What I’m working on over Winter Break

I’ve written before about one of the perks of my job: the long Winter Break that lasts from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. As with any substantial break, it’s really tough to avoid the siren song of Plan All The Things! when assembling the list of things to tackle. While I definitely do better in this area than I did earlier in my career, I still tend to overplan my break. Five weeks seems like a really long time, particularly when you view it at the end of an academic term as you’re struggling to find five minute blocks of time amid the chaos. And I always seem to forget that there’s a set of holidays at the tail end of that block, and family obligations, and all of the tasks and organization and gatherings leading up to those holidays, when daydreaming about that five week stretch during the academic term.

Given the general exhaustion I feel coming out of Fall Term and the knowledge of what Winter Term holds (it’s gonna be a doozy of a term for sure!), I approached planning my break with two goals:

  1. Take the last week of December fully off.
  2. Match every task to my calendar. If there’s no room for it, defer it.

So, with these goals in hand, here’s what I’m working on during this Winter Break.

Catching up on STEM documentation. I have some reporting loops to close that I can knock off in an afternoon or two. Beyond this, I’ve been collecting resources related to DEI in STEM, and notes from last year’s working groups, and I’d like to clean those up and distribute them to the STEM Board reps to disseminate to their departments and programs as they see fit. (I think these will also be useful in conversations I’m having with various people outside of STEM, thus providing another incentive.)

Participate in tenure and promotion discussions and decisions. I was elected to the faculty promotion committee at the end of last year, which is a big and important College commitment. I’ve spent a lot of quality time lately curled up in a comfy chair reading tenure files and full professor promotion files. (The iPad I bought at the start of the pandemic has been a lifesaver — I find it soooooo much easier to read and highlight and take notes on that vs. on my laptop.) Between the files and the meetings, it’s a lot of work — but very fulfilling and satisfying work.

Tweaking assessment in my Software Design course this Winter Term. I wasn’t thrilled with how my implementation of specifications / mastery grading went the last time I taught this course (last Spring), and I’ve been mulling over potential changes ever since. I’ve already decided to remove one assessment altogether (the web page design analysis) because it’s a ton of work for a small payoff, and I can assess those learning outcomes in other places. I’d like to introduce small, individual assessments into the course to supplement the team assessments. My current model is to pull out some essential skill or outcome from each project deliverable, and have the students complete a small assessment to demonstrate that they’ve achieved that particular outcome. The trick is to integrate these into the course in such a way that the workload — for the students AND for me — does not blow up, and in a way that’s valuable to the students’ learning. Stay tuned for updates!

Write for at least 30-60 minutes each weekday. My goal is 60 minutes — the 30 minutes is in there for the heavy meeting days so that I have a more achievable target. I have a couple of writeups in progress right now, and I’ve chosen to concentrate on the one involving older experiments, partly because I want to get that off my plate and out for review and partly because it’s closer to completion. I am not sure if I’ll be able to get the paper all the way finished by the start of Winter Term, but I think I can get it pretty close.

Letters of recommendation. Writing and submitting letters of recommendation for students applying to graduate school is an evergreen task. I appreciate that I’m not trying to get these letters out while dealing with the end of the term and finals, like many of my colleagues at other schools are. This project is more time consuming than mentally taxing (I think I have 15+ letters to submit today), and while it’s beyond annoying to have to fill out 8,000 differently worded forms and navigate way too many different submission systems (SERIOUSLY WHY CAN’T I JUST UPLOAD ONE LETTER TO ONE PLACE), I enjoy the opportunity to let other institutions know how awesome my students are.

Admittedly, there’s still a lot here — I’m definitely not spending my weekdays lazing by the Christmas tree eating cookies and dreaming of a white Christmas. In practice, it’s enough to keep me busy but not frantic, while still allowing time for fun and family and reflection. And knowing I’ve blocked a week off at the end of the month helps me stay focused and on track. So far, I’m really happy with my workload and my progress, and the way I’ve approached my Winter Break in general this year.

How do you schedule your between-terms or between-semesters break if you’re in academia? How do you avoid the siren song of the long task list?

