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.

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