Responding to midterm evaluations

I have a confession to make: I have fallen out of the habit of doing midterm course evaluations.

I don’t know why, exactly, I did. I’ve always found midterm evaluations to be useful as a way of taking the pulse of the course. Even if I think I have a pretty good sense of how things are going and what the major complaints are, I still learn useful information from my students. I’ve discovered problems with textbooks, problems with the timing of due dates, and problems with the sight lines in a classroom from midterm evaluations. I’ve learned surprising things about what things my students enjoy and what they value. (Hint: they are not always the same things.) I often use them as an opportunity to check the learning objectives I’ve set for the course, and how well students think we’re meeting those.

They are invaluable in helping me recalibrate my courses.

So I’d fallen out of the habit. But last term, I taught a course I haven’t taught since 2012. And it was a struggle to get back into the rhythm of the material and the pace of the class and the workload and such. So I thought that would be a golden opportunity to bring back the midterm evaluation into my life.

Boy, am I glad I did.

I’d had a sense that the class was going ok, but that something seemed off, and I couldn’t quite place why. The midterm evaluations illuminated the issues very quickly, and also explained why it was so hard for me to figure out the source of the issues. In a nutshell: The students couldn’t make sense of much of anything in the book. My version of flipped classroom pedagogy requires my students to do some targeted reading and complete targeted reading quizzes before class, so that I can see what they got out of the readings and where I need to spend some extra time before we dive into deeper practice with the material, and then deeper still on the problem sets. Since they were lost when reading the book, they were lost when attempting the quizzes. Sometimes they gave up, and sometimes they just kept guessing until they got the right answer. This means their foundation was shaky, and they were not really prepared to engage with the material in class. But the way I had the quizzes set up, it was hard for me to see the depth of the problems. And then, because they couldn’t engage with the material in class at the level I’d expect based on what I saw in the reading quizzes, they weren’t prepared to engage with the problem sets — which are challenging.

A perfect storm of chaos, basically.

I’ll admit that it was hard to read this set of evaluations. Mostly, I felt like I had let my class down, and berated myself for being a “bad professor”. Which is human but not really constructive. So I sat with the comments for a few days, planning how to address them. Clearly my course needed a restructuring, one that would work around the shortcomings of the textbook while still remaining true to my pedagogy. But I wasn’t sure how to do this.

As my class took an exam in the first half of the following Monday’s class, I finally figured out what I wanted to do, and sketched out a plan on slides. When the last student handed in the exam, I said we were going to talk about the evaluations. And I summarized their concerns. And outlined the “perfect storm” I described above, and how I thought this was affecting their learning. How finding a good textbook for this type of class at this level is difficult, and how I’ve successfully used this book for many years, but that’s irrelevant because what mattered most is that they struggled with it so that means it was not a good fit for this class, and how I will take this into account the next time I teach this class and have to pick a textbook.

And then I outlined a plan for the rest of the term, one that I hoped allowed them to attempt the readings more successfully and with a bit more focus (reminding them that I do give them hints on what to focus on, through a set of reading questions in addition to the quizzes). We would start each class explicitly with the key points from the readings listed on the board along with my impression of what concepts they found most challenging, giving them the opportunity to agree/disagree with my assessment. This might mean that I had to change my planned examples and exercises on the fly, which made me a bit nervous since I was still relearning the material along with them — but I promised to be honest with them when I felt like my free-wheeling might lead us into rough waters, and they seemed to be ok with that. That I’d dedicate more class time to giving them the opportunity to start/work on problem sets, so that they could ask questions right away and we could figure out together if they need some extra practice before attempting the problem sets.

I am grateful that I work at an institution where students feel safe enough to be honest with me about what is and is not working for their learning. I am grateful for the level of thoughtfulness and self-reflection my students bring to the learning process. Students here place high expectations on faculty and expect a lot from us (which they should!), and their feedback and observations make me a much better teacher. Responding to this feedback, and restructuring my course, proved an interesting challenge and a good opportunity for me to reflect on my pedagogy — not just my philosophy, but my practice.

