Dealing with the circumstances you have, not the circumstances you want

Fall is my favorite time of year to run. The colors of the trees and grasses, and the angle of the sunlight, along with warm but comfortable temperatures, make running outside in September and early October a joy and a sensory delight. As the leaves fall and the temperatures drop, as we move from October to November, I enjoy the crisp air and the cooler temps — and the changing landscape too. I tend to do a lot of trail running in the fall, and my favorite marathon is also in the fall. Running in the fall is just a happy experience for me all around.

I thought about this all as I walked back across campus yesterday on an impossibly warm, beautifully sunny day. A perfect day for a run, especially a marathon training run. Which, according to my plan, was exactly how I’d be spending my September.

Instead, my thoughts centered on how happy I was to stand and teach for 70 minutes without foot pain. And when I’d be able to squeeze in my physical therapy exercises that night.

Yep, I’m injured.

I did 2 marathons within 8 months, the last one being in June. My body, surprisingly, handled the back-to-back training cycles like a champ. I optimistically registered for the Twin Cities Marathon in October — which would have been marathon #3 in the span of a year. I thought I was in good shape. I felt pretty good after the June marathon.

Then I went on vacation, right after that marathon. And walked around Disney World for 5 days.

For those of you who are not runners: this is probably the Worst Marathon Recovery Plan in the History of Humankind.

So, yeah, my body finally rebelled, and to make a long story short, I haven’t run since the end of July. Plantar fasciitis. My original plan to stop running for 2 weeks and “let my foot heal” morphed into “I need to drop out of the marathon” when my foot did not improve. Cue a doctor’s visit, a (thankfully) negative X-ray (no stress fracture!), and a round of PT that just got extended.

The good news is that I’m healing. The bad news is that I am the slowest healer in history. OK, not really. The bad news is that this seems to be a really, really stubborn bout of plantar fasciitis, and that it really does not want to leave my body.

Instead of running down sun-dappled trails, I’m swimming laps like a boss and riding my bike a lot more, including taking up a new pursuit: mountain biking. (At least that gets me out on the trails!) Doing PT exercises like it’s my job. Taping my foot for taekwondo and cursing the fact that the kicks I currently have to master for my next belt are jump side kicks, which involve both a heel strike to the bag (or board) and a heel strike to the ground when I land the jump. Ouch.

And exercising patience like I’ve never had to before, because this injury has no set in stone recovery timeline.

Patience has never been my strong suit, so this has been an especially difficult experience for me. And the stages of being injured resemble the 5 stages of grief. Right now I’ve mostly reached the acceptance stage, with occasional forays into the depression stage.

What’s helped is reminding myself that this is temporary. That the layoff from running allows me time to pursue other things that I haven’t had time to do. I love swimming, but that fell largely by the wayside when I started taekwondo because I couldn’t do the amount of running marathon training requires AND taekwondo several times a week AND swimming. I may now be slightly addicted to mountain biking, and can’t wait to spend the fall exploring new trails and honing my skills (and running into fewer trees). I wouldn’t have had time to develop these passions if I were still training for a marathon. And yeah, it’s not running, but…it’s still fun, and it still restores me.

Dealing with the reality I have, and not the reality I wanted or expected or planned for, is sometimes frustrating. But it’s also helping me accept myself better, and be more forgiving of myself. It’s reminding me that I can’t control everything, and that I’m much happier and better adjusted when I work with my circumstances and not against them. And that, perhaps, is the best lesson I can take away from this experience.

Now, about those PT exercises …..

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Random thoughts, Friday before first day of classes edition

The week before classes is traditionally very busy. Lots of meetings, faculty retreat, Academic Fair, advising especially if you have first year advisees — not to mention, the rush to get everything ready for the first day of classes. And the busy-ness and franticness, I’m finding, is amped up to 11 (on a scale of 1-10) when you’re coming off sabbatical.

