Growing pains and trust

My first year in my administrative role as STEM Director was all about figuring out what the hell I’m supposed to be doing. My second year, thus far, has been all about growing pains.

I won’t go into too many details, because the situations themselves are not all that important to the story. In a couple of cases, I angered some colleagues and likely alienated a few others through decisions I made independently — decisions on which I should have sought broader input. In another case, I learned that several other groups within STEM were independently planning an event that I, with a few others, was also planning.

I’ve spent a lot of time this year feeling frustrated. Not at the people involved, whose intentions were good in the latter case and who trusted me enough to give me tough feedback in the former case. (Something I don’t take lightly at all!) But moreso at the situations themselves. Didn’t we, as STEM departments and programs, work hard to put this particular leadership structure of a director and a board in place, because we saw a need for this leadership structure? If that’s the case, then why aren’t departments, programs, and individuals utilizing this structure? Why are departments and programs continuing to act independently on initiatives that could benefit all of STEM at Carleton, and do what I see as unnecessary work, when if we work together through the board we can do so much more?

And then I realized that I’ve been asking myself the wrong questions. The question I should have been asking is this:

How have we failed to establish the trust of the STEM community at Carleton in this new system we put into place?

This particular leadership structure is just over 2 years old. Departments and programs developed habits and systems to work independently, in the absence of habits and systems of working collectively (at least in an organized way), over YEARS. We’d worked together on some initiatives in the past, with shaky alliances. Why now should we magically expect that departments would abandon these habits when we hadn’t yet proved that this system was something they could rely on, that could help them in myriad ways?

I’d forgotten a fundamental lesson from my time at the HERS Institute: The first and most crucial step for a leader is to establish trust.

I’ve been reflecting since then on how to build trust, now that I understand that’s my MAIN role in these early years of the STEM Directorship. There are many paths to building trust, but there are five that I think are most important:

  1. Transparency. My personality is such that I’m not comfortable sharing ideas that I haven’t thought out. I need time to plan before I can share. But this can backfire if I go too far down the planning road before sharing my plans with others. I need to get more comfortable letting people in on earlier stages. And I need to figure out when it’s ok to share a half-baked idea (“we’d like to bring X to campus, but are not sure if we can make it happen”) and when I should flesh things out more carefully before sharing them. In a similar vein:
  2. Delegation. People want to help! My job is NOT to come up with all of the ideas. (Big thanks to the STEM Program Manager, who reminds me of this at least once a week in an attempt to save me from myself.) My job is to put the structure in place that ENABLES others to bring their ideas to life. This is the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my missteps. Delegation also demonstrates trust in others — I trust you to help realize this vision, bring this initiative to life, share ideas that matter, etc. This leads to:
  3. Empowerment. I need to empower the STEM Board as a whole, and STEM Board representatives in particular, to be agents of change. In the past, board meetings served as a way to share information and perspective from departments and send information back to departments. While this is valuable, it’s too transactional and not transformational. This year, I’ve assigned all of the reps into working groups based on interests, and each group is working on specific and self-defined initiatives related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM at Carleton. These groups are moving us much more quickly from vague ideas of “we would like to make STEM more inclusive and equitable at Carleton” to “here are specific ways in which we will move the needle”, than we would have done otherwise.
  4. Wins. A big part of building trust lies in demonstrating through your actions that you are trustworthy. For the STEM Board, this means putting on successful events and taking concrete actions towards things that matter. For me, this means soliciting input and feedback from others, and then acting on this input and feedback. This one’s still very much a work in progress, but an improving work in progress.
  5. Messaging. Not only do I have to develop trust in this new structure, but as the first full-term director, I need to help the STEM Board develop its identity. Who are we and what do we stand for? What are our priorities and ways of working? The more I can help establish a STEM Board identity, the more smoothly my successor can transition into this role and move STEM at Carleton in new directions.

This is the first time in my career that I’ve had to work hard to establish trust on this large of a scale. At times it’s deeply uncomfortable, requiring me to act in ways that don’t come naturally to me. (See: delegation.) And part of me wishes that I’d figured this out sooner — how much more smoothly might the first year have gone if I’d started by establishing trust? I can’t change the past, but I can start laying the groundwork now for my successor, and for the future of the STEM Board.

My HERS experience

(This is the second post in a series of posts on moving into academic leadership. Part one, in which I talk about my move into an academic leadership post next year, is here.)

I perused the brief bios of the 60+ women in my HERS cohort one sunny September afternoon with an increasing feeling of dread. How on earth did I, an unaccomplished hack and imposter, fool the admissions committee so badly?

