My checklist for wrapping up summer research with students

This week marks the end of my summer research collaboration with my students. I usually wrap up research by the end of July/first week of August so that I can spend some quality time with my family and particularly the kiddos before school starts back up. Granted, this is more of a perk when we haven’t been cooped up together for months….

I digress.

The last research week is always hectic. No matter how on track we’ve been all summer, there’s always a lot to do to wrap things up. Finish the analyses. Make sure all the code is in the repo. Make sure all of the code is commented. Get a rough draft of the eventual conference paper to some stage of “completion”. And so on. A million little details, some of which inevitably slip through the cracks.

Every summer I tell myself I will make a checklist of what needs to be done. Every summer I fail to do so. Maybe it’s because I see my students every day, or almost every day, so part of me assumes that it will come up during a meeting, or that I’ll pop into the lab and remind them to do whatever just popped into my head.

But this summer, we’re all online, in 3 different cities in 2 different time zones. I’ve gotten in the habit of putting more things in writing, more formally. More lists, more systems in place. More structure.

Turns out, this put me in the perfect mindset to finally write that checklist.

Here’s my checklist for this summer. I suspect that in the future, particular details might change based on the nature of the project, but that the overall categories and most of the items will largely stay the same, or at least very similar.

I. Complete project writeup. (I always have students write something up about the project, no matter where we ended up. I think it’s important for students to get some practice writing for a technical audience.)

  •  Write up the methodology for each of the analyses you completed.
  •  Write up the results for each of the analyses you completed. Include graphs/tables.
  •  Write up the takeaway points for each of the analyses you completed. What did you learn? What do you think the results indicate? What are the next steps that should be done?

II. Check in and clean up all code. (I’ve learned the hard way over the years that students need to be reminded of this, and also of specifically what I mean by “clean up”.)

  •  Make sure all code is commented. Think of You, Six Months From Now. What does You, Six Months From Now need to know/remember about what’s in this code?
  •  Write a TODO list for each of the (major) scripts you wrote. (You can put this at the top of the file, in the comments.) What’s not working that needs to be fixed? What’s working imperfectly that needs to be fixed? What are the things you hoped to get to, but ran out of time?
  •  Write up how to execute each script. (You can put this at the top of the file, in the comments.) What data files does this operate on? Where are they specified in the code? Are there command line arguments? Any other assumptions that you made that others should know when running the script?

III. Write up onboarding docs and next steps for next set of students. (This is still a work in progress. Students, understandably, find it difficult to anticipate what others will struggle with, and invariably forget what they struggled with early on in the project.)

  •  Make sure all README files are up to date.
  •  Write up a “Start Here” document that describes what students starting on the project should know about the project, the code, and the data. (I ended up outlining this document for them, because they were really struggling with what to include.)
  •  Make sure all metadata documents (on all datasets) are updated, correct, and easy to find.

IV. Write up a short reflection for me about your experience. (You can defer this until next week if you’re overwhelmed!) Email is fine for this. (I don’t always remember to ask for this, and I always regret when I forget! I learn so much from these reflections.)

  •  What were you hoping to get out of this experience?
  •  How much of that do you feel you accomplished this summer?
  •  What, if anything, surprised you about your experience?
  •  What were you hoping to accomplish/get out of this experience that you did not?
  •  What work are you most proud of, and why?
  •  When/if I write letters of recommendation for you, what parts of your contributions to this project would you like me to emphasize?
  •  What advice would you give to future students on this project?
  •  What advice would you give to me to help me better mentor future students on this project?

V. Celebrate a job well done! (Admittedly, this is trickier to do in the time of Covid. Usually I take them out for lunch, but that doesn’t work when we’re all in different locales. I will likely send my students a little gift of appreciation and a note, but I’m still trying to figure out what to send.)


Do you use a checklist with your research students to keep track of end-of-the-project todos, or at other stages of your research project? I’d love to hear your experiences.