I don’t think I completely hit the mark on everything I intended to do last term, but I do think things improved, for both me and the students. And, as I put together my course for spring term, I realized that I could and should incorporate some of these same practices (extra checking in with the students, being explicit about the key points from the readings) into that course as well. We’re only a week and a half into the new term, but I’m excited to see how things go. And, I’m already looking forward to what this batch of students will share on this term’s midterm evaluations.

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Designing a term with mental health in mind

It was the start of Week 9 of our 10 week winter term, and I found myself staring at a blank text editor page on my computer monitor, textbook open beside me, praying for some, any, inspiration. “I’ll post Problem Set 7 on Monday,” I told my students. It was Monday, already, and I had nothing.

I was so, so, so tired. Physically tired, from several weeks of not enough sleep. Mentally tired, from juggling an overwhelmingly overfull term containing a basically new prep and significant service responsibilities and hiring. Emotionally tired, from the hours I spent every day dealing with significant and difficult issues with one of my kiddos, who’s really struggling this year. But I had to suck it up. I had to get this written, and posted, so that….

So that what? I found myself thinking. Judging from my interactions with students in class, and the messages they’re sending me about class, they are also exhausted, and overwhelmed. Every class is piling on work. Seniors are finish up Comps. The course material is challenging, and the textbook is actually in many cases hindering their learning. Everyone is on edge.

Will that final problem set add to their learning? Is the added stress worth it, or will it be more conducive to their learning to ease off the gas a bit and let them catch their breath?

If I clearly didn’t want to write this problem set, did I think my students really wanted to do this problem set?

When I framed the problem that way, the answer was clear. I sent a message to the class, letting them know that there would be no Problem Set 7. The relief, and appreciation, was immediate and palpable.

I’d fallen into the trap of thinking that if students are not producing, they’re not learning. But there’s a time to produce, and a time to reflect, and it’s hard to produce when you’re tired and overscheduled and overstimulated. And judging from the student responses on the final exam on the topic that would have been the focus of Problem Set 7, the in-class only exposure to the material produced the desired learning outcomes anyway.

I thought about this experience a lot when planning out my spring term course. The end of spring term is traditionally even tougher than the end of winter term. We don’t get much of a break between winter and spring terms, and by early June we’ve been slogging away exhaustedly for months. And the end of the year brings All Of The Events. The department picnics. The awards thingies. The end of year celebrations. So. many. surveys. If I can give them just a bit of breathing room, some time to engage at a slower pace with the material, with more carefully curated “products” spaced more thoughtfully with the rhythms of the term — well, that’s a gift to them and to me (and my course staff!).

I thought about this from a personal standpoint, too, when planning out my term. While I still have significant service responsibilities that will only continue to ramp up, my workload is way more manageable and realistic than it was in the winter. (I might even be able to take most weekends off!) But. Spring term is when my depression kicks into overdrive, like clockwork. And I know that if I’m not on top of it, it can quickly derail my life and my productivity. Being kinder and gentler to myself by allowing time to engage with life and reflect and work at a slower pace, sets myself up for success. And setting myself up for success reduces the inevitable feelings of being a complete failure which come out in droves in the spring, driving me deeper into my depression.

If I know that slowing things down is good for my own mental health, doesn’t it stand to reason that it will be good for my students’ mental health, too? Particularly since a good number of our students manage their own private battles with anxiety and depression and other mental health issues?

I still need to move a few things around in my syllabus to make this goal a reality, but I’m excited to see how this revamp of expectations, and this kinder, gentler approach to teaching, goes. And I’m curious to see what impact my kinder, gentler approach to spring term has on my depression management during what’s for me the toughest time of the year.

