5 good things

The past few weeks have been hard on many fronts — the COVID front, the work front, the home front, the news cycle front, the everything-is-a-racist-mess front, the I-am-so-done-with-people front (not my students — they have been a bright, bright spot this term!) — ok, you get the picture. Suffice it to say the heavy, contemplative, possibly a bit navel-gazing, post I’d planned for today felt impossible to finish and not the kind of heaviness I wanted to pile on today.

When life gets impossibly hard, I draft a resignation letter that I have no intention of sending (or, at least, not yet) and fantasize about disappearing to a cabin in the woods and living as a hermit. But I also remind myself of the not-sucky things happening in my life. This is one part of the suite of tools I use to manage my anxiety and depression — and boy, have I needed those tools recently.

So when I did this exercise this week, as life spiraled downward, this is what appeared on my list.

Deep family conversations. We tend to have lively conversations (ok, sometimes those “lively conversations” are my kids fighting) over dinner, and given the nature and interests of my kids, I’m never sure where we’ll end up. This week’s topics included the geopolitical situation in the Middle East; sex education and what my kids are learning about healthy intimate relationships; the origins of capitalism; alternate economic systems and their pros and cons; how slavery built White wealth in the US. Lest you think we’re all deep topics, all the time, popular dinnertime conversation topics also include Why What Mom Cooked Tonight Is Gross and 20 Reasons Why I Hate School. I like how these conversations allow me a window into what’s on my kids’ minds and how they’re currently processing the world around them.

Morning reading habit. This year I added “read something vaguely work-related for 15 minutes” to my morning routine, right after I meditate. I’ve been able to finish a few books I’d been working my way through for a while, and generally get more work reading done. Reading is one of my favorite things, and starting the day with one of my favorite things usually starts me off on the right foot for the rest of the day — or at least keeps me somewhat zen through the first few crises of the day.

Injury rehab. Now admittedly, this seems like an odd addition to the list. But I’d kept injuring the same ankle and finally made a PT appointment. And learned that the ankle I badly sprained last spring never quite healed — and oh yeah, my calf muscles are so tight that they’re completely screwing up my running biomechanics. PT is hard and not always fun, but I appreciate knowing what’s causing my injuries and, especially, having a specific plan to follow every day to recover. When everything else is falling apart, there is real comfort in knowing that I have to do 50 reps of these 4 exercises and this many minutes of run/walk intervals and 2 minutes of those stretches — and that no matter what else happens, I can control this small part of my day.

Coffee. Coffee is always a good thing.

Vaccinations. I got my first dose of Moderna earlier this month (one of the first ones at Carleton!!) and will get my second dose at the end of the month. My partner got the Johnson and Johnson vaccine right before they paused it. The resident 8th grader is eager to get vaccinated once anything is approved for the 12-15 age group. I think all of my siblings and their partners, and my mom, have either finished their doses or are in between doses. And more of the people in my life are getting their first and second doses. Getting vaccinated has been a HUGE relief, easing some of the underlying stress and anxiety I’ve held for over a year now. I haven’t seen my family in forever and am looking forward to being able to travel to see them again. And I look forward to hugging local friends again. It’s been way too long.

What positive things are happening for you right now?

And we’re off and running (well, limping) in Spring Term

Monday marked the start of Spring Term at Carleton — a gorgeous, sunny, record-breaking warm day, full of hope and promise and springtime and all the feelings that an especially warm March day brings.

As I write this, for the record, it’s in the 20s and windy — a miserable weather change that matches the change from “yay, a new term!” to the sinking reality of 10 more weeks of slog.

Spring Term, as I’ve written before, is the time we all hate the quarter / trimester system. Fall Term? Love it, because we get to enjoy all of August before starting up. Winter break? Especially love it, because we get a full break for the November and December holidays. Spring break? Fun for students, not at all a break for faculty, who frantically work to submit Winter Term grades before turning around to frantically prepare for Spring Term. Spring Term is when the reality sets in that we’re in the middle of a 6 month slog towards summer, and that when the majority of US institutions end their academic years in May, we’ll be at the midpoint of the term.

