Five (academic) things I’m thankful for

It’s 2:30pm the day before Thanksgiving, and about 20 minutes ago my brain decided that we were done working for the day. So before I sign off for a long weekend of low-key relaxation (and football! and running! and Christmas decorating!) with my two favorite people in the world, I wanted to reflect on five academically-related things for which I am thankful this holiday season.

  1. My students. I’ve spent the past few hours writing recommendation letters, and the exercise reminded me of just how amazing our students are. Sure, sometimes they drive you batty, but I can truly and honestly say that I love my students. They are so sharp, so smart, and so engaged (ok, maybe less so during weeks 9 and 10 of the term). It is a joy to teach them and to work with them, and I am truly grateful to have the opportunity to teach at a school like Carleton.
  2. My colleagues. I am fortunate to work in a great department. We don’t always agree, but we listen and learn from each other. We work on making each others’ lives easier; we step in and pitch in. When I had to switch my upcoming leave from Spring to Winter at the last minute (see below), my chair and the rest of my department went into overdrive to help me figure out the logistics. I can go to any of them for advice or commiseration without fear of judgement. (Having tenure helps, but still.) They make my work life fun.
  3. My research. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned her before, I am passionate about my research. I’ve worked on my current project for almost 10 years now, in various forms, and it still excites me. There are still so many questions left to answer! And I truly and honestly believe what I am doing has the potential to be life-changing (or at least paradigm-changing), which fuels my passion. I am thankful that my job gives me the space and the freedom to explore the questions that motivate me, without question and without oversight.
  4. A term’s leave. I’ve had a pretty busy year, to put it mildly. My students started working in my lab this summer the day after Spring Term ended (before I had started grading my finals!), and we went pretty much right from the summer research time into a very busy fall term (with the dyad and various other service projects on tap). So it’s been about a year since I had a proper break. I was scheduled for a leave during Spring term, but due to some things going on in my personal life (more on that in a later post), I will be on leave next term instead. I’ll still be plenty busy, but this is the right time for a break in the routine and some time away from Carleton to refresh and rejuvenate before Spring term. I’m thankful that I have a job that’s flexible enough to allow me that much-needed time away.
  5. My mentors, sponsors, and cheerleaders. My recent trip to Grace Hopper reminded me of how energizing and powerful an effective support network can be. I’m grateful for all those in my life, inside and outside of my institution, who listen without judgement, offer advice, open doors, and open my eyes. I have some great people in my network and I would definitely not be where I am today without their support, encouragement, and facilitation.

I hope all of my US readers have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!

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Owning my seniority

When I got the invitation a few months ago to attend the Senior Women Summit at Grace Hopper, I’ll admit that my first reaction was disbelief. Surely there was some mistake! I’ve only been officially tenured for just over a year, so how could I possibly be a senior woman in tech? And besides, doesn’t “senior” imply that I’m accomplished, that I’ve done something Really Important in my career? I’m just a lowly associate prof! I haven’t really done anything important yet!

But I was intrigued and curious, and thought “What the hell, I’ll just go and see what this is all about.”

I spent the entire first hour or so of today’s summit dealing with a serious case of impostor syndrome. I ended up sitting at a table of women who are very senior and are very much powerhouses of accomplishment. By chance I’d met all but one of them before. Oddly, even the ones I’d only briefly met in the past remembered me, which really threw me for a loop—why would these powerful women, who meet lots of people every day, remember little old me? They were all very warm and welcoming, but I was seriously fighting the urge to run out of the room screaming “I don’t belong here! There’s been a horrible mistake!”

Eventually I was able to get over my impostor syndrome enough to relax. And it was a really incredible opportunity. I had some great conversations with senior women, I identified some new mentors potential sponsors, and got to meet and converse with some of my personal heroes.

I find it interesting that I have such a hard time “owning” the fact that I am a senior woman. What I realized today is that, like it or not, I do have experience and I do make a difference and that others do see me as senior. This means that I have some power and control over things in my department, institution, and larger technical community. And that I can and should capitalize on this to make the changes and impact I want to see to my department, institution, and larger technical community. I forget sometimes that I’ve finished fighting the tenure battle—I still think of myself as “junior” and “of limited power”. It’s hard to switch that off once you get tenure. It’s hard to lean into and embrace that new role.

Today’s summit gave me permission to own my seniority and to embrace the benefits and responsibilities that come with that. My challenge will be figuring out how exactly I want to translate that into meaningful and sustainable action.

“Should cover” vs. “have to cover”: making the tough decisions

It’s Week 9 here at Carleton, which means the term is winding down. Students are frantic and frazzled. Faculty are just as, if not more, frantic and frazzled, because we’re at that point in the term where we realize that the ambitious syllabi we laid out so carefully in September is, in fact, too ambitious.

Actually this time around I find myself in the interesting position that I am right on schedule. I’ve covered almost everything I intended on covering, to a comfortable level of depth. I have 2 classes left in each of my courses. (I’m heading to Grace Hopper tomorrow, so I will miss 2 teaching days. I just canceled class outright for my upper-level elective to give them time to work on their projects, which are due the last day of class. My Intro class will be capably handled by my dyad partner and my prefect.) Intro’s all set: presentations next Monday and exam/wrap up next Wednesday. But in my upper-level class, I find myself with some room to maneuver.

There is one technical topic that I could conceivably cover: an additional day on wireless networks and mobility. You could argue that this is information that my students need to see, since so much networking is mobile these days. In my younger professorial days, I would have wholeheartedly agreed with you, spent a class cramming as much technical info in as possible….and exhausting myself and my students in the process.

But. In the course of the term, through the readings and discussions and tangents we’ve taken in class, I’ve realized that my class as a whole is really, really interested in network policy. Nothing seems to interest my students more than a good story about how a particular technology evolved (or didn’t). Mention “net neutrality” or “peering agreements” and everyone’s ears perk up. This pleases me, because it means they’re making connections beyond the technical to the practical, and really grasping that technology doesn’t happen in a bubble. And in fact, when we talk about the Internet, we’re talking about a technology that has fundamentally changed the way we do, well, almost everything (and changed this on a miniscule timescale, relatively). And I’d be a fool if I didn’t capitalize on this opportunity and give my students additional space to explore the intersection between technology and policy and how the two affect each other.

So I’m cutting out technical content and dedicating the last 2 class meetings solely to policy issues as they relate to computer networking. We’ll debate net neutrality. We’ll use the opportunity to revisit the end-to-end argument and the layered model and other long-held tenets of networking, and argue over whether they still (should) hold. We’ll agonize over whether we should trash the whole Internet and start over from scratch. Hopefully we’ll strongly disagree with each other.

In the end, I have no doubt that my students will come away with a much richer understanding of all of the technical stuff we’ve covered all term. And hey, if they do need to know more about wireless networks and mobility….well, I’ll just have to trust that I’ve taught them how to learn about networks, and let them figure that stuff out on their own.