2019-20 academic year theme: Doing my best

Despite my faulty memory to the contrary, Fall Term always starts out with a bang and keeps its foot firmly on the gas pedal. Those well-rested feelings from the summer last approximately 48 hours in a good year, replaced quickly by the franticness and panic that is the ten week academic term. Before the term starts, it seems, I am already behind — yes, even with the extra bonus week we got before classes started this year, thanks to a very early Labor Day and a very late Thanksgiving.

I expected going in that this fall would be a bit more frantic than usual, with my new part-time administrative position. But things have also been, frankly, chaos on the home side. Fall is middle school girls swim season, which means 6 intense weeks of daily practices for the 7th grader starting the first day of school, and 5-ish meets (2 this week, whee!). It’s all over at the end of this week, but it effects the rhythms of the entire family. Fall is also cyclocross season for my partner, which pretty much means races every weekend, and lots of moving pieces to get everyone where they need to be. On top of everything else, the 3rd grader has some new additional diagnoses in his cocktail of special needs, and thus the transition back to school for him has been … less than ideal. There are days where I’ve used up all of my cognitive/emotional/coping resources by 8am … and I still need to put in a full day at my day job as well as the evening second shift that is parenting.

Sigh. I’m exhausted, and it’s only Week 4 of the term.

The other day, a colleague I hadn’t seen in a while asked how I was doing, and I replied, “I’m doing the best I can, and that’s all I can hope for right now.” And it hit me: THIS needs to be my mantra, my theme for the academic year:

Doing my best.

At the start of every sparring match we do in taekwondo (we spar at the start of every class), we look our opponent in the eye, shake their hand, and say “Do your best sir/ma’am”. We don’t say, “Spar perfectly.” We don’t say, “Perform at the same level you did the day before.” We say, “do your best” as a way of acknowledging that we’re in different places each day, we have different needs and pressures each day, and our only ask of each other is that we bring whatever our best is today to the match. We execute, and learn, from wherever we are.

I want to do this in everyday life. I’m not in the same mind space everyday, and neither are those around me. The way I live should acknowledge this fact.

Doing my best means extending myself some grace on the mornings where the 3rd grader tantrums from the time he gets up until he gets on the bus, and being ok with moving priorities around to focus on those that don’t require as much mental energy.

Doing my best means continuing to take professional risks, whether that’s sending out a paper before I feel it’s “ready” for review, or taking a possibly unpopular stand and pissing people off, because those risks are meaningful to me, and being ok with whatever outcome happens.

Doing my best means being thoughtful about the priorities I set and the activities and tasks I chose to pursue, and chose to let go. And about communicating my boundaries effectively and compassionately to others. (And respecting the boundaries of others!)

Doing my best means being willing to play the long game in terms of fostering the changes I want to see in my institution and department, so that I have the resources and people on my side that I need when I decide to push for a specific change.

Doing my best means being honest, with myself and with others, about my reservoir of resources, capitalizing on my high-energy days and retreating/reflecting on low-energy days.

Fall term is still going to be chaotic and frenzied and often panic-inducing, but this term and in subsequent terms, I can always do my best. That is something I can always control, no matter what life throws at me.

How will you do your best this academic year?

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Personal productivity: what I’m using now

I am a bit obsessed with productivity and productivity systems. I listen to productivity podcasts and read productivity books and blogs. I enjoy learning how successful people organize their lives and their schedules: what’s their morning routine? how do they get their kids out the door? how much do they sleep? how do they approach setting goals and tracking their progress towards those goals? what tools and systems do they use and recommend? Perhaps this obsession with efficiency, and with systems in general, is why I studied engineering in college.

Productivity as a concept has come under attack lately, and I can’t say that I disagree with these points. I view productivity systems as a way for me to make sure I’m on top of, and making room for, what’s truly important in my life (both at and outside of work), and spending my limited energy doing things I value, and not tracking down things, notes, ideas, etc.

Since I love hearing about what works for other people, I thought I’d share a snapshot of what’s currently working for me. Maybe you can get some ideas for your own systems from what I do. And I’d love to hear about systems and tools and tricks that you’re loving right now, and how you use them.

Tools

I use a mix of paper and digital tools to keep on top of things. It’s easier for me to plan and mentally process things on paper, but features of digital like tagging and alarms keep everything organized. My workflow involves writing things down and then transferring them to some cloud-based tool. At first glance, this might seem inefficient, but I’ve found that transcribing allows me to engage with my notes on a deeper level, to see patterns and connections I didn’t previously notice, so it’s definitely worth the time I spend on it.

