5 Questions as I Design a First Year Seminar

Due to the high demand for computer science courses, my department rarely offers a first year seminar (or, as we call them at Carleton, Argument and Inquiry seminars, or A&Is for short). We last offered one in 2014: Human-Centered Computing, taught by me. So when the opportunity arose for us to propose an A&I seminar for 2021-22, I jumped at the chance. This fall, I’ll be teaching Ethics of Technology as an A&I seminar.

I adore teaching A&I seminars. I like having a class solely comprised of brand-new Carleton students, and watching as they adjust to college and to life at Carleton. I like having a hand in helping them navigate this strange new place. I appreciate the A&I as a gentle introduction and/or a “sampler platter” to a particular subject, rather than a comprehensive overview. The point of an A&I, after all, is to introduce students to how scholars ask and answer questions in a field — which means I can be creative in how I interweave the course topic with this goal. This venue gives me an opportunity to teach something we don’t currently offer in our CS curriculum — and perhaps a way to try out what this might look like as part of our regular curriculum. (Case in point: our Human-Computer Interaction elective grew out of that Human-Centered Computing A&I seminar.)

Designing an A&I seminar is challenging in the best of times, but even more so in I Thought We Were Post-Pandemic But Apparently Not times. As I plan out my course, I keep coming back to the same five questions.

What supports will my students need to adjust to full-time, face-to-face learning? Incoming first year students experienced all sorts of learning models over the past year and a half: fully online, fully in person, hybrid, hyflex, Hi-C (ok, maybe not that last one). Whether they graduated in 2020 and took a gap year, or graduated in 2021, their high school experience ended weirdly. What expectations will these students carry into the college classroom? How can I create an environment where we all feel physically safe to share the same air and the same small space? What can I do to help them learn in the presence of others, something we all took for granted as the norm pre-pandemic?

How can I best design my in-person course for flexibility? I remain skeptical that everything will be hunky-dory, back to normal for the entire term. Don’t get me wrong: I take a lot of comfort in the fact that the vast majority of our community will be fully vaccinated. But students will likely get sick or have to quarantine. Heck, I have an unvaccinated (because of age) kiddo at home who (as of now) will be back in school full time around (as of now) unmasked people. So I may get sick or have to quarantine. I feel like there’s less course design support for flexibility this summer, and while the lessons I learned last summer are definitely valuable, I still feel a bit lost here.

What trauma will we all carry into this year, and how will it manifest? Earlier this summer, I naively thought that we’d be heading into post-pandemic life more fully, and not back into the thick of the pandemic. Which, I think, means that some of the trauma we carry is the same old trauma of living through a global pandemic. But there’s also pandemic weariness, pandemic anger over how preventable this current wave was, pandemic grief over all those we’ve lost, pandemic uncertainty about the future, pandemic despair that we seem to be heading back to “business as usual” and not taking away any lessons about the precariousness of so many in our society….you get the picture. We’re grieving, we’re exhausted, we’re angry, we’re fed up. Our collective mental health is a dumpster fire. We don’t have the resources — at my institution, in our medical system, in society writ large — to deal with trauma on this scale. How do I help my students navigate this — particularly while I’m trying to navigate my own trauma?

What should my students read? This is more of an “embarrassment of riches” question. There is so much good writing on all sorts of aspects of ethics in technology. I flirted with the idea of a textbook for a bit, but abandoned that idea because there’s so much non-textbook reading I could assign instead. Should I have students read a few books and deep-dive into a few topics? Should I go broader and have students read more long-form journalism articles on a wider set of topics? I need to decide soon (technically, I needed to decide when textbook orders were due earlier this month), but I’ll admit to a bit of decision paralysis here.

What is the one thing I want my students to walk away from this course with? I haven’t settled on my central course question yet. And that’s certainly a big part of what I want students to take away from my class. But I also want my students to walk away with a sense of resilience. A sense of belonging. A sense of agency. And a strong support network. I want my students to leave my class thinking that it was a safe place to learn and to try out ideas, and feeling that Carleton is a home for them. To me, particularly this year, that’s at least as important — if not more so — than any of the course content or core ideas.