On overwork and taking a pause

There are the plans you painstakingly make at the start of each academic term. The list of projects you’ll complete by March. The daily research/writing time you slot in on your calendar like any other meeting. The schedule of when you’ll send things to collaborators, getting them off your plate so you can move on to the next project. The time you set aside for class prep and class administration. The downtime on weekends for catching up with your family and friends and doing things that restore your soul.

And then reality hits, and there are the plans (or lack thereof) that you actually follow.

So far, Winter term has been an exercise in rescheduling and pivoting. From the polar vortex bringing near-record cold and wind chills (and 4 straight days of school cancelations for the kiddos — but none for Carleton, of course <eyeroll>), to service obligations that are all taking 10 times longer than expected (and thus still occupying valuable space on the to-do list), to the realities of teaching a course for the first time in 6 years, to collaborators and students and colleagues who are similarly overwhelmed by life and the dumpster fire that is our world these days….well, suffice it to say it’s been a challenging term.

The biggest unanticipated challenge for me? Course prep. I expected that course prep would take up a bigger chunk of my time than it normally does, given that I last taught this course in Fall 2012. But OH MY WORD, some days course prep and course administration feels all-consuming. Having 39 students in a class that requires a lot of hands-on time from me is overwhelming. And for reasons I won’t go into here (*cough* backups that weren’t really backups *cough*), I am creating about 80% of my course materials from scratch. Problem sets. Reading quizzes. Reading assignments. In-class exercises. Mini-lectures. The good news is that I am thoroughly enjoying the process, and redoing almost everything gives me the freedom to reimagine the course from how I taught it previously. That’s a tremendous gift. And chances are good that I’ll be teaching this course several times next year, so putting in the work now will make Future Amy’s life much, much easier. BUT. It is still very, very time-consuming. And most of this time is coming at the expense of my weekend fun time, which means I haven’t taken an entire weekend day off since the first of the year, and my research time.

For someone who’s worked very hard to give herself permission to take time for self-care and restoration, working every weekend has taken a huge toll on me. Before the polar vortex hit, I realized that I was heading quickly into burnout land. The polar vortex gave me permission to hibernate in my house, cancel anything that required me to physically be anywhere else but my house (including class and office hours), and while I spent much of that time working, it was at my own pace and not the panicked, break-neck pace I’d gotten used to. I caught up, sort of. I didn’t have to be constantly “on”, something that’s draining for an introvert like me. And not having to be anywhere meant that I could take breaks to do things that restore me, like craft, color, and work on puzzles.

There’s still way too much on my plate, but I’m at the point where I feel like I can manage it better, and where several things are close to finished. I think I can actually take the majority of this weekend off, for a change! And — dare I say it? — I should be able, starting next week, to get back into my daily research/writing practice, and make progress on something other than advising my research students on their projects.

Introducing CS 1 students to algorithmic bias via the Ethical Engine lab

There’s a lot of recent interest around the ethics of technology. From recent popular press books like Algorithms of OppressionAutomating Inequality, and Technically Wrong*, to news stories about algorithmic bias, it seems like everyone is grappling with the ethical impacts of technology. In the computer science education community, we’re having our own discussions (and have been for some time, although there seems to be an uptick in interest there) on where ethics “belongs” in the curriculum, and how we can incorporate ethics across the curriculum — including in introductory courses.

One initiative aimed at touching on ethical issues in CS 1 particularly caught my attention. In July 2017, Evan Peck, at Bucknell University, posted about a programming project he and Gabbi LaBorwit developed based on MIT’s Moral Machine, a reworking of the classic Trolley Problem for self-driving cars. This project, the Ethical Engine, had students design and implement an algorithm for the “brains” of a self-driving car, specifically how the car would react if it could only save its passengers or the pedestrians in the car’s way. After implementing and testing their own algorithms, students audited the algorithms other students in the class designed.