Course design for resilience

Last week, I participated in two simultaneous online workshops around the same topic: resilient course design. One workshop was part of an ongoing series of online workshops around rethinking course design put on by the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM, of which Carleton is a member). The other was a Carleton-specific “design challenge” sponsored by our Perlman Learning and Teaching Center (LTC).

The ACM workshop followed the same format as the others in the series: a Monday webinar, with content presentation and a bit of small group discussion in breakout rooms; and Friday smaller group discussions around a more specific subtopic. For instance, the discussion groups last week focused on lecture courses, discussion courses, lab courses, research seminars, and arts/performance courses. (I participated in the lecture group since that seemed to be the closest fit. Turns out, most people in the group shared similar inclinations to lecture/activity split as I do, so it was indeed a good fit.) Sometimes, there is homework assigned Monday for the Friday discussions, as there was this week. Last week, we designed a typical week in our course as homework, paying attention to a set of guiding questions about student participation in various modes.

The LTC challenge included participation in the ACM workshop, or at least viewing the Monday webinar/recording, and asked us to do the same homework as in the ACM workshop. In addition, the challenge included discussion forum postings (some in the larger group, many in smaller assigned teams), a couple of synchronous discussions, an entire day of drop-in sessions with various staff and faculty on specific aspects of course design (Moodle, Panopto, thinking through learning goals and activities, etc.), and a final reflection. The challenge setup mimicked a mini-course setup, allowing us to experience aspects of an online course from a student’s perspective.

I took a LOT away from this experience, but I want to highlight a few areas in particular: rethinking engagement; weekly structure and flow; and the student experience.

(Note: The worksheets in the images in this post all come from the two challenges, and were used across both challenges.)

Rethinking engagement

One of our first activities had us remap our “typical”, in-person course activities to activities more amenable to multiple modes of participation — fully or partially online, across time zones, taking into account student illness/quarantine/family circumstances, etc. My matrix, for the elective I’m teaching this fall, is pictured below. Entries in purple indicate what I traditionally do in this course; green entries show changes for Fall Term. The entries with purple text in green boxes indicate things I did pre-Fall 2020 that I plan to continue in the fall.

CS 331 course matrix, mapping in-person activities to more online-friendly activities
My course resilience matrix. Which is not resilient from an accessibility standpoint, as it uses color to convey meaning. Ack!

The x-axis moves (left to right) from content delivery to content application/practice; the y-axis moves (top to bottom) from face-to-face engagement to online engagement. Thus, the matrix gives us the opportunity to think through where course activities fall on each of these continuums. The red box includes activities that must be completed in person, the yellow box indicates online synchronous activities, and the white space at the bottom indicates asynchronous online activities.

Since Carleton students don’t register until August, I literally don’t know where in the world my students will be this fall. In designing my matrix, I assumed that students occupied a wide range of time zones, thus the prevalence of activities in the asynchronous zone. For the team activities, I plan to group students roughly by time zone and preferred time of day to work, as I did in the spring. This should help a bit with the time zone issues.

I still have a couple of thorny problems to work through. I’m still not sure how to replace the in-class, physical simulations of network phenomenon (routing, protocol specifications, access control, etc) that I rely heavily on in this course, although I now have some ideas to pursue. And I’m still playing around with course projects, so I can’t decide on the development platform until I finalize the projects. Otherwise, I found it easier than I expected to map my activities to their online counterparts.

Structure and flow

Later in the week, we thought through “a week in the life” of our course, using two different formats: a week-at-a-glance, and a more detailed accounting of the work itself.

Here’s my week-at-a-glance:

Table showing the "flow" of a week, in terms of formal and informal course activities each day.
Overview of a week in the course, showing the modes of engagement and what’s happening each day.

