Introducing CS 1 students to algorithmic bias via the Ethical Engine lab

There’s a lot of recent interest around the ethics of technology. From recent popular press books like Algorithms of OppressionAutomating Inequality, and Technically Wrong*, to news stories about algorithmic bias, it seems like everyone is grappling with the ethical impacts of technology. In the computer science education community, we’re having our own discussions (and have been for some time, although there seems to be an uptick in interest there) on where ethics “belongs” in the curriculum, and how we can incorporate ethics across the curriculum — including in introductory courses.

One initiative aimed at touching on ethical issues in CS 1 particularly caught my attention. In July 2017, Evan Peck, at Bucknell University, posted about a programming project he and Gabbi LaBorwit developed based on MIT’s Moral Machine, a reworking of the classic Trolley Problem for self-driving cars. This project, the Ethical Engine, had students design and implement an algorithm for the “brains” of a self-driving car, specifically how the car would react if it could only save its passengers or the pedestrians in the car’s way. After implementing and testing their own algorithms, students audited the algorithms other students in the class designed.

Justin Li at Occidental College built upon this lab, making some changes to the code and formalizing the reflection questions and analysis. He wrote about his experiences here. In particular, Justin’s edits focused more on student self-reflection, having them compare their algorithm’s decisions against their manual decisions and reflecting to what extent their algorithm’s decisions reflected or did not reflect their priorities.

I was intrigued by the idea of this lab, and Justin’s version seemed like it would fit well with Carleton students and with my learning goals for my intro course. I decided to integrate it into my fall term section of intro CS.

Like Evan and Justin, I’ve made my code and lab writeup freely available on GitHub. Here are links to all three code repositories:

Framework

Based on Justin’s and Evan’s writeups, I made several modifications to the code.

  • In the Person class, I added “nonbinary” as a third gender option. I went back and forth for a bit on how I wanted to phrase this option, and whether “nonbinary” captured enough of the nuance without getting us into the weeds, but ultimately decided this would be appropriate enough.
  • Also in the Person class, I removed “homeless” and “criminal” as occupations, since they didn’t really fit in that category, and made them boolean attributes, similar to “pregnant”. Any human could be homeless, but only adults could have the “criminal” attribute associated with them.
  • In the Scenario class, I removed the “crossing is illegal” and “pedestrians are in your lane” messages from the screen output, since in this version of the code these things are always true.

I also made it a bit clearer in the code where the students should make changes and add their implementation of the decision making algorithm they designed.

Execution

I scheduled the lab during Week 8 of our 10 week course, just after completing our unit on writing classes. We take a modified “objects-early” approach at Carleton in CS 1, meaning students use objects of predefined classes starting almost immediately, and learn to write their own classes later in the term. The lab mainly required students to utilize classes written by others, accessing the data and calling upon the methods in these classes, which conceivably they could have done earlier in the term. However, I found that slotting the lab in at this point in the term meant that students had a deeper understanding of the structure of the Person and Scenario classes, and could engage with the classes on a deeper level.

I spread the lab over two class periods, which seemed appropriate in terms of lab length. (In fact, one of the class periods was shortened because I gave a quiz that day, and the majority of the students had not finished the lab by the end of class, which leads me to believe that 2 whole class meeting periods at Carleton, or 140 minutes, would be appropriate for this lab.) As they do in all our class activities, students worked in assigned pairs using pair programming.

On the first day, students made their manual choices and designed their algorithm on paper. To ensure they did this without starting with the code, I required them to show their paper design to either my prefect (course TA) or myself. A few pairs were able to start implementing the code at the end of Day 1. On the second day, students implemented and tested their algorithms, and started working through the lab questions for their writeups. Most groups did not complete the lab in class and had to finish it on their own outside of class.

At the end of the first day, students submitted their manual log files. To complete the lab, students submitted their algorithm implementation, the manual and automatic logs, and a lab writeup.

Observations

Unexpectedly, students struggled the most with figuring out how to access the attributes of individual passengers and pedestrians. I quickly realized this is because I instruct students to access instance variables using accessor and mutator methods, but the code I gave them did not contain accessor/mutator methods. This is a change I plan to make in the code before I use this lab again. I also plan to look a bit more closely at the description of the Person and Scenario classes in the lab, since students sometimes got confused about which attributes belonged to Scenarios and which belonged to Persons.