What I’m reading: System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong And How We Can Reboot, by Rob Reich (a philosopher), Mehran Sahami (a computer scientist), and Jeremy Weinstein (a political scientist). This is the book I should have assigned in my Ethics of Technology first-year seminar! Sadly, I only discovered its existence at the end of the term. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to teach this seminar again, and then I will assign this book.

What I’m listening to: The Christmas Lounge station on SomaFM, my go-to work music during the month of December.


A year without … goals?

Usually at this time of year I spend quite a bit of time reflecting on my goals from the past year and evaluating my progress towards them, and setting new goals for the new year. I’ll set a “XX for 20XX” list (e.g., 21 goals for 2021) that contains a mix of personal and professional goals. I’ll pick a theme word for the year. I’ll think and dream big, and get super excited for all the bright, shiny promises the new year surely holds.

I adore goal setting, goal tracking, goal reflecting, and just living a life guided and structured by goals.

Until recently, that is.

I’m not sure exactly when it happened. Maybe it was when I encountered yet another setback on what’s seemed like an endless stint in PT and recovery this year from what now looks like multiple layered injuries and imbalances, which once again put my running goals on hold. Maybe it was entering a new academic year on fumes, again. But at some point this fall, I realized I was burned out on goals.

I abandoned my 21 for 2021 list. I set aside my Fall 2021 goals list, keeping only those crucial ones that were time-sensitive to Fall Term. I allowed myself to live more serendipitously, focusing on shorter time horizons: week-to-week, with a much smaller focus on month-to-month and nothing beyond that. And I floated the idea of NOT setting goals in 2022, continuing to focus on these shorter time spans.

The not-setting-goals idea is really appealing. There’s so much that’s up in the air right now in my life. My timeline for getting back to running is very much unknown, and my issues are such that I have to be super careful with other cardio too. (Luckily, taekwondo seems ok so far.) So setting athletic goals is a no-go. My stint as STEM Director ends in December 2022 (I’m spending a few extra months in the role so that the next director can finish his sabbatical before stepping into the role), and my next career step is unclear at this point. A long-in-the-works pilot program may or may not happen next year. A small research cohort program I direct may or may not continue. And did I mention I’m turning 50 (gulp)?

What might a year without goals look like? My current working model is a Year of Reflection(s), a series of questions to ponder and maybe even answer. Being in a holding pattern of sorts opens up room for reflection. What is my athletic identity if I can’t run, or can’t run long distances? What do I want my next career stage to look like? Do I want to finish out my career at Carleton, or should I seek out another academic home? (Or: is academia still home for me?) Where do I want to focus my time and energy in this new decade I’m entering? Perhaps I spell these out all at once, or perhaps I parcel them out over the course of the year.

I’m still enjoying others’ goal setting processes vicariously (the discussion of the Vital 9 in the last Happier podcast, the 2022 version of the annual goal setting episode on Best of Both Worlds), and will continue to enjoy seeing how others think about and plan ahead for the new year. Heck, I’ll envy their optimism and probably feel a bit of FOMO for not participating. At the same time, I’m excited to see what a year without goals looks like and feels like — and whether that makes a difference in how I approach my day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month over the course of the year.

Are you setting goals this year, are you opting out of goals, or are you somewhere in the middle?

What I’m reading: I just finished Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol, by Holly Whitaker. I stopped drinking a couple of years ago when I realized alcohol, no matter how small the amount, was quite literally making me sick. I’ve always recognized how much social situations revolve around alcohol, but navigating those same spaces as a fully sober person has been quite the eye opening adventure. This book delves into that territory deeply, and provides an extensive critique of how “recovery” happens (e.g., why is AA’s 12-step program really the only game in town?), along with presenting alternative and more inclusive ways of approaching “recovery”. I appreciated the mix of memoir and critique / self-help as well, particularly as someone who enjoys a good memoir.

What I’m listening to. The first episode of Season 3 of the CS-Ed podcast just dropped, and I started listening to it at the end of my commute home yesterday. I’ve spent quite a bit of time recently thinking about specifications grading and grading for equity, so I’m interested to hear what “alternative grading” looks like at an institution very different from my own.