What questions are you asking yourself as we head into the later part of summer and the transition to a new school year?


What I’m reading: Black Boy Out of TIme: A Memoir, by Hari Ziyad.

What I’m listening to watching: The Olympics! Particularly swimming, and some of the taekwondo.

External service calculus

Service plays a non-trivial role in most academics’ work lives. The type and amount of service varies depending on where you are in your career and the type of institution you inhabit. So, for instance, academics at research-expecting and research-producing institutions peer review papers and grant proposals, and the volume of such requests likely changes as your reputation in a field grows.

There are certain types of service in academia that require specific standing. In many, though not all, cases, only associate and full professors vote on tenure and mid-tenure review cases, and only full professors vote on promotion to full professor cases. When a department undergoes an external review, they turn to associate or full professors to serve as external reviewers. (I am sure there are exceptions to this. In my experience, though, I started receiving requests after earning tenure.) And except in dire or unideal circumstances, department chairs should be tenured, and ideally a few years past tenure at a minimum.

If you’re doing the math, you’ve likely noticed that as you become more senior in your academic career, the service requests — and expectations — skyrocket.

Service requests tend to ebb and flow for me. Sometimes I’ll go a few months with zero requests. At other times, like the past few months, service requests pop up like dandelions in the spring.

I’m in the service sweet spot in my career. I’m a female-identifying full professor at a small liberal arts institution in a male-dominated field and with administrative responsibilities. I check many of the boxes on the representation checklist. So I tend to get a lot of requests, mostly to serve as an external reviewer of scholarship in a tenure or mid-tenure review, or as an external evaluator in a department review.

I wish I could say that I’ve developed an exact science for determining when to say yes and when to decline a request. In general, I try to say yes as often as possible to external scholarship reviews when they come from liberal arts schools. In these cases, it’s important to have someone doing similar scholarship and coming from a similar institution weigh in, because they are uniquely qualified to comment on the person’s scholarship in the context of the demands of working at a liberal arts school. That said, the work involved is significant, particularly since 95% of the time the person’s scholarship is in a related area but not my area and I have to read the work pretty carefully. So I limit myself to at most one per year. I find it particularly hard to turn these down, mainly because I know how hard it can be to find someone at a liberal arts school who’s (a) tenured and (b) qualified to comment on someone’s scholarship. But weighing in on someone’s tenure case is something you want to do well and get right, so overcommitting is a Bad Idea.

I really enjoy doing external department reviews. I find it fascinating to learn how other Computer Science departments structure their major requirements, teach their courses, and foster community among their students. Witnessing different institutional cultures is also endlessly fascinating to me, and something I view as “field research” for moving into administration. And sometimes, my fellow reviewer is a colleague-friend from another institution, which makes the process even more fun. But these reviews also require a significant amount of time and energy: reading the department self-study report; traveling to and from the institution; spending several days at the institution talking to faculty, staff, students, other departments, and administrators; and compiling the report afterwards. I do one of these every few years because of this time and energy commitment. These requests definitely come in batches — I know if one appears in my inbox, I’m likely to get 2 more within the next month. I’ve gotten a tad choosier here — I’m more likely to say yes if the institution is one I’d like to learn more about anyway, or if there’s a particular circumstance the department finds themselves in that I think I can lend insight into.

I’ve become more comfortable declining requests through the years. Early on, I worried about not being asked again, or about people getting mad at me for turning them down, but that hasn’t been the case. People understand when you say “I just can’t add this to my plate right now” and appreciate your honesty. When possible, I try to recommend someone else. Oftentimes this person is already on their radar, but it can’t hurt to endorse that the person would be a good pick. I still sometimes feel guilty, though, particularly if I’ve already said yes to something and then another request comes in that I really want to say yes to. I wish I could say the guilt’s subsided over the years, but nope, it has not.

