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.