My low-tech tools include:

Notebook with daily intentions and to-do lists.
My current daily notebook, with the big-ass paper calendar in the background.
  • A daily notebook. I use notebooks in various parts of my life — one as a lab notebook, one dedicated to leadership work, one to record craft project ideas and sketches, one as a journal — but I use one notebook as my catch-all planner and meeting note taker. My daily intentions and to-do lists go here. Meeting notes go here. Things I want to remember from a conversation, or from whatever I’m reading, that need to be transferred somewhere else later, go here. It’s also a good place to jot down those “oh, I need to do this” thoughts that like to intrude while you’re in deep focus mode. I’ve tried daily paper planners before, but I really like the non-structure of the notebook, so that I can tweak my daily format as much as I’d like as the mood arises.
  • A big monthly paper calendar. At the start of every term, and summer, I sit down to plan out my goals for that term. I can’t plan unless I can “see” the time laid out, so a few years ago I bought a big-ass paper calendar. I put any important dates on there, work and home, so that I can keep those in mind when scheduling projects (for me and for my classes). In the summer, I put the kiddos’ summer camp dates, which helps me see when I have child care coverage and how much coverage I have. Once my planning is done, I lay out the pages for the term-in-progress on a long desk surface in my school office that otherwise would be wasted space, so that again, I have a visual representation of the term and know what’s coming up.

My high-tech tools include:

  • Evernote. This is my digital catch-all. I transcribe meeting notes and put them here (along w/ meeting agendas), so that I can tag and organize them. Clippings of articles I’ve read and want to revisit, or want to read later, go here. Ideas for classes I’m currently teaching or will be teaching go here — which comes in handy when, say, you only teach your signature elective once every 3 years. I keep my notebook system simple: home, school, research, and STEM Director. (I do need to clean up my tags, though — they are getting a bit unwieldy!)
  • Todoist. I adore lists, and particularly to-do lists. I had a hard time finding a digital to-do list keeper that works with my brain, but Todoist is pretty much perfect for me. Minimal interface, and allows me to categorize by project and assign due dates.
  • Google calendar. With all of the hats I wear at work, and with 2 busy kiddos (and both my husband and I with active hobby lives too), having a digital calendar is basically a necessity. It’s also much easier to schedule meetings when someone can see when I’m free and when I can see when they’re free, since who has time for 10 back-and-forth emails setting up a time and place to meet?

Systems/habits

As much as I love my tools, it’s the systems and habits that keep my life from spiraling into chaos. (Well, most days anyway. Having kids means you can only control so much. Having a kiddo with special needs means every day is going to have some degree of chaos, and every day’s chaos will be different.) The habits remind me to pause and reflect and not just run from one thing to the next, which is my natural inclination.

Here are the habits and systems that currently work for me:

  • Daily meditation. A few years ago when I went back to therapy, my therapist strongly suggested I try meditation as a way to manage my depression and anxiety. (They even led me through a short meditation at one session, which I thought was cool.) Now, if I don’t start my day with 10 minutes of meditation, I feel lost, uncentered, and unfocused. I use the Headspace app and love it, but there are many other good ones out there too.
  • Daily intention setting. I don’t remember where I got the idea for setting daily intentions instead of starting the day or week with a long and loosely prioritized to-do list, but that’s been a game-changer for me. (You can see a couple of examples in the image of my daily notebook, above.) When new tasks come in, I weigh them against my intention/priority list for the day before deciding whether to tackle or table that task. The 3 limit forces me to prioritize AND be realistic about my available time. Listing my intentions in my daily notebook allows me to go back and see patterns: what days were hard for me? what days’ lists were too ambitious? Bonus: I’ve retrained my brain (most days) to acknowledge that I’m not a terrible person if I didn’t meet all 3 intentions — it just means I was not cognizant of what the day held when I set those intentions.
  • One sentence journal. I think this idea came from one of Gretchen Rubin‘s books. I love the idea of journalling, but not the (self-)expectations around journalling (the journal has to be a complete record of your life and feelings, etc). But committing to writing at least one sentence a night about the day? That’s easy. So, I write at least one sentence in my journal every night before bed, reflecting on something that happened that day. Often I end up writing several sentences, but if I’m mentally exhausted I’m only on the hook for one. Keeping even such a minimal journal has actually been super beneficial for recognizing patterns in my depression and anxiety, which means my therapist and I can figure out better systems for keeping that in check. And it’s a great way to remember what happened last year, 2 years ago, and so on.
  • Sunday night meeting. I got this idea from NCFDD originally, the idea of sitting down with yourself and your calendar and all of those notes you took during the previous week on various projects and figuring out how you’re going to spend your time and energy the coming week. Sunday nights work because it’s a good way to transition from the weekend to the work week, but I’ve also done this first thing Monday morning, or sometimes even Sunday morning, if Sunday’s heavily scheduled. I also use the time to make sure I’m working towards the goals I set at the start of the term, and to readjust goals and timelines if necessary.

