Week 8: The hard stuff

We’re heading swiftly toward the end of the term: next Wednesday is the last day of classes, and June 8 is the last day of finals. While at many times this term seemed like a colossal slog, now that we’re finishing up it seems to be moving at warp speed.

At this point in a normal term, I tend to ease up a bit. I know my students are stressed and tired (heck, I’m stressed and tired), so I refrain from assigning new, heavy things. The key focus now in Software Design is on finishing their term-long website projects, which keeps them plenty busy anyway. Integration is hard, so I want to give them the space and time to grapple with those tricky integration issues and annoying well-this-worked-before-why-is-it-crashing-now? bugs.

I’ve eased up this term, too, and perhaps it’s even more important now, as we’re all worn down by the fatigue of uncertainty, the struggles of learning in community online, and too much Zoom.

There are two course activities I typically do in the last couple of weeks in the term: a code review, and project presentations. Both, it turns out, are challenging to rework in a fully virtual environment. I still haven’t figured out how to pull off the project presentation piece, to be honest, although I really need to figure out something ASAP! But I did find a way to pull off the code review, and I’m eager to see how it goes.

Code review should be easy to pull off if you do it the way it’s normally done — as a way to review/test/try to break code for which you’ve submitted a pull request. This assumes access to a common repository and that you’re all working on the same codebase, which is not true here. My version of code review in Software Design resembles peer writing workshops. I divide students into “feedback groups” (usually two development teams per group), have them exchange code (usually a specific class and any helper classes necessary to understand that class), and have them review code more like you’d review writing. Groups project code onto one of the many monitors in the classroom and gather around tables to discuss it.

I considered several different ways to do this virtually and asynchronously, and weighed using various tools. In the end, I decided the costs of throwing yet another unfamiliar tool at my students outweighed any small benefits they’d derive from learning that tool. So students will use Google Docs, copying and pasting the relevant code into a Google Doc, and optionally applying syntax highlighting with one of the myriad tools out there. (I suggested Code Blocks, and I just found an online highlighter that actually connects to a website, unlike the others I tried.) Students will use the commenting feature to highlight and provide feedback on specific aspects of the code, and set up Slack channels in our course workspace for longer discussions about the code under review. This way, I can dip in and monitor the level, type, and content of feedback that teams exchange with each other. Which is actually a net benefit, because I’ll get much more information on how students review each others’ code than I do normally when I’m flitting around the room trying to listen in on each group’s feedback! (And I can provide a better post-mortem after the fact, using specific comments and examples.) In our synchronous class meeting today, before they start code review in earnest, I’ll have them work in teams to review a short snippet of code, so that they can practice the workflow and get feedback from me on how they’re reviewing code. I’m really eager to see how this goes.

The hard stuff, as I alluded to in the title of this post, leveled up this week, not just in my course, but in pretty much every aspect of my job:

  • I received unexpectedly bad news about my planned research project with students for the summer, and scrambled to work up a replacement project (after panicking, swearing, and throwing things, of course).
  • In a similar vein, I’m working with others on how to create a community of student researchers when they are all isolated from each other and remote. It’s not impossible, but it’s new to us and tricky to do well.
  • Students who struggled all term continue to struggle, meaning I’ve had some difficult conversations about what it will take to pass the course (even with our version of pass-fail grading, which is basically “pass with a C- or above”, “pass with a D”, and “fail”).
  • Discussions about next year continue, maybe not as fruitfully as I’d like and maybe with fewer answer and many more questions/unknowns than I’d like. It leads me to question whether the right conversations are not happening at all behind closed doors, or whether the right conversations are happening behind closed doors and the failure is in communicating this information to faculty and staff. Regardless, the end result is the same — more angst, more uncertainty, more anxiety about the future.
  • I have some big tasks on my plate — make sure research students get paid this summer (no small feat when it seems like everyone’s projects keep changing), assigning Comps (capstone) groups for next year, conducting oral exams for this year’s Comps students — that take plenty of time and mental/emotional energy, both of which are in short supply lately.

The best I can do is to do my best in managing my time and my energy levels, doing what I can when I can, and taking the time for self-care so that I can be present, mentally and emotionally, for all of the hard stuff on my plate. And to remember that now, especially, good enough is good enough. This will let me get to the end of the term in one piece, and leave me with enough emotional and mental space once the term concludes to reflect on the term and apply what I’ve learned to….whatever fall term and beyond look like.

48

Today I turn 48.