To be honest, I was worried about how well I’d be able to complete this set of activities, since I’m still trying to revise the learning goals for the course. I found instead that these exercises really clarified my thinking about the course as a whole. Specifically, it helped me think through how to spend our scheduled class time — and figuring that out helped other pieces, like asynchronous work, fall into place. In particular, I’m thinking of Wednesdays as the main days for synchronous engagement, with Fridays reserved for drilling down a bit more on applications of the content and Mondays for open-ended Q&A, on either the previous week’s content or the current week’s content.

The second part of this assignment asked us to define the set of activities in a particular week. I picked a random week in the middle of the course and came up with this plan:

A week's worth of course activities for CS 331, including prep, assignments, and support.
Course activities for a week in the middle of the term, including time estimates. Which may not be accurate.

(Of course, after I completed this worksheet, we moved the scheduled course time, so now I have to revamp the due dates. Readings will now be due the night before class, instead of the day of class.)

This was perhaps the most eye-opening activity of the week. It’s one thing to say “yeah, I’ll have them watch some videos and take a reading quiz and maybe do a worksheet or two” and another to sit down and figure out how much time everything will take and why we want students to do these things in the first place. I settled on a rough pattern of preparing for class with targeted readings, reading quizzes to ensure comprehension, and mini-lecture videos. (Since the challenge, I’ve rethought this a bit — I may give students more flexibility in allowing them to read and watch content videos before attempting the reading quizzes.) Class and class-adjacent activities include engaging with the content formally (Wednesdays) and informally (Fridays), a team asynchronous activity (which might be the same one we tackle in class, expanding on the in-class work), and project work. I still need to figure out the appropriate mix, here.

In our small and larger group challenge discussions, we agreed that students may find these charts useful, too. I’m thinking of ways I can incorporate these views (a week in the life and the detailed accounting) into my course Moodle page. (This was a question I’d hoped to ask during the Moodle drop-in hours, but I had to leave before I could ask my question. More on this below.)

The student experience

Experiencing the design challenge as a student made me more sympathetic to the student experience, and I’m rethinking aspects of my course design as a result.

The first challenge: figuring out the challenge structure. What was happening each day? How do I submit my homework? What is the homework for today? How do I post/respond to just my small group? What is my small group? Why is this activity not marked complete if my teammate handed it in? Where’s the Zoom link for today’s discussion? If I, a seasoned educator and self-proclaimed Moodle power user, had trouble figuring some of these things out, then surely some subset of our students will, too! Lesson learned: I need to be even clearer than I think I need to be, when conveying the hows and whats to my students.

The second challenge: getting help! “Yay, drop-in hours!” I thought, as I skimmed the schedule at the start of the week. Come Thursday morning, I found myself in an internal dialog, which I tried to capture in this Twitter thread:

Today I found myself waffling over whether to attend virtual drop-in hours on fall term course design. Was my question “worthy” of stopping by to ask it? When should I show up — at the start, towards the middle, at the end? Am I wasting everyone’s time? 1/2

And I realized OH MY GOD my students were likely having the SAME conversations about attending virtual office hours this spring! Now, the low attendance makes complete sense — and I need to think how to make attending office hours less scary/fraught.

Originally tweeted by Dr. Amy Csizmar Dalal (@drcsiz) on July 16, 2020.

I finally got over myself and hopped onto my first drop-in session, and had a lovely conversation with our outgoing LTC director on in-class simulations in an online environment. And commiserated with the faculty member who jumped on as we were finishing up, who, it turns out, conducted a similar internal dialog before joining the call. I need to make seeking help, and participating in office hours, less scary and more natural this fall.

Emboldened by my new-found confidence, I jumped onto a second drop-in session, on Moodle. There were already several people on the call, asking questions about assessment. I listened in and learned a few things that I made a note to try. But I had to jump off of the call to head to another meeting before the facilitator could answer my question on reproducing the spirit of the weekly plan (discussed in the previous section) on my course Moodle page. And it was not clear how I could seek out help on my question after the drop-in hours and/or after the challenge. I need to think through how to accommodate multiple student questions during drop-in hours, and how to direct students to seek help outside of these hours too.