I’m finding a few things more challenging than usual:

  • Interacting with people. Oh, so many people! Comparatively at least, since I’m used to working by myself at home with only my cats for company. I’ve found I need a lot more alone time to recover after these encounters, more time than usual. Tuesday and yesterday afternoon were especially brutal — Tuesday because of faculty retreat (a half day filled with people! ack!), and yesterday due to a combination of meetings + Academic Fair (where first years can go and learn about the academic departments and services) without a break. Last night I could barely function or think. Good times.
  • Emails. Emails emails emails. I’m realizing I was spoiled on sabbatical: not only was I getting way fewer emails, but also I could ignore about 90% of the ones I did get. Not so anymore. I’ve fallen way behind on email processing this week, so in addition to the 1000 other tasks I have to do today to get ready for next week, I have to pencil in time to tackle at least the more pressing ones. And let’s not mention the Slack channels I’m on, where conversations have ramped up quite a bit in the last week.
  • Getting all the logistics in place for the term. This includes things like coordinating meetings with community and campus partners for our capstone projects, which affects the times and days of the week I meet with my capstone groups. And reserving lab space for in-class labs. And finding a meeting time and place for the science fellows seminar. Which, you guessed it, means lots of emails. Oh yeah, and figuring out office hours and blocking off time for research and class prep and and and …. ok, deep breaths.

I know that This Too Shall Pass and Everything Will Somehow Get Done By Monday. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. ….

* * *

I’m really enjoying my new office and my new building. My hallway consists of me, the director of our learning and teaching center, and the new writing program director. Lots of potential for great conversations and maybe projects with both. The Cinema and Media Studies/Music admin offices are across the hall, as well as CAMS and Music faculty offices and the Learning and Teaching Center. Being in such an interdisciplinary spot is going to be really interesting!

Our department has a Slack channel now, since we’re spread out (2 of us are in my building, and the rest are spread between 3 floors of another building), as a way of communicating small things and having small discussions/getting questions answered. I’m also getting used to the fact that my colleagues now call me on the phone to have once were quick hallway conversations. I’m used to ignoring my phone — I guess I can’t do that any longer.

I do hope the construction noise outside my window ends when classes start.

My building is 2 blocks from downtown, which means 2 blocks from coffee shops and the bagel place and restaurants and such. Plus there is a coffee shop in my building. I foresee a lot of coffee and bagels in my future this year. Perhaps I won’t be losing the Sabbatical 5 Pounds I gained last year. But, on the other hand, this means more interesting places to walk when I am feeling stir-crazy and need to clear my head.

* * *

And on that note, it’s back to class prep and email taming and all of the other Friday before classes start tasks. To all the Carls new and returning: see you on Monday, and have a fabulous fall term!

Theme(s) for the 2017-18 academic year

As an academic, I recognize two “new years” every year: the traditional one, the start of a new calendar year on January 1; and the academic one, in September when the new school year starts. Both new years present an opportunity for reflection, for renewal, and for a fresh start.

I don’t usually make resolutions. I’m the type of person that doesn’t wait when I want to start a new habit or change my ways, and I’m usually disciplined enough to see it through. But I do set themes.

A theme is an overarching principle that describes how I’d like to live my life and make my choices over the next year. I alternate between picking themes for the traditional new year and for the academic year. Past themes include Defining (2010), Good enough (2013), Self preservation (2015), and Healthy (2017).

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting this summer more generally on what I want my post-sabbatical life to look like. How do I contain the chaos so that I am more present at work and at home? How do I not let myself get overwhelmed with the sheer volume of work? How do I make better choices about how to spend my time? As I reflected, two themes emerged, and I realized that they are in fact linked.

So this year, I have a dual theme for the academic year: Meaning and Challenge.

THEME #1: MEANING

Meaning, to me, encompasses 2 parts:

  1. Doing important and relevant work to improve the world/my campus/my communities. I have a limited amount of time and energy, and I want to spend both in ways that “count”. I want to make sure that the projects I choose, and the actions I take every day, fit my core priorities: broadening participation in computing and STEM; integrating civic engagement and “computing for good” into computer science classes; empowering girls to become leaders; working for justice and equity more broadly.
  2. Working with purpose and intention. Sabbatical, and its relative lack of distractions, allowed me to be present and mindful in my work, and this is one of the things I enjoyed most about my sabbatical. I want to make sure to carry this mindfulness over to my post-sabbatical work days. This will be more challenging given the increase in the demands on my time and the number of distractions I’ll face (no more hiding out at home ignoring the world for hours!). Working with purpose and intention also means setting, and honoring, my priorities, particularly when it comes to deciding when I should say “yes” to an opportunity, or how I decide what tasks to work on during the day.

