Capstones in the virtual age

How do you properly fete your senior majors during a pandemic year? That’s the question I’m pondering, as the Person In Charge Of The Capstone Experience (aka “Comps Czar”) in my department.

In non-pandemic times, such a celebration looks something like this:

  • We gather everyone together — senior majors, friends, family, faculty members from our department, faculty members from other departments, teammates, coaches, Northfield community members, sometimes even an appearance by our college president — in the Weitz Center on a Saturday morning/early afternoon.
  • We hear lightning talks from all of the Comps teams in the Weitz Cinema. (This is so everyone has a chance to see what the other groups did, since no one can see every talk.)
  • We stage multiple tracks of longer talks in various rooms throughout the Weitz Center throughout the morning and early afternoon.
  • We feed our guests — coffee and pastries in the morning, lunch towards the end of the day.

We do as much as we can to make the day feel like a celebration of the hard work our majors put in, not just to their Comps projects, but in their entire CS major career.

Up until last year, all of our Comps projects took place Fall and Winter terms. Last year, and again this year, we gave students the option of Fall/Winter or Winter/Spring Comps, partly to give students (and faculty!) more flexibility in completing the major and going on off-campus study programs.

This means that last year, we held a completely “normal” gala in late February for our Fall/Winter groups…and scrambled to assemble ad-hoc online talks in May for our Winter/Spring groups.

Now, of course, we have the benefit of foresight — no large-scale, in-person gatherings for the foreseeable future. Which means we can actually plan for an online celebration. Which, yay, planning! But at the same time, yikes! How do we pull this off?

The answer to how well we manage to pull this off is still a couple of weeks out. But as the date approaches, I thought it would be worthwhile to share how I’ve approached planning a large-scale virtual event.

First, what are the guiding principles under which I’m operating?

  1. The event must have the feel of a community celebration of our students and their accomplishments. This is my top priority.
  2. The event must allow students to present their work to the public in a way that is meaningful to them.
  3. The event must be accessible to a wide audience. Sure, we could do some cool back channel-y things in Discord or replicate between-tracks conversations in Gather.town. But if we want friends, family, and people outside of the CS universe to feel welcome and comfortable, best to limit the number of technologies we ask them to navigate.
  4. The event must not tax our audience unnecessarily. “Zoom fatigue” is a thing, and we need to be cognizant of this while carrying this event out.

Second, how am I putting these guiding principles into practice?

  1. Community celebration feel: I’m keeping the same structure as an in-person Comps Gala: starting the day with lightning talks (pre-recorded!) from all of the teams, talk tracks, etc. I also decided to keep the Gala on a Saturday, so that we could schedule all of the talks on the same day and have it “feel” like Comps in a “normal” year. Basically, we didn’t have to change this, so I chose not to change it.
  2. Present work in a meaningful way. We tend to steer our students towards the “traditional talk” structure when presenting at the Gala, probably because of inertia more than anything else. This year, we’re allowing students more latitude in how they present their results. If they want to pre-record and play back their talk while answering questions live in the chat? Wonderful. How about a sustained demo? OK! I suspect most if not all of the teams will default to a traditional talk because it’s more familiar to them, but they may decide to forgo slides for other visuals, include more short videos, or be a bit creative in other ways. Another plus: students don’t have to structure their talks around the technology available in a particular classroom space, and don’t have to try and swap laptops in and out during the presentation, which frees up considerable mental energy.
  3. Accessible to a wide audience. Here I’m going with the “Zoom is a universal technology” philosophy, so that’s all we’re using. Still, there were a nontrivial number of decisions to make around the use of Zoom: is each track its own Zoom meeting? or each talk? should we have a “hallway chatter” breakout room where people can gather between tracks? I decided on a single Zoom meeting, with breakout rooms for each track and one for “hallway chatter”. There will be at least 2 CS faculty in each breakout room to handle any shenanigans that might occur. One thing I am curious to see: will more people attend the Gala, given that no one has to travel to or navigate a physical site to participate?
  4. Acknowledge “Zoom fatigue”. I decided to slightly shorten the length of each track and lengthen each break, from 40 minute talk / 10 minutes of questions / 10 minute break to 30-35 minute talk / 10 minutes of questions / 15 minute break. It’s not a lot, but it “feels” more manageable, particularly for those of us staring down an entire morning of talk attendance. The shorter tracks might also make someone on the fence about attending more apt to attend, since the time commitment is smaller and they can dip in and out of the Gala rather than committing a half day to it.

Will this work? Who knows? At a minimum, we’ll have a space for all of our students to gather and show off their work to the community, a community which may or may not resemble the communities of Comps Galas past. As host and emcee of the event, I’m thinking of ways to welcome the community that will establish that community celebration vibe. And as someone who’s organized and run these events before, I’m eager to see what possibilities this virtual medium presents that we could perhaps carry forward when our Galas can be in person again.

