Preparing to conference

In a little over a week, I’ll be heading to Glasgow for CHI, one of the big conferences on human-computer interaction.

This is my first ever CHI, and I am excited for all sorts of reasons. I’m excited to present the troubleshooting language work my students and I have been working on, in the late breaking work track. I’m eager to get feedback on how we can make our next experiment (slated for this spring, eek!) even better and more informative. (The reviewer feedback on our submission has already been super helpful in that regard.) I can’t wait to see how our poster looks printed on fabric, and to wear my poster as a scarf when I’m not presenting it. And I’m looking forward to attending talks that touch every aspect of human-computer interaction just for the sake of learning something new. It’s like HCI Disneyland!

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a new-to-me conference. When you go to the same conferences year after year, you get into its rhythms and into your own conference habits. You’re familiar with the culture of that conference (and every conference has its own unique culture), so you don’t have to spend so much energy navigating the social aspects and “flow” of the conference. You get kind of lazy with attending talks and spend more time in the “hallway” track, catching up with colleagues new and old. You can look at the schedule and make a good guess as to which talks/tracks will be worth attending and which are skippable or are likely to be train wrecks.

This familiarity is comforting to an introvert like me. I love conferences, but they are energy vampires, and I have to be careful to not overdo it so that I can maintain my energy over the length of the conference. The more familiar I am with a conference, the easier it is to make decisions about when to engage and when to remove myself from the fray to recharge. But I still do a lot of advance prep work to plan out my conferences: which sessions are can’t-miss ones for me? what are my obligations and where do those fall in the schedule? is there anyone that I want to make sure to connect with while I’m there? I prioritize and schedule these in so that I know I’ll have the energy for them. For everything else, I have a loose plan (sessions that look interesting, etc) that I can jettison if I feel my energy reserves rapidly depleting. I also study maps of the area around the conference venue, so that if I need to take a break to recharge, I have some idea of walkable routes that get me outside by myself.

With a new conference, I don’t have as good information to vet the “must sees” from the “could skips”, and there are so! many! more! new! people! to! meet! For the latter, I signed up for as many conference lunches as I could, to remove the taxing mental calculus of deciding who to meet up with for lunch (and where to eat in an unfamiliar city) and to make it easier to meet new people. For the former, I’m going to have to spend some quality time with the conference schedule to get a sense of what happens when (and when exactly my poster session is!), and then pick out a small handful of things I really want to see and get those on my calendar. I also have to figure out an efficient way to skim the author list, to see if I may know anyone that’s presenting and make plans to meet up with them.

Photo of my 7 week old daughter and me in Glasgow, 2007.
Photo proof that I was actually in Scotland in 2007. With the benevolent dictator that ruled our trip.

This is actually not my first time in Glasgow, so theoretically I should already be a bit familiar with the city. I was last in Glasgow for ICC in 2007…with a 7 week old infant. I was overwhelmed with the whole new parent thing, and already sleep deprived from parenting a newborn and then jet-lagged on top of that. Needless to say, I remember very little from that conference. The things I do remember: realizing when I got dressed the day of my talk that the only halfway decent pants that fit my post-partum body at that point, that I’d packed to wear to look somewhat professional, were too short, making me a fashion don’t; trying desperately to carry on normal adult conversations about research through the sleep deprivation fog; the newborn developing a fear of bagpipes that persists to this day. (I did nail my talk, though!) This time, I won’t have a newborn (or any kids) in tow, so I look forward to exploring the city for real this time around.

If you’re reading this and are going to CHI, or have been to CHI, I’d love to hear your tips. What should I make sure to do? What’s a must-see? If you’re reading this and have tips for what I should see and do in Glasgow (I have one full day to explore before the conference starts), I’d love to hear that too. And if you’re going to CHI and want to meet up, I’ll be sure to reserve some of my introvert energy for you!

Responding to midterm evaluations

I have a confession to make: I have fallen out of the habit of doing midterm course evaluations.

I don’t know why, exactly, I did. I’ve always found midterm evaluations to be useful as a way of taking the pulse of the course. Even if I think I have a pretty good sense of how things are going and what the major complaints are, I still learn useful information from my students. I’ve discovered problems with textbooks, problems with the timing of due dates, and problems with the sight lines in a classroom from midterm evaluations. I’ve learned surprising things about what things my students enjoy and what they value. (Hint: they are not always the same things.) I often use them as an opportunity to check the learning objectives I’ve set for the course, and how well students think we’re meeting those.

They are invaluable in helping me recalibrate my courses.

So I’d fallen out of the habit. But last term, I taught a course I haven’t taught since 2012. And it was a struggle to get back into the rhythm of the material and the pace of the class and the workload and such. So I thought that would be a golden opportunity to bring back the midterm evaluation into my life.

Boy, am I glad I did.

I’d had a sense that the class was going ok, but that something seemed off, and I couldn’t quite place why. The midterm evaluations illuminated the issues very quickly, and also explained why it was so hard for me to figure out the source of the issues. In a nutshell: The students couldn’t make sense of much of anything in the book. My version of flipped classroom pedagogy requires my students to do some targeted reading and complete targeted reading quizzes before class, so that I can see what they got out of the readings and where I need to spend some extra time before we dive into deeper practice with the material, and then deeper still on the problem sets. Since they were lost when reading the book, they were lost when attempting the quizzes. Sometimes they gave up, and sometimes they just kept guessing until they got the right answer. This means their foundation was shaky, and they were not really prepared to engage with the material in class. But the way I had the quizzes set up, it was hard for me to see the depth of the problems. And then, because they couldn’t engage with the material in class at the level I’d expect based on what I saw in the reading quizzes, they weren’t prepared to engage with the problem sets — which are challenging.