Justin Li at Occidental College built upon this lab, making some changes to the code and formalizing the reflection questions and analysis. He wrote about his experiences here. In particular, Justin’s edits focused more on student self-reflection, having them compare their algorithm’s decisions against their manual decisions and reflecting to what extent their algorithm’s decisions reflected or did not reflect their priorities.

I was intrigued by the idea of this lab, and Justin’s version seemed like it would fit well with Carleton students and with my learning goals for my intro course. I decided to integrate it into my fall term section of intro CS.

Like Evan and Justin, I’ve made my code and lab writeup freely available on GitHub. Here are links to all three code repositories:

Framework

Based on Justin’s and Evan’s writeups, I made several modifications to the code.

  • In the Person class, I added “nonbinary” as a third gender option. I went back and forth for a bit on how I wanted to phrase this option, and whether “nonbinary” captured enough of the nuance without getting us into the weeds, but ultimately decided this would be appropriate enough.
  • Also in the Person class, I removed “homeless” and “criminal” as occupations, since they didn’t really fit in that category, and made them boolean attributes, similar to “pregnant”. Any human could be homeless, but only adults could have the “criminal” attribute associated with them.
  • In the Scenario class, I removed the “crossing is illegal” and “pedestrians are in your lane” messages from the screen output, since in this version of the code these things are always true.

I also made it a bit clearer in the code where the students should make changes and add their implementation of the decision making algorithm they designed.

Execution

I scheduled the lab during Week 8 of our 10 week course, just after completing our unit on writing classes. We take a modified “objects-early” approach at Carleton in CS 1, meaning students use objects of predefined classes starting almost immediately, and learn to write their own classes later in the term. The lab mainly required students to utilize classes written by others, accessing the data and calling upon the methods in these classes, which conceivably they could have done earlier in the term. However, I found that slotting the lab in at this point in the term meant that students had a deeper understanding of the structure of the Person and Scenario classes, and could engage with the classes on a deeper level.

I spread the lab over two class periods, which seemed appropriate in terms of lab length. (In fact, one of the class periods was shortened because I gave a quiz that day, and the majority of the students had not finished the lab by the end of class, which leads me to believe that 2 whole class meeting periods at Carleton, or 140 minutes, would be appropriate for this lab.) As they do in all our class activities, students worked in assigned pairs using pair programming.

On the first day, students made their manual choices and designed their algorithm on paper. To ensure they did this without starting with the code, I required them to show their paper design to either my prefect (course TA) or myself. A few pairs were able to start implementing the code at the end of Day 1. On the second day, students implemented and tested their algorithms, and started working through the lab questions for their writeups. Most groups did not complete the lab in class and had to finish it on their own outside of class.

At the end of the first day, students submitted their manual log files. To complete the lab, students submitted their algorithm implementation, the manual and automatic logs, and a lab writeup.

Observations

Unexpectedly, students struggled the most with figuring out how to access the attributes of individual passengers and pedestrians. I quickly realized this is because I instruct students to access instance variables using accessor and mutator methods, but the code I gave them did not contain accessor/mutator methods. This is a change I plan to make in the code before I use this lab again. I also plan to look a bit more closely at the description of the Person and Scenario classes in the lab, since students sometimes got confused about which attributes belonged to Scenarios and which belonged to Persons.

Students exhibited a clear bias towards younger people, often coding this into their algorithms explicitly. One pair mentioned that while their algorithm explicitly favored younger people over the elderly, in their manual decisions they did “think of our grandmas”, which led to differences in their manual and automatic decisions in some places. A fair number of students in this class came from cultures where elders traditionally hold higher status than in the US, so the fact that this bias appeared so strongly surprised me somewhat. Pregnant women also got a boost in many students’ algorithms, which then had the effect of overfavoring women in the decisions — which many students noted in their writeups. While nearly all pairs explicitly favored humans over pets, a few pairs did give a small boost to dogs over cats, while no one gave any boost to cats. I’m not sure why this class was so biased against cats.