THEME #2: CHALLENGE

Working with meaning and purpose means getting out of my comfort zone, and doing hard and uncomfortable (and possibly unpopular) things. It means being brave enough to stand up for what I believe in. As a newly minted full professor, I believe I have a responsibility to do so — to be brave enough to use my power and my voice to improve my communities. I don’t like being uncomfortable, so this will definitely be a challenge for me.

But I also want to pursue the fun parts of “challenge” this year by taking new risks and testing my limits in new ways. I’ve thought about doing a triathlon for a while, and I think I’m going to plan for one for next summer. Taekwondo continues to be a fun challenge for me (particularly now that we are sparring in class!), and I might try competing in a tournament this year.


 

I’m very excited to see how these themes play out this year, in my work life and my home life.

What are your themes for the year, readers? I would love to hear them in the comments.

A rough return to teaching

I’ve spent the past few summers (minus last summer when I was on sabbatical) teaching in a summer high school program. The program consists of 3 weeks of morning classes and afternoon guided research with a faculty member. I really, truly enjoy it. Teaching high school students is an interesting challenge. And by and large the students have been thoughtful, engaged, creative, and eager to learn. (It’s also very gratifying to see some of them as Carleton students post-high school!)

So when my colleague approached me last fall about teaching again this summer, I agreed. The program, I reasoned, would give me the opportunity to ease back into teaching before returning to the classroom in the fall. Plus I already had curriculum and research projects ready to go. What could possibly go wrong?

Suffice it to say that my envisioned triumphant return to teaching was anything but.

The actual mechanics of teaching? That went easier than I anticipated. The rust fell away quickly, much to my surprise. Being in front of students felt natural to me, and I found my teaching groove in short order. Pacing was still tricky at times, but pacing is always a bit of an inexact science.

What I didn’t anticipate, and what was roughest about re-entry: the small but active minority of students in my research group who decided early on that what I was teaching, human-computer interaction (HCI), was not Real Hard Core Actual Computer Science Because We’re Not Programming 24-7. And the undercurrent of disrespect for my authority, and for my RA’s authority (also a female computer scientist).

Now, I should pause and make it crystal clear at this point that THIS IS NOT NORMAL FOR THIS PROGRAM. The vast, vast majority of students are respectful and open to learning, and to expanding their ideas of what computer science is. I can count on one finger the number of research students I’ve mentored in this program who have been actively disrespectful of me and the subject matter. Sure, I’ve had some students in the past who were openly or less openly skeptical about the merits of HCI as a computer science field, but by and large those students at least came to appreciate what I was trying to teach them in the end, even if in the end they decided it wasn’t quite their cup of tea. And I’ve had some really interesting conversations with the objectors that have not only strengthened my framing of my material, but have also led me to reflect on what material I choose to include and how I include it. Both of which make me a better, more effective teacher in the end.

I spent a lot of time and energy during the program reflecting on where this particular strain of disrespect originated. Part of it likely relates to the HCI = Not Real Computer Science attitude, which is certainly not limited to the students in my class (and is still somewhat pervasive in the field, unfortunately). Part of it also likely relates to the general bro-ness and toxic masculinity that has always surrounded computer science, something that’s come into sharp focus lately with any number of recent news stories. Why did it emerge in force this year, and not in previous years? That, I’m still trying to figure out.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve had to deal with this level of disrespect in the classroom. I’ve been at Carleton long enough that I’m part of the fabric of the department — I am “accepted”. Gaining seniority (in age and in status) over the years increased my credibility with the students, giving me more authority in their eyes. The close-to-gender parity we have in our faculty also helps quell at least some of the disrespect. So I was caught off-guard.

