Thinking about space, part eleventy-thousand

I’ve posted here in the past about my obsession concern with spaces and what they signal: who’s welcome here, what kind of work is done here, etc. I’ve been thinking about space again recently—specifically, research space and recruitment to the field and how the two intersect.

A bit of background: Last year Carleton started a new computer science summer program for high school students. The program lasts 3 weeks, and consists of classes in the mornings and guided research in the afternoons. I teach an HCI (human-computer interaction) module in this program, and my guided research group works on HCI projects related to my actual research.

Last year, when I taught in the program, I had pretty much the perfect lab space for my guided research group. It was one of our CS labs. Only half the room has computers, and these are pretty nicely spaced out. The room also features windows/natural light, lots of whiteboard space, and a sitting/collaboration/conversation area. The space allowed people to move around freely, sketch out ideas, and step away from the computer from time to time.

lab space sketch

Figure 1: A sketch of last year’s lab space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Due to room availability and other issues, I won’t have this lab space again this year. Instead, my research group will be housed in our new teaching lab. While this space is great as a teaching space, it’s not so great as a collaborative space. Here’s what the layout looks like, roughly:

lab space sketch

Figure 2: The lab space I’ll be in this year. Much different from last year’s space!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The computers are in rigid rows on immovable tables. There’s a fair amount of whiteboard space, but it’s all in the front of the room. It’s harder to move around, and there’s no space to step away from the computers.

The worst part for me? No windows! (The horror!)

My challenge is to find a way to turn this space into a more collaborative, welcoming space. Not only do I want to make it more workable for the type of research work my students will be doing, but I also want to make it less clinical/sterile and more warm—because this will be the primary working space for high school students whom we’d like to become computer scientists someday, and there’s not much about this space that says that computer science is fun or welcoming or collaborative.

So how do I plan to pull this off?

  • Removing some of the computers and half of the chairs from the room. This will free up some table space for sketching, conversations, and planning away from the computer, and improve the walking flow around the room.
  • Large sticky note pads and markers, to make up for the lack of whiteboards around the room. I’d love for the walls of the room to be covered with sketches, lists, mockups, user stories, etc. by the end of the program!
  • Designating the front of the room as our large group meeting space. Sometimes we’ll need to discuss things without the distraction of the computers, and it turns out there’s enough room in the front to pull up chairs and chat as a group. (It will be a little tight, but it will work.)
  • Pictures on the walls, to make up for the lack of windows. I’m thinking nature pictures, so that maybe we’ll forget about the lack of windows!

I haven’t been able to do any of this yet since there’s some construction going on in the room, but I’ll be curious to see how things work out next week when I’m able to get in there and start rearranging things, and see if I can make my vision a reality. It will also be interesting to see if these few cosmetic changes will really change the feel and environment of the room, or if the signals in the room will be too strong to overcome. Regardless, it’s an interesting experience and challenge, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out in the end.

Reflections on my first year as department chair

Yesterday marked my one year anniversary of becoming department chair. (I celebrated by driving my kids around to various appointments all afternoon and making about 1,000 rainbow loom bracelets with my daughter. Ah, the exciting life of a working mom.) While the first year went quickly, I won’t lie: there were times when I wasn’t sure I was going to survive the year, or not come into work sleep deprived yet again. As with everything in life, there have been good parts and bad parts, and I thought it would be useful to reflect and summarize how my first year went.

The good

Being in this position has reminded me that I work at a truly terrific institution, with thoughtful and creative colleagues and a supportive administration. We’ve dealt with some tricky issues as a department this year, and the conversations around them have been thoughtful and considerate. We listen to each other even when we disagree with each other. I’m so grateful to work in such a highly functioning environment with colleagues that I both like and respect, and in many ways they have made my job so much easier this year.

While there is a lot of truth to the observation that being in charge of faculty in any capacity is like herding cats, I have actually been able to “be the change I want to see” in my department. For a long time, I’ve had a vision for the department’s environment, the way we present ourselves, and the way we carry out our business, and I’ve been able to start implementing parts of that vision this year, with some early successes. I’m grateful that my colleagues are on board, but it’s also thrilling to know that I can actually cause change in our department and that I can influence our environment and policies.

On a related note, I enjoy that I’m in a position that allows me to think more long-term about the success of the department, and to direct how we have those long-term conversations. Being chair allows me to set the priorities of the department—in consultation with my colleagues, of course!—and to direct our collective attention. Every time I craft a department meeting agenda, I get to engage in this type of thinking: how do we balance the things that need immediate attention with the things we need to discuss for the long-term health of the department? It’s a different type of creativity.

Finally, I’m a problem solver at heart, and this job involves a lot of problem solving. Sometimes I have to think quickly on my feet, and sometimes I get the luxury of taking a step back and weighing the different options. I enjoy the challenge of both types of problem solving, and the satisfaction of finding a solution that, if not everyone is happy with, at least everyone can live with.

The bad

Workload. Workload workload workload. There’s only so much I can delegate, and even with judicious delegating, the workload still felt oppressive at times. There’s always some paperwork that needs my attention, or some task that needs to be done, or a budget item that needs to be reviewed, or a question/issue from a student or colleague. It. Never. Ends.

My time is no longer my own. In an ideal world, I’d start my day with my office door closed, working on research or doing some last-minute class prep, for an hour or so, before even opening my email. In the real world, I check my email first thing because there’s usually something I have to deal with Right Now (or more commonly, 5 Minutes Ago).  My research in particular has taken a huge hit as a result, but there were some days that I’d go into class less prepared than I’m comfortable with because something came up at the last minute.

Relatedly, running a search is a major time suck. Everyone in the department is busy during hiring season, especially in a small department like ours where all tenure-track faculty and all staff participate in the process. But traditionally in our department, department chair = search chair, and the search chair’s load is at least 5x everyone else’s load (save for the admin). And calling perfectly wonderful people to let them know they are no longer under consideration for our position? Well that sucks about as much as you can imagine. (That said, making the call to invite someone to campus or offer them the position, and getting to meet our short list via Skype interviews? That stuff is fun!)

The learning curve? Steep. Very steep. I’m hoping some stuff that seemed to take me forever this year will take me less time next year, since I’ll have done it already, but there’s so much I don’t know that I spend a lot of time learning, and looking things up, and hunting things down, and calling people when all else fails.

Finally, having to hold people accountable is difficult. I’m a pretty dependable person, and I tend to naively assume that everyone else generally behaves that way too. Not so. I spend more time than I’d care to admit chasing people down for things, many of whom should know better by now. Sometimes I also have to hold people accountable for their less-than-stellar behavior—thankfully, this is fairly uncommon, but let’s just say that sometimes people don’t think of the larger consequences (to the department, to their colleagues or students) before acting, and sometimes I have to be the one to clean up the ensuing mess.

The ugly

Oh come on, you didn’t think I’d actually be able to share the train wrecks, did you? Thankfully, there wasn’t much in the Ugly category, but the stuff there is definitely unbloggable. I will say this: the ugly stuff always came without warning and typically forced me to drop everything and deal with it immediately, and was usually people-related. If there’s a silver lining, this year’s Ugly stuff did highlight some “blind spots” in the way we operate, all of which are fixable, and all of which will be fixed. I’m not so naive to think that this will preclude any more Ugly stuff from happening, but I’m hoping it will lessen the probability of this year’s flavor of Ugly stuff from happening.

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So there you have it. I survived, I learned a ton…and I need to figure out a way to clone myself. I’m looking forward to the challenges of my second year as chair and hoping that some of it comes easier, or at least is more expected, than this year.