How do you perform the calculus of deciding to accept or decline a service request, whether you’re in academia or some other field?

Productivity trouble spot: Shutdown routine

If you’ve been reading this blog for some time, you know that I am a productivity nerd. I read books and blog posts and listen to podcasts about productivity. I love experimenting with different digital tools and planning systems. I set goals and routinely check in with them. I hold a Sunday Meeting to plan out my week, and start each morning outlining my daily priorities. But try as I might, one trouble spot persists in my carefully constructed routines:

My lack of a shutdown routine.

What is a shutdown routine, you ask? A shutdown routine is a set of tasks you complete at the end of the workday that allows you to reflect on your accomplishments and set the table for the next day. Cal Newport summarizes the concept well. There are many different variations, as a quick Google search will demonstrate, but they all seem to share the same themes: review what tasks you completed, prioritize your tasks for the next day, clean up your physical and digital workspace, etc. This post at Doist reflects these themes nicely.

I’ve tried to institute shutdown routines in the past. I tell myself I’m going to stop work 5 minutes early and reflect on the day before packing up to head home (or in pandemic times, preparing to leave the home office to make dinner and check in with the kiddos). I tell myself I’m going to shut my laptop at 8pm so that I can wind down before bed. I’ve made calendar events and set my phone alarm. Nothing sticks.

I attribute a big part of this to the nature of academic work and to how I tie my self-worth to my work output. At my last therapy session, my therapist reminded me of an interaction from one of our early sessions a few years back, where he asked me to reflect back on the academic year and I spent 5 solid minutes listing everything I’d failed to accomplish that past year, without listing a single win.

Yikes.

While I’m now much better at recognizing my accomplishments and at extending myself some grace, I still feel that pull to do Just One More Thing before I leave the office/home office, or before bed. Sure, I could spend 5 minutes reflecting on the day — or I could try to answer 2 more emails. Sure, I could shut my computer off at 8pm — but that one task keeps migrating from day to day, so let me just do it now. The siren song of checking one more thing off the list hides the fact that there will always be another thing to check off, or three more things to add, or another article to read, or or or….

Thinking back to my pre-kid life — which, admittedly, is hard to do since it’s been so long — I think there was part of me that thrived on the adrenaline rush of working right up until I left the office. Probably because I knew I’d have an opportunity to wind down at home after work, or go off to do something fun just for me, even if I did “have to” work later that night. With kids and a family, I don’t have the luxury of downtime when I come home — I walk in the door and I’m instantly in Mom Mode. But I never unlearned the habit of working up until the last minute. While my commute provides some down-ish time, it’s not the same — and I usually spend it stressing over things that happened at work or things waiting for me at home, or both.

Some recent health issues have me rethinking all sorts of aspects of my relationship to work. In recent years I’ve improved immensely in setting boundaries and saying no, but there’s still much more I can do. I sense that setting, and sticking to, a shutdown routine at this particular point in my life will produce outsized benefits to my mental and physical health. I just need to figure out what that looks like for me, for now.

Do you have a shutdown routine? I’d love to hear what you do and how well it works for you.


I’m trying out something new at the end of my posts. I always enjoy hearing and reading about what other people are reading and listening to, so at the end of my posts I’ll list one thing I’m reading (or have read this past week) and one thing I’m listening to (or have listened to recently).

What I’m reading: Just Work: Tools to Tackle Workplace Injustice, by Kim Scott.

What I’m listening to: “The Agile Academic”, a podcast hosted by Rebecca Pope-Ruark.

Working with students in a transition summer

When I hired students back in March to work with me this summer, we were unsure of what summer would look like. Would students be allowed or required to live on campus? How many? Would we require vaccinations? Masks? Could students opt to live in Northfield and/or otherwise off-campus? Would labs have capacity limits? Because of this uncertainty, I erred on the side of maximum flexibility. I offered students the option of fully on-campus, fully remote, and (if circumstances allowed) a hybrid option where they could be mostly remote but in-person sometimes, and vice-versa.