I’m heading into the term with an even emptier tank than usual. While I’m usually able to take a bit of a break during spring break (a day or two off at least), this wasn’t in the cards this year — and work even bled into both weekends. And a confluence of obligations means that I am completely swamped through the end of next week — and will be working the vast majority of this coming weekend as a result. Plus, the world is still a dumpster fire in many respects, and many of us are dealing with various forms of trauma.

The good news (?) is that I completely recognize that I am at / over capacity right now, and unlike Previous Amy, I recognize that this should not mean that I push myself even harder and beyond my limits. I also recognize that, while things won’t magically get all the way better when the confluence of obligations ends at the end of next week, I will at least regain more control over my time and to-do list. And, as I find myself saying often these days, that’s not nothin’.

The other good (?) news is that I’m taking this as an opportunity to triage, not just my own list but what I expect of my students. When putting together this week’s course activities, I removed one activity (developing a team contract) from the list and moved it to Week 3, because I knew that I didn’t have the energy to shepherd my students through that process this week and that the world would not end if students worked for a couple of weeks without a team contract. (And, in fact, there may be benefits in applying some of the tenets of iterative development that we’re discussing in class this week towards evolving team rules and norms.)

I then realized that there’s likely value in removing one thing from each week of the term. I do this when I write exams (in courses where I give exams). I draft the exam, take the exam and time myself to see how long it takes me, tweak the questions based on my experience taking my own exam, re-take the exam — and then I remove one question altogether. I do this to give students extra breathing room, so that they are not worried about finishing the exam. I also find that there’s always one question that may be a very fine question, but really doesn’t add anything to what I’m trying to assess. The same concepts are assessed elsewhere, or I realize that I could slightly modify a different question to assess the same concept. It stands to reason that there’s likely at least one activity I’m assigning or introducing each week that’s nice and all, but probably not strictly necessary for student learning. And if that makes everyone’s lives easier — my students, to make their loads more manageable; and mine / my course staff, to reduce the time spent assessing the activity and answering questions about the activity — well, then, that also benefits learning.

What are you triaging this week, either for yourself or your students? How are you preserving your own energy for the things that matter?

Extending the “central question” experiment to Software Design

In my Fall Term course, Computer Networks, I experimented with designing the course around a central question: should the Internet be considered a public utility or a private good? Students produced reflections at the start and end of the term around this question: the start of the term’s reflection focusing on how they understood the question at present, and the end of the term’s reflection utilizing evidence from the course to demonstrate how their answer did (or did not) evolve.*

The experiment proved so successful that I now plan to do this in as many courses as I can. I like how it focuses the students, succinctly, on the core of what we’re learning and reminds them that what they learn in this course has broader impacts beyond the content. At the same time, the central question helps me focus on what’s really important in the course, which helps me make decisions about what content to include or exclude, what to triage, and how to structure course activities.

This spring, I’m teaching Software Design — the same course I taught a year ago. Software Design is an interesting course in that we cover a lot of ground and a number of seemingly disparate topics loosely united by the theme of “these are things we think our majors should know about how to write effective software”. Things like: how to work effectively in teams. Best practices in function and class design. Code style and commenting. A bit of user interface design and accessibility. How to shepherd a project from idea to deployment. Iterative design. Ethics. Design patterns.

I’ve worked with my colleagues who also teach this course regularly over the past couple of years to streamline the story the course tells. I came up with a “layer cake” diagram to show the students how the topics unite and where various concepts fall in these layers. In my “week in review/weekly preview” videos last spring, I included this diagram to indicate what layer(s) we’d hit the previous week and in the coming week. I think this went a long way towards making the course feel less disjointed to the students.

Three layers of Software Design topics: Professionalism at the top, Design and Architecture in the middle, and tools at the bottom.
The “layer cake” model of Software Design topics. In retrospect, I missed an opportunity to make this look more like a cake.