Once I recognized what was going on, I went into damage control mode. I summoned up my Authoritative Teacher persona from the depths — she hasn’t been around much since my pre-tenure days. I blinded them with science — or, at least, hit them hard with the scientific basis for every psychological or design principle we discussed. I randomly threw out my credentials, just to remind them that Yes I Do Know What I Am Talking About As I Have A PhD In Engineering And Years Of Experience. I occasionally let out my Inner Bitch and used my Evil Mom Stare with abandon.

But I also second-guessed almost everything that I did, and said. I put up my guard in ways I haven’t had to do in a very long time. Teaching, and every single interaction in this program, took up at least twice as much of my mental and emotional energy. Teaching in this program is normally draining, but this year, at the end of the day, I truly had nothing left in my tank. And that was not fair to my family or to myself.

Lots of people have asked me if I’ll teach in the program again next year. I honestly don’t know. On the one hand, I still believe strongly in this program. I have met and worked with so many incredible teens and young adults in this program. By and large, my students are thoughtful, creative, eager to challenge themselves, whip-smart, and funny. Most of my students did outstanding work on their research projects, and embraced the experience and challenge from start to finish. And I enjoy serving as a role model to high school students, both as a female computer scientist and as an HCI researcher. But on the other hand, this summer exacted a huge toll from me. I was exhausted, and bitter, every single day. Why does it feel like it’s just my responsibility to hang in there, fight the good fight, and change their minds? How productive, and happy, would I be if I didn’t have to deal with this crap?

Hopefully, I won’t experience anything like this in the fall when I return to the classroom full time. Or, if I do, at least I’ll be prepared to recognize it and deal with it. That, I suppose, is the sad silver lining in this experience.

 

Serendipitous thinking time

Flying back from a family trip this weekend, too exhausted to read, I put on my headphones, dialed up a podcast (Teaching in Higher Ed, which I absolutely love), and closed my eyes. Instead of dozing, I listened and let my mind wander a bit, stopping to jot down notes as the mood struck — some about the podcast, many about random things that popped into my mind as I listened that were tangentially related to the podcast. I noted a few tools and productivity tips to try. I jotted down ideas for my upcoming fall classes. I sketched out a possible model for a new evaluation piece in my Software Design course. I didn’t intend to do any of these things, but having the time and space to just sit with my thoughts and no agenda led to some creative thinking and planning.

As I exited the plane, my first thought was that this sort of time for serendipitous thinking is what I will miss most when coming off of sabbatical.

My second thought: time for serendipitous thinking, as I’ve learned this year, is absolutely essential for my productivity and for my well-being.

Spending time on things not immediately related to my work — like listening to TIHE, or reading more broadly in my field and across fields and disciplines — allows my brain the opportunity to step back, to learn new things, and the space to make new connections. Some of my best ideas for class activities, projects, case studies, etc. have come from leafing through ACM interactions or Communications of the ACM, from articles that often have little to do with the course’s subject matter. Listening to The Hilarious World of Depression podcast caused me to reflect on my course management policies and think about how I can be a more compassionate, yet still fair, professor to my students who are struggling. These are just a few examples from this year alone.

Sure, I can still do these things while not on sabbatical. But it’s hard to justify time to sit and really listen to an episode of TIHE, or flip through back issues of interactions, when you have a line of students outside your door and 100 emails to answer and a class to prep and grading to do and a paper deadline and and and…..

Yet my work is richer and more fulfilling when I do make time for these things. So how do I successfully make time?

In the past, I’ve tried blocking out specific time to, say, read journal articles each week. The problem is that even though that time is blocked out, I still view it as fungible — if something else comes up, or I’m stressed about getting other things done, well, this is not immediately due so I can just skip it, just this once. And then once becomes twice, and then it’s 3 months later and the journal articles are sitting there gathering dust.