Students exhibited a clear bias towards younger people, often coding this into their algorithms explicitly. One pair mentioned that while their algorithm explicitly favored younger people over the elderly, in their manual decisions they did “think of our grandmas”, which led to differences in their manual and automatic decisions in some places. A fair number of students in this class came from cultures where elders traditionally hold higher status than in the US, so the fact that this bias appeared so strongly surprised me somewhat. Pregnant women also got a boost in many students’ algorithms, which then had the effect of overfavoring women in the decisions — which many students noted in their writeups. While nearly all pairs explicitly favored humans over pets, a few pairs did give a small boost to dogs over cats, while no one gave any boost to cats. I’m not sure why this class was so biased against cats.

I was impressed by the thoughtfulness and nuance in many of the lab writeups. Most students were able to identify unexpected biases and reason appropriately about them. Many thoughtfully weighed in on differences in their algorithm’s choices versus the choices of their classmates’ algorithms, one pair even going so far as to reason about which type of self-driving car would be more marketable.

In the reflection question about the challenges of programming ethical self-driving cars, many students got hung up on the feasibility of a car “knowing” your gender, age, profession, etc, not to mention the same characteristics of random pedestrians, and being able to utilize these to make a split-second decision about whom to save. This is a fair point, and in the future I’ll do a better job framing this (although to be honest I’m not 100% sure what this will end up looking like).

One of the lab questions asked students to reflect on whether the use of attributes in the decision process is ethical, moral, or fair. Two separate pairs pointed out that the selection of attributes can make the decision fair, but not ethical; one pair pointed out the converse, that a decision could be ethical but not necessarily fair. I was impressed to see this recognition in student answers. Students who favored and used simpler decision making processes also provided some interesting thoughts about the limitations of both “simpler is better” and more nuanced decision-making processes, both of which may show unexpected bias in different ways.

Conclusions and takeaway points

Ten weeks is a very limited time for a course, so for any activity I add or contemplate in any course I teach, I weigh whether the learning outcomes are worth the time spent on the activity. In this case, they are. From a course concept perspective, the lab gave the students additional practice utilizing objects and developing and testing algorithms, using a real-world problem as context. This alone is worth the time spent. But the addition of the ethical analysis portion was also completely worth it. While I have yet to read my evaluations for the course, students informally commented during and after the exercise that they found the lab interesting and thought-provoking, and that it challenged their thinking in ways they did not expect going into an intro course. I worried a bit about students not taking the exercise seriously, and while I think that was true in a few cases, by and large the students engaged seriously with the lab and in discussions with their classmates.

I teach intro again in spring term, and I’m eager to try this lab again. The lab has already sparked some interest among my colleagues, and I’m hoping we can experiment with using this lab more broadly in our intro course sections, as a way to introduce ethics in computing early in our curriculum.

*all of which are excellent books, which you should definitely read if you haven’t done so already!

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Theme for 2019: Foundation

Each year (or at least the years I remember to do so), instead of making resolutions at the start of the year, I pick a theme for the year. I prefer themes to resolutions because themes serve as overarching, guiding principles. They help focus me on what’s important, at least in theory. If an opportunity arises, or I need to make a choice about something, I see if it fits with my theme. If it doesn’t, it’s usually a sign that I need to pass on the opportunity, or make a different choice.

Some of my past themes include “healthy”, in 2017, and “defining”, in 2010.

2018 was a challenging year in many ways. There were some highs — completing my first triathlon and my first open taekwondo tournament, getting accepted to and starting the HERS Institute, teaching Intro again after a long hiatus — but many lows as well — breaking my elbow, and having to cancel our highly-anticipated camping trip; injuring myself AGAIN last month in taekwondo class. As much as I hate to admit it, injury dominated my year. My year was a year of can’ts, of carefuls, of wariness, of modifying. Many times, I felt like I’d be injured forever.

This year, I want to focus on strengthening my core: my core skills, my core values, my resilience in general, and my overall physical strength.