Updates from Fall Term

Fall Term at Carleton officially ends at 8:30am CST on the day this posts, the due date for term grades. Fall Term officially ended yesterday afternoon for me, when I submitted my grades. I still need to do a few minor wrap-up things — finish my “notes to self” about things to change for the next time I teach the course, back up the course from Moodle, make sure all course materials are in one place — and once those are complete, I’ll be ready to move on to thinking about Winter Term, and about the various things on my plate during this long break between Fall Term and Winter Term (which starts in early January).

I have a longer post planned on my first year Ethics of Technology seminar — watch for that later this month. For now, here are some highlights from the term that was.

“Maintenance” proved to be an apt theme. I now think “maintenance” is my theme for the year, and not just for the fall. Thinking about my workload in terms of maintenance helped prevent me (most of the time, anyway) from overextending myself. From putting things into my course that might be flashy but would have a small payoff in the grand scheme of things. From saying “yes” to requests that weren’t in my core set of values. From burning myself out. Focusing on slow and steady forward progress also reminded me that change can happen in small increments consistently met over time, which (most of the time) headed off my frustration about how slow things can and do move in academia.

I quit Facebook. OK, technically I’ve deactivated my account, because I communicate with neighbors and a few other groups via Messenger and I wanted to continue to do so. But otherwise, I’m off, completely. The decision’s been a long time coming, frankly. Facebook became more of a source of stress than a fun way to keep up with family and friends. Facebook ceased to be fun for me a long time ago, I now realize, and I stayed on because of a weird fear of missing out. I also became increasingly uncomfortable with supporting a company with deplorable ethics that actively and daily harms the very fabric of society. (Not shockingly, Facebook was a frequent topic of conversations and readings in my first year seminar.) The first week off was tough (I probably did go through some sort of withdrawal), but after that it’s been…fine. I’m happier and calmer, and best of all have more free time. I wish I had done this years ago!

I’m dreaming about alternate models for the CS major. This term I’ve been working with various offices on campus to possibly bring a long-simmering idea of mine — a corps of students who work to maintain and grow software development civic engagement projects from previous courses, actively working with community organizations — to the pilot stage. (“Long-simmering” doesn’t quite do it justice — I’ve been actively working on this idea for 5 years now!) Making sure we do this ethically and sustainably is very important to me. Ethics has, not surprisingly, been top of mind all term since that’s the subject of my course. I’ve had conversations with some of our majors about the course, and about the possibility of offering this course to majors at some point. The conversations in both of these realms have me thinking about how we educate our CS majors, how we serve or fail to serve both our majors and others who just want to learn some CS on their way to another major, and what we prioritize. (Tangled up in here are also thoughts about assessment and how much of our assessment practices privilege the foundations students bring into a course, but that’s a topic for another time.) Mark Guzdial’s latest blog post about the history of computing education echoes (and much more clearly articulates) some of the complex thoughts that have been swirling in my mind around these questions. TL;DR: I’ve been mulling over what an ethically-focused and service-centered CS major, or program, might look like. Does such a program exist already? What would the key components be? How might such a program prepare students to be ethical software developers and technical leaders? This sort of dreaming actually overlaps quite a bit with the planning I’ve been doing for the next phase of my career, once my STEM Director stint ends — turns out, there may be common themes between the type of leadership role I think I’d like to seek out next, and the way I’m thinking about CS education at the collegiate level.

Winter Break’s looking fairly full right now, but I’m looking forward to more control over my schedule for a few weeks and to tackling some projects that require blocks of less-interrupted time — and to a complete break at the end of the month (hopefully!) before Winter Term starts.

How has fall term or semester been going for you?

What I’m reading: I just finished The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. I’m still figuring out what I think about the ending, but the book was excellent, riveting, and complex.

What I’m listening to: After hearing an interview with the author on the Happier podcast, I raced through the audiobook version of Everything Happens for a Reason, by Kate Bowler (and have her more recent memoir, No Cure for Being Human, on my library holds list). It grapples with questions of mortality, sickness, and faith head on.