Yet I am able to successfully block out research time every day on my calendar, even though most of the time there’s not anything immediate about getting research done (besides paper or grant deadline time). I’ve gotten past the mindset that research time is fungible and convinced myself that research time is important, despite the lack of immediate deadlines. I think I just need to do the same with “serendipitous thinking time”. Maybe not every day, but I think I can manage at least once a week. That seems like a good starting place.

Do you carve out time for serendipitous thinking in your workweek? If so, how do you manage it and keep that time sacred?

Summer plans

Well, it had to happen eventually — my year-long sabbatical is now over, and I’m officially into summer. Which means it’s time for summer plans and setting summer goals.

Since I’m a visual person, this year I decided to make a big ol’ summer calendar and write/draw out all of my responsibilities, goals, etc. on it. I found this exercise immensely helpful — and as a bonus, it helped me figure out which weeks the kids have various camps. With 2 kids in 2 different age groups (for camp program purposes), you can imagine how complicated this becomes. In fact, there are only 4 weeks this summer where both kids are in the same camp/location at the same time.

Summer calendar

Summer calendar, in progress last week. It is much more filled in now!

We also decided this summer to purposely not schedule the kids for the entire summer. So there are weeks or partial weeks where the kids are hanging out at home with me. After a disastrous day last week where I spent more time dealing with kid shenanigans (my own and the neighbors) than on the work I needed to complete, I came up with a daily task list for the kids to complete on the days they are home with me. So far it’s worked really well.

Summer to-do list for kids.

Thank you, Pinterest, for inspiring the entries on this list.

What’s also worked is setting a strict time limit on my own work for the day, letting the kids know how much time I will spend working and when I plan to be done. And reminding them that every interruption moves that time back. And scheduling fun things to do together after I finish working, like going to the pool or playing games. (I’m not sure who looks forward to that time more, my kids or me!)

We have a couple of shorter trips planned, plus like last year I blocked off the entire last week of August for Mom’s End Of Summer Fun Camp, which was a big hit with the kids. And I am back to teaching in our high school summer program, after a year off from that. Having those sketched out on the mega-calendar helped me visualize the time I have available to work on other projects.

I have a few projects that I’m working on this summer:

  • I received an internal curricular grant to get things up and running for my HFOSS Comps project. I’m going to spend that time getting involved in the developer community and making connections; figuring out how to contribute to the project, and how my students can contribute; and creating/modifying learning activities for and from the foss2serve community.
  • Starting to conduct interviews for my interview project. I’m a couple of months behind on this because some other projects consumed my time this spring, but I hope to get at least 5 interviews completed this summer. I’m hoping to load these up in the weeks that the kids are in camp/summer programs.
  • Continuing my state diagram/model project. The paper continues to evolve, the modeling language is mostly complete, and now I need to get the event/transition part of the model working in simulation.  I don’t expect to finish this over the summer, but I hope to get the bulk of the design done so I can finish coding it up in the fall.
  • Prep for fall term. There are some minor changes I want to make to Software Design, which I’m teaching this fall and winter. I’ll need to touch base with my community/campus partners for the other 2 Comps projects I’m supervising. I need to update my website. I’m also taking over as mentor/director of the Summer Science Fellows program at Carleton, so I need to figure out what happens when with that program and figure out what to do in the fall seminar I’m leading for this summer’s fellows, along with some other logistical things.

My main goal this summer, though, is to not stress about the things that don’t get done. There are only a few things that need to be completed this summer, but for the rest, the world will not end if I fall a bit behind. I need to make sure I am relaxed, refreshed, and ready to tackle the academic year, and that is really my number one priority this summer.

Reflections on marathon training

This coming weekend, I will be running my third marathon. This is the first time I am running a marathon other than Twin Cities (although I will also be running that again, later this year!) and my first time traveling to a marathon.

It’s also the first time I’m running a spring marathon.* This, along with being on sabbatical for the entire training cycle, made this marathon training experience much different from my two previous training cycles.