I was impressed by the thoughtfulness and nuance in many of the lab writeups. Most students were able to identify unexpected biases and reason appropriately about them. Many thoughtfully weighed in on differences in their algorithm’s choices versus the choices of their classmates’ algorithms, one pair even going so far as to reason about which type of self-driving car would be more marketable.

In the reflection question about the challenges of programming ethical self-driving cars, many students got hung up on the feasibility of a car “knowing” your gender, age, profession, etc, not to mention the same characteristics of random pedestrians, and being able to utilize these to make a split-second decision about whom to save. This is a fair point, and in the future I’ll do a better job framing this (although to be honest I’m not 100% sure what this will end up looking like).

One of the lab questions asked students to reflect on whether the use of attributes in the decision process is ethical, moral, or fair. Two separate pairs pointed out that the selection of attributes can make the decision fair, but not ethical; one pair pointed out the converse, that a decision could be ethical but not necessarily fair. I was impressed to see this recognition in student answers. Students who favored and used simpler decision making processes also provided some interesting thoughts about the limitations of both “simpler is better” and more nuanced decision-making processes, both of which may show unexpected bias in different ways.

Conclusions and takeaway points

Ten weeks is a very limited time for a course, so for any activity I add or contemplate in any course I teach, I weigh whether the learning outcomes are worth the time spent on the activity. In this case, they are. From a course concept perspective, the lab gave the students additional practice utilizing objects and developing and testing algorithms, using a real-world problem as context. This alone is worth the time spent. But the addition of the ethical analysis portion was also completely worth it. While I have yet to read my evaluations for the course, students informally commented during and after the exercise that they found the lab interesting and thought-provoking, and that it challenged their thinking in ways they did not expect going into an intro course. I worried a bit about students not taking the exercise seriously, and while I think that was true in a few cases, by and large the students engaged seriously with the lab and in discussions with their classmates.

I teach intro again in spring term, and I’m eager to try this lab again. The lab has already sparked some interest among my colleagues, and I’m hoping we can experiment with using this lab more broadly in our intro course sections, as a way to introduce ethics in computing early in our curriculum.

*all of which are excellent books, which you should definitely read if you haven’t done so already!

Theme for 2019: Foundation

Each year (or at least the years I remember to do so), instead of making resolutions at the start of the year, I pick a theme for the year. I prefer themes to resolutions because themes serve as overarching, guiding principles. They help focus me on what’s important, at least in theory. If an opportunity arises, or I need to make a choice about something, I see if it fits with my theme. If it doesn’t, it’s usually a sign that I need to pass on the opportunity, or make a different choice.

Some of my past themes include “healthy”, in 2017, and “defining”, in 2010.

2018 was a challenging year in many ways. There were some highs — completing my first triathlon and my first open taekwondo tournament, getting accepted to and starting the HERS Institute, teaching Intro again after a long hiatus — but many lows as well — breaking my elbow, and having to cancel our highly-anticipated camping trip; injuring myself AGAIN last month in taekwondo class. As much as I hate to admit it, injury dominated my year. My year was a year of can’ts, of carefuls, of wariness, of modifying. Many times, I felt like I’d be injured forever.

This year, I want to focus on strengthening my core: my core skills, my core values, my resilience in general, and my overall physical strength.

  • Work-wise, 2019 is a transitional year. I’ll be taking on a new and exciting opportunity (more on that in a later post) where I’ll get to learn and practice new skills. But it’s also time consuming. So I’ll need to be clear on my priorities and how I choose to spend my time, to make sure I’m spending it on the right things.
  • From a health perspective, I’d really like to STOP being injured in 2019. To do so, I need to make sure I have a strong base: strong muscles, a strong core, a solid cardio foundation. And I need to be smart about gaining strength and ramping up my cardio. I eat pretty healthfully already, but my body is changing as I age, so making sure the food I eat fuels me well is also important, so that my body can stay in one piece for a change.
  • My kids and my spouse are the most important people in my life, and the ones who usually get the worst of me, the end-of-the-day-I-have-no-reserves-left me. As my kids get older, they need me differently than they did when they were babies and toddlers — bigger kids, bigger problems, as they say. And my spouse and I are like two ships passing in the night lately, which is not really conducive to a healthy marriage. My relationships with them, and my friends, are important to me, and I need to start treating them as such.