  • Work-wise, 2019 is a transitional year. I’ll be taking on a new and exciting opportunity (more on that in a later post) where I’ll get to learn and practice new skills. But it’s also time consuming. So I’ll need to be clear on my priorities and how I choose to spend my time, to make sure I’m spending it on the right things.
  • From a health perspective, I’d really like to STOP being injured in 2019. To do so, I need to make sure I have a strong base: strong muscles, a strong core, a solid cardio foundation. And I need to be smart about gaining strength and ramping up my cardio. I eat pretty healthfully already, but my body is changing as I age, so making sure the food I eat fuels me well is also important, so that my body can stay in one piece for a change.
  • My kids and my spouse are the most important people in my life, and the ones who usually get the worst of me, the end-of-the-day-I-have-no-reserves-left me. As my kids get older, they need me differently than they did when they were babies and toddlers — bigger kids, bigger problems, as they say. And my spouse and I are like two ships passing in the night lately, which is not really conducive to a healthy marriage. My relationships with them, and my friends, are important to me, and I need to start treating them as such.

So my word for 2019 is FOUNDATION. My focus this year is on building and strengthening my foundation. Clarifying my priorities. Building up my physical strength and health. Focusing on relationships. Acquiring new skills and practicing weaker skills. Preparing myself for future challenges.

Do you have a word or theme for 2019? Please share it in the comments!

A snapshot of (the quickly ending) Fall Term

It’s Week 9 of our 10 week Fall Term, and I am sitting here wondering just where the hell September and October went. Seriously, wasn’t yesterday the start of the term? (Guess I should take “Goals for Fall Term” out of the blog post idea queue, then….)

It’s been a busy fall term, and it feels like I have a lot more on my plate than usual. I chalk this up to a combination of a number of projects currently on my plate plus continuing recovery from my broken elbow this summer. All of it interesting (for varying definitions of “interesting”). So here’s a look at some of what I’ve been up to the past couple of months.

Teaching: Revisiting an Old Favorite Class

I love teaching Intro. I love guiding students through their first (or one of their first) experiences with programming, algorithm design, and algorithmic thinking. I love the pace of the class, the creativity my students bring to the projects and in-class exercises, the material, and even the wide variety of backgrounds and experiences of my students.

I used to teach Intro all the time. But an influx of young ‘uns and visitors and general scheduling oddities meant that I haven’t taught it since Winter 2015. So I was thrilled to see Intro on my schedule twice this year, Fall and Spring term. But also a bit worried: would this be like a new prep for me, given the long-ish layoff?

Complicating matters is that I switched from a textbook I loved, but for which I could no longer justify the hefty price, to a perfectly fine lower cost textbook. Which meant I’d have to rework my reading assignments, at the very least.

The layoff and the textbook switch led me to approach the class as if I hadn’t taught it before. I revisited and revised all of my learning goals. I did a full backwards design of the class. I mapped topics and projects to learning objectives to make sure they still matched and were still relevant. I added a lab on ethics (which I’ll be blogging about in the coming weeks) and replaced the two exams with 5 quizzes (really mini-exams). I committed to using Slack as a communications medium — with, I’ll be honest, a bit of trepidation.

Luckily, the workload has been manageable. I spend a reasonable amount of time prepping (nowhere close to new prep time, but a bit more than “I recently taught this” time). The majority of my class is first year students, which makes for a really neat class dynamic — and I’m really enjoying the mix of personalities. I truly look forward to teaching every MWF and I’m having a good time in the classroom. The Slack experiment is going better than expected — and has been extremely useful for sharing code with students during and after class. All in all, it’s been a most excellent return to the realm of Intro CS!

Research: Papers, Papers, Papers

Being at an undergraduate-only institution means my research collaborators are undergraduate students. And I’ve lucked out in the student department lately. I have two amazing student researchers, both now junior CS majors, who have worked with me since last spring. They designed and ran their own experiment this summer, and even recruited an interviewee, conducting and then transcribing the interview, too! This fall, we’ve concentrated on analyzing the results from the summer experiment, and are using these results to plan out our next set of experiments.