As with everything, my systems and tools are a work in progress. I suspect in 6 months at least one of these tools or systems will change — but for me, that’s part of the fun!

My HERS experience

(This is the second post in a series of posts on moving into academic leadership. Part one, in which I talk about my move into an academic leadership post next year, is here.)

I perused the brief bios of the 60+ women in my HERS cohort one sunny September afternoon with an increasing feeling of dread. How on earth did I, an unaccomplished hack and imposter, fool the admissions committee so badly?

I was preparing that afternoon for my first of 4 residential weekends at the HERS Institute. The HERS Institute is a leadership program whose purpose is to prepare women for higher education leadership positions, and to increase the number of women in such positions. There are three such offerings each year: 2 residential offerings over the summer, and a year-long one at Wellesley College, which is the one I attended. I’d originally applied to one of the summer offerings, was waitlisted, and then encouraged to apply for the year-long one, where I was accepted. (In retrospect, I think I got way more out of the institute by spreading it out over an academic year, a point I’ll address later on.)

I expected the HERS Institute to give me a taste of what academic leadership was like, to help me figure out if academic leadership was a viable career path for me, and to teach me the tools I’d need to achieve a leadership position and succeed once there. HERS delivered on all fronts. I hate throwing the word “transformative” around, since I think it’s way overused, but in this case “transformative” definitely describes my experience with the institute.

Here, I’ll break down the key aspects of the institute and what I took away from each.

The cohort

While there are many, many aspects of the HERS program I found valuable, perhaps the most valuable were the connections I made with women leaders from other campuses. My HERS cohort ran the spectrum: large schools, tiny schools; public schools, private schools; seasoned leaders, people testing the waters; pretty much every academic discipline represented; extreme extroverts, extreme introverts. The diversity of experiences lent itself to spirited conversations and discussions. You don’t realize how insulated you become at your institution, forgetting that schools that are very different from yours may share more similarities with yours than you think, and that some of your ways of operating might be a little, er, messed up. Perspective is key!

It’s easy for an introvert to get lost in such a large and dynamic group of women. HERS divided us into cohorts in various ways — institution type, current role, career aspirations, etc — and shuffled us among these groups over the course of each weekend (“your table for this session is your similar institution group”, etc). I felt a palpable sense of relief when I walked in, heart pounding, that first morning to find myself at a small table of 5 women from small undergraduate institutions, and warmly greeted by a fellow scientist from the midwest. I especially looked forward to the times we spent in our “similar roles” cohort, a quirky mix of personalities that managed to find the humor in even the toughest conversations.

Now, when I’m facing a tough situation at work, I often think back to “what would So-and-So do in this situation? didn’t Person X deal with something like this and talk about it in our group?” I go back to my notes to see who else is working on a project similar to mine. I keep in touch with my 60+ new friends on Facebook and our listserv, providing insights and advice, congratulating people on new positions, and asking for help. I value these connections and relationships greatly and look forward to continuing to cultivate them for years to come.

The curriculum

The HERS curriculum is roughly equal parts personal and institutional. Each Institute has a theme (ours was “People of Power and the Power of People”) and each weekend had a particular focus (examples: communication, leading through change, critical higher ed topics, career paths). We heard from experts, worked through exercises and case studies, spent time in self-reflection, talked in small groups, and talked in larger groups. We learned about leadership models and change frameworks. I now feel competent enough to read and interpret financial statements. We grappled with how to have difficult and crucial conversations, about social justice and race and difference and Title IX, about inclusivity and who has a voice. I left with a better appreciation for and understanding of enrollment management and athletics and how each contributes to and reflects the mission of the institution.