So my word for 2019 is FOUNDATION. My focus this year is on building and strengthening my foundation. Clarifying my priorities. Building up my physical strength and health. Focusing on relationships. Acquiring new skills and practicing weaker skills. Preparing myself for future challenges.

Do you have a word or theme for 2019? Please share it in the comments!

A snapshot of (the quickly ending) Fall Term

It’s Week 9 of our 10 week Fall Term, and I am sitting here wondering just where the hell September and October went. Seriously, wasn’t yesterday the start of the term? (Guess I should take “Goals for Fall Term” out of the blog post idea queue, then….)

It’s been a busy fall term, and it feels like I have a lot more on my plate than usual. I chalk this up to a combination of a number of projects currently on my plate plus continuing recovery from my broken elbow this summer. All of it interesting (for varying definitions of “interesting”). So here’s a look at some of what I’ve been up to the past couple of months.

Teaching: Revisiting an Old Favorite Class

I love teaching Intro. I love guiding students through their first (or one of their first) experiences with programming, algorithm design, and algorithmic thinking. I love the pace of the class, the creativity my students bring to the projects and in-class exercises, the material, and even the wide variety of backgrounds and experiences of my students.

I used to teach Intro all the time. But an influx of young ‘uns and visitors and general scheduling oddities meant that I haven’t taught it since Winter 2015. So I was thrilled to see Intro on my schedule twice this year, Fall and Spring term. But also a bit worried: would this be like a new prep for me, given the long-ish layoff?

Complicating matters is that I switched from a textbook I loved, but for which I could no longer justify the hefty price, to a perfectly fine lower cost textbook. Which meant I’d have to rework my reading assignments, at the very least.

The layoff and the textbook switch led me to approach the class as if I hadn’t taught it before. I revisited and revised all of my learning goals. I did a full backwards design of the class. I mapped topics and projects to learning objectives to make sure they still matched and were still relevant. I added a lab on ethics (which I’ll be blogging about in the coming weeks) and replaced the two exams with 5 quizzes (really mini-exams). I committed to using Slack as a communications medium — with, I’ll be honest, a bit of trepidation.

Luckily, the workload has been manageable. I spend a reasonable amount of time prepping (nowhere close to new prep time, but a bit more than “I recently taught this” time). The majority of my class is first year students, which makes for a really neat class dynamic — and I’m really enjoying the mix of personalities. I truly look forward to teaching every MWF and I’m having a good time in the classroom. The Slack experiment is going better than expected — and has been extremely useful for sharing code with students during and after class. All in all, it’s been a most excellent return to the realm of Intro CS!

Research: Papers, Papers, Papers

Being at an undergraduate-only institution means my research collaborators are undergraduate students. And I’ve lucked out in the student department lately. I have two amazing student researchers, both now junior CS majors, who have worked with me since last spring. They designed and ran their own experiment this summer, and even recruited an interviewee, conducting and then transcribing the interview, too! This fall, we’ve concentrated on analyzing the results from the summer experiment, and are using these results to plan out our next set of experiments.

My stretch goal for my students was to have them submit an extended abstract to the student research competition at SIGCSE, since SIGCSE’s in Minneapolis next year. I’m happy to say they met this goal! I have no idea how reviewers will receive our work, but in any case, it was a good experience for my students — and a good opportunity for me to reflect on where the work is now and where we should go next.