47 was a challenging year. On the plus side, I achieved some big goals. I started my first big academic leadership role, STEM Director, and while I’ve scrambled to fit my responsibilities into a schedule with too few course releases, I’ve really enjoyed the challenge and the ability to think and act within a wider and broader scope. I revamped one of our core courses and taught it 3 times this year, and it’s been such a joy to teach it (yes, even online this term!). I taught my first taekwondo classes, as I work towards earning my instructor certification. I wrote a memoir as part of NaNoWriMo. I ran 2 trail races. And, last but not least: I earned my black belt in taekwondo!

The last two goals I’m especially proud of, not just because they’re the result of hard work and perseverance, but also because they show that you can do new, hard, athletic things no matter your age.

47 also saw a global pandemic that upended pretty much every aspect of our lives, and continues to do so. It brought a tough (although not altogether unexpected) diagnosis for one of my kiddos, one which we struggle with every day and which truly requires a village to handle. (The absence of that village, even with some of them being on hand remotely, has made daily functioning in this pandemic very difficult for the kiddo, and for us.) Then there was the sprained ankle that derailed my half-marathon training the same week I started. And work, particularly the first half of the academic year, proved grueling and demoralizing for various reasons I can’t get into here.

48 starts off with a ton of anxiety, uncertainty, and angst. So much remains up in the air, about what summer and fall will look like (particularly a summer without child care, which I’ll talk about in a future post), and about how this pandemic will play out. How can anyone plan in this type of environment, when plans may very well prove to be fiction?

But 48 brings a lot of hope, too. I’ll test for my second degree black belt next winter. I plan on running a half marathon, virtual or otherwise, this fall. I’m advising 2 exciting Comps projects, both of which will catapult me clear out of my comfort zone. Our entire Science Complex will be open and fully online in the fall, and I’m so excited to lead the sciences in our new space (and with ALL of the course releases I’m supposed to have!). And I have a few projects in the works that I’m eager to move forward in the coming year.

I’m also looking ahead to the big 5-0, planning a big, epic adventure. Hopefully the state of the world will allow for big, epic adventures at that point….

To be honest, Pandemic Birthday will not be all that different from Normal Birthday. Normal Birthday typically entails lots of solo time for this introvert to rejuvenate from Too Many People During the Week/Too Many End of Term Shenanigans. Pandemic Birthday? Also lots of solo time, although more out of necessity than out of a need to escape people. I’ll head out for what counts for a long run these days (5 miles). Rumor has it that the family is planning some kind of breakfast and some kind of coffee treat for me post-run. I’ll alternate between doing my own thing and hanging out with the family, spending as much time as possible outside. We’ll order in to support a local business, instead of eating out. And hopefully there will be chocolate cake with plenty of frosting to end the day.

Here’s to a new year of adventures…hopefully more of the good kind than of the bad kind!

Week 7: Research….?

The end of the term rapidly approaches, and while I’m way far behind in grading and checking in on student engagement (I just cannot spend another minute staring at Moodle logs, ugh!), I’m actually slightly ahead in course prep. This is good, because the other parts of my job demand my attention this week (let’s just say there are some deadlines I’m coming right up against, a bit uncomfortably). This also means I have a bit more time to think about…

…research.

On the one hand, it seems completely ludicrous to worry about scholarship at a time like this. With all the uncertainty, the death, the sickness, the despair — the very real, troubling issues and impossible decisions facing us — pursuing scholarship seems downright frivolous some days. For those of us dealing with anxiety and depression, there are simply some days where doing anything beyond the bare minimum is nigh impossible, too. Apply sustained focus to messy problems? No thank you.

But for me, research is a regulating force, a welcome intellectual escape of sorts. I get my best teaching ideas when I’m steeped in my research, as odd as that sounds. I’ve found a community of writers in the NCFDD forums that I enjoy engaging with. I’m working on several diverse projects that excite me, that I really want to move forward. I’m currently writing up one, with a goal to publish it by the end of the calendar year. Bolstered by my NaNoWriMo experience last fall, I’m also working towards publishing (for some definition of “publishing”) my work for non-academic audiences.

And, of course, I committed to working with students this spring and summer…so I need to keep up with them!

In short, I had some good momentum going before the world fell apart in March. And while some days I just can’t muster the energy to do just. one. more. thing., most days I find myself making time for scholarship.

Now, granted, this is scholarship with a lighter touch. I know I don’t have the energy or attention span to tackle the toughest research problems on my plate. When the pandemic hit in March, I actually took writing up that project I mentioned above off my plate temporarily, because I knew sustained writing was not happening. Instead, I did some lower stakes work, playing around with BigQuery on Kaggle and exploring alternate datasets for our summer project. I did a lot of reading, a lot of list-making, and a lot of free-writing. I explored the proceedings of new-to-me conferences and the table of contents of new-to-me journals, to identify possible publishing venues. Only within the past few weeks have I felt energized enough to go back and tackle the writeup.

