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.




The power of the uniform!

I recently listened to a podcast where the hosts talked for a bit about adopting a uniform. The idea behind a uniform is that it takes out some of the decision making we do every morning by reducing the number of options: if we basically wear the same thing every day, there are fewer decisions to make about getting dressed, which means we’re not drawing down our cognitive resources early in the day.

I’ve actually been thinking about this idea lately, although it wasn’t until I heard the podcast that I assigned it the label “uniform”. Since I largely work at home this year, I mostly wear one of two outfits: jeans, a t-shirt, and a cardigan; or leggings and a sweater. There’s a bit more variety in my teaching outfits when I’m not on sabbatical, but I’ve come to realize that I’m most comfortable in a “uniform” of a dress and a cardigan. And on non-teaching days I tend to wear jeans, a nice shirt, and a cardigan. (I guess I love my cardigans!) I’ve been thinking about paring down my wardrobe to the pieces I wear most often and letting go of the rest to reflect the reality of how I dress. (Do I really need 8 pairs of dress pants if I only wear 2 of them on a semi-regular basis?) Of course I haven’t actually done anything about this yet, but the idea intrigues me.

This got me thinking about other “uniforms” I’ve adopted in my life to make my life easier and remove some of the decision fatigue:

  • Breakfast. I go through phases on what I eat for breakfast on weekdays, but I realized that I basically switch between two meals. Right now those are a smoothie; or eggs, avocado, and spinach on toast. Given that mornings are chaotic trying to get myself and the kiddos ready for the day, it really helps to just decide “sweet or savory?” and go from there.
  • Moodle course pages. Moodle (our course management system) can be overwhelming for students and faculty alike (so many boxes! so many links! so many things vying for attention!). About 4-5 years ago I came up with a “template” for my course Moodle pages that I’ve been using ever since. I tweak it a bit every year, but the overall structure remains the same: content boxes in the same places, content each week organized into the same categories, etc. It’s one less thing I have to think about when putting course content together. And if students have taken a class with me before, they (in theory) know where to find everything associated with the class. Now, it would be SOOOOO nice if Moodle actually allowed me to save my “template” so that I didn’t have to re-invent the wheel every class, every term…..
  • Comps (capstone) projects. Next year, all three of the Comps projects I’m supervising are academic civic engagement projects. Even though they involve very different campus/community partners, they all entail the same main tasks and have the same structure. This has made conceptualizing and planning the projects much easier, because I’m doing basically the same tasks, just with three different partners. In theory, this will also make managing the projects easier, because each team will be performing the same tasks, just at different times and in different contexts. Unusually for me, I also have a few project ideas on the back burner for next year — so the existence of this pattern makes it easier for me to generate project ideas, too.

What uniforms have you adopted in your own life? Do you wear a “uniform” in your day-to-day life?

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:STS-133_Astrovan_pre-flight_photo.jpg

Non-academic pursuits during sabbatical, part 3: Playing outdoors

Continuing in the series on “what I’m doing on sabbatical other than work” (parts 1 and 2 here), in today’s post I’ll talk about the athletic stuff I’ve been up to this year.

Physical activity has always been vitally important to my well being. As I’ve discussed on the blog before, it’s a really important strategy for helping me manage my depression and anxiety. It also helps me focus and, many days, is the only time all day I can count on having all to myself. What’s different about physical activity during sabbatical is that I have more flexible time to devote to the activities I love, which allows me to explore them in ways I can’t often do.

I’ll focus on three activities here — two which I do already, and one which I started this year.


running clothes and bib number

Flat Amy the night before the 2016 Twin Cities Marathon.

Long time readers of this blog know that I love to run, especially long distances. I ran my first marathon in 2014 and immediately upon finishing said “I can’t wait to do this again!” I ran marathon #2 last October, which meant that I trained through the summer and the first few weeks of fall, when my schedule was light. While I found the training in 2014 to be manageable enough even with my summer schedule and fall teaching, it was really nice to have a pretty free schedule for this round of training, so that I could, say, do my long runs on weekday mornings and not have to spend a few hours away from my family on a Saturday or Sunday.

I’m currently training for marathon #3, which I’ll run in June. Again, it’s nice to have the freedom to do my long runs during the week, so that I can spend time with the family on the weekends. Training through the winter has been challenging — black ice! strong winds! cold temps! — but thanks to the relative lack of snow, I’ve managed to do most of my training outside and avoided the dreaded treadmill.


One of my favorite nearby trails.

One aspect of running that I’ve really indulged in, taking advantage of my flexible time, is trail running. I am lucky in that I have a number of great trails minutes from my house. Trail running in the fall is one of my absolute favorite things, and I made sure to do quite a bit of it this past fall (after the marathon, of course!).

Mom and daughter trail running.

My occasional running buddy. I introduced her to trail running this year.

My kiddos are starting to catch the running bug, too. My daughter and I have run two 5Ks together, and she’s on my case to run another one together this spring. (She’s between sports right now — basketball just ended and swimming doesn’t start up until April — and wants to run more with me in the interim.) My son asked us to sign him up for track this year, which shocked us since he usually fights us on any attempt at organized sports. It will be fun to see how this goes.

Cross-country skiing

My philosophy about winter is, if you’re going to live in a cold climate, get out there and enjoy it! (And bundle up!) So after living here for about 6 years, I learned to cross-country ski. I started off with classic but eventually switched to skate. Which is hard and frustrating but fun and beautiful all at the same time.

Unfortunately, we’ve had a string of mild winters so there hasn’t been much snow worth skiing lately. Luckily one of the parks nearby makes their own snow, so this year my better half and I sprung for the “all parks” pass so that we could ski whenever we wanted. (I still didn’t get out as much as I’d hoped, but at least I got out there a few times.) One of these days I’ll get the hang of it enough so that I won’t feel like Drunk Frankenstein while skiing. Maybe.


We signed our son up for taekwondo this fall. He’s not into playing team sports, but we wanted something that would give him some exercise and also help with his focus and self-control. I ended up taking him to class most of the time, and sitting there watching him. It looked like fun. In December, his studio let parents practice for free. (Genius, right?) So I thought, why not? I could sit here and watch, or participate. So I participated.

Mom and son showing off their orange belts.

Newly-minted orange belts!

Well, their marketing ploy worked, and even though I swore up and down I didn’t have time to pick up another hobby, I jumped in. Now my son and I take classes 2-3 days a week together. We’ll earn our yellow belts in May and by mid-August will be camo belts. (And then we’ll start SPARRING in class! Woo hoo!) It’s been a fun and interesting challenge — as much mental as it is physical. I treasure the fact that this is time my son and I get to spend together. I like that I’m modeling behaviors for him like perseverance, dealing with failure, etc. And I like that I get to show young kids that moms/women can be powerful and strong, too!*

Taking part in these activities — particularly the outdoor ones — reminds me of the importance of “getting outside to play”, as I call it. While I’ve always found ways to fit physical activity into my busy schedule (pre-dawn runs, anyone?), it’s been a real treat having the choice to, say, run at mid-morning when the sun is up and it’s a bit warmer, or ski in the afternoon before picking up the kids, or explore new-to-me trails. I’m encouraged to find ways to continue to incorporate these activities into my life after I return from sabbatical next year.

In the final installment of this series, I’ll talk about travel: what I expected, and what actually happened. (Spoiler alert: even with flexible time, when you have young kids at home traveling is hard.)

*For most of the time I’ve been practicing, I’ve been the only mom in my class. But recently, two other moms have started coming to classes. I don’t know if seeing me practice influenced their decisions at all, but it’s nice to have more adult women in the class.