Frayed

Last week I quote-tweeted something that I haven’t stopped thinking about since:

(As an aside: if you have not read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, please put this immediately on your to-read list. It is a raw and real portrayal of grief, beautifully written.)

In his thread, Joshua Eyler talks about two meanings of “magical thinking”. There’s the “everything will be better/different SOON” aspect — so, for instance, why many colleges and universities chose to kind-of-sort-of open this year. And then there’s the point at which “this state of being is temporary because we remember when things were different last year” turns to “this is our new normal, like it or not”.

We’ve been living with the former version for a better part of a year, now. At my institution, we haven’t learned what the next term will look like until halfway through the present term — including the release of the official course schedule for the next term. So there’s a constant feeling of everything being up in the air, and of scrambling to put things in order once we do officially hear about the next term. (Advising in this environment is a nightmare, as you can imagine. Student: “I need to take this course to graduate. Will it be offered next term?” Me: “… maybe?”) I mean, yes, we can guess, but there’s a comfort in just knowing what to expect that’s been ripped out from under us. It’s also prime season right now for recruiting and hiring student researchers for the summer — and no one knows definitively whether we’ll be able to have students work with us in person at all, or in some limited fashion. Planning in any meaningful way is impossible.

As for the latter version: we’re quickly approaching the year mark of the pandemic in the US. We were lucky at my institution that Winter Term 2020 wound down just as everything shut down, so at least we had the closure of a “normal” term before heading into our first pandemic term, Spring Term 2020. But the adrenaline’s finally wearing off, as we approach this anniversary. It’s been almost a year of pandemic teaching, a year spent on screens and/or with very restrictive, cautious interactions with students. And now that the adrenaline’s wearing off we’re left with the exhaustion, the sadness, the grief, and the anger, and we’re finally forced to confront all of it head on.

Professors and staff members shoulder impossible burdens of care of students, burdens foisted upon us last March and unrelenting since. Of course, many of us are here because we care deeply about students and their growth and development, and want to support them in myriad ways. But support requires more heavy lifting in a pandemic — more checking in with students, more flexibility, more following up, more modes of engagement. Work we all agree is necessary and are committed to doing, and at the same time feels crushing under the weight of everything else we are asked to do. There is no room, but somehow we’re making room — usually at great cost to our physical, emotional, and mental health. Our reserves are shot, and yet we’re still giving and expected to give from an empty well.

This intersection of grieving and depletion means that no one is at their best. We’ve collectively reached our limits, with predictable consequences. Innocuous emails requests yield fraught or panicked responses. Comments we might have shrugged off in the Before Times, we now construe as personal attacks. Conversations end in anger or hurt feelings, or both. We take advantage of any opportunity to unload our frustrations and our despair on someone, or something, else. Or, worse, we hold it all in and seethe internally until we reach a new breaking point.

And this doesn’t even acknowledge that for many of us, home is less of a respite than it ever was. Home confronts us with the ways our communities are failing us, impossible choices about school and child care and elder care, isolation, and family members whose reserves are also shot and are not at their best.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I’ve been thinking a lot about all of this lately, and what, if anything, I can do about it. I think acknowledging and naming what we’re collectively experiencing is important, and I would love to see campus leaders publicly acknowledge this grief AND this depletion. The all-to-rare “thank you for your hard work” doesn’t cut it anymore — we need our leaders to recognize and name the struggle, and stop pretending it doesn’t exist. That doesn’t remove the burdens, of course, but it would be comforting to know, and hear, that administrators see and understand our struggles.

Personally, I’ve been trying to extend more grace to others — and to myself. If an email rubs me the wrong way, I set it aside until I can go back with a clearer mind and a more helpful response. If an interaction goes south, I try to remind myself that the other person is more likely to be reacting to all the other stressors in their life and not necessarily to the matter at hand. I don’t respond in the moment unless I have to, and then I pick my words carefully. I’ve given myself permission to drop more balls than normal for self-preservation purposes. But to some extent, I have more freedom to do this than many around me — so I’m also finding ways to help other people drop balls and set more realistic expectations for themselves. Do I have a minute to pitch in and take something off of their plate, perhaps because it’s something I can do more easily for whatever reason? Can I help a junior colleague think through what’s truly essential to their teaching and course design so that they can cut through the noise of “here are ALL THE THINGS you NEED to be doing to support students at this time”? (Guidance that, in our eagerness to embrace flexibility and effective modalities in online teaching and be all things to all students and the BEST ONLINE INSTRUCTORS EVER, has been sorely lacking.) In my leadership roles, can I streamline my asks so that we’re still moving towards our goals but in more efficient ways?

To do this, though, I have to be honest about my own limits. About my need to get enough sleep to face the day ahead. Forcing myself to let go of things that are usually non-negotiable — running a certain number of days per week, cooking a “real dinner” every night, aiming for a perfect score on my upcoming black belt test. About what I can and can’t give to my kids right now. About the ways in which my family needs to do more around the house to support all of us. About what I can and can’t worry about (see: imperfect decisions about in-person school for the kiddos). About the ways in which I am grieving and exhausted — and the ways in which others in my life can support me in this time.