We had homework before each weekend — targeted readings and some kind of individual work (a worksheet, a reflective exercise, an assessment). I still refer back to the readings on a regular basis. Our big, multi-month homework assignment was to interview all of the senior officers on our campuses (president, deans, CFO, directors of admissions and development, etc) to discover what our institution’s “story” is, and report out on that. Truth be told, I DREADED this assignment, but found it one of the most fascinating and enjoyable parts of my experience. The senior officers were so generous with their time, candid with their thoughts, and honest about our institution’s strengths and weaknesses. It was a true gift to converse with them, and I have a much better understanding of our institution as a result — and feel much better equipped to step into the leadership fabric of the institution.

Higher education institutions and the issues they face are large, complex, and many-faceted. The curriculum gave me the tools to navigate this landscape. I’ve already used specifics from readings and case studies in my own work. The curriculum also helped me get clear on my own priorities and values, which will center the way I lead. (Interestingly, I’m working my way through Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead right now, and it definitely complements the personal work I did at HERS.) Most importantly, it’s equipped me to be a better observer and participant at my own institution, to ask better questions, and to connect the dots more easily (“oh, THAT’s why that senior leader responded in that way to that comment.”).

Going into HERS, I worried about the distributed structure, spread over months. Would I become detached as life intervened between weekends? In retrospect, spreading this over the year allowed me valuable time to reflect on, and process, the material, and integrate it immediately into my work. I could try out and try on frameworks and practices to see if they fit, figuring out how best to modify things for my situation and values. This was especially important coming out of one of the tougher weekends, where it seemed like every topic and discussion was weighty and difficult — the space was vital to process the conversations, read further and deeper on the underlying issues, and clarify my principles. The “small intense doses” version of HERS worked well for me!

The practice: Leadership project

The HERS Institute has its own capstone project: a self-defined “leadership project” that addresses some need at your institution. The leadership project proposal is part of the application process. The project itself is fairly open-ended, acknowledging that all institutions and situations are unique and changing — participants have quite a bit of leverage in defining the project’s scope and deliverables, and the project can morph over time. While much of the work on this project occurs outside the institute, we did have a few sessions about the projects specifically, and a “similar projects” cohort. Also, it was expected that as you encounter more of the curriculum, you incorporate that into your project where applicable.

Originally, I proposed a project I’ve been working on for a while behind the scenes as my capstone: launching a program involving students in academic civic engagement projects, for academic credit, outside of specific courses, with a computer science aspect. For instance, this could be maintaining and growing projects that came out of a specific course or capstone, or working on projects that don’t neatly fit into a particular course or a ten-week span. When I was selected as the new STEM Director, I shelved my original capstone so that I could work on something more directly related to the role I’ve stepped into. My new project examined ways to build community within our new science complex as we move into the new space over the next year.

The cohort proved valuable in helping me flesh out some of the fuzzier aspects of my original project, particularly around assessment and getting buy-in, and in thinking through my even fuzzier revised project. The project(s) required me to think strategically on many levels, thinking big picture while also getting into the weeds on how I was actually going to do these things. Applying concepts and readings and learnings as I got deeper into the project and the institute really brought the curriculum to life, and brought more clarity to my project and its goals. It was, and still is, difficult and challenging work, but intellectually and personally fulfilling.

Final thoughts

I highly, highly recommend this experience to anyone who’s found themselves in a position of leadership or who’s seriously thinking about taking a leadership path. And not just the traditional department chair/dean path — if you’re directing a program, leading an initiative or important committee, or in any sort of visible and influential role, you’ll find a home in HERS. In addition to the tangible advantages I’ve discussed above, it’s really changed how I approach every aspect of my job, from teaching to scholarship to mentoring, and gotten me clear on who I am and what I stand for.

If you’re thinking about applying, this page has more info. I’m also more than happy to talk about it/answer questions, so shoot me an email (adalal at carleton dot edu).

A late start to summer

When your institution’s on the quarter or trimester system, summers have a different rhythm than for most of the rest of academia. By the time graduation and the due date for final grades rolls around in mid-June for us, the semester schools are nearly halfway through their summers. And while most of the rest of academia frantically preps through the month of August, we enjoy a full month of summer, knowing that we’ll have a couple of weeks in September as an extra buffer before our fall starts.

