An academic summer, part 1: Research

June is here. Spring term is (finally, mercifully) over. And, if the questions I’m getting are any indication, the thoughts of the friends, neighbors, and acquaintances of faculty turn to one thing:

“So, do you have the summer off?”

I’ve been getting so many variations of this question lately that I decided I should write a post, describing what this academic is doing this summer. (Hint: It definitely does NOT involve having the summer off!) But as I thought about what I wanted to include in such a post, I realized that I had a potentially rather long post on my hands.

So, over the next couple of weeks I’ll be posting what my academic summer, this year, looks like. In this post, I’ll tackle what I and my students are doing research-wise. In subsequent posts, I’ll talk about what I’m doing for fun, rethinking how I perform mentoring and allyship, curricular projects, and, finally, what I’m specifically choosing not to do this summer.

Research

Faithful readers of this blog may recall that my current project, Self-Healing Home Computer Networks, has two pieces to it: part mathematical, part social science.

The social science piece: where are the participants? and a new experiment

My main focus this summer is on the social science part of the project. The goal of this piece of the project is to deduce the language/terminology and troubleshooting strategies that non-technical people use when reasoning about, identifying problems with, and attempting to fix the computer networks within their homes. I’m working with two undergraduates, both brand new to research, on this project.

My original plan was to conduct more interviews (possibly with my students’ help), and to work with my students to code and analyze this data, so that we could start framing out a larger survey to conduct later this year or early next year with a larger participant base. We’ve been doing the latter — my students are learning how to work with qualitative data, and have been instrumental in drilling down deeper into a few of the sub-themes we observed on a first cursory pass through the transcripts.

However, the former is proving to be more challenging than I anticipated — I am struggling to recruit participants! I’ve done mostly offline and email blast friends and neighbors recruiting, and some flyering, with little success. I’m trying to revamp my recruiting protocol and seeing what’s possible in terms of online recruiting. While this is frustrating, it’s actually been a good learning experience for me and my students, showcasing the difficulty of conducting qualitative research.

(Shameless plug: if you are reading this and happen to either be in the south metro area of the Twin Cities, or know someone who is, and either would like to participate or knows someone who might like to participate, please contact me! I appreciate any help or leads I can get!)

My students started working with me during spring term, reading the relevant background literature and learning how to do qualitative research. Toward the end of spring term, we kicked around the idea of conducting a related experiment, simultaneously with the interview study: a card sort, using the terminology we’ve collected so far in the interviews. This has become the students’ main focus this summer. The students came up with other sources from which to extract potential terminology, and we have the framework of the experiment set up. We’re now refining the experiment as well as our IRB protocol, and trying to figure out our potential subject pool. Hopefully we’ll get to launch our experiment in a couple of weeks!

The mathematical piece: Where does this fit?

After the resounding and unfairly mean rejection of my workshop paper, I largely put that part of the project aside, partly to cool my anger and partly to concentrate on the other half of the project. My ego has (mostly) recovered, and so I’m spending some of my research brain cycles figuring out where to send this work out next.

I’ve framed this paper as a quality of experience management paper, with little success. So I am now trying to figure out how to reframe it. My instincts tell me that IoT (Internet of Things) management might be a better fit, so that’s where I’m concentrating my energies right now. I’m less familiar with the IoT conference/workshop space, and IoT is a pretty broad subfield, so identifying appropriate venues has proved challenging thus far. I think I need to figure out who in my professional network is working in the IoT space, and pick their brains for advice.

Mentoring students

Today I realized that I have not worked with students over the summer since the summer of 2014! For me, that’s an extraordinarily long hiatus. I worried that my research mentoring skills would be a bit rusty. Luckily, the two students that I hired make my job easy-peasy. They may be brand new to research, but they are SHARP and pick things up quickly. I’m actually having trouble keeping up with the pace they’re setting! They are eager to learn, and keep asking me what they should be reading. They have great ideas and keen insights.

As expected, they are not quite yet completely comfortable with failure or the uncertainty involved in doing academic research, but we’ve had some good conversations already about how to live with that discomfort.

One logistical piece I worried about before the start of the summer: my students’ lab is in a building all the way across campus from my office. Granted, my campus is small, and “all the way across campus” = a 10 minute walk. Still, it poses a challenge. In previous summers, my office was down the hall from the lab. Students could run down the hall to ask questions, and I could run down to the lab to help them troubleshoot/debug a problem, sketch out a design, etc. How do you replicate this kind of atmosphere with the physical distance? The solution we’ve found, which is working so far: longer lab meetings (usually an hour) mid-morning, and Slack for questions/discussions between meetings. While this hasn’t happened yet, if a question/discussion indicates that this would be better hashed out face-to-face, I’ll either run over to the lab or have the students come to my office.


We’re only in Week 2 of the summer, but I’m already excited about the direction my research is taking. I know that the work my students and I do this summer will set up a strong foundation for me (and maybe them and other students) to continue during the academic year — and that excites me, too.

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