And yet…this didn’t quite get us all the way to where I wanted to be. There’s still a lot going on in that model. Plus, I feel strongly that a huge part of “writing effective software” involves ethical and social reflection. How might this software cause harm, intentional or otherwise? Whom does this leave out? When, and why, might we choose not to bring a piece of software into the world? Do our teams embrace and interweave diverse perspectives and life experiences? In what ways can software development be an act or a practice of social justice?

So, back to the central question. Given all that’s going on in this course, what should that central question be?

The answer I settled on:

What are our responsibilities, as software developers, when putting software out into the world?

I’d like to use the same initial/final reflection assignment I used in the fall, which means I’ll need to shuffle around the first week’s deliverables (not a huge deal) and modify the current reflection I have students do at the end of this course (where they reflect on the process of software development they experienced over the term). And I think this question lends itself well to a first-day-of-the-course activity framing the course for students. (It’s more holistic than the exercise I’ve used forever, which has students reflect on examples of good and poor design in software and systems they use and work through the design outline of a mythical system.)

More importantly, I believe the question tightly ties in those ethical and social justice issues that I want students to grapple with. It reinforces the idea that software design and development is not a neutral activity. We don’t have the luxury of NOT critically examining ALL the things we bring to the process: our biases, life experiences, world views, identities, and beliefs. And this critical examination is as much a part of the software development process as using GitHub effectively, or writing solid unit tests, or constructing tightly cohesive functions, or gathering requirements.

I’m interested, and eager, to see how this experiment plays out — and I’m already looking forward to my students’ initial and final reflections on this central question.

*In a nod to universal design and flexibility, students chose the modality for this reflection. Many wrote a classic essay, some recorded videos, and others produced and narrated slide decks. My rubric accounted for these various modalities.

Virtual conferencing

This week (and last week, technically, if you count the pre-conference workshops), I’m attending SIGCSE, one of the annual conferences for Computer Science education. I go to SIGCSE most years — although, notably, 2020 was one of the years I skipped, the infamous year where the conference was canceled just before the opening keynote. I go to learn, of course, and to attend at least one affiliated event/workshop, but also, more importantly, to reconnect with friends and colleagues (and make new connections!) who also care deeply about teaching and learning in Computer Science.

(Out of curiosity, I went back and figured out how many SIGCSEs I’ve attended. My first was Dallas in 2011. I skipped 2012 because I was on adoptive parent leave. I made it to all the SIGCSEs from 2013-2019 — Denver, Atlanta, KC, Memphis, Seattle, Baltimore, and Minneapolis. So this is my 9th!)

I’ve attended a handful of virtual conferences during Pandemic Times, but SIGCSE is the first one that’s departed significantly from the “cram everything into the same time frame” model — perhaps because they’ve had sufficient lead time to reimagine it as a completely virtual conference. Events are spread out over 2 weeks, if you count the pre-conference workshops and affiliated events. A conference “day” lasts from noon – 8:45pm CT, with a nice break before the last session of the day built in. Everything is self-contained in a platform called Pathable, and while (of course, because we’re computer scientists) people are complaining about Pathable, I think on balance it’s pretty decent for all that it has to do.

The conference is not over yet, but I’ve already noted some pros and cons of attending a conference that’s been designed for a full virtual experience.