Concluding thoughts

The challenge might be over, but planning for resilience continues. I find myself thinking through the intersection of resilient design with things like anti-racist pedagogy, time management (my students’ and my own), assessment/grading, and maintaining boundaries while providing emotional support for students. I still need to do the hard work of translating my “week in the life of the course” for each week in my course, while I’m still wrestling with learning goals and the like. This challenge laid a strong foundation for this continued work.

Participating in this challenge, and in the other online ACM workshops this summer, brought an unexpected benefit, too: Confidence. I feel a lot more confident, and capable, of pulling off a strong and worthwhile online course this fall — and beyond, if it comes to that. Things I’ve learned directly translate into in-person offerings, too — the importance of clarity and structure, the value of providing choices to students to direct their own learning, the compassion of flexibility to accommodate student circumstances and acknowledge their struggles. The deep and prolonged reflection on my pedagogy is making me a more effective and more present educator.

Big questions for fall

On Friday, Carleton released their plans for Fall Term 2020, ending a long period of discussion and speculation.

The parameters of the plan are what I expected. Our calendar works in our favor here (start in mid-September, end by Thanksgiving), so I wasn’t surprised to see that hadn’t changed. I’d expected we’d move to a hybrid model, with a mix of in person and partially to fully online courses. I was pleased to see that neither students nor faculty would be required to be physically on campus if they chose to stay home/teach online. Though, of course, some faculty (in the arts, lab sciences, teaching first year seminars), and staff who support faculty, may find themselves weighing their preferences against other factors and pressures. The decision to bring back 85% of the student body to campus surprised me, as I’d read that as an upper bound, if-everything-goes-perfectly threshold. But, here we are.

So, we have answers. But the plan, as extensive as it is, still leaves many questions unanswered.

The big question left unanswered, of course, is what happens if I get sick? (The cynical part of me wants to phrase that as “what happens WHEN I get sick?”, but I’ll try to be optimistic here.) The faculty FAQ is vague on this point. The policy outlined in the link no doubt works well enough during “normal” times, when a faculty member falling seriously ill during the term is an exceptional circumstance. But in a pandemic? When it’s likely that a nontrivial number of faculty are out for an extended period, either due to quarantine, their own illness, or care for a loved one? (Or extended child care WHEN schools close down again, assuming they open at all?) We should PLAN on faculty stepping down from their courses as NORMAL this term, not hope fervently that it doesn’t happen.

As department Comps Czar this year (i.e., the person in charge of all capstone projects), I’m drafting a plan for how to step in if/when a Comps advisor falls ill or needs to step away for part or all of a term. For my own course, I’m aiming to get as much of the course up and posted by Day 1, so that it’s easier for someone else to step in if need be. This is especially important since I’m teaching an elective course, meaning there are only 1-2 others in my department with the expertise to step in and take over. But it shouldn’t fall to individuals, and individual departments, to decide that making contingency plans is necessary. And, it’s important to note that this extensive advanced planning happens at a cost — I can’t afford to take much time off this summer for a break, and I’ll be spending less time on my research projects.

(We have not held a department-wide conversation about “who takes over which class”, but I’m already thinking ahead to what I could take on if need be.)

Similarly, what happens if a student gets sick? The student FAQ contains some guidance about testing, contact tracing, and isolation. But what about academically? Is the Dean of Students’ office planning for mass student absences, streamlining processes for extensions and leaves, ??? I would love to know this info so that I can more effectively advise students and plan my course to be as flexible as possible. And I’m particularly thinking about my own Comps project groups — Comps is a graduation requirement, so what happens if a student can’t finish out a project? We can’t handle these as exceptional cases, because they WILL be the norm.

