivity, safety, and well-being.

Now, where did I put that screwdriver….?

Summer planning in the time of COVID-19

notebook page listing summer 2020 goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few notes:

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

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

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

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

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