My goals are smaller, my expectations lower. And that’s ok. I may be moving forward more slowly, but I’m moving forward. That’s more than enough for now.

My perspective of the reach and scope of my research morphed in the past few months. I recognize that my academic civic engagement work with our capstone is, actually, part of my scholarship now. With that realization, I now treat my work in that space as serious academic work, worthy of my research time and attention. I also recognize that my other work also has a public scholarship angle that I should and can pursue. Recognizing this opens up more paths and possibilities — and an opportunity for my capital-R-Research to cross paths with my curricular civic engagement work in the fall. In addition to clarifying my priorities in life more generally, I guess the pandemic clarified my priorities in my work life.

I’m dealing with some more practical aspects of my research, too. The dataset I counted on for this summer’s project might not be ready and available for us by the summer. I have ideas, outlines, and drafts of IRB proposal documents for two studies I could conduct — but I hesitate to commit to either, struggling with the ethics of asking people to devote time to my research when they’re already stretched thin in so many other areas. I need to resolve these ASAP, since summer’s fast approaching (my students start on June 15, officially!), but answering these questions is…not easy.

Research-wise, though, I’m fortunate in many aspects. My work does not require physical lab space or specialized equipment and materials. I can work anywhere, as can my students. I did not have to cancel my students’ research experience, because I can mentor them remotely. I have tenure, so I don’t have to worry about productivity hits or hiccups.

(I spend a lot of time thinking/worrying about our junior faculty: how best to support them and mentor them, and more importantly how best to advocate for them when they go up for tenure. This is one place I can use my power and my position to be a strong voice for fairness and compassion in the tenure process, and maybe make a real difference in the tenure experience for my junior colleagues.)

It will be interesting to see what a summer of remote research looks like. Schedules, I think, will be more important than ever, to provide some sense of normalcy and certainty. Schedules for me, of course, but also for my students — how can I help them figure out what works for them? This is a hard skill to master, so how do I facilitate this skill-building remotely? All but one of my kids’ camps have been canceled for the summer, so what does a summer without child care look like? And how will I juggle my research work and childcare responsibilities with what’s likely to be heavier time commitments to course prep (and possibly moving an entire elective online)? Without a chunk of vacation in August, how will I give myself time to truly unplug, something that’s necessary for me to thrive and survive the academic year?

I guess we’ll see how it goes.

Week 6: Engagement

We’re firmly in the second half of our abbreviated Spring Term now, and everyone is….looking ahead, anxiously. Looking ahead to the end of the term, yes, but also, increasingly, looking ahead to the summer and to next year.

I’ve spend much of my time this week getting a handle on the research funding situation for the student grants programs I oversee. Who’s still doing research? Who lost their opportunity? Who’s eligible to defer funding to next year? What might that process look like? And who, without that experience, finds themselves in a precarious financial situation, now that the summer income they banked on no longer exists?

In a similar vein, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking through how to train and mentor new undergraduate researchers in the art and science of research….remotely. So much of that first research experience (and beyond, too!) relies on ready access to your research mentor — popping down the hall to ask questions, working side-by-side in the lab, impromptu whiteboard sketching sessions. How do I replicate that when we’re all just boxes on a screen? How do I encourage students to “bug” me with their questions? How do I mimic the side-by-side work sessions in a way that feels natural? In short, how do I make sure students don’t fall through the cracks?

This last bit was one of the main points of discussion earlier this week in a meeting of the research cohort program I direct. I asked the students, “who feels comfortable going to a professor’s office hours to ask for help?” (they all were), then pointed out that seeking help from your research mentor is largely the same thing, except it’s like your research mentor has office hours all day long, just for you. Hopefully that sticks in their minds.

I’m thinking about engagement in my course, too — how to reach those who are not engaging with the material/their classmates, and how to incentivize engagement generally. I spent some time earlier this week creating Moodle badges, which seems like a small gesture but one that I’m willing to try. I have a badge each week that’s automatically awarded if they check off all of that week’s activities by Sunday night (of the following week). I have a badge for “attendance” (awarded to those who show up to EVERYTHING), badges for asking good questions and making astute observations, a teamwork badge, and a “helper” badge for anyone who helps out a classmate on Slack. These roughly correspond to the engagement I’d like to see in the class. We’ll see if that moves the needle at all.