Training through winter and spring and into unofficial summer meant temperature and weather extremes. The week before I started training, in mid-February, I ran in wind chills of -15. During my last 15 miler, 2 weeks ago, temperatures soared into the 80s. Lashsicles and heat exhaustion in the same training cycle! I’ve run through snow, gale force winds, driving rains, fog so thick I could not see my hand in front of my face**, black ice, and blazing sun. But, luckily since I HATE the treadmill, the weather only forced me indoors a couple of times.

Temperature extremes while running.

From negative temps to heat advisories…

Spring is notoriously windy around here, and that I found was the most challenging part of this cycle. The worst run was a 14 miler with hills, where the 2nd half was pretty much all uphill but the first part of the run was into 20mph headwinds. I have never been so tired after a run in my life! I usually tried to plan runs so that I’d have the wind at my back at the end of the run, but this was not always possible. Grandma’s is a point-to-point course, though, so at least this was good training for potential unfavorable winds on race day.

When I train through the summer, I plan long run routes so that I hit water fountains at key points to refill my water bottles. Up until the end of April, though, the water fountains around here are turned off. This made planning long runs logistically interesting. Instead of doing big loops or long out-and-backs, I planned shorter loops so that I could circle back to my car or house and refill my bottles. (Bonus: I could also shed layers if I was too warm or add layers if I was too cold.) I enjoyed these more than I thought I would — in fact, my favorite long run was the first (of 3!) 20 milers, which I did as 2 hilly 10 mile loops around my town.

When planning running routes in the winter, I also had to be cognizant of which paths were plowed, which streets were likely too icy, etc, and be ready to reroute on the fly if I guessed incorrectly. Which I often did.

Being on sabbatical meant that I had more freedom in terms of scheduling my runs, which meant that I ran later in the morning than I usually do (usually after getting the kids on the bus). This also meant that I had time to go explore new-to-me running routes, and I found a few nearby that I hope to keep in the rotation as I train for marathon #4 this summer and fall.

Minimum maintenance road.

Adventure is calling!

I ran more in Minneapolis too, doing 2 runs (20 and 21 miles, respectively) around the Chain of Lakes/Lake Nokomis, and several runs in the Minnehaha Falls area (discovering a new-to-me path in the process!). Minneapolis runs will be tougher to work into my schedule this summer and fall, but hopefully I can make it up there once or twice this summer.

I decided to use a more aggressive training plan this time around.*** I ended up doing 504 miles (not counting the week leading up to the marathon) total. The training plan was tough but manageable, and other than a bout of bronchitis that sidelined me for a week, I got through it injury-free!

Miles run per week, June 2016-2017.

Graph of miles I’ve run this past year, by week. Can you tell which 2 weeks I took off from running post-marathon #2 and which week I had bronchitis?

The plan called for some strength training exercises, which I was mostly good about doing. I also found that doing taekwondo 2-3 times a week really helped my running — it improved my core strength and balance, as well as my overall strength and mental toughness, and likely kept me injury-free. Plus there is nothing more therapeutic than taking out your aggressions on a punching bag!

I felt like I ran slower this cycle, but looking back on my long runs, they were on par pace-wise with those in my last training cycle. I did do my easier runs at a much easier pace than I normally do, which was probably the right decision, since I tend to go out too fast and too hard on easy runs.

Finally, this was my second time training with a virtual group, and I have to say that this was the best part of my experience. I’ve made some friends through these groups, and am hoping to meet up with a few fellow group members this coming weekend! It’s inspiring to read others’ race reports, and helpful to commiserate with others who are slogging through the same training runs while juggling work, family, kids, and the rest of the shenanigans life throws at you. I’m so very grateful for this online community. And I’m so very grateful for my family, who have always supported my crazy training cycles and who encouraged me to try 2 marathons this year when I was debating doing so.

I have no idea what this weekend will bring. I deliberately did not train with a time goal in mind knowing that the weather in June in Duluth can be quite variable. But I know that I’m ready, I’m well-trained, and I can’t wait to see what marathon #3 has in store for me!

* Technically it’s still spring!

** I wisely aborted that run 2 miles in. Too dangerous!

*** The plan called for 5 days/week of running. I dropped 1 day per week (the easiest run/shortest mileage) because I didn’t want to risk injury or burnout.