Interestingly, I ended up with three students choosing three different options. I have one fully in person student, one fully remote student, and one student in person for the first half of the summer and remote for the second half. (Technically, the hybrid student will only be working remotely for me for one week, since they are taking a break to TA a virtual summer program.)

I thought the logistics of this would be more challenging, but after a few days of hiccups we figured out systems that work for us. I’ve used Slack with my research group for ages, so we are already in the habit of communicating with each other that way. (My students set up a private channel so that other students who are not working with me this summer don’t have to mute the entire workspace.) We’re using GitHub’s built-in wiki regularly to record our weekly team goals and check in to see how we’re progressing towards those. Students keep notes and papers in a shared Google Drive. We have a daily check-in meeting with a Zoom option. I thought we’d use one of the conference rooms in our computational research suite (which we share with chemists, physicists, astronomers, and biologists) for these daily check-ins, since they have projectors and fancy whiteboards. We tried this the first day and realized that the technology and layout of the room hindered our ability to get things done! We now meet in our research space, firing up Zoom on my laptop and gathering around it. (We do use an external microphone because it makes it easier for the remote person / people to hear everyone in the room.) We move the laptop closer to the whiteboard if someone wants to sketch something out. If we’re looking at code or a website, we make sure to tell anyone on Zoom specifically what file / document we’re looking at, and we’re (mostly) in the habit of referring to line numbers in code.

We’ll have another logistical change next week, moving the fully in-person student into a space with other CS research students from a different group, so that they are not all by themselves. I need to figure out if we’ll still do check-in meetings in the room my students currently occupy or if we’ll move these to my office. I suspect we’ll try both.

We’re in Week 4 of 8, and the project’s progressing about as I expected. Lots of false starts and dead ends, mixed in with some promising directions. My students are playing around with natural language processing libraries to determine if we can use natural language processing techniques on our tech support dataset to extract indicators of expertise (and, somewhat relatedly, confidence). They’ve spent most of their time figuring out how to slice and dice the dataset various ways: filtering out “noisy” tickets, attempting to separate out various constituencies (clients from IT workers, e.g.), identifying “superusers”, and so on. We decided yesterday that we will likely have enough data and analysis to put together at least a poster / extended abstract this fall, so that’s exciting!

One unexpected thing: the return of spontaneous tangents and rabbit holes during our meetings! Now, granted, we do and have gone off on tangents on Zoom meetings (last summer, with my fully remote students, and during the spring when we were all meeting remotely). But Zoom can’t capture that certain energy in the room that happens when you go down a rabbit hole or explore a peripheral path. And I didn’t realize (a) that I was missing that energy in the first place and (b) how much I missed that energy until the first time we went off on a tangent during a check-in meeting. As a result, our tangents feel more productive, and definitely more enjoyable. Yesterday, for instance, a student question about conferences (earlier this summer I mentioned that I wanted to try and take them all to an in-person conference once those are a thing again) led us to look up where various conferences in our field would be held in 2022, which led to parallel conversations about travel and about academic publishing. Another tangent last week helped me connect the dots between one of my Comps projects this past year and a particular avenue one student is exploring. Of course, not all tangents are productive, nor should they be. At the very least, they help me get to know my students better — and that’s something I also missed last summer, because again, Zoom conversations can only get you so far down that road.

While I’m a bit panicked that we’re already halfway through the summer of research (how did that happen?!), and while we have and will continue to experience hiccups, I’m very much enjoying this summer of research. I’m proud of my students’ progress and growth and proud of the work we’re co-creating. I’m enjoying getting to know my students, and interacting with “3-D people” again. And I’m excited to see where the second half of the summer takes us.