My students are working on one aspect of my larger research project, and my goal this fall was to primarily work on that as well. But, I have a rejected conference paper that I’ve been sitting on since last spring, from the other aspect of my project. And I happened to stumble upon a CFP for a conference that’s a pretty good fit for the paper. And the deadline was a bit uncomfortably close, but not impossibly so. So, I was able to revise that paper and get it back out into the review stream. Bonus: revising that paper helped me think through the next stages of that project, and I’ve moved that project back into the rotation. Our upcoming long break between Fall and Winter terms will be the perfect time to get some sustained work on that project completed, and move me towards my next conference paper.

So, I went from maybe 1 paper-ish thing submitted to 2 paper-ish things submitted! Gold star for me.

Career Planning: What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up?

I’ve had the idea in the back of my head that someday, maybe, I’d go into academic administration. Within the past year or so, I decided to explore this path more proactively. I did the scary thing of VERBALIZING TO A DEAN that I was contemplating administration. I applied for a few grants (unsuccessfully) that would have funded some leadership-type projects I’ve been considering. (I’m still working on the projects, just without the funding.) I mentioned my goals in conversation with faculty colleagues from other liberal arts schools at Tapia.

Lately, I’ve taken this up a notch or 5.

First, I was accepted to, and am participating in, the HERS Institute at Wellesley this academic year. The homework, and the activities and sessions at the first weekend in October, have been extremely useful so far. And a bit scary, since some (many?) of them drive me outside my comfort zone. My cohort is full of amazing, inspiring, energetic women — my 60 new colleague best friends. 🙂 I’ve figured out so much about myself, my strengths, my weaknesses, my unstated goals, already! I feel like this experience is preparing me very well for whatever comes next in my career — and has helped me thing more broadly and expansively about the possibilities. The next session is coming up next weekend, and I can’t wait!

Second, and scarier: I put my name forth for consideration for an administrative position at my institution. No matter what the outcome, putting myself forth has helped me think through my priorities, and will be a good experience for figuring out how to pursue opportunities in the future.

Life: Recovery Takes Time, and a Boatload of Medical Appointments

My newest hobby is attending multiple occupational therapy appointments each week, as I continue to rehabilitate my broken elbow. The good news is that the breaks are completely healed, and I’ve been cleared to do whatever I want! I’ve worked my way slowly back to running, and on Monday I ran 30 minutes nonstop. Which doesn’t seem like much given I’m a 3-time marathoner, but was a huge milestone after months of “just” walking or walk/running to avoid jostling my elbow too much. I can now fully participate in taekwondo, although I still can’t do a full pushup (not even on my knees). But that will come in time. I’ve also started swimming again, and while I need to make a few adjustments to account for my reduced range of motion, swimming has felt good.

The not as good news is that it’s been a long, slow, uncomfortable slog to regain my range of motion and strength. Apparently, elbows are difficult entities. My therapy exercises are uncomfortable and sometimes painful. My progress stalled out for a while (thanks, scar tissue in the elbow!), but I now seem to be moving forward again, thanks to ultrasound and Graston treatments. There is a chance I might need surgery again to clear out the plethora of scar tissue that’s formed in the elbow, but I hope I can avoid that.

I used to scoff when people said they could “feel the weather changing” in their joints. I don’t scoff any more, because this is now my lived experience. I feel old.


Even with everything on my plate, it’s been a manageable term. Sure, some days require some Herculean logistics, and I’ve had to move around my office hours more than I care to admit to accommodate the less-movable OT appointments, but I’ve managed to keep my weekends mostly work-free and my sanity mostly in check. Here’s hoping the end of the term is as manageable as the rest of the term has been (fingers crossed).

 

Life is an adventure. Sometimes, a really sucky adventure.