My stretch goal for my students was to have them submit an extended abstract to the student research competition at SIGCSE, since SIGCSE’s in Minneapolis next year. I’m happy to say they met this goal! I have no idea how reviewers will receive our work, but in any case, it was a good experience for my students — and a good opportunity for me to reflect on where the work is now and where we should go next.

My students are working on one aspect of my larger research project, and my goal this fall was to primarily work on that as well. But, I have a rejected conference paper that I’ve been sitting on since last spring, from the other aspect of my project. And I happened to stumble upon a CFP for a conference that’s a pretty good fit for the paper. And the deadline was a bit uncomfortably close, but not impossibly so. So, I was able to revise that paper and get it back out into the review stream. Bonus: revising that paper helped me think through the next stages of that project, and I’ve moved that project back into the rotation. Our upcoming long break between Fall and Winter terms will be the perfect time to get some sustained work on that project completed, and move me towards my next conference paper.

So, I went from maybe 1 paper-ish thing submitted to 2 paper-ish things submitted! Gold star for me.

Career Planning: What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up?

I’ve had the idea in the back of my head that someday, maybe, I’d go into academic administration. Within the past year or so, I decided to explore this path more proactively. I did the scary thing of VERBALIZING TO A DEAN that I was contemplating administration. I applied for a few grants (unsuccessfully) that would have funded some leadership-type projects I’ve been considering. (I’m still working on the projects, just without the funding.) I mentioned my goals in conversation with faculty colleagues from other liberal arts schools at Tapia.

Lately, I’ve taken this up a notch or 5.

First, I was accepted to, and am participating in, the HERS Institute at Wellesley this academic year. The homework, and the activities and sessions at the first weekend in October, have been extremely useful so far. And a bit scary, since some (many?) of them drive me outside my comfort zone. My cohort is full of amazing, inspiring, energetic women — my 60 new colleague best friends. 🙂 I’ve figured out so much about myself, my strengths, my weaknesses, my unstated goals, already! I feel like this experience is preparing me very well for whatever comes next in my career — and has helped me thing more broadly and expansively about the possibilities. The next session is coming up next weekend, and I can’t wait!

Second, and scarier: I put my name forth for consideration for an administrative position at my institution. No matter what the outcome, putting myself forth has helped me think through my priorities, and will be a good experience for figuring out how to pursue opportunities in the future.

Life: Recovery Takes Time, and a Boatload of Medical Appointments

My newest hobby is attending multiple occupational therapy appointments each week, as I continue to rehabilitate my broken elbow. The good news is that the breaks are completely healed, and I’ve been cleared to do whatever I want! I’ve worked my way slowly back to running, and on Monday I ran 30 minutes nonstop. Which doesn’t seem like much given I’m a 3-time marathoner, but was a huge milestone after months of “just” walking or walk/running to avoid jostling my elbow too much. I can now fully participate in taekwondo, although I still can’t do a full pushup (not even on my knees). But that will come in time. I’ve also started swimming again, and while I need to make a few adjustments to account for my reduced range of motion, swimming has felt good.

The not as good news is that it’s been a long, slow, uncomfortable slog to regain my range of motion and strength. Apparently, elbows are difficult entities. My therapy exercises are uncomfortable and sometimes painful. My progress stalled out for a while (thanks, scar tissue in the elbow!), but I now seem to be moving forward again, thanks to ultrasound and Graston treatments. There is a chance I might need surgery again to clear out the plethora of scar tissue that’s formed in the elbow, but I hope I can avoid that.

I used to scoff when people said they could “feel the weather changing” in their joints. I don’t scoff any more, because this is now my lived experience. I feel old.


Even with everything on my plate, it’s been a manageable term. Sure, some days require some Herculean logistics, and I’ve had to move around my office hours more than I care to admit to accommodate the less-movable OT appointments, but I’ve managed to keep my weekends mostly work-free and my sanity mostly in check. Here’s hoping the end of the term is as manageable as the rest of the term has been (fingers crossed).

 

Life is an adventure. Sometimes, a really sucky adventure.