I was preparing that afternoon for my first of 4 residential weekends at the HERS Institute. The HERS Institute is a leadership program whose purpose is to prepare women for higher education leadership positions, and to increase the number of women in such positions. There are three such offerings each year: 2 residential offerings over the summer, and a year-long one at Wellesley College, which is the one I attended. I’d originally applied to one of the summer offerings, was waitlisted, and then encouraged to apply for the year-long one, where I was accepted. (In retrospect, I think I got way more out of the institute by spreading it out over an academic year, a point I’ll address later on.)

I expected the HERS Institute to give me a taste of what academic leadership was like, to help me figure out if academic leadership was a viable career path for me, and to teach me the tools I’d need to achieve a leadership position and succeed once there. HERS delivered on all fronts. I hate throwing the word “transformative” around, since I think it’s way overused, but in this case “transformative” definitely describes my experience with the institute.

Here, I’ll break down the key aspects of the institute and what I took away from each.

The cohort

While there are many, many aspects of the HERS program I found valuable, perhaps the most valuable were the connections I made with women leaders from other campuses. My HERS cohort ran the spectrum: large schools, tiny schools; public schools, private schools; seasoned leaders, people testing the waters; pretty much every academic discipline represented; extreme extroverts, extreme introverts. The diversity of experiences lent itself to spirited conversations and discussions. You don’t realize how insulated you become at your institution, forgetting that schools that are very different from yours may share more similarities with yours than you think, and that some of your ways of operating might be a little, er, messed up. Perspective is key!

It’s easy for an introvert to get lost in such a large and dynamic group of women. HERS divided us into cohorts in various ways — institution type, current role, career aspirations, etc — and shuffled us among these groups over the course of each weekend (“your table for this session is your similar institution group”, etc). I felt a palpable sense of relief when I walked in, heart pounding, that first morning to find myself at a small table of 5 women from small undergraduate institutions, and warmly greeted by a fellow scientist from the midwest. I especially looked forward to the times we spent in our “similar roles” cohort, a quirky mix of personalities that managed to find the humor in even the toughest conversations.

Now, when I’m facing a tough situation at work, I often think back to “what would So-and-So do in this situation? didn’t Person X deal with something like this and talk about it in our group?” I go back to my notes to see who else is working on a project similar to mine. I keep in touch with my 60+ new friends on Facebook and our listserv, providing insights and advice, congratulating people on new positions, and asking for help. I value these connections and relationships greatly and look forward to continuing to cultivate them for years to come.

The curriculum

The HERS curriculum is roughly equal parts personal and institutional. Each Institute has a theme (ours was “People of Power and the Power of People”) and each weekend had a particular focus (examples: communication, leading through change, critical higher ed topics, career paths). We heard from experts, worked through exercises and case studies, spent time in self-reflection, talked in small groups, and talked in larger groups. We learned about leadership models and change frameworks. I now feel competent enough to read and interpret financial statements. We grappled with how to have difficult and crucial conversations, about social justice and race and difference and Title IX, about inclusivity and who has a voice. I left with a better appreciation for and understanding of enrollment management and athletics and how each contributes to and reflects the mission of the institution.

We had homework before each weekend — targeted readings and some kind of individual work (a worksheet, a reflective exercise, an assessment). I still refer back to the readings on a regular basis. Our big, multi-month homework assignment was to interview all of the senior officers on our campuses (president, deans, CFO, directors of admissions and development, etc) to discover what our institution’s “story” is, and report out on that. Truth be told, I DREADED this assignment, but found it one of the most fascinating and enjoyable parts of my experience. The senior officers were so generous with their time, candid with their thoughts, and honest about our institution’s strengths and weaknesses. It was a true gift to converse with them, and I have a much better understanding of our institution as a result — and feel much better equipped to step into the leadership fabric of the institution.

Higher education institutions and the issues they face are large, complex, and many-faceted. The curriculum gave me the tools to navigate this landscape. I’ve already used specifics from readings and case studies in my own work. The curriculum also helped me get clear on my own priorities and values, which will center the way I lead. (Interestingly, I’m working my way through Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead right now, and it definitely complements the personal work I did at HERS.) Most importantly, it’s equipped me to be a better observer and participant at my own institution, to ask better questions, and to connect the dots more easily (“oh, THAT’s why that senior leader responded in that way to that comment.”).

Going into HERS, I worried about the distributed structure, spread over months. Would I become detached as life intervened between weekends? In retrospect, spreading this over the year allowed me valuable time to reflect on, and process, the material, and integrate it immediately into my work. I could try out and try on frameworks and practices to see if they fit, figuring out how best to modify things for my situation and values. This was especially important coming out of one of the tougher weekends, where it seemed like every topic and discussion was weighty and difficult — the space was vital to process the conversations, read further and deeper on the underlying issues, and clarify my principles. The “small intense doses” version of HERS worked well for me!

