9 (career) lessons I’ve learned in 2009

9.  If you’re offering a brand-new course in a somewhat new-to-you subject, you might want to consider using a textbook.  Even if all the existing textbooks suck, something is better than nothing.

8.  When traveling to a conference where you are giving a talk or two, do not forget the video adapter for your Mac.  Alternately, make sure you check your PDF before you give your talk to make sure that all of the slides converted properly.

7.  Never underestimate the power of a well-designed rubric.

6.  Nothing will ever be perfect.  Get it to “good enough” and get it out the door, pronto!

5.  The things (tasks, confrontations, responsibilities) that cause you the most discomfort also provide the greatest areas for growth.  Discomfort can beget opportunity.

4.  Talk to everyone at conferences.  You never know where your next collaboration, or collaborator, or great idea, may come from.

3.  Asking for help is not a sign of weakness—rather, it’s a sign of strength and self-awareness.

2.  If you’re working on a big initiative with someone you don’t know very well, sit down and lay out expectations, responsibilities, etc. clearly and concretely before you begin.  Make sure everyone’s working with the same information and assumptions before moving forward.

1. Being authentically yourself, and true to what you believe, may not always be comfortable or easy, but will lead you to a place of success and peace.

What lessons have you learned this year?


How much does environment affect women’s sense of belonging in CS?

That’s the question asked by Sapna Cheryan, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington.  Sapna uses Second Life to set up virtual classroom spaces:  one a stereotypical CS classroom, with Star Trek posters and computer parts and soda cans strewn about; and one a more neutral space, with art posters, plants, a desk lamp, etc.  She then has subjects navigate through these virtual spaces and asks them questions about how likely they were to take a CS class in one or the other space, as well as their general attitudes about CS.

Cheryan’s results show that environment does have a big impact on women’s feelings about studying CS.  According to the article,

Girls in the study consistently rated themselves less interested, less capable and less similar to the inhabitants of the “geek room” than the neutral room.But what if it had nothing to do with the objects, Cheryan asked? What if they just thought all CS majors were boys? She did the study again, this time asking students to imagine they were joining an all-female team at a company. The only difference between the two teams was the objects in their office. Girls flocked to the non-geeky job.

Every time they changed the study, the results were the same: Most women avoided the geek space. When prompted, many said it gave them a masculine vibe. The more masculine they found the room, the less they liked it.

“The extent to which women don’t like that room was pretty surprising,” Cheryan says. “No matter what we do to that room, even if we make it all female, women just don’t feel like they belong there.”

There are some interesting quotes at the end of the article, too, from some women computer scientists, who blanch at the idea of “neutralizing” the geeky CS image—the women quoted clearly and comfortably associate themselves with the geek image, and feel a bit threatened by the idea of changing this image.

This article was very interesting to me, as someone who has never felt like she fit in with the culture of engineering or computer science.  There are subtle cues in any environment, not just from the people but from the objects, the conversation topics, etc.  When I think about culture in CS issues, though, I tend to concentrate on the people, the conversations, the interactions.  I wonder what our CS spaces are saying about us?  What our classrooms and labs say about us?  We are currently in the midst of redesigning our student lounge, which had become totally unusable and unwelcoming—-for many of the reasons this article points out (well, no Star Trek posters, but computer junk everywhere).  I’d love to see if any of the suggestions from these studies would actually make a difference to the students…and if a simple thing like redecorating our lounge could change the message we’re sending about what CS is all about?

“Time off” for academics

It starts up about this time of year:  well-meaning friends, relatives, strangers off the street, acquaintances, etc. say to me some variation of, “Well!  Aren’t you glad that classes are over for the term?  So what are you going to do with all that time off?

Indeed.  What am I doing in my five weeks “off”?

  • Majorly revamping my intro course.  I’m moving from the traditional topic-based approach (strings, loops, conditionals, functions, classes, etc) to a case-study approach (cryptography, image processing, data mining).  Which means I have to rewrite all of my in-class activities, lectures, and quizzes, and I have to write an entirely new set of assignments and labs.  I’m very excited about this, but it requires a ton of work.
  • Writing 25 letters of recommendation.  Sure, a lot of those are for the same students, but each school wants something a little different, and/or has their own online form that asks slightly different questions, etc.  So even once I have the letters written, it will still take some time to tweak/submit them for each school.
  • Revising and resubmitting a journal article.  This is the second round of revisions, and in the grand scheme of things the revisions are minor (no new experiments or analysis, just argument reframing), but it will take some careful thinking and phrasing to get it right if I want it to come back as an “accept” next time.  Plus, there’s the letter to the editor that needs to be drafted, and those take some time too.
  • Miscellaneous computer stuff.  I need to move my research repositories from CVS to Subversion, install Subversion on my laptop, and upgrade my laptop to 10.6 from 10.4 so that I can create podcasts for my classes on my laptop, and not have to wait until I’m in my office.
  • Strategic research planning.  I’ll be hiring a new batch of students in the winter.  I need to figure out what they’ll be working on, and figure out how to get them up to speed quickly on the project.  I’ll be running a new round of experiments in the winter (hopefully) too, which means we might will  have to update the measurement tool, and think carefully about recruiting subjects, and set up the testbed, and do a million other little things to make sure things go off without a hitch.  Plus I am going to start hiring summer researchers in January, and I need to think carefully about what I want them to do this summer.  Oh, and there are a zillion follow-up things to the real-time stream quality prediction paper I presented last week that I need to get moving on, because we’ll need something beyond preliminary results in order to move forward!
  • Trying not to contemplate the fact that at this very moment, a committee of my colleagues is determining whether I will have job security for life, or whether I will be out on the streets (metaphorically) come June.  Yeah, that’s not stressful at all….
  • Co-organizing a regional women in computing conference.  In October, when my co-organizer and I were discussing dates, we thought a mid-February date would give us plenty of time to get everything done.  Ha.  Ha ha ha ha ha.  February is way too soon, people!  I need to have a program ready by, well, yesterday.  Plus I need to be stalking confirming our potential keynote speakers, setting deadlines for posters and session proposals, and doing a number of small detail-y things.

And this is in addition to all of the December holiday-stuff too.

So yes, in a sense I am “off”, but just from the day-to-day teaching.  And I’m not writing this from a woe-is-me-I’m-so-overworked perspective (although I am, and you should feel free to send me chocolate.  Or wine.  Or both.).  But I think it’s important that we keep shining the light on what we academics do, day-to-day, so that non-academics understand that being a professor does not mean we “only” work the number of hours a week that we are physically in the classroom, and that while this is a very rewarding job, it does not come without costs or stress.