My mind was racing a million miles a minute as my daughter and I climbed out of the pool at our gym late afternoon on a hot, sunny day 3 weeks ago. Let’s see, I thought, running through my to-do list: pick up my son from daycamp. Feed daughter and get her to taekwondo. Respond to those emails I blew off earlier in the day. Maybe make some muffins from all that zucchini? Oh, and get the rest of the camping gear into the bins in the garage, to prep for our upcoming 3 week trip —

My legs flew out from under me and for a brief moment I was airborne, out of control. “Oh sh*t,” I thought, milliseconds before I hit the concrete deck, hard, elbow first.

I sat there, stunned, for a couple of minutes, trying to process what just happened. Why is there a candy wrapper stuck to my foot? How did I end up halfway into the coned-off section of the deck (which, as it turns out, was coned off because it was slippery)? I should get up. Just need to put weight on my arms —

I can’t move my right arm.

Uh-oh.

With my daughter’s help, somehow I managed to get up off the deck, dry off somewhat, gather our things, leave the gym, pick up my son, drive all of us home, take a quick shower, and drive myself to urgent care.

X-ray of broken radius and ulna.

Why break just one bone when you can break both your radius and your ulna? #goals

With, as it turns out, 2 broken bones in my elbow.

For those of you keeping score at home, this is my second major injury in a year. Last summer, I tore my plantar fascia, and I’d just finished rehabbing and coming back from that injury. Apparently, I am not as bullet-proof as I’d thought.

The camping trip we’d been planning for months? Out. All the outdoorsy and sporty stuff I do daily? Also out. Crafting? I’m right handed, so nope. Work? Sure, but you’ll have to type with just your left hand….

I took up some new hobbies: near-daily doctors’ visits that first week, surgery the following week, more appointments and occupational therapy this week and continuing on into the forseeable future. I have some sweet new hardware in my arm which I’m sure will make me plenty of new TSA friends when I fly now.

Screws in broken elbow.

The start of my transition to cyborg?

Recovery is going well so far. I’m in a brace now instead of a splint, which gives me a lot more freedom of movement. I can walk, as long as I’m on a stable (paved) surface to reduce my risk of falling. I can now, finally, type with 2 hands. I read like a fiend because that’s about all I can do for fun that doesn’t involve the use of 2 hands and/or my right (dominant) hand.

 

 

 

 

Picture of broken elbow in a brace.

Call me RoboProf.

But lots of things are hard. I can’t do much with my right hand/arm, so everything takes me at least twice as long. Showering. Getting dressed. Cooking. Writing by hand. And I get tired really easily — 2 hours of grocery shopping and errands this past weekend left me exhausted. Sleeping is tricky — I wear my brace at night but still have to pad it with pillows to keep it in an acceptable position. I ask for help, a lot. (The other day, I had to ask the cashier at the bagel shop to open my bag of chips for me. Ugh.)

If all goes well, I should be able to start back at some activities in a month, and by the 6 week post-surgery mark I should be able to run, swim, and bike, according to my doctor. Taekwondo is the big question mark right now — I have no idea what the timeline is for that, and that makes me really sad and anxious. I do know that it will be about 3 months before I can put full weight on my elbow again — before I’m totally “back to my self” again.

My last injury cycle taught me patience and acceptance: acceptance of my limits, patience with the slow and steady pace of recovery, acceptance of listening to my body and following its lead. I’ve been trying to keep all of that in mind this time around. Doing what I can, listening to my body, diligently following my therapy regimen. But it’s hard. I’m impatient with the limits of my body. I don’t want to accept another layoff from running/swimming/biking/kayaking/taekwondo, from all the things that keep me sane and bring me joy. I try my best to keep my sense of humor about the situation, but sometimes, in my quieter moments, the anger and frustration bubble up.

While training for and racing my triathlon, I adopted the mantra “Stay positive, stay steady.” It reminded me to stay in the moment, to keep moving forward, and to remember that every state is temporary and that the sucky moments don’t last forever. Perhaps it’s time I brought that mantra out of retirement — it seems fitting for the situation I’m in right now.

Stay positive. Stay steady. Keep moving forward.