Pros

  • It fits the rhythm of my workday. This point is very time-zone dependent, but as someone in the Central US Time Zone, I’m conferencing in the latter half of my day. I can get the kids on the bus/settled into virtual school, get some deep work done in the morning, and join my family for dinner during the longer break before the last session of the day. And the last session ends right before the younger kid’s bedtime, so I can still say goodnight. Also, I don’t have to hunt down decent coffee. (Or wait for a break to grab a snack!)
  • New affordances = more control over my conference experience. Turns out, video opens up a lot of opportunities to reimagine how one conferences. Most sessions are recorded, so if I need a break or am called away for a kid or work “emergency”, I know I can go back and watch later. All of the talks in the paper sessions are already posted, which means the actual session can focus on Q&A and not rushing through slides. I’m co-chairing a paper session on the day this posts, and my co-chair and I have been able to collaborate on questions to help prod conversation if the audience is unexpectedly quiet. (Also? Watching video talks at 1.5 speed is a game changer!) SIGCSE’s playing around a bit with the medium, too, releasing “Morning Coffee” videos that highlight someone in the community (who, I think, might also be presenting that day?). And apparently someone has re-created the hallway track, although I have yet to check that out.
a computer monitor and a laptop showing a conference talk video and a Google Doc window.
Pre-watching talks and brainstorming questions via Google Docs with my co-chair. Not pictured: all the times I was interrupted to break up a fight between the kids; the loud piano playing in the background; cats wandering in and out of the room.
  • Conversations during presentations. I absolutely love the ability to converse (via chat) with other attendees during sessions. Much more socially acceptable than frantically whispering to your neighbor. It also makes asking a question in public less fraught.
  • Less exhausting (up to a point). Yes, being on video and online all day is its own form of exhausting, but I do appreciate that I’m not conferencing from first thing in the morning to well into the evening. And sleeping in my own bed at the end of a long day = priceless.

Cons

  • Less serendipity. I don’t run into people randomly in the hallways or in line for coffee, which means I’m not catching up with friends and colleagues (unless I message them in Pathable). I miss my people!!! In the past, some of the best sessions I’ve been to were unplanned — I ran into a friend and followed them to whatever session they were headed into, or met someone who mentioned a particular speaker was not to be missed, and followed their advice. I’d pull out a crocheting project while watching a presentation and end up striking up a conversation with random strangers who crochet or knit. That serendipity is missing now.
  • No opportunity to explore, or re-explore, a different city. I really do miss traveling and exploring new cities (or re-exploring cities I’ve visited in the past). I’ve done excellent long runs in Seattle, Atlanta, and Denver; unexpectedly discovered vegan restaurants in Memphis and KC; explored museums and bookstores in every city; wandered for miles just because; gotten lost. I mean, I could get lost in my own neighborhood, I guess, but it’s not the same.
  • A longer overall time commitment. Yes, it’s nice to have things spread out, but that means SIGCSE is a 2-week commitment this year. And while if I were physically at a conference I wouldn’t balk at attending a Friday night or Saturday session or three, it’s harder when you have to pull yourself away from family time to attend a keynote. (Although it did get me out of cooking Sunday dinner last weekend!)
Cat appearances are usually a pro, but cats who don’t honor personal space are definitely a con.

While I still vastly prefer the in-person conference experience (although will that be true post-pandemic? when will I truly feel comfortable in a crowd of strangers, indoors, again?), the virtual experience is … not bad. I’d love for us to find a way to keep some elements of the virtual experience — perhaps retaining video talk uploads and giving more time to Q&A during paper sessions, allowing avenues for virtual attendance for anyone who wants to or has to attend that way (and have the experience be equitably rich), and reimagining the “packed days” paradigm.

What have your virtual conference experiences been like? What’s worked better than you expected? What do you miss the most? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Looking forward

This week marks the end of Winter Term at Carleton. The day this posts is the last day of classes; finals end on the 15th. It’s been a long, tough term, every bit the slog we expected (and then some), and not that there’s much of a break before the start of Spring Term classes on the 29th, but it’s a break nonetheless that we all sorely need.

There’s a lot to be anxious about, to be sure — we’re not out of the woods with COVID just yet, and there’s the fear we’ll ease up too early on restrictions before enough of us can get vaccinated. One kid is back in school full time (and has already had a 2-week all-school shutdown because of COVID spread in the school) and the other goes back in just over a week. The continued violence against Asian-Americans worries me, both as a decent human being and as the mom of an Asian son. The trial of Derek Chauvin looms large over everything around here, too, making an already difficult week even more so for many members of our campus community.

And yet.

I find myself more hopeful lately, more willing to look ahead to what we might be able to do in the future. I’m looking forward to more things, with fewer qualifiers — more “when”, less “if”. More outright planning, less contingency planning.