Most years, I structure my summers to take an extended break in August, opting to “front-load” my summer meetings, large tasks, and research student mentoring so that I can use August mainly for relaxation and restoration. We typically vacation as a family in August (and I fully disconnect during that time, something I look forward to doing all year!), and we give our kids a break from structured camps and activities the last 2 weeks of August before they return to school.

This summer, we tried something different, opting to vacation in June right after spring term and the kids’ school years ended. Due to some complicated scheduling, we ended up returning from vacation just in time to turn around and head back out on the road for my brother’s wedding, which meant we were on the road for 3 weeks all together. Since our trip involved camping and national parks, we wanted to see if the parks and campgrounds would be less busy (and, in the desert areas, less hot) in June than in the height of tourist season in August. (Answer: Yes, but we traded crowds for snow — no joke!) And since I knew I would not be working with research students this summer so that I could concentrate on my job transition, I had some freedom in terms of scheduling my own summer.

So, how did it go?

The pros

  • A natural break between school and summer means less burnout off the bat. The march from January through mid-June with only a short break between winter and spring terms is mentally brutal and exhausting. I often start my summers depleted as a result. It felt lovely to make a clean break after turning in my spring term grades and to give my brain a rest. By the time we got back, I was ready and eager to dive back in to work.
  • Fewer things are scheduled in June vs. August. Back to school events (screenings, tests, meet the teachers, etc) start up in mid-August in my kiddos’ district, so we often find ourselves playing the “can we miss this or do we need to schedule the vacation around this?” game, particularly if we want to vacation later in August. This is less of a problem in June for the kiddos. I did have to skip out on a few end of year things at my institution to make the vacation/wedding combo work out, and I missed out on meeting up with alums back for reunion, but I generally also find there’s less going on in June than in mid- to late-August, work-wise.
  • Fewer crowds. There were still plenty of people at the parks, but definitely fewer than we’ve encountered on our August trips. We could do all of the tours we wanted, when we wanted, at Mesa Verde, and navigated Rocky Mountain NP easily (the 2 parks we were most worried about).
  • More realistic about my summer plans and goals. One trap I routinely fall into coming out of spring term is seeing the summer stretch out ahead of me and thinking that I’ll develop some superpower that will allow me to complete about 6 months worth of work in 8 weeks. It hasn’t happened yet. Starting my “work summer” in July has given me a more realistic view of how much time and energy I have available this summer. When I finally sat down to plan out my summer on Monday, I found that I was more pragmatic about the time and energy I have available and could better map out how much time I could spend on various projects. For the first time, I have a realistic set of goals and priorities!

The cons

  • “That’s it?” I didn’t realize just how much I enjoy anticipating our late summer trips until we returned from this early summer trip. I feel deep and profound sadness that there’s no trip in August to look forward to.
  • “Now what?” It felt weird and a bit disconcerting to me to be almost a month in to my summer and not have any summer goals/plans set for work. It’s July and I don’t have a summer routine yet. This lack of routine is also problematic for the kiddos, and I find we’re working harder than we usually do to help the kids navigate their summer routines and rhythms.
  • Less end of year slack. I didn’t realize how much I, and those around me, rely on the first couple of weeks of summer to wrap up the academic year, until I was forced to wrap up everything in time to pack up the car and head out of town. For me, this meant more meetings during Reading Days that I would have typically scheduled for the week after graduation, and some meetings that I’ve had to push off until August. The Reading Days meetings felt frantic, and the August meetings run the danger of us forgetting valuable items in the interim.

Would we do this again, taking a break right off the bat? I think so, although I am curious to see how I’ll feel in August and how this changes the end of the summer rhythms, both family-wise and work-wise. I am not sure I could pull this off in summers where I have student collaborators, but that might depend on the collaborators and how long we’ve been working together. I do know that I feel more refreshed, more centered, and more confident going into my “work summer” than I’ve felt in forever, and I’m looking forward to seeing if I can sustain that through August.

Thoughts on moving into academic leadership, part 1

I’ve alluded to a significant change in my work life in my posts for a few months now. I’ve shared the news with those who know me in real life (which, for all I know, is the entire readership of this blog anyway, ha ha), but I’ve been a bit quiet about it on the blog, because I wanted to do a full post about my thoughts behind this transition and not just drop the news.

Starting next year, I will be Director of STEM at Carleton.