Of course, the big question on everyone’s mind is “what happens in the fall?” (And beyond, because to think we’ll be back to any sort of “normal” anytime soon is…wishful thinking.) To that end, I’m already thinking ahead to what the elective I’m teaching, Computer Networks, should look like. How do I replicate the hands-on, exploration-heavy nature of that course if we’re partially or completely online? How do I best engage students in such a complex subject under still-unfamiliar-to-us learning conditions? I’ve already decided to forgo my usual tried-and-true textbook in favor of a freely-available, open-sourced, online textbook, which, because of the way it’s organized, forces me to radically redesign the course. I’ll have to think hard about what’s really fundamental content, and be comfortable with scrapping the rest. And I’m excited to try out a set of assignments that I first heard about at SIGCSE a few years back, which never quite fit into the way I taught the course — but is a much better fit with this other textbook.

As the term winds down, and as we head exhaustedly into summer, I’ll continue to look for ways to keep engagement — of those around me and of myself — alive and sustained. I’ll continue to encourage self-care to those around me — and to remind myself to do so, too. And I’ll do whatever I can to end this term on as much of a high note as possible.

Week 5: Small gratitudes

This has been a hard week in many respects. Amid more uncertainty about the fall (and beyond), my institution postponed advising days and fall registration until the summer. We reveal next year’s Comps projects (senior capstones) today, despite not knowing if and when we’ll be back in the fall. As “Comps Czar” for next year, I’ve been scrambling to get everything in place — and there are a lot of moving pieces to make that happen. I need to figure out which of the many students awarded STEM research grants this summer need to defer or decline said grants because of project cancellations — and help students deal with the uncertainty, sense of loss, and stress these cancellations bring. And of course, the news continues to be a raging dumpster fire, bringing its own uncertainty, sense of loss, and stress.

I surprised myself the other day, then, as my thoughts wandered to small, positive changes in my professional life and routine. There’s much that’s hard and frustrating, for sure. But there are also things to be enjoyed and celebrated.

Morning routine. Pre-pandemic mornings found me racing against the clock to squeeze in research OR a workout before getting the rest of the family off to school and myself off to work. Nowadays, my night owl family happily sleeps in, giving me a couple of hours of uninterrupted morning time, and plenty of time to meditate, get some research or writing done (or record videos), and get out for a run/workout. (Assuming I get up in time to take advantage of this time block, which is not always the case….)

Better breaks. When I’m stuck on a problem, I go shoot hoops in the driveway, or drag a kid outside for some chalk art or a short walk. Midday spontaneous card games are now possible. (Bonus: this kind of counts as math!) Even just stopping what I’m doing to check in on the kids sometimes leads to interesting and unexpectedly deep conversations about life. (Mostly the kids use it as an opportunity to proclaim their boredom, but hey, nothing’s perfect.)

Tackling that tech tool someday/maybe list. Past Me thought, about once a year, about mixing up my teaching with new-to-me technologies. Should I make videos to mix in with my targeted pre-class readings? Is there a digital way to have students annotate web pages, rather than having them scribble on paper copies which then gather dust in my office? Should I have more reading quizzes for immediate feedback? Well, the pandemic sort of forced my hand on this one. That said, now that I know more about lecture recording (and captioning!), Hypothes.is, etc., I plan to use them more, even after we return to face-to-face instruction. On a related note….

Designing for accessibility and flexibility. Every term, I have at least one student who, because Life Happens, misses a bunch of classes and then has to scramble to get caught up. Well, Life Happens to all of us on a daily basis now, and flexibility is the rule rather than the exception. This experience is making me reflect more deeply on how all the pieces fit together, about how students can demonstrate learning gains, and about alternate ways of presenting and assessing material. I want to carry this compassionate design forward. In a similar vein….

Deep pedagogical reflection. This is my third time this year teaching Software Design, and going into the spring I thought things were pretty set content-wise. As I put together readings, activities, lectures, demos, etc., I’m realizing that even some of this “must-include” material really….isn’t. I’ve been forced to streamline and cut. In the process, some of the things I deemed “essential” are really just, on closer inspection, “nice to have”. I can already see that preserving these cuts leave room for even more meaningful engagement once we move back to face-to-face instruction. With the uncertainty of fall, I’ll be applying this same lens to my fall course (Computer Networks), and I’m really excited to see how that evolves into a tighter course as a result.

And on a completely frivolous note:

Morning coffee rituals. Again, now that mornings are not an all-out sprint to the bus stop/car, I don’t have to gulp down coffee as I get ready or scramble to get it into a travel mug without spilling it all over myself (and/or forgetting to put the lid on tightly enough….). I’ve made a mini-ritual over savoring my coffee throughout the morning. Sure, it’s small and frivolous, but it makes the entire morning seem more relaxed and enjoyable….even if the work I’m doing while sipping is hard or frustrating.

What are the small silver linings you’ve found as your routine changed? I’d love to hear from you.