The practice: Leadership project

The HERS Institute has its own capstone project: a self-defined “leadership project” that addresses some need at your institution. The leadership project proposal is part of the application process. The project itself is fairly open-ended, acknowledging that all institutions and situations are unique and changing — participants have quite a bit of leverage in defining the project’s scope and deliverables, and the project can morph over time. While much of the work on this project occurs outside the institute, we did have a few sessions about the projects specifically, and a “similar projects” cohort. Also, it was expected that as you encounter more of the curriculum, you incorporate that into your project where applicable.

Originally, I proposed a project I’ve been working on for a while behind the scenes as my capstone: launching a program involving students in academic civic engagement projects, for academic credit, outside of specific courses, with a computer science aspect. For instance, this could be maintaining and growing projects that came out of a specific course or capstone, or working on projects that don’t neatly fit into a particular course or a ten-week span. When I was selected as the new STEM Director, I shelved my original capstone so that I could work on something more directly related to the role I’ve stepped into. My new project examined ways to build community within our new science complex as we move into the new space over the next year.

The cohort proved valuable in helping me flesh out some of the fuzzier aspects of my original project, particularly around assessment and getting buy-in, and in thinking through my even fuzzier revised project. The project(s) required me to think strategically on many levels, thinking big picture while also getting into the weeds on how I was actually going to do these things. Applying concepts and readings and learnings as I got deeper into the project and the institute really brought the curriculum to life, and brought more clarity to my project and its goals. It was, and still is, difficult and challenging work, but intellectually and personally fulfilling.

Final thoughts

I highly, highly recommend this experience to anyone who’s found themselves in a position of leadership or who’s seriously thinking about taking a leadership path. And not just the traditional department chair/dean path — if you’re directing a program, leading an initiative or important committee, or in any sort of visible and influential role, you’ll find a home in HERS. In addition to the tangible advantages I’ve discussed above, it’s really changed how I approach every aspect of my job, from teaching to scholarship to mentoring, and gotten me clear on who I am and what I stand for.

If you’re thinking about applying, this page has more info. I’m also more than happy to talk about it/answer questions, so shoot me an email (adalal at carleton dot edu).

Thoughts on moving into academic leadership, part 1

I’ve alluded to a significant change in my work life in my posts for a few months now. I’ve shared the news with those who know me in real life (which, for all I know, is the entire readership of this blog anyway, ha ha), but I’ve been a bit quiet about it on the blog, because I wanted to do a full post about my thoughts behind this transition and not just drop the news.

Starting next year, I will be Director of STEM at Carleton.

This is a 3 year, essentially half-time administrative position. This means that except for next year, I will teach 3 courses instead of 5. (Due to complicated staffing/leave issues in my department, I’m taking one for the team next year and teaching 4 courses.) Teaching-wise, this isn’t a huge change for me, since I’ve been in various positions with course releases continuously since 2013. And in 2012 I had a term of parental leave, so it’s been a looooong time since I’ve taught 5 courses in a year.

This position is brand new as of this year (we have an acting director now). The position codifies a reality we’ve faced for a while: the sciences don’t exist in a bubble. We share resources: grant initiatives, student research funds, classroom space. We have similar agendas, and face similar issues around student achievement and career readiness and broadening participation. We do research that crosses disciplinary boundaries. We want our students to contribute in positive ways to the campus, local, state, national, and global communities via academic civic engagement. And starting this coming fall, we will all share a new science facility.

This last piece — the new science facility — is the catalyst for the change. Moving into a new physical space presents a golden opportunity to rethink and reimagine our relationships to each other, as departments and programs, as people, as disciplines, as scholars and teachers. The new facility was designed for collaboration and sharing; how can we ensure that we all have a collaborative and sharing mindset?

To that end, a handful of us met last year to work through different models of coordination among the sciences. How could each department and program’s voices be represented? Who should, and how should they, coordinate the shared resources, ideas, and initiatives? How should we develop a vision for the future of the sciences at Carleton, and who should direct and guide that vision, and represent it to the dean (who ultimately makes the decisions)? We developed a couple of models and put them up to a vote among the science faculty and staff. The model that “won” features a representative board of science faculty and staff from each department and program, a staff person to serve as program manager for the day-to-day details (whom we are currently hiring), and a faculty member to serve as the director or “vision point person” for the whole enterprise, working with the dean and the program manager and the board to make this vision a reality.