Friendship and guilt

Earlier this month, I found myself in the enviable position of having both a week to myself and the house to myself. My partner participated in a road race series nearby his parents’ home and brought the kids with him to spend a week with their grandparents.

As one of the captains of Team Introvert, I was way more excited than anyone should be about the prospect of a week to myself. Yet I also knew that the last time I had a week to myself, I found myself in a pretty precarious mental state. Plus, after 15 months of pandemic living and with all of my close friends fully vaccinated, I wanted to get out and spend time with friends “in 3-D”. No problem, I thought. I’ll just send out a few texts and rally the troops and get some things on the calendar!

And that’s when I hit an unexpected wall.

The voices in my head clamored, “Why do you think anyone will want to spend time with you? Oh, so NOW you have some free time and you just expect people to drop everything and hang out with you? They’ll probably be pissed off because you haven’t asked them to do anything in a while. You’re just doing this because it’s convenient for you. You’re not a real friend to anyone.”

This unexpected wave of Friend Guilt caught me off guard. Where was this coming from? Did I honestly think my close friends would be pissed off by a request to get together? How much of a weirdo am I?

Serendipitously, this very subject of Friend Guilt came up over lunch with one of my close friends a few days later. Turns out, I am not that much of a weirdo, at least where Friend Guilt is concerned. (Or maybe this close friend and I are alone in our weirdness on this? I doubt it.) Friend Guilt is a thing! Other people feel Friend Guilt!

I’ve spent some time reflecting on the source of my Friend Guilt since then. In my case, I think there are two main mitigating factors.

Organizing fatigue. Like many women, I carry the bulk of the mental load at home, making sure that the house and the family don’t descend into chaos. (This is something my partner and I are actively working on correcting, not least because the stress of many things, including shouldering this mental load, is negatively impacting my health in tangible ways.) My job requires a lot of planning, organizing, and decision-making throughout the day. I’m mentally fried by the end of the day. Texting or (horrors!) calling people to try and set something up, requiring at least several rounds of decision-making, often seems like an insurmountable barrier, the thought of which exhausts me further. So I often don’t send that text, or initiate the plans. This leads to two different sources of guilt: the guilt of “I’m such a free-rider because I rely on others to initiate plans with me”, and the guilt of “if I was a *real* friend, I would make the effort to initiate plans even when I’m exhausted, because that’s what real friends do.”

A “history” of bailing at the last minute. I put “history” in quotes because honestly I think this is something I make a bigger deal out of than anyone else in my life. One of my kiddos, when very young, was very needy, and often unpredictably so. Now that we have some diagnoses, the behavior back then makes much more sense. At the time, though, all I knew is that I could never quite predict when this kiddo would have a major meltdown, or Very Big Feelings That Need To Come Out Right Now. When this happened, 9.5 times out of 10 kiddo could only be consoled by me. So I’d find myself canceling plans at the last minute, and sometimes those plans happened to be with close friends. Now, my friends are not monsters, so of course they understood. But over time, I started to tell myself a story that I was a bad friend because I couldn’t keep to my friend commitments. And since I couldn’t keep my friend commitments, how dare I make plans to see friends when it was “convenient” for me? You can see the vicious cycle this started. It just became easier to not initiate plans, to avoid the guilt and shame of “neglecting” my friends.

When my friend voiced some of the same phrases that regularly swirl in my head, I realized how ridiculous they sounded and how little truth and weight they hold. When a friend texts me to make plans, I never calculate how long it’s been since they initiated plans to get together. I have never once uttered or thought, “geez, who does this person think they are, texting after all this time?” Heck, my inner bullied middle schooler is thrilled that someone wants to hang out with me at all, to be honest! But those damn stories we tell ourselves hold so much power over us, that it’s hard to be rational in the moment. I’m hoping this a-ha moment with my friend will help me start dismantling this particular set of stories and replace them with truer stories about what “good friendship” looks like.

Do you feel friendship guilt? In what ways does it manifest itself in your life?