 

An academic summer, part 2: fun

In the first post in this series of what my academic summer looks like, I talked about the research aspects of my summer. In today’s post, I’ll talk about some of what I’m doing for fun this summer.

Races and coming back from injury

You may recall that last summer I injured myself while training for a marathon (after running a marathon and then spending a week walking around Disney World). What I thought was a really stubborn case of plantar fasciitis turned out to be a partially (50%) torn plantar fascia. Which required a PRP injection and almost 3 weeks in a boot, plus more physical therapy and a slooooooow return to running.

Because I know myself, and because I am goal-oriented, I decided that I should have something to train for as I recovered. Something that would keep me motivated to push myself. Something, perhaps, out of my comfort zone.

Why not a sprint triathlon, I thought?

I started training in March. (For those unfamiliar: sprint = half mile swim, 15-20 mile bike, 3-4 mile run, typically.) My goal race was June 16, and I also planned to do an indoor triathlon (10 minute swim, 30 minutes on the spin bike, 20 minute treadmill run) just for fun and for training.

Well. The indoor triathlon (INDOOR TRIATHLON!!) was canceled due to SNOW. And the June 16 race was canceled due to thunderstorms — after the first 5 waves were in the water. (Luckily I was in a later wave and had not started yet. One of the advantages of being a woman of a certain age, I guess!) But the third time was indeed the charm, and last Sunday I finally completed my first sprint triathlon.

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Waiting for my wave to start, with part of my cheer squad.

While the race itself was fun (except for the panic attack I suffered in the water — eek! This coming from a former lifeguard and swim instructor. Luckily I was able to summon enough mental strength to talk myself through the swim and not give up, like I really wanted to at that moment), and while I’m glad I had the experience, I didn’t like it enough to make it a regular thing. So I’m pretty sure I’m one and done with triathlons. Still, it’s something I’ve always wanted to try (tri? ha ha ha), and now I can say I’ve done it. One more thing off the bucket list!

I did find that I really enjoyed the mix of sports that triathlon training required. I’m a more confident and stronger cyclist, and even a stronger swimmer. And my running is improving as a result of all the cross-training, too. So my plan is to continue mixing up my workouts with swims, runs, and bike rides. I want to start trail running again. I want to do some mountain biking (something I was afraid to do while training, in case I injured myself). I want to throw some kayaking in there, too. Basically I just want to play outdoors!

As far as getting back into more serious running? I think I’m at least a year out from training for another marathon, but I’m thinking maybe a 10K is on my near-ish horizon….

Friday funday

Maybe 4 or 5 years ago, I realized that working 5 days a week in the summer was (a) not necessary and (b) not allowing me to recover sufficiently from the academic year. So I started taking Fridays off, or at least mostly off (maybe just working for an hour or two in the morning). Some summers, I kept my kids home most of those Fridays, so that we could have adventures together, or just hang out at the pool or beach. This summer, it was easier to put my son in the school district’s summer program 5 days a week (and the predictability of the schedule is better for his ADHD), and my daughter is mostly home but mostly doing her own thing. So I have my June and July Fridays, with just a couple of exceptions, free to do whatever I want! I’m looking forward to spending my Fridays exploring the area on my bike or kayak, working on crafting projects, and (when my daughter allows it, ha ha) hanging out with my daughter, before she heads off to middle school in the fall.

To be honest, though, so far my Fridays have consisted mostly of running errands. Boo. Time for that to change!

Taking time off

In addition to taking most Fridays off, I take a longer break in August. August is usually when we vacation as a family, and when we do I take a tech break. No email, no Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and no TV. Just time together as family, in nature. I look forward to this tech break so much every year!

We also give the kids a break from summer camps and programs in August — they are home during the day with me. Both kids are now old enough to entertain themselves, which allows me to get a few hours of work in each day and still leaves plenty of time for hanging out and having adventures together.

I may even attempt to take the kiddos camping by myself this year, something I’ve never done but have wanted to try. We’ll camp a few times this summer as a family, and camping is usually the focus of our vacation, but I think camping on my own with the kids would be a fun challenge for all of us!