As a parent of a teen and a special needs tween (thoughts and prayers, please), the big unknown is how will the school district’s plans impact my family’s day-to-day? That’s right, our school district has yet to announce its plans for the fall. If they’re partially or fully online, how do we supervise their schooling while doing our own jobs? What will an online school day look like? Will all 4 of us be on Zoom at the same time? If they’re back to in-person…well, does our family want to take that exposure risk? (Particularly since cases are on the rise in my county.) Should we be looking at school alternatives this year? My head hurts just thinking about all of the planning and decision making ahead of us.

Finally: what plans are in place if (when) we need to pivot back to online-only? Do we have plans? If so, will these be shared at any point with faculty, staff, and students? Similarly, how are we planning for Winter and Spring 2021? And when will these plans be communicated?

There are, of course, a zillion smaller questions as well, enough questions to feed my insomnia for weeks. And a trillion things to do, big and small, to prepare for the term ahead, as I wait and hope for those larger questions to be answered.

What big questions haunt you about the fall….and beyond? How are you coping with the uncertainty?

Working spaces

For as long as I can remember, my partner and I have shared a home office.

For years, this arrangement worked beautifully. For many of those years, my partner worked primarily from home, running his businesses out of our house, while I worked primarily outside the home. For the past decade or so, his business occupied physical office space, so our home office became secondary office space for both of us. (This meant that I had the home office all to myself during my last sabbatical, for the most part.)

Within the past year, my partner’s business decided to downside their physical space and have everyone work from home as much as possible. He’s transitioned back to using our home office as our primary office, and we’d both planned on that arrangement for the long term.

Then, the pandemic hit, and we both found ourselves working exclusively out of the same office.

I enjoy sharing a workspace with my partner, despite his love of techno music as work music and his higher clutter tolerance. We’ve always been able to work comfortably and productively in the same room. It was nice this spring to have a Real Live Software Engineer sitting across the room when I was teaching Software Design, so that I could ask questions about how a particular concept plays out in his work/business as I prepared lectures and asynchronous activities. I’ve been able to help him with some Python questions as he’s found himself doing more Python programming lately. And there is something inspiring about looking across the room at someone completely engaged in their task at hand, doing what they love.

What doesn’t work, of course, are the meetings.

Given our positions in our respective workplaces, we both have a lot of meetings. Sometimes, these meetings overlap, in which case we play everyone’s favorite game, Who’s Going To Find Another Spot In The House With Decent WiFi This Time. But even if they don’t, they disrupt the other person. Noise cancelling headphones only block out so much. And then there are questions like, can you come back into the office in the middle of their meeting? will moving around disrupt the other’s meeting or be disruptive to the people on their meeting? are the contents of this meeting too sensitive for the other person to be present in the room? (Things like advising meetings, discussions involving intellectual property, etc.)

There are other issues sharing an office full time, of course. Recording videos is tricky when someone else is in the room. (“Hilarity” ensued yesterday when my partner declared that I typed too loudly, and requested that I stop typing while he was actively recording.) We do our best work at different times of the day, so if someone is trying to think through a thorny issue while the other is demanding they watch “just this one cute cat video, come on, it will just take 30 seconds”, that’s a problem. This also means that during different times of the day, one or the other of us is the “go-to” parent. But if a kid interrupts one of us and we’re both in the same space, they interrupt both of us.

So the other day we decided to split up our offices. We have a guest room on the main floor that’s, shall we say, lightly/not at all used right now (other than a storage spot for skis and a table we want to get rid of). This weekend, I’ll move into that space.

One of my kiddos LOVES rearranging furniture, so I’ve tasked her with figuring out where to put my desk, where to move the futon and other furniture currently in the room, etc. (Except that table — that’s going out to the curb — and the skis, which hopefully will finally make it up to the attic.) I may be able to “borrow” a whiteboard from my partner’s business, because a nice big whiteboard is a nonnegotiable part of my office setup. I need to figure out if my 2 plants can weather the shift in light, as the new office space has north-facing windows. I also need to figure out how many of my books should move to the new space with me, and take down/rehang my bulletin board and race medal rack. And I need to figure out all of those little touches that will make the space feel like my workspace.