When the call went out for the STEM Director position, I’d just started participating in the HERS Institute, a leadership program whose goal is to get more senior women into administrative roles within academia. I’d been contemplating a move to administration for some time and because of my HERS participation, I’d started to think about what a good first move in this direction might look like. The part-time nature of the STEM Director position appealed to me as a way to “try out” academic administration, in a space that also allows me to think about things I’m passionate about, like interdisciplinarity, broadening participation, inclusion, student/faculty collaborations, and academic civic engagement, on a larger scale. So I put my name in for consideration….and the rest is history.

I’ve been sitting in on the STEM board meetings this term, to get a sense of how the board operates. At this week’s meeting, we’ll be setting an agenda for next year. I’m excited to hear what the board feels our priorities should be, and eager to have some time this summer to reflect on how to help bring those to fruition. The dean, present director, and I have started brainstorming about public, creative ways to introduce the new space to the community, as well as how to start off with communal and community-building events among the sciences. My HERS leadership project (more on that in my next post!) examined ways to build community in the new space in ways that are welcoming, inclusive, and thoughtful, and how this might extend to other collaborations beyond those in physical space.

I’m excited, and more than a bit nervous, about some of the challenges I’ll be facing. New buildings bring new, unforeseen problems, and while half of the sciences are moving into the space in the fall, construction continues in the rest of the space. How do we navigate around the physical limitations of the building? And how do we ensure that our community building welcomes all of the sciences, including the ones not physically in the building until the following year? The fact that this is a brand new position also brings challenges: we’ve outlined, to the best of our abilities, what the position entails, but what does it really entail? What are the unwritten rules and expectations? What did we forget to anticipate? I’ll get to shape this role as I occupy it, and that’s both exciting and terrifying. On a personal note, what will happen to the research I’m doing with my student collaborators, and my work on academic civic engagement in CS? I’ll have to figure out how I can carve out space for those, and what that looks like over the next few years.

In my next post (Part 2 of this special mini-series on academic leadership), I’ll talk more about my HERS Institute participation and what lessons I’m taking from that as I move into this role.

I survived

Paper chain link The paper chain link shown on the left represents the end of a long, difficult, stressful 6 months.

In my last post, I talked about how I made this paper chain as a way of both coping with my stress and reminding myself that this really tough period in my life was finite. At the time, the chain had 44 links, one for each day until the last day of classes winter term. As I write this (Tuesday evening), the last day of classes for winter term is tomorrow (Wednesday). After tomorrow, the next time I will teach a regular class will be September 2017 (!) — due to a combination of a teaching-free term this spring (though I’ll still have my chair/administrative and research duties, and probably a couple of independent studies) and a sabbatical for the entire 2016-17 academic year.

In retrospect, I probably could have more easily handled just one term of what I’m calling “extreme teaching” (2.5 courses), than two terms in a row.* Around week 7 of winter term, I reached the point where I was so mentally exhausted that I couldn’t imagine being able to put together another class plan, write another test question, deal with another set of office hours, talk to another student. (Granted, that week we also had 2 job candidates on campus, so that may also have sped up the mental exhaustion.) I really had to push hard to stay minimally on top of things. The chain was really helpful that week for maintaining perspective on the situation. Leaving town for SIGCSE last week also helped, as it gave me some much-needed physical and mental distance from campus. But overall, it was a tough slog.

I do try to learn something from every situation I’m in, no matter how good or bad, and I certainly learned some valuable things from this extreme teaching experiment:

  • Sleep matters. Oh, does it matter. A few weeks into fall term, I decided that I was going to prioritize getting 7 hours of sleep per night, even if this meant that things weren’t going to get done. (Those of you who know me in real life know that this is a HUGE mindset shift for me.) Getting 7 hours of sleep, I believe, kept me sane, and it made me more productive and focused.
  • Teaching 2.5 classes effectively while also chairing a tenure-track job search and a department is pretty much impossible. My saving grace was that I’d taught my two “regular” classes multiple times in the past (and one of them this past fall), so I had a pool of resources from which to draw. I also made a conscious decision to change very little about either class—this was not the time to innovate!
  • Protecting junior faculty is a noble goal, but should not come at the expense of my own health and well-being.
  • Being honest with students often pays off. I was up front with my classes about my crazy schedule this term. I was also up front with my Software Design class about the things I was learning alongside them (because I didn’t end up having as much time between fall and winter terms to learn a couple of new packages/tools that they were using this term). Now, the reason I can get away with this is because I am old a senior member of my department, and carry a bit more authority in the students’ eyes. I could never have done this while a junior faculty (and certainly not as the only woman in the department as I was back then). The one downside is that I think sometimes students were reluctant to come to office hours for fear of “disturbing” me, so if I had to do this again (please, dear god, no), I’d be more explicit about office hours being for THEM.
  • Things may not get done on my perfectionist schedule, but if I keep plugging away they will eventually get done.
  • Many deadlines are more fungible than you think. Also, if you have a track record of being highly dependable, people are more willing to cut you some slack if you need it. I am so grateful for the people who recognized I was struggling and gave me extra time to get things done/in.
  • The self-care experiment worked. I didn’t always do what was written on the paper link, but if I didn’t, I improvised with something else. For instance, if the link said to mediate for 5 minutes but I knew I’d be too tired/busy to do so, I’d take the “scenic” walk back from my classroom building to my office so that I’d get some extra thinking/outdoors time instead. I ended up doing something for myself every day.