As a junior faculty member, I was reluctant to prioritize non-work pursuits in the summer. As a senior faculty member, I recognize that taking time off and taking the foot off the accelerator is necessary for my productivity and my mental well-being. For me, taking time off needs to include active pursuits, preferably in nature, and spending as much time as possible outdoors. In that respect, my summer is off to a pretty good start, and I look forward to continuing that positive trend!

In my next post, I’ll talk a bit about my work centering around allyship and mentoring, and my reflections on how I can be more effective at each.

An academic summer, part 1: Research

June is here. Spring term is (finally, mercifully) over. And, if the questions I’m getting are any indication, the thoughts of the friends, neighbors, and acquaintances of faculty turn to one thing:

“So, do you have the summer off?”

I’ve been getting so many variations of this question lately that I decided I should write a post, describing what this academic is doing this summer. (Hint: It definitely does NOT involve having the summer off!) But as I thought about what I wanted to include in such a post, I realized that I had a potentially rather long post on my hands.

So, over the next couple of weeks I’ll be posting what my academic summer, this year, looks like. In this post, I’ll tackle what I and my students are doing research-wise. In subsequent posts, I’ll talk about what I’m doing for fun, rethinking how I perform mentoring and allyship, curricular projects, and, finally, what I’m specifically choosing not to do this summer.

Research

Faithful readers of this blog may recall that my current project, Self-Healing Home Computer Networks, has two pieces to it: part mathematical, part social science.

The social science piece: where are the participants? and a new experiment

My main focus this summer is on the social science part of the project. The goal of this piece of the project is to deduce the language/terminology and troubleshooting strategies that non-technical people use when reasoning about, identifying problems with, and attempting to fix the computer networks within their homes. I’m working with two undergraduates, both brand new to research, on this project.

My original plan was to conduct more interviews (possibly with my students’ help), and to work with my students to code and analyze this data, so that we could start framing out a larger survey to conduct later this year or early next year with a larger participant base. We’ve been doing the latter — my students are learning how to work with qualitative data, and have been instrumental in drilling down deeper into a few of the sub-themes we observed on a first cursory pass through the transcripts.

However, the former is proving to be more challenging than I anticipated — I am struggling to recruit participants! I’ve done mostly offline and email blast friends and neighbors recruiting, and some flyering, with little success. I’m trying to revamp my recruiting protocol and seeing what’s possible in terms of online recruiting. While this is frustrating, it’s actually been a good learning experience for me and my students, showcasing the difficulty of conducting qualitative research.

(Shameless plug: if you are reading this and happen to either be in the south metro area of the Twin Cities, or know someone who is, and either would like to participate or knows someone who might like to participate, please contact me! I appreciate any help or leads I can get!)

My students started working with me during spring term, reading the relevant background literature and learning how to do qualitative research. Toward the end of spring term, we kicked around the idea of conducting a related experiment, simultaneously with the interview study: a card sort, using the terminology we’ve collected so far in the interviews. This has become the students’ main focus this summer. The students came up with other sources from which to extract potential terminology, and we have the framework of the experiment set up. We’re now refining the experiment as well as our IRB protocol, and trying to figure out our potential subject pool. Hopefully we’ll get to launch our experiment in a couple of weeks!

The mathematical piece: Where does this fit?

After the resounding and unfairly mean rejection of my workshop paper, I largely put that part of the project aside, partly to cool my anger and partly to concentrate on the other half of the project. My ego has (mostly) recovered, and so I’m spending some of my research brain cycles figuring out where to send this work out next.

I’ve framed this paper as a quality of experience management paper, with little success. So I am now trying to figure out how to reframe it. My instincts tell me that IoT (Internet of Things) management might be a better fit, so that’s where I’m concentrating my energies right now. I’m less familiar with the IoT conference/workshop space, and IoT is a pretty broad subfield, so identifying appropriate venues has proved challenging thus far. I think I need to figure out who in my professional network is working in the IoT space, and pick their brains for advice.

Mentoring students

Today I realized that I have not worked with students over the summer since the summer of 2014! For me, that’s an extraordinarily long hiatus. I worried that my research mentoring skills would be a bit rusty. Luckily, the two students that I hired make my job easy-peasy. They may be brand new to research, but they are SHARP and pick things up quickly. I’m actually having trouble keeping up with the pace they’re setting! They are eager to learn, and keep asking me what they should be reading. They have great ideas and keen insights.