This is a 3 year, essentially half-time administrative position. This means that except for next year, I will teach 3 courses instead of 5. (Due to complicated staffing/leave issues in my department, I’m taking one for the team next year and teaching 4 courses.) Teaching-wise, this isn’t a huge change for me, since I’ve been in various positions with course releases continuously since 2013. And in 2012 I had a term of parental leave, so it’s been a looooong time since I’ve taught 5 courses in a year.

This position is brand new as of this year (we have an acting director now). The position codifies a reality we’ve faced for a while: the sciences don’t exist in a bubble. We share resources: grant initiatives, student research funds, classroom space. We have similar agendas, and face similar issues around student achievement and career readiness and broadening participation. We do research that crosses disciplinary boundaries. We want our students to contribute in positive ways to the campus, local, state, national, and global communities via academic civic engagement. And starting this coming fall, we will all share a new science facility.

This last piece — the new science facility — is the catalyst for the change. Moving into a new physical space presents a golden opportunity to rethink and reimagine our relationships to each other, as departments and programs, as people, as disciplines, as scholars and teachers. The new facility was designed for collaboration and sharing; how can we ensure that we all have a collaborative and sharing mindset?

To that end, a handful of us met last year to work through different models of coordination among the sciences. How could each department and program’s voices be represented? Who should, and how should they, coordinate the shared resources, ideas, and initiatives? How should we develop a vision for the future of the sciences at Carleton, and who should direct and guide that vision, and represent it to the dean (who ultimately makes the decisions)? We developed a couple of models and put them up to a vote among the science faculty and staff. The model that “won” features a representative board of science faculty and staff from each department and program, a staff person to serve as program manager for the day-to-day details (whom we are currently hiring), and a faculty member to serve as the director or “vision point person” for the whole enterprise, working with the dean and the program manager and the board to make this vision a reality.

When the call went out for the STEM Director position, I’d just started participating in the HERS Institute, a leadership program whose goal is to get more senior women into administrative roles within academia. I’d been contemplating a move to administration for some time and because of my HERS participation, I’d started to think about what a good first move in this direction might look like. The part-time nature of the STEM Director position appealed to me as a way to “try out” academic administration, in a space that also allows me to think about things I’m passionate about, like interdisciplinarity, broadening participation, inclusion, student/faculty collaborations, and academic civic engagement, on a larger scale. So I put my name in for consideration….and the rest is history.

I’ve been sitting in on the STEM board meetings this term, to get a sense of how the board operates. At this week’s meeting, we’ll be setting an agenda for next year. I’m excited to hear what the board feels our priorities should be, and eager to have some time this summer to reflect on how to help bring those to fruition. The dean, present director, and I have started brainstorming about public, creative ways to introduce the new space to the community, as well as how to start off with communal and community-building events among the sciences. My HERS leadership project (more on that in my next post!) examined ways to build community in the new space in ways that are welcoming, inclusive, and thoughtful, and how this might extend to other collaborations beyond those in physical space.

I’m excited, and more than a bit nervous, about some of the challenges I’ll be facing. New buildings bring new, unforeseen problems, and while half of the sciences are moving into the space in the fall, construction continues in the rest of the space. How do we navigate around the physical limitations of the building? And how do we ensure that our community building welcomes all of the sciences, including the ones not physically in the building until the following year? The fact that this is a brand new position also brings challenges: we’ve outlined, to the best of our abilities, what the position entails, but what does it really entail? What are the unwritten rules and expectations? What did we forget to anticipate? I’ll get to shape this role as I occupy it, and that’s both exciting and terrifying. On a personal note, what will happen to the research I’m doing with my student collaborators, and my work on academic civic engagement in CS? I’ll have to figure out how I can carve out space for those, and what that looks like over the next few years.

In my next post (Part 2 of this special mini-series on academic leadership), I’ll talk more about my HERS Institute participation and what lessons I’m taking from that as I move into this role.

CHI: A newcomer’s perspective

Last week I attended my very first CHI. CHI is the big ACM conference on human-computer interaction, and although my research is half in this area, I’d never attended, much less submitted a paper, before. But this year, our research progress aligned with the late-breaking work deadline, so we submitted it and it was accepted. So, off to “HCI Disneyland” it was for me!

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a new-to-me conference, as I alluded to in my previous post, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. In some ways, CHI was exactly what I expected, but in other ways, it was vastly different. So here are some of the highlights, lowlights, and lessons learned from my first CHI experience.