Spring term will come with some challenges of its own (including trying to hire a visiting faculty member in a really tough job market!), but I am looking forward to having time to work on outside-the-classroom projects that have been on my list for a while and, more importantly, time to think and reflect in general. While I don’t think I’ll be making any more paper chains in the near future, I do plan to continue to incorporate some regular self-care into my life. And while I wish I hadn’t been quite so busy these past six months, overall I really enjoyed the work I was doing and all of the fabulous students I had the pleasure to teach these past two terms—and many days, that alone was enough to keep me going.

* The normal teaching load at my institution is 5 courses per year (2-1-2 or some similar combination). As department chair, I get a course release, so my load is 4 courses per year. This year, that was supposed to be distributed as 1.5-2.5-0 over fall-winter-spring. But when we failed to hire enough visiting faculty, I deferred my course release to a future year to teach an overload in the fall (so we wouldn’t have to cancel a crucial core course for the major). Hence the 2.5-2.5-0 “extreme teaching” load.

Reflections on my first year as department chair

Yesterday marked my one year anniversary of becoming department chair. (I celebrated by driving my kids around to various appointments all afternoon and making about 1,000 rainbow loom bracelets with my daughter. Ah, the exciting life of a working mom.) While the first year went quickly, I won’t lie: there were times when I wasn’t sure I was going to survive the year, or not come into work sleep deprived yet again. As with everything in life, there have been good parts and bad parts, and I thought it would be useful to reflect and summarize how my first year went.

The good

Being in this position has reminded me that I work at a truly terrific institution, with thoughtful and creative colleagues and a supportive administration. We’ve dealt with some tricky issues as a department this year, and the conversations around them have been thoughtful and considerate. We listen to each other even when we disagree with each other. I’m so grateful to work in such a highly functioning environment with colleagues that I both like and respect, and in many ways they have made my job so much easier this year.

While there is a lot of truth to the observation that being in charge of faculty in any capacity is like herding cats, I have actually been able to “be the change I want to see” in my department. For a long time, I’ve had a vision for the department’s environment, the way we present ourselves, and the way we carry out our business, and I’ve been able to start implementing parts of that vision this year, with some early successes. I’m grateful that my colleagues are on board, but it’s also thrilling to know that I can actually cause change in our department and that I can influence our environment and policies.

On a related note, I enjoy that I’m in a position that allows me to think more long-term about the success of the department, and to direct how we have those long-term conversations. Being chair allows me to set the priorities of the department—in consultation with my colleagues, of course!—and to direct our collective attention. Every time I craft a department meeting agenda, I get to engage in this type of thinking: how do we balance the things that need immediate attention with the things we need to discuss for the long-term health of the department? It’s a different type of creativity.

Finally, I’m a problem solver at heart, and this job involves a lot of problem solving. Sometimes I have to think quickly on my feet, and sometimes I get the luxury of taking a step back and weighing the different options. I enjoy the challenge of both types of problem solving, and the satisfaction of finding a solution that, if not everyone is happy with, at least everyone can live with.

The bad

Workload. Workload workload workload. There’s only so much I can delegate, and even with judicious delegating, the workload still felt oppressive at times. There’s always some paperwork that needs my attention, or some task that needs to be done, or a budget item that needs to be reviewed, or a question/issue from a student or colleague. It. Never. Ends.

My time is no longer my own. In an ideal world, I’d start my day with my office door closed, working on research or doing some last-minute class prep, for an hour or so, before even opening my email. In the real world, I check my email first thing because there’s usually something I have to deal with Right Now (or more commonly, 5 Minutes Ago).  My research in particular has taken a huge hit as a result, but there were some days that I’d go into class less prepared than I’m comfortable with because something came up at the last minute.

Relatedly, running a search is a major time suck. Everyone in the department is busy during hiring season, especially in a small department like ours where all tenure-track faculty and all staff participate in the process. But traditionally in our department, department chair = search chair, and the search chair’s load is at least 5x everyone else’s load (save for the admin). And calling perfectly wonderful people to let them know they are no longer under consideration for our position? Well that sucks about as much as you can imagine. (That said, making the call to invite someone to campus or offer them the position, and getting to meet our short list via Skype interviews? That stuff is fun!)