Here are some specific things that I’m particularly looking forward to, in no particular order.

  • In person research with students. While we’ll still have restrictions and a community covenant in place, we received word yesterday giving the go-ahead to host students in our lab spaces this summer! I plan on giving my students the choice of in-person or virtual research this summer so that I can be as flexible as possible — and honestly, I’ll likely give that option to students from now on, pandemic or no. I am positively giddy that I will be able to work side-by-side with students this summer, scribbling on whiteboards together and talking face to face. We’ll finally get to use our brand new research spaces, too!
  • My Spring Term course. I’m teaching Software Design to what looks to be a big group (40 students, plus or minus a few). I adore teaching Software Design. I’ll still be teaching fully online. I taught this course online last spring, and it went fine. But I’ve learned so much since then, and I’m super eager to pour what I’ve learned into redesigning the course for the upcoming term. Luckily, we’re talking tweaks and not wholesale changes, but I suspect they’ll make a huge difference into the class flow.
  • Getting vaccinated! Unlike some states, higher ed faculty and staff in MN are not classified as “essential workers” for the sake of vaccination priority, and because of my age and my relatively good health status, I’ll be in the last priority group for vaccination. That said, I am signed up several places for “please call me if you have open vaccine that you need to get in someone’s arm by the end of the day”. And by all accounts, MN’s vaccination rate is accelerating. I’m on track for a summer vaccination, but with any luck, I might even be vaccinated before my research students start their work this summer. Fingers crossed!
  • Summer gatherings. To be honest, I think it will be a long time before I’m comfortable in someone else’s indoor space mask-free. But the improving weather opens up more opportunities to gather, carefully, outside, with a wider swath of people. I’m excited to see friends “in 3-D” that I’ve only seen on Zoom for months. And maybe this summer we’ll actually be able to use the season passes to a nearby amusement park that I bought in late summer 2019…

As spring arrives and as more possibilities open up, what brings you hope? What things are you looking forward to doing?

One year

This coronavirus pandemic is quite scary. I am wondering if we’ll have a completely virtual spring term. It seems likely at this point.

Personal journal entry, March 10, 2020.

Oh, 2020 me. How naive you were.

I blogged a few weeks back about the exhaustion and grief we’re collectively feeling as we approach the one year “anniversary of the pandemic.” The idea of a pandemic anniversary is interesting in and of itself, but I take it to mean the anniversary of the massive shutdowns in the US, when schools moved online and businesses closed down and events were canceled and you couldn’t find a roll of toilet paper or a container of bleach anywhere. So, early March.

When I wrote the post, I wondered how I would actually feel when the “anniversary” finally arrived. Would it be an emotional experience? Would I experience a wave of grief? Would I feel hopeless, sad, angry, pissed off? Or perhaps numb? And when, exactly, might these emotions hit?

I found some answers this past weekend, when I found myself continually going down the rabbit hole of replies to a simple tweet by NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro:

How I spent my Saturday night — and, er, more time on Sunday than I care to admit.

Reading the replies proved a surreal experience, transporting me right back to early March. Details I’d pushed out of my mind to make way for a survival mindset resurfaced:

  • The discussions with my partner about whether, and how, to “stock up” for something like this. Did we even own bleach? What about Lysol? How much food do we have in the freezer and pantry?
  • Thinking back to every sniffle and fever going back to December 2019 — had it already gone through our family? (Answer: no, since I’ve been repeatedly tested and have donated blood and nothing’s shown up.)
  • The growing sense of unease about being out in public.
  • Taking extra precautions with the snacks I brought in for the last day of class project showcase, and ransacking my office to find hand sanitizer (March 11).
  • Wondering if the middle school musical (where elder kiddo had a one-line singing solo!) would go on as scheduled, and/or if the black belt midterm test slated that same weekend would still happen. (Answer: no to the musical, yes to the test.)
  • The all-faculty meeting on March 12, the day after the last day of Winter Term classes, where we were all crowded together in one room to hear the announcement that we were moving to an online Spring Term. (And feeling increasingly uneasy about all being in the same room, unmasked and not distanced, during what was now clearly a pandemic.)
  • The last time I ate in a restaurant — Friday, March 13, with the younger kiddo, after finishing the first part of our black belt midterm tests. (Pizza, ginormous homemade soft pretzel sticks, and probably root beer.)
  • The moment the kids’ schools shut down for “extended spring break” (March 16) — and the realization that my professional and family roles would be tightly intertwined for the foreseeable future.