My mind was racing a million miles a minute as my daughter and I climbed out of the pool at our gym late afternoon on a hot, sunny day 3 weeks ago. Let’s see, I thought, running through my to-do list: pick up my son from daycamp. Feed daughter and get her to taekwondo. Respond to those emails I blew off earlier in the day. Maybe make some muffins from all that zucchini? Oh, and get the rest of the camping gear into the bins in the garage, to prep for our upcoming 3 week trip —

My legs flew out from under me and for a brief moment I was airborne, out of control. “Oh sh*t,” I thought, milliseconds before I hit the concrete deck, hard, elbow first.

I sat there, stunned, for a couple of minutes, trying to process what just happened. Why is there a candy wrapper stuck to my foot? How did I end up halfway into the coned-off section of the deck (which, as it turns out, was coned off because it was slippery)? I should get up. Just need to put weight on my arms —

I can’t move my right arm.

Uh-oh.

With my daughter’s help, somehow I managed to get up off the deck, dry off somewhat, gather our things, leave the gym, pick up my son, drive all of us home, take a quick shower, and drive myself to urgent care.

X-ray of broken radius and ulna.

Why break just one bone when you can break both your radius and your ulna? #goals

With, as it turns out, 2 broken bones in my elbow.

For those of you keeping score at home, this is my second major injury in a year. Last summer, I tore my plantar fascia, and I’d just finished rehabbing and coming back from that injury. Apparently, I am not as bullet-proof as I’d thought.

The camping trip we’d been planning for months? Out. All the outdoorsy and sporty stuff I do daily? Also out. Crafting? I’m right handed, so nope. Work? Sure, but you’ll have to type with just your left hand….

I took up some new hobbies: near-daily doctors’ visits that first week, surgery the following week, more appointments and occupational therapy this week and continuing on into the forseeable future. I have some sweet new hardware in my arm which I’m sure will make me plenty of new TSA friends when I fly now.

Screws in broken elbow.

The start of my transition to cyborg?

Recovery is going well so far. I’m in a brace now instead of a splint, which gives me a lot more freedom of movement. I can walk, as long as I’m on a stable (paved) surface to reduce my risk of falling. I can now, finally, type with 2 hands. I read like a fiend because that’s about all I can do for fun that doesn’t involve the use of 2 hands and/or my right (dominant) hand.

 

 

 

 

Picture of broken elbow in a brace.

Call me RoboProf.

But lots of things are hard. I can’t do much with my right hand/arm, so everything takes me at least twice as long. Showering. Getting dressed. Cooking. Writing by hand. And I get tired really easily — 2 hours of grocery shopping and errands this past weekend left me exhausted. Sleeping is tricky — I wear my brace at night but still have to pad it with pillows to keep it in an acceptable position. I ask for help, a lot. (The other day, I had to ask the cashier at the bagel shop to open my bag of chips for me. Ugh.)

If all goes well, I should be able to start back at some activities in a month, and by the 6 week post-surgery mark I should be able to run, swim, and bike, according to my doctor. Taekwondo is the big question mark right now — I have no idea what the timeline is for that, and that makes me really sad and anxious. I do know that it will be about 3 months before I can put full weight on my elbow again — before I’m totally “back to my self” again.

My last injury cycle taught me patience and acceptance: acceptance of my limits, patience with the slow and steady pace of recovery, acceptance of listening to my body and following its lead. I’ve been trying to keep all of that in mind this time around. Doing what I can, listening to my body, diligently following my therapy regimen. But it’s hard. I’m impatient with the limits of my body. I don’t want to accept another layoff from running/swimming/biking/kayaking/taekwondo, from all the things that keep me sane and bring me joy. I try my best to keep my sense of humor about the situation, but sometimes, in my quieter moments, the anger and frustration bubble up.

While training for and racing my triathlon, I adopted the mantra “Stay positive, stay steady.” It reminded me to stay in the moment, to keep moving forward, and to remember that every state is temporary and that the sucky moments don’t last forever. Perhaps it’s time I brought that mantra out of retirement — it seems fitting for the situation I’m in right now.

Stay positive. Stay steady. Keep moving forward.