Cliques and shadow programs and lingo, oh my!

The biggest surprise? CHI is very, very cliquey. As someone new to CHI and who didn’t study HCI as part of my PhD, I felt very much like an outsider. I found it extremely difficult to strike up conversations with people I didn’t already know, unless I was introduced to them by someone I did know. CHI seemed very much to be about reuniting with who you know and reinforcing those ties, and less about forging new connections. Because of this, I am super grateful for the colleagues from other schools who saw me floundering and made sure to introduce me around and check in on me. If not for them, I might have been tempted to hide in my hotel room for more of the conference.

The second biggest surprise: the shadow program. I found it odd that there were so few things scheduled in the evenings…until someone clued me in to the concept of “CHI parties”. CHI has (early) receptions on two of the conference nights, but most of the post-session socializing exists in smaller parties sponsored by different organizations or collections of people. To be fair, CHI does now put these on their website, but I still found the idea odd. And again, I did not feel comfortable just showing up at a random place in the evening in an unfamiliar city, and then finding my way back to my hotel afterwards, so I skipped out on this aspect of the conference — and probably lost some valuable opportunities to make new connections.

Visuals are key

I guess it’s no surprise that at a conference concerned with designing tech for humans, the slides would be well-designed, too. (Interestingly, this did not always extend to the posters, which overall still seemed text-heavy, but perhaps not as much as at other CS conferences.) In the same vein, all of the talks I attended were interesting and clear. I’m not sure if I just got really lucky with my choices or if CHI talks are generally pretty solid, but it was a welcome change from talks at other conferences I’ve attended in the past.

I tried to be cognizant of the amount of text on my poster. Designing good posters is hard!

It’s also no surprise that a design-focused conference should be demo-heavy, and as a newbie this was the most fun and interesting part of the CHI experience. I didn’t try out as many things as I’d like due to the crowds, but it was fascinating walking around and seeing all the creative, tangible things other researchers were working on.

Things I did right

  • Attend an alt.chi session. The best way to describe alt.chi is that these are the papers that don’t neatly fit into the normal academic paper box. I saw 2 alt.chi presentations, one on deciding not to design, and one on lying to your devices, and both were fascinating. I wish I’d had room (or made room) in my schedule to see more.
  • Sign up for a lunch@CHI group. I signed up to eat lunch with several complete strangers on the first day of the conference. Finding people to eat lunch with at conferences is one of the most stressful parts of a conference for me, so I jumped at the chance to not have to think about this for one of the conference days. CHI matched people up and made reservations at nearby restaurants, so all I had to do was show up (and pay for my lunch). I wish more conferences I went to had this option!
  • Realize when I’d reached my limit. I presented my poster on Wednesday, during the 2 coffee breaks. After the first break, I realized that I needed to do some major recharging before the second break to engage with people on my research. So even though it was raining and even though there were a bunch of sessions/papers I wanted to see, I skipped out for a few hours to go mural hunting in City Centre. Bonus: I did a ton of walking and found a tiny vegan place for lunch…and returned to the conference refreshed and reinvigorated.

Newbie mistakes

  • Failure to pace myself. I failed to take any breaks on the first day, and did lunch@chi on top of that. There were just so many new things to see and do and learn! By halfway through the reception, I found myself wandering around like a zombie, looking for desserts to give my brain a quick sugar hit. I ended up leaving the reception early and crawling directly into bed as soon as I got back to my hotel room.
  • Not attending the Sunday night Newcomer’s Reception. In my defense, I’d spent the entire day wandering the city and was still somewhat jet lagged, so I skipped out on this. In retrospect, this probably would have been a gentler introduction to CHI.
  • Planning meetups in advance. I ended up running into people I knew serendipitously, but I also ran into people I did not expect to see. But if I’d sat down before the conference and sent out some targeted emails, I probably would have known that, say, one of our somewhat recent alums was there and schedule a coffee meet-up.
  • Plan out which posters to visit. The poster sessions were larger than I expected, and were crowded and noisy affairs. I’m sure I missed a lot of excellent posters as a result. In the future, I’ll be a bit more intentional about which posters to visit.
  • Not engaging with more demos. Really, this was just sheer laziness more than anything else, but I regret not trying out some things (like the VR swings, for instance).