The learning curve? Steep. Very steep. I’m hoping some stuff that seemed to take me forever this year will take me less time next year, since I’ll have done it already, but there’s so much I don’t know that I spend a lot of time learning, and looking things up, and hunting things down, and calling people when all else fails.

Finally, having to hold people accountable is difficult. I’m a pretty dependable person, and I tend to naively assume that everyone else generally behaves that way too. Not so. I spend more time than I’d care to admit chasing people down for things, many of whom should know better by now. Sometimes I also have to hold people accountable for their less-than-stellar behavior—thankfully, this is fairly uncommon, but let’s just say that sometimes people don’t think of the larger consequences (to the department, to their colleagues or students) before acting, and sometimes I have to be the one to clean up the ensuing mess.

The ugly

Oh come on, you didn’t think I’d actually be able to share the train wrecks, did you? Thankfully, there wasn’t much in the Ugly category, but the stuff there is definitely unbloggable. I will say this: the ugly stuff always came without warning and typically forced me to drop everything and deal with it immediately, and was usually people-related. If there’s a silver lining, this year’s Ugly stuff did highlight some “blind spots” in the way we operate, all of which are fixable, and all of which will be fixed. I’m not so naive to think that this will preclude any more Ugly stuff from happening, but I’m hoping it will lessen the probability of this year’s flavor of Ugly stuff from happening.

***

So there you have it. I survived, I learned a ton…and I need to figure out a way to clone myself. I’m looking forward to the challenges of my second year as chair and hoping that some of it comes easier, or at least is more expected, than this year.

Leading in the midst of tragedy

On Saturday, the Saturday at the end of 8th week of winter term, our computer science seniors gathered to present their Comps (group capstone projects, for those readers outside of Carleton). The day typically has a celebratory feel: this is the culmination of 2 terms of hard work on their part, and this is their chance to present their work to their friends, family, and classmates. The morning started, as it usually does, with a welcome from the CS faculty, which this year I gave.

Except instead of welcoming the students, friends, and family like I normally would, I stood in front of all those gathered, with the rest of the CS faculty at my side, and tried to speak words that would make some sense at all of the tragic events of the day before: the loss of three students, including one of our junior majors, and the serious injuries to two other students.

Someone asked me later what I said. To be honest, I have no idea. The shock and grief were too much. I remember going to the front of the room and picking up a microphone (and then handing it off to one of our seniors when I couldn’t figure out how to turn it on). I remember talking, but not the actual words. I remember asking for a moment of silence. I remember thanking everyone. And the next thing I remember, I was sobbing in the ladies’ room.

Our students carried on admirably, given the circumstances. I think it helped that we were all together that day, as a department, and that we had something else to concentrate on for a while. It helped that we rearranged the schedule so that we could attend the memorial service in the middle of the day. But I’ll admit I was splitting my time between listening to the presentations and figuring out what we, as a department, should do: for our grieving students, for the family of Paxton, for each other.

There is nothing in the chair’s handbook that walks you through what to do as a department when a student passes away. There is nothing in the faculty handbook that indicates what you should do the first class meeting after a tragic event plunges a campus into grief, or how to counsel students who are struggling to make sense of something that makes no sense at all, who are grief-stricken and in shock and maybe feeling even more alone than before. There is nothing in my years of on-the-job experience that remotely prepares me for what I, as a faculty member and as a department chair, am dealing with now.

So I’m figuring things out as I go along. I didn’t plan any special remarks for class—I went with what I was thinking at the moment, and I honestly told my students that I wasn’t sure how to proceed, either, but that I would just try. That we’d be flexible and figure things out together and see where that left us. That it was important to reach out and to keep talking and to use the available campus resources. That I am also a resource that they can lean on, even if I don’t exactly know what I’m doing. That the next days and weeks and months would be sad and hard, but that we are a strong community and that ultimately that will get us through.

This afternoon and this evening, we will gather as a department to remember Paxton especially, but also James and Michael, and send healing thoughts to Will and Connor. It won’t be enough. It won’t be nearly enough. But it’s something, and we’ll figure out the rest as we go along.

Fostering department culture

One of the top things on my mind since taking over as department chair is culture: specifically, department culture. As chair, I set the tone for the department in various ways. I set the tone when I set the agenda for a department meeting or retreat: the topics I select, and the time I choose to devote to each, signals how much of a priority I think they are to the department. I set the tone when I interact with faculty and students, both new and returning. I set the tone when I represent the department at meetings and such, and when I advocate for the department to administrators and other campus offices and constituencies.