We’re all frayed, grieving, and more imperfect than ever right now. Let’s remember this, and extend ourselves and those around us the grace we all so desperately need in this moment.

What’s for dinner?

My family cooks and eats dinner at home the vast majority of the time. This was true in the Before Times, and it’s certainly true now. We probably went out to dinner about once a week, usually on Friday or Saturday; we’ve now swapped that with Takeout Tuesdays. But the rest of the week, we cook.

When my now 8th grader was a teeny tiny baby, we started meal planning, which made life sooooo much easier. (It also vastly simplifies grocery shopping.) We still meal plan, selecting not just what we’ll cook that week, but also slating dishes on particular nights. We try to match the complexity of the meal with the anticipated energy level of that evening — so, say, I don’t attempt to make a 2-hour vegetarian meatloaf after a full day of meetings. And we try to mix new-to-us dishes with old favorites each week.

I thought I’d share some of the dishes we’ve “discovered” lately, along with some old reliable favorites. Partly because I love sharing dinner ideas as much as I like it when others share dinner ideas with me. And partly because this week’s been unexpectedly heavy and a little levity can’t hurt.

A couple of notes: While my family is not vegetarian, I am (although I do eat fish every once in a while), and I do the majority of the meal planning and about 70% of the cooking. So we cook vegetarian or pescaterian about 95% of the time, and the recipes posted here reflect that. Also, these are dishes in our winter rotation — our summer menu is less oven-heavy and more salad-and-grill heavy.

5 new-ish dishes we’ve loved

Instant Pot Enchilada Rice, from Cook With Manali. We recently got an Instant Pot and most of what we’ve tried has been a hit. (Biggest disaster? Grits.) This recipe works especially well after a long day, because other than a bit of chopping and a minute of sauteeing, it’s really just dump-everything-in-and-start. And it has a definite comfort food feel to it.

Instant Pot Red Curry Lentils, from Pinch of Yum (an overall reliable source of good recipes). My family’s not a huge fan of Indian or Indian-inspired food, much to my chagrin, but there are a few recipes they’ll eat without complaint, and even fewer they’ll outright request. This is one of the rare ones that gets requested. A true dump-and-cook recipe, served over rice and/or with garlicky naan.

Creamy Garlic Tuscan Salmon with Spinach and Sun-Dried Tomatoes, from eatwell 101. This is a “feels fancy” dinner that comes together pretty quickly. We’ve served it with fettuccini on the side, or with roasted veggies and potatoes. It would probably be really good with mashed potatoes, too.

David Tamarkin’s Baked Feta with Chickpeas and Greens, from Mark Bittman. My kids were deeply skeptical about this one, but it’s quickly become a family favorite. The tomato sauce alone is delicious. Crusty bread for dipping is a must.

Mediterranean Nachos, from Fork in the Kitchen. You could probably speed this up by using already-made pita chips, but honestly making your own (assuming you start with really good pita bread) makes this extra special. This is also good for the picky eater crowd because you can top your own with whatever combo of veggies and such you want. (Leftovers are great, too!)

5 old favorites

Peanut noodles with spinach and tofu (pra ram tofu). I don’t use a recipe for this other than for the peanut sauce, which comes from Moosewood’s Simple Suppers cookbook. (It’s pretty much this recipe, substituting coconut milk for the water.) Stir fry tofu until crispy; stir fry spinach; serve over buckwheat soba noodles.

Crock-Pot Veggie Loaded Baked Potato Soup, from Peas and Crayons. Even the soup-hater in my house will eat this. Very much a comfort food dish. You could probably serve this with a salad, but we go full-carb and break out the crusty bread.

The Best Detox Crock Pot Lentil Soup. Another Pinch of Yum recipe. I normally cringe at the thought of “detox” anything, but this soup is truly delicious. I’ll often throw in a parmesan rind for extra flavor (I keep rinds in the freezer just for this purpose) and serve with beer bread.

Sheet pan veggies. Another no-recipe dish that’s really versatile, because you can use whatever you have on hand, change veggies with whatever’s in season, add beans or not, serve with grains or potatoes, etc. Right now our favorite combo is brussels sprouts, cauliflower, potatoes, and garbanzo beans. (And leftovers make good omelette fillings for the next day’s breakfast or lunch.)

Mujadara. We use a recipe from a well-loved Lebanese cookbook, but the recipe is pretty similar to this one. It’s a really simple lentils and rice dish with caramelized onions, and one where you can just start it and then go do other things until it’s ready, checking in occasionally.

What have you been cooking lately? Have you tried any recipes that are now in your regular rotation? I’d love to hear what you’ve discovered and what you’re eating lately that’s bringing you joy.