As expected, they are not quite yet completely comfortable with failure or the uncertainty involved in doing academic research, but we’ve had some good conversations already about how to live with that discomfort.

One logistical piece I worried about before the start of the summer: my students’ lab is in a building all the way across campus from my office. Granted, my campus is small, and “all the way across campus” = a 10 minute walk. Still, it poses a challenge. In previous summers, my office was down the hall from the lab. Students could run down the hall to ask questions, and I could run down to the lab to help them troubleshoot/debug a problem, sketch out a design, etc. How do you replicate this kind of atmosphere with the physical distance? The solution we’ve found, which is working so far: longer lab meetings (usually an hour) mid-morning, and Slack for questions/discussions between meetings. While this hasn’t happened yet, if a question/discussion indicates that this would be better hashed out face-to-face, I’ll either run over to the lab or have the students come to my office.


We’re only in Week 2 of the summer, but I’m already excited about the direction my research is taking. I know that the work my students and I do this summer will set up a strong foundation for me (and maybe them and other students) to continue during the academic year — and that excites me, too.

Dealing with a professional slump

"Fail" stampIf academic years had themes, then the theme for this academic year would be The Year of Failure.

Coming off of sabbatical, my plan for the year was get things out of the pipeline and into submission. I am working on three different projects currently: two research, and one curricular. The research projects I described last year in this post. The curricular project is a major undertaking related to continuing civic engagement projects beyond the lifetime of courses that I’m hoping to pilot next academic year. One of the research projects and the curricular project reached the point where it made sense to send them out into the world for review. So that’s what I did. The curricular project went out for review first for a fellowship, and then for a regional grant. I submitted the research project to a workshop where I thought it had decent odds for acceptance.

Everything has been summarily rejected. And in the case of the workshop paper, unnecessarily meanly rejected.

Rejection is hard. I have a fairly thick skin when it comes to criticism about my work. But the timing of these rejections, one after the other, and the spirit of the rejections (the mean reviews, not even making the waitlist for the fellowship), has hit me hard. Additionally, the curricular project is something that I feel very strongly about and invested in personally, that fills a definite need and hole, so the fact that I can’t convince funders of this fact is extra frustrating to me.

I half-jokingly asked my friends, “are ALL of my ideas REALLY that bad?” But that pretty much described my mental state late last week, when the workshop paper rejection came in. Usually, if something in one area of my professional life is not going well, I can fall back on a different project that is going better. It’s difficult to deal with the situation where everything is failing, all at once.

I’ve been through professional slumps many times before, so I know that these things are cyclical. I know this means I have not yet found the right way to tell the story of my work to outside critics, that I have not made them care about the importance of solving these problems, or the validity of my proposed solutions. I know that eventually, I will figure out a way to frame these stories in more compelling ways. And I know that negative feedback makes my work stronger. Usually. (But still, there is no reason to make hurtful comments in a review. You can disagree with someone’s premise or approach or results and do so politely and kindly, without name-calling and insults.)

I also have the privilege of tenure, and of being a full professor. If I go through a publishing slump that lasts a few years, nothing bad is going to happen to me. If this curricular project doesn’t get funded, I likely have the professional capital to identify resources at my institution to help me launch the project anyway.

And yet. Part of me still feels, maybe not panicked, but something close. Because there is a schedule that I think I should be publishing on, and I’ve fallen behind that pace. And part of me feels impatient, because I am so excited about these projects that I want to shout my results and plans from the rooftops. I want to share these things with others, now now now! (Patience is not my strong suit. Can you tell?)

So, after a weekend of wallowing in self-pity, I’m returning to action. I’m going to sit on the workshop paper for a few weeks until I figure out what my next move is. In the meantime, after submitting the workshop paper I went back to research project #2 and am making steady progress there, so I will try to move that closer to publication. And today, a day completely free of meetings and classes where I get to work at home, I will spend strategically planning out the steps for the curricular project, to move it forward sans funding.

(And maybe I’ll update my CV of Failures, too.)