I certainly didn’t expect that we’d still be at home (largely), still not vaccinated, still with a pandemic raging. And, in some respects (I’m looking at you, Texas, and all the other states without mask mandates), in potentially worse straits. I didn’t know that my mood most days would still swing between numbness, despair, fury, exhaustion, and just a wee bit of hope.

But I also didn’t expect that I’d become reasonably competent in teaching online, and that I’d embrace certain aspects of that medium. I didn’t know that the pandemic would force me to reckon with almost everything I believed and thought I knew about grading and radically change how I evaluate student work. I didn’t think that our super active family would actually welcome the cessation of extracurriculars and embrace the concept of wide-open evenings and weekends spent together.

The answer to “how will I feel when the anniversary arrives?”, so far, is pretty much “the same way I feel most days during this pandemic”, with perhaps a growing sense of hope over everything else. Mixed, too, with a bit anxiety over what our new, post-pandemic normal will be.

What feelings are you experiencing as we hit the one year mark of the pandemic?

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.

Takeaway points from the book From Equity Talk to Equity Walk

When I started my new habit of reading for at least 15 minutes first thing every (weekday) morning, one of my goals was to start chipping away at my growing pile of work-related reading. And indeed, it’s already paid off, because last week I finished the first of my “morning book reads”.

From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education by Tia Brown McNair, Estela Mara Bensimon, and Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux (AAC&U, December 2020) is an accessible guidebook for anyone involved in, or contemplating taking a greater role in, equity work on campus. I don’t remember who originally recommended this book to me (and I suspect it was recommended by a few people), but I’m so grateful that they did. I’m not going to do a full-on book report, but I’ll briefly summarize the premise and then talk about the points that resonated most with me.

While the end of the book offers some specific actions in regards to advising and syllabi, the majority of the book concentrates on dismantling the ways we tend to think about achieving equity on our campuses — focusing on achievement gaps, aggregating data and discussions about “underrepresented” students, operating from a student deficit model — arguing instead for practices and conversations that critically examine how our structures embrace and prioritize whiteness, and how this focus on whiteness racializes everything from campus culture to academic achievement. The language we use when talking about students and their experiences, the way we define (or, more often, fail to define) what “equity” means in our campus contexts, our reluctance to engage in frank conversations about race, all contribute to our inability (or unwillingness, or perhaps both) to see how our institutions are set up with privileged white male students as the default, and to perpetuate this set-up with band-aid fixes to “equity problems”. The book argues that true equity work cannot succeed unless there are shared definitions of equity among campus leaders, and that these definitions are clearly and repeatedly reflected in the institution’s mission statement, reward structure, practices, and conversations.

The book spends a significant chunk of time talking about data and its role in illuminating places where the institution fails students and in fostering faculty reflection. The authors argue strongly for disaggregating data to get a full picture of the current status — that being truly equity-minded means examining differences in outcomes for specific groups so that you can truly understand the sources of the problems. It presents specific examples from campuses on how departments analyzed and discussed disaggregated data, which I found quite useful. Not so much for the actual contexts — it appears the case studies were drawn from schools larger than Carleton — but for modeling how to structure conversations around the data, and how to respond to the “but whatabout” points most commonly raised in such contexts.