A perfect storm of chaos, basically.

I’ll admit that it was hard to read this set of evaluations. Mostly, I felt like I had let my class down, and berated myself for being a “bad professor”. Which is human but not really constructive. So I sat with the comments for a few days, planning how to address them. Clearly my course needed a restructuring, one that would work around the shortcomings of the textbook while still remaining true to my pedagogy. But I wasn’t sure how to do this.

As my class took an exam in the first half of the following Monday’s class, I finally figured out what I wanted to do, and sketched out a plan on slides. When the last student handed in the exam, I said we were going to talk about the evaluations. And I summarized their concerns. And outlined the “perfect storm” I described above, and how I thought this was affecting their learning. How finding a good textbook for this type of class at this level is difficult, and how I’ve successfully used this book for many years, but that’s irrelevant because what mattered most is that they struggled with it so that means it was not a good fit for this class, and how I will take this into account the next time I teach this class and have to pick a textbook.

And then I outlined a plan for the rest of the term, one that I hoped allowed them to attempt the readings more successfully and with a bit more focus (reminding them that I do give them hints on what to focus on, through a set of reading questions in addition to the quizzes). We would start each class explicitly with the key points from the readings listed on the board along with my impression of what concepts they found most challenging, giving them the opportunity to agree/disagree with my assessment. This might mean that I had to change my planned examples and exercises on the fly, which made me a bit nervous since I was still relearning the material along with them — but I promised to be honest with them when I felt like my free-wheeling might lead us into rough waters, and they seemed to be ok with that. That I’d dedicate more class time to giving them the opportunity to start/work on problem sets, so that they could ask questions right away and we could figure out together if they need some extra practice before attempting the problem sets.

I am grateful that I work at an institution where students feel safe enough to be honest with me about what is and is not working for their learning. I am grateful for the level of thoughtfulness and self-reflection my students bring to the learning process. Students here place high expectations on faculty and expect a lot from us (which they should!), and their feedback and observations make me a much better teacher. Responding to this feedback, and restructuring my course, proved an interesting challenge and a good opportunity for me to reflect on my pedagogy — not just my philosophy, but my practice.

I don’t think I completely hit the mark on everything I intended to do last term, but I do think things improved, for both me and the students. And, as I put together my course for spring term, I realized that I could and should incorporate some of these same practices (extra checking in with the students, being explicit about the key points from the readings) into that course as well. We’re only a week and a half into the new term, but I’m excited to see how things go. And, I’m already looking forward to what this batch of students will share on this term’s midterm evaluations.

Designing a term with mental health in mind

It was the start of Week 9 of our 10 week winter term, and I found myself staring at a blank text editor page on my computer monitor, textbook open beside me, praying for some, any, inspiration. “I’ll post Problem Set 7 on Monday,” I told my students. It was Monday, already, and I had nothing.

I was so, so, so tired. Physically tired, from several weeks of not enough sleep. Mentally tired, from juggling an overwhelmingly overfull term containing a basically new prep and significant service responsibilities and hiring. Emotionally tired, from the hours I spent every day dealing with significant and difficult issues with one of my kiddos, who’s really struggling this year. But I had to suck it up. I had to get this written, and posted, so that….

So that what? I found myself thinking. Judging from my interactions with students in class, and the messages they’re sending me about class, they are also exhausted, and overwhelmed. Every class is piling on work. Seniors are finish up Comps. The course material is challenging, and the textbook is actually in many cases hindering their learning. Everyone is on edge.

Will that final problem set add to their learning? Is the added stress worth it, or will it be more conducive to their learning to ease off the gas a bit and let them catch their breath?

If I clearly didn’t want to write this problem set, did I think my students really wanted to do this problem set?

When I framed the problem that way, the answer was clear. I sent a message to the class, letting them know that there would be no Problem Set 7. The relief, and appreciation, was immediate and palpable.

I’d fallen into the trap of thinking that if students are not producing, they’re not learning. But there’s a time to produce, and a time to reflect, and it’s hard to produce when you’re tired and overscheduled and overstimulated. And judging from the student responses on the final exam on the topic that would have been the focus of Problem Set 7, the in-class only exposure to the material produced the desired learning outcomes anyway.

I thought about this experience a lot when planning out my spring term course. The end of spring term is traditionally even tougher than the end of winter term. We don’t get much of a break between winter and spring terms, and by early June we’ve been slogging away exhaustedly for months. And the end of the year brings All Of The Events. The department picnics. The awards thingies. The end of year celebrations. So. many. surveys. If I can give them just a bit of breathing room, some time to engage at a slower pace with the material, with more carefully curated “products” spaced more thoughtfully with the rhythms of the term — well, that’s a gift to them and to me (and my course staff!).

I thought about this from a personal standpoint, too, when planning out my term. While I still have significant service responsibilities that will only continue to ramp up, my workload is way more manageable and realistic than it was in the winter. (I might even be able to take most weekends off!) But. Spring term is when my depression kicks into overdrive, like clockwork. And I know that if I’m not on top of it, it can quickly derail my life and my productivity. Being kinder and gentler to myself by allowing time to engage with life and reflect and work at a slower pace, sets myself up for success. And setting myself up for success reduces the inevitable feelings of being a complete failure which come out in droves in the spring, driving me deeper into my depression.

If I know that slowing things down is good for my own mental health, doesn’t it stand to reason that it will be good for my students’ mental health, too? Particularly since a good number of our students manage their own private battles with anxiety and depression and other mental health issues?

I still need to move a few things around in my syllabus to make this goal a reality, but I’m excited to see how this revamp of expectations, and this kinder, gentler approach to teaching, goes. And I’m curious to see what impact my kinder, gentler approach to spring term has on my depression management during what’s for me the toughest time of the year.