I recognize that I am ridiculously fortunate that I live in a house with room for not one, but multiple spaces for quiet work, with decent WiFi and enough resources. I think about this a lot when I think about my students (and colleagues!) negotiating space within their own homes to work, attend class, and think deeply about thorny problems. I know that for many of them, a space of their own is impossible or difficult to come by. That, and so much about this pandemic, has reinforced just how important our spaces are to our productivity, safety, and well-being.

Now, where did I put that screwdriver….?

Summer planning in the time of COVID-19

notebook page listing summer 2020 goals

In a typical year, as soon as I submit spring term grades, I pull out the planner and the ginormous desk calendar and plan out the summer. It’s one of my favorite rituals, marking the end of another academic year and the start of a block of “me time”. Well, for a work definition of “me time”, anyway.

But “typical” ceased to exist in March. And the transition from spring term to summer research happened in a blur. Summer planning was superceded by webinars on remote teaching design, administrative tasks popping up like the overeager clover in our backyard, onboarding two brand-new research students, and oh so many meetings.

So that’s how I found myself on June 30, whiteboard marker in hand, finally ready to sketch out a plan for the summer.

June 30 marks the end of the first half/second quarter of the year. A day of either nerdy joy or nervous reckoning for the planners among us (like me!). Time to review yearly/quarterly goals! Make new quarterly goals! Get those colored pens and checklists ready!

Except…what do you review when you abandoned quarterly goal-setting in March, in favor of just surviving the anxiety and uncertainty? How do you set goals beyond the next week, or the next month, when everything is up in the air?

In March, I switched to monthly goal setting, which while not perfect seems to be the right mix of long-ish term thinking and short-term focus in these times.

Notebook page with July goals listed
Research goals for this month. I’m collaborating with students on the first 2, so it’s not quite as daunting as it looks.

But summer’s a slightly different beast — less scheduled time, more open time. And even during a global pandemic, I’m reasonably confident that my core work activities won’t change. Granted, on some aspects, like teaching, I’m making predictions as to whether I believe I’ll be teaching in person or online. But even there, designing courses as if we’ll be online buys me, and my students, the most flexibility and accessibility, so no real harm if I guess wrong.

So I made — not quite a quarterly plan, but July-through-mid-September plan. Which seems like just the right amount of looking-ahead time.

notebook listing teaching and research goals
2 of my 4 goal categories. “Leadership” and “Personal” are on the next pages.

A few notes:

  • I’ve wanted to completely overhaul my Networks elective for years, and it’s never risen to the level of urgency. What better time than a global pandemic to just throw everything out and start from scratch, amiright? Short term pain and lots of it, but definitely for long term gain.
  • I’m advising two sections of our capstone (“Comps”) next year, in Fall and Winter terms. One should be easy to morph to partially/mostly/all online. The other is with a community partner (on local digital divide issues! so excited about this project!), and that’s going to take a lot of creative planning to pull off. I see a lot of August meetings around this….
  • There’s a ton of stuff under “Leadership” (not pictured, because some of it is not bloggable), that will take up a bunch of my time and energy this summer. I’m hoping to compartmentalize that as much as possible. I’ve also made time and space for things like getting my administrative CV together, updating my LinkedIn, etc., so that when a leadership opportunity presents itself, I’ll have my materials ready to go.

As I finished up my planning, I realized that I did in fact have a version of yearly goals to review — my #20for2020 list!

#20for2020 goals update. Some things clearly were not going to happen, but surprisingly much of the list survived the triage.

Given how much is on my plate lately, I was pleasantly surprised that the entire list was not a train wreck. And at how much was still relevant and do-able, in some form. Also, clearly I need to get cracking on those handwritten notes….and the signature mocktail…and our will!

Are you a planner? How have you been planning in these uncertain times? What strategies work for you?