There were three points in particular that resonated with me:

Point 1: We need to have frank conversations not just about race, but also about whiteness, on our campuses. This book helped me articulate why I’ve had this gnawing feeling of discomfort and dissatisfaction with the equity work I’m doing individually and as part of larger campus efforts. We focus on the students — as we should — and come up with strategies to “help them fit in” — advising strategies, cohort programs. But often (not always, but often enough), we don’t stop to question why our solutions gravitate towards “fitting students into the existing model” and not questioning the reasons we have a model that requires us fitting in students at all. We accept the systems as fixed. And this is largely because we just accept that “whiteness” is the norm, and not just the norm but the only acceptable norm. I doubt most of us do this consciously, but that doesn’t matter, because the effect is the same. It’s hard to start from a place of “our entire foundation is flawed”, but we’re going to have to go there if we are serious about achieving equity. And that’s going to be mighty uncomfortable and unsettling for a lot of us.

The book wasn’t super specific on ways to accomplish this — which makes sense, because each institution is in a different context and at a different starting point in these conversations. But I did appreciate that the book pointed out contexts in which to start probing whiteness — our everyday practices, our review and promotion processes, and especially the language we use when talking about student outcomes. In this way, it provided starting points for both individual work and campus conversations, something I appreciated very much.

Point 2: Collecting and analyzing the right data is crucial. Being at a small school and in a discipline not really revered for its diversity, I often hear about the “small numbers” problem. “We can’t disaggregate the data because the numbers are too small and we don’t want to identify students.” “The numbers are too small to tell us anything statistically meaningful.” “We can see trends affecting minoritized students better if we aggregate the data.” I get the arguments, particularly the one about aggregating to preserve student privacy. But the book makes a clear and cogent argument for data disaggregation. And in so doing, it highlights one of the many ways we get equity work wrong: we treat “minoritized” students as a monolith, rather than distinct populations with unique and non-overlapping histories with academia (and society as a whole). So we’re back to treating white as default and everyone else as “other”. With aggregated data, we may be able to identify a problem, but are likely to get the remedies wrong. With disaggregated data, we can see exactly who is adversely affected (and who benefits) by various structures and how this manifests itself (in student performance, in retention and tenure rates, etc.). I’m currently working on several initiatives that will require data collection, and this book is helping me think through how to structure our “data ask” and has helped me initiate conversations about data disaggregation in advance of this ask.

Point 3: We need to be clear, consistent, and specific on what we mean by equity. I feel the need to acknowledge that several trusted people in my life have given me tough feedback on this specific point this year, and that while I heard and processed that information, I wasn’t sure how to move forward with it. The book helped me connect that feedback to concrete actions and steps I could take, or at least advocate for. In fact, at our next STEM Board meeting each of our working groups is going to present their working definitions of equity so that we can see what assumptions we’re all making, where these overlap, and where they conflict. Admittedly, we should have STARTED the conversation there, and not circled back to it as we are. Then again, I’m not sure many of us were ready to define equity until we’d grappled with it in concrete contexts first. As an institution, we don’t have a shared definition of equity, either, similar to many other institutions. This lack of a definition means we can’t really set policies and practices to achieve equity — if we don’t know what it is, how do we know how to get there or know when we’ve arrived? We also need to be specific and granular about equity. What does equity mean for first-generation college students? For STEM degree attainment? For Black faculty? For participation in research opportunities? That said, we can’t get to this granularity until we have an agreed-upon institutional definition of equity as guidance.


I can see this book working for people at different stages in their equity work. I think the book works best for people new to this work — those who have a desire to work towards equity on their campuses but are not sure where to begin. The book is really useful in providing talking points and language to start conversations and to address derailing arguments. (I really like the term “first-generation equity practitioners” that the book uses for those in earlier stages of equity work, and in many ways I recognized myself as a first-generation equity practitioner, too.) For those a bit further steeped in this work, it serves as a reminder of the many ways this work can go off the rails and provides strategies for helping move campus, departmental, and programmatic conversations forward. If you’re looking for a quick fix or the magic incantation that will instantly make your campus equitable — well, this book reminds you that there are no quick fixes, just hard and necessary work.

Have you read From Equity Talk to Equity Walk? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.