Final thoughts

Despite some of the hiccups along the way, I am really glad I was able to attend CHI this year. Frankly, it’s been some time since I’ve attended a pure research conference (I’ve been on the GHC/Tapia/NCWIT/SIGCSE circuit primarily, lately), and it was fun to engage with ideas in this realm. I have several notebook pages filled with new ideas for projects, papers, and other fun things (and not enough time to pursue them all!), and several more pages filled with reflections on what I could be doing differently in my research and in my academic civic engagement work more generally. I did make a couple of connections that may very well bear fruit at some point. And, of course, it was nice to return to Glasgow and actually remember some of what I experienced this time.

Preparing to conference

In a little over a week, I’ll be heading to Glasgow for CHI, one of the big conferences on human-computer interaction.

This is my first ever CHI, and I am excited for all sorts of reasons. I’m excited to present the troubleshooting language work my students and I have been working on, in the late breaking work track. I’m eager to get feedback on how we can make our next experiment (slated for this spring, eek!) even better and more informative. (The reviewer feedback on our submission has already been super helpful in that regard.) I can’t wait to see how our poster looks printed on fabric, and to wear my poster as a scarf when I’m not presenting it. And I’m looking forward to attending talks that touch every aspect of human-computer interaction just for the sake of learning something new. It’s like HCI Disneyland!

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a new-to-me conference. When you go to the same conferences year after year, you get into its rhythms and into your own conference habits. You’re familiar with the culture of that conference (and every conference has its own unique culture), so you don’t have to spend so much energy navigating the social aspects and “flow” of the conference. You get kind of lazy with attending talks and spend more time in the “hallway” track, catching up with colleagues new and old. You can look at the schedule and make a good guess as to which talks/tracks will be worth attending and which are skippable or are likely to be train wrecks.

This familiarity is comforting to an introvert like me. I love conferences, but they are energy vampires, and I have to be careful to not overdo it so that I can maintain my energy over the length of the conference. The more familiar I am with a conference, the easier it is to make decisions about when to engage and when to remove myself from the fray to recharge. But I still do a lot of advance prep work to plan out my conferences: which sessions are can’t-miss ones for me? what are my obligations and where do those fall in the schedule? is there anyone that I want to make sure to connect with while I’m there? I prioritize and schedule these in so that I know I’ll have the energy for them. For everything else, I have a loose plan (sessions that look interesting, etc) that I can jettison if I feel my energy reserves rapidly depleting. I also study maps of the area around the conference venue, so that if I need to take a break to recharge, I have some idea of walkable routes that get me outside by myself.

With a new conference, I don’t have as good information to vet the “must sees” from the “could skips”, and there are so! many! more! new! people! to! meet! For the latter, I signed up for as many conference lunches as I could, to remove the taxing mental calculus of deciding who to meet up with for lunch (and where to eat in an unfamiliar city) and to make it easier to meet new people. For the former, I’m going to have to spend some quality time with the conference schedule to get a sense of what happens when (and when exactly my poster session is!), and then pick out a small handful of things I really want to see and get those on my calendar. I also have to figure out an efficient way to skim the author list, to see if I may know anyone that’s presenting and make plans to meet up with them.

Photo of my 7 week old daughter and me in Glasgow, 2007.
Photo proof that I was actually in Scotland in 2007. With the benevolent dictator that ruled our trip.

This is actually not my first time in Glasgow, so theoretically I should already be a bit familiar with the city. I was last in Glasgow for ICC in 2007…with a 7 week old infant. I was overwhelmed with the whole new parent thing, and already sleep deprived from parenting a newborn and then jet-lagged on top of that. Needless to say, I remember very little from that conference. The things I do remember: realizing when I got dressed the day of my talk that the only halfway decent pants that fit my post-partum body at that point, that I’d packed to wear to look somewhat professional, were too short, making me a fashion don’t; trying desperately to carry on normal adult conversations about research through the sleep deprivation fog; the newborn developing a fear of bagpipes that persists to this day. (I did nail my talk, though!) This time, I won’t have a newborn (or any kids) in tow, so I look forward to exploring the city for real this time around.

If you’re reading this and are going to CHI, or have been to CHI, I’d love to hear your tips. What should I make sure to do? What’s a must-see? If you’re reading this and have tips for what I should see and do in Glasgow (I have one full day to explore before the conference starts), I’d love to hear that too. And if you’re going to CHI and want to meet up, I’ll be sure to reserve some of my introvert energy for you!