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…