Summertime, and the living is….hang on, there’s a student at my door with a question


It’s been a busy, busy summer so far, and we’re only a week and a half past graduation!

My research students started last week. At that point, I was still trying to wrap up grading and other things from the end of the term, trying to get as much off my plate as possible before July 1, when I become department chair, and….basically not sleeping. In addition to getting three new-to-research students up to speed on a new-to-all-of-us project. (Which NSF declined to fund. Boo hiss. I probably have a post on that coming up later.) So you could say that I haven’t been at my most productive.

New students take a lot of hand-holding at first. This is true on any project. The title of this post is pretty much how my week has gone. It’s hard to get traction when you’re constantly interrupted. However, the interruptions are necessary and expected and, as I keep telling myself, will become less and less frequent as we get deeper into the project and as my students gain more confidence and skill in their work.

Despite pretty much every single thing possible going wrong the first 2 days of the project (software not installed, logins not working, networks not working), my students have made some good progress so far. They’re learning some new-to-all-of-us APIs (and coding in new-to-some-of-us languages), and yesterday they started working on the “brains” of our future testbed network. I’m pretty pleased with where they are and where they are headed, so far, and think we’ll make some serious headway on the project this summer.

The hand-holding aspect is interesting, though. There are things I expect them not to know: the finer points of how networks work, for instance. (I introduced them to traceroute and ping yesterday. I love how traceroute = magic, at least at first.) Or how to use a poorly-documented API. But there are always unexpected roadblocks: language features I assumed they’d know but don’t really. How to effectively Google. How to decipher certain cryptic error messages. How to debug code past a certain level. Working with undergraduates is very much a form of teaching, and I think it’s very easy to forget that.

As I mentioned above, I’ve had a hard time gaining traction in my own work. This is mainly because the work I have to do requires a fair amount of mental energy and focus: figuring out how to best respond to my NSF reviews (i.e. what new experiments/simulations do I need to develop and run) so I can resubmit the grant later this year; develop curriculum for the summer program (and my A&I seminar); analyze the data from my Software Design course for our department assessment report. But my energy, and thus my brain, is scattered. I need to get back on track, and soon!

(As if on cue, one of my students just appeared at my door with a question.)

For the rest of this week, I will work to get back into some semblance of a rhythm of work and try to rein in my derailed productivity. I’ll continue to help my students become more self-sufficient. And I’ll try to get more sleep so I can be halfway functional. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll close my door for a bit so I can reclaim some of my time, before the next interruption…oh, wait, hang on a sec…


Role modeling starts early

Grace Hopper in front of the UNIVACI have a t-shirt from Grace Hopper 2010 in Atlanta. The t-shirt (I believe it was the one from Google that year) has the famous picture (shown here) of Grace Hopper and the UNIVAC.

Recently my daughter started asking me “who is the lady on your shirt, Mommy?” when I wear the shirt. Usually I just say “That’s Grace Hopper. She was a famous computer scientist.” Yesterday she pressed me for more info, so I explained a bit more about who she was, how she was one of the first computer programmers, etc. I showed her the clip of Grace Hopper on David Letterman. During this whole exchange, my son sat nearby, listening intently.

Later that afternoon, as I picked my son (who’s not quite 3) up after his nap, he took a good long look at my shirt, pointed to the picture, and said as clear as day, “Grace Hopper.”

Now where did I put that Ada Lovelace shirt….?

Limping into the summer

We’re still in session around these parts—our last day of classes for spring term is tomorrow, followed by reading days and exams, followed by the mad dash to get senior grades done 36 hours after  the final projects come in…good times. This has been a particularly brutal term, work-wise and stress-wise, so I will be happy to see it end.

This week I’m juggling both wrapping-up-the-term activities and ramping-up-for-the-summer activities, which frankly is making my brain hurt. I’m ending the term like I started the term: frantic and behind on my work. I like to try and end each term on a strong note, but this year I am definitely exhausted mentally and physically and feel like I’m limping into the summer instead of leaping energetically and enthusiastically into the summer.

This summer’s workload will be substantial, with five major initiatives (just thinking about it all makes my head hurt even more!). Here’s what I’ll be spending my “lazy” summer “off” doing:

  1. Starting a new research project. I submitted a grant application late last year for a new project. I’m super-excited about the project: it combines my previous research on rich media and quality of experience with some network measurement, human-centered computing, and tool-building thrown in for good measure. But starting a new research project is always a bit daunting: what if it turns out this is a bad idea? what if we don’t get anywhere? where the hell do we start? And starting a new research project with students (see below) is doubly daunting. I have a vague plan of where to start, but frankly part of me is terrified. We could easily spend the entire summer just trying to get things up and running and still not have anything up or running at the end. I think the chances of that are small, but it’s enough to keep me up at night. At any rate, I’ll definitely be busting my ass this summer trying to get this project off the ground.
  2. Teaching in a brand new high school program. Because clearly starting a new research project from scratch is not enough excitement for one summer! Seriously though, Carleton is starting a new CS summer program this year for high school students for 3 weeks. We teach the students in the morning and work with a subset of them in the afternoon, in our research labs, on “real” CS research problems. I am very excited about this program, but know realistically that it will be a lot of work. We had our curriculum meeting today, so I’ve already done a bunch of planning for my classroom portion of the program, but still need to hammer out details about the research problems, as well as the software/programming language. Not to mention that the research problems, as I envision them at this point, rely heavily on progress we make on the new research project leading up to the high school program….yeah, there’s no way THIS could fail!
  3. Supervising 3 undergraduate research students. I took a hiatus last year from supervising students in my lab, mainly because I thought I’d be on parental leave, but this summer my lab will be full of students again. None of the students working for me have experience doing CS research, so my involvement will be very hands-on at the start of the summer. However, most of my former research students had no experience either, and things turned out well, and this group seems really eager and ready to get to work. (Plus I’ve been working with 2 of the 3 of them this term.) The one worrisome part is the new students + new project combination. I think I just need to go in with a flexible mindset and plans B-Z if things go awry. Again, what could possibly go wrong?
  4. Taking over as department chair July 1. And just like that, my service commitments increase exponentially. My big tasks out of the gate will be getting the agenda together for the department retreat in August and sketching out job ads for our tenure track search—and, of course, figuring out how to be department chair.
  5. Planning a brand new course for the fall. I’ve always wanted to teach a human-computer interaction (HCI) course. I sort of did so with the dyad a couple of years back, but this time around I’ll be teaching an A&I (freshman) seminar on the topic. I’m wildly excited about this opportunity, but (a) this is not my area and (b) we don’t have a senior-level class which I can raid for ideas. I met with some great people at SIGCSE this year who gave me some great teaching and course construction ideas, and my high school course in the summer program is on HCI, so I’m not completely starting from scratch. Still, this should be quite the adventure. (And did I mention that by definition this is a writing-rich course? Yikes!)

In addition, I have some assessment tasks to wrap up in July before handing over the assessment reins, and organizing our contingent for Grace Hopper will of course take place throughout the summer. And did I mention I’m running a half marathon in early August?

The good news is, with the exception of #4, everything on my plate this summer is fun-to-me and exciting and intellectually stimulating. Yes, I’ll be working hard, but it’s all on things I’ll enjoy immensely. So that definitely makes things a bit less daunting. That said, my goal is to get through the summer sustainably, without burning myself out….because I’m really going to need to be fresh and well-rested and renewed before the absolute insanity that will be my next academic year.