I’ve been thinking about this so much lately because the dynamics of our department are changing rapidly. We have a record number of majors (91 juniors and seniors at an institution of 2000 students) and a large number of non-majors who take or want to take our courses. We have two new full-time visiting faculty members and two part-time visiting faculty members to help us meet our course demand, which means we have almost equal numbers of visiting faculty (4) and tenure-track faculty (5). We’re conducting a tenure-track search this year to grow our department. We’re a little more balanced than we have been in terms of rank, with 2 full, 2 associate, and one tenure-track assistant prof, but the visitors definitely skew us younger. And perhaps the most challenging: we’re spread across 3 buildings, one of which is a 7-8 minute walk from the others.*

So what do I see as the main challenges to setting the tone of the department internally?

  • Keeping everyone in the loop. Up until now, we’ve very much had a “hallway conversation” approach to decision-making. That is, a nontrivial number of department decisions, discussions, etc. happened as a result of spontaneous hallway conversations. This model can work okay when everyone’s physically on the same floor in the same building, but assumes that all stakeholders are present. Even last year when most of us were on the same floor, this model didn’t work well because inadvertently someone (usually staff) was left out and wondering what happened. With faculty physically in different places, this model ceases to work at all. I suspect changing this aspect of culture will be one of the most challenging, just because we’ve operated under it for so long that it’s second nature. But as someone traditionally on the outside of the field, I recognize the harm and bad feelings that result from being left out of important conversations, so I’ll be looking at creative ways to make sure everyone stays informed and involved, no matter where their offices are or what their rank is.
  • Mentoring. We have so many young, early career faculty in the department! Most of our visitors likely have a tenure-track position at a similar institution as their long-term goal. Our tenure-track prof will be going up for tenure in a few years. I want to see all of them succeed. I want to make sure all of them have the tools to succeed. I want to make sure our tenure-track prof is doing all the right things to put her in a good position to earn tenure here, and I want to make sure as a department we’re giving her strong, consistent messages and useful, constructive feedback. I want the visitors to make the most of their time here, to learn as much as they can about teaching at an undergraduate institution, and to grow as teachers and scholars so that they put themselves in a great position to get hired on the tenure-track, here or elsewhere.
  • The student experience. It’s unclear exactly why we have such a large uptick in majors and in enrollments generally. I tend to chalk it up to the fact that we, individually and as a department, are just awesome. Seriously, though, I think we as a department offer students interesting, challenging classroom and research experiences; we do a good job of making our courses relevant to students; we are also approachable and fun and genuinely interested in our students. We don’t provide high barriers to entry, and I think that’s key as well, maybe even more important than the rest: we teach the intro students where they are. Can we continue to do this with such high student-to-prof ratios? Will we see a drop in non-major enrollments given that none of us are advising non-majors anymore, since our major advising loads put us at the advising limit? How can we continue to connect with our students as individuals given our high class enrollments? Finally, how can we make sure we have adequate physical spaces, for classes and collaborations and just general hanging-out, to support the large numbers of students, particularly in a building not designed for such numbers?
  • Balancing the proactive with the reactive. When a department grows and changes as rapidly as ours did, it’s easy to fall into “fire-fighting” mode, running from one crisis to the next. It’s really important to take and make time to step back and consider the larger picture, for the long-term health of the department and the major, but so hard to do when so many little things vie for your attention. But it’s also important to recognize the patterns in the little things that point out larger trends and lead to the larger discussions.

I don’t claim to know all the answers here, and most likely I’ll stumble and fumble as I try to make sense of the challenges, but I do look forward to the challenges and the opportunities as chair to address these. Hopefully I’ll get a handle on this sometime in the next 3 years, before my term is up!

* Those of you on large campuses are no doubt chuckling at this, but our campus is very compact, so a 7-8 minute walk is significant.

Limping into the summer

We’re still in session around these parts—our last day of classes for spring term is tomorrow, followed by reading days and exams, followed by the mad dash to get senior grades done 36 hours after  the final projects come in…good times. This has been a particularly brutal term, work-wise and stress-wise, so I will be happy to see it end.

This week I’m juggling both wrapping-up-the-term activities and ramping-up-for-the-summer activities, which frankly is making my brain hurt. I’m ending the term like I started the term: frantic and behind on my work. I like to try and end each term on a strong note, but this year I am definitely exhausted mentally and physically and feel like I’m limping into the summer instead of leaping energetically and enthusiastically into the summer.

This summer’s workload will be substantial, with five major initiatives (just thinking about it all makes my head hurt even more!). Here’s what I’ll be spending my “lazy” summer “off” doing:

  1. Starting a new research project. I submitted a grant application late last year for a new project. I’m super-excited about the project: it combines my previous research on rich media and quality of experience with some network measurement, human-centered computing, and tool-building thrown in for good measure. But starting a new research project is always a bit daunting: what if it turns out this is a bad idea? what if we don’t get anywhere? where the hell do we start? And starting a new research project with students (see below) is doubly daunting. I have a vague plan of where to start, but frankly part of me is terrified. We could easily spend the entire summer just trying to get things up and running and still not have anything up or running at the end. I think the chances of that are small, but it’s enough to keep me up at night. At any rate, I’ll definitely be busting my ass this summer trying to get this project off the ground.
  2. Teaching in a brand new high school program. Because clearly starting a new research project from scratch is not enough excitement for one summer! Seriously though, Carleton is starting a new CS summer program this year for high school students for 3 weeks. We teach the students in the morning and work with a subset of them in the afternoon, in our research labs, on “real” CS research problems. I am very excited about this program, but know realistically that it will be a lot of work. We had our curriculum meeting today, so I’ve already done a bunch of planning for my classroom portion of the program, but still need to hammer out details about the research problems, as well as the software/programming language. Not to mention that the research problems, as I envision them at this point, rely heavily on progress we make on the new research project leading up to the high school program….yeah, there’s no way THIS could fail!
  3. Supervising 3 undergraduate research students. I took a hiatus last year from supervising students in my lab, mainly because I thought I’d be on parental leave, but this summer my lab will be full of students again. None of the students working for me have experience doing CS research, so my involvement will be very hands-on at the start of the summer. However, most of my former research students had no experience either, and things turned out well, and this group seems really eager and ready to get to work. (Plus I’ve been working with 2 of the 3 of them this term.) The one worrisome part is the new students + new project combination. I think I just need to go in with a flexible mindset and plans B-Z if things go awry. Again, what could possibly go wrong?
  4. Taking over as department chair July 1. And just like that, my service commitments increase exponentially. My big tasks out of the gate will be getting the agenda together for the department retreat in August and sketching out job ads for our tenure track search—and, of course, figuring out how to be department chair.
  5. Planning a brand new course for the fall. I’ve always wanted to teach a human-computer interaction (HCI) course. I sort of did so with the dyad a couple of years back, but this time around I’ll be teaching an A&I (freshman) seminar on the topic. I’m wildly excited about this opportunity, but (a) this is not my area and (b) we don’t have a senior-level class which I can raid for ideas. I met with some great people at SIGCSE this year who gave me some great teaching and course construction ideas, and my high school course in the summer program is on HCI, so I’m not completely starting from scratch. Still, this should be quite the adventure. (And did I mention that by definition this is a writing-rich course? Yikes!)

In addition, I have some assessment tasks to wrap up in July before handing over the assessment reins, and organizing our contingent for Grace Hopper will of course take place throughout the summer. And did I mention I’m running a half marathon in early August?

The good news is, with the exception of #4, everything on my plate this summer is fun-to-me and exciting and intellectually stimulating. Yes, I’ll be working hard, but it’s all on things I’ll enjoy immensely. So that definitely makes things a bit less daunting. That said, my goal is to get through the summer sustainably, without burning myself out….because I’m really going to need to be fresh and well-rested and renewed before the absolute insanity that will be my next academic year.

 

Random bullets of 7th week spring term

  • We’ve now officially reached the point in the term/school year where there is no schedule—there is just running from one crisis to another. I am too tired for planning anything beyond the next half hour.
  • Signs your job might be adversely affecting your family life: You joke about quitting  and your spouse says “can you? really? please?”. Uh-oh….
  • Everyone (neighbors, day care parents, random people on the streets) keeps asking me when my summer starts. This is the problem with the term system: we have 3 more weeks of classes. Heck, I just finished grading midterms! This is the tradeoff with terms: August is awesome, May stinks.
  • 2/3 of the readings in my Software Design class have been, well, let’s say not your typical textbook readings.* The tone is easy and conversational and a bit irreverent, but the content is still pretty hefty. Which is why I chose these readings—they get all the important points across in an engaging but nontrivial way. What I’m finding interesting, though, is how the students are reacting to these readings. A few off-hand comments and questions from a few students indicate that the tone obscures the fact that there’s quite a bit of substance there. This is especially true of the web usability reading. Next time I teach this course, I will make a more conscious effort to point out the theory behind the readings, but it’s been an interesting lesson.
  • We are not quite there yet, but someday (someday!) I will not find it remarkable that I have an all-female final project group.
  • Officially I don’t become department chair until July 1, but it’s kind of already started for me. Students have started coming to me asking all sorts of complicated questions about graduation and major requirements and special cases. I have a hiring meeting w/ some deans later this week. I’m already getting all manner of chair-related emails (particularly about budgets). I’ve started thinking about all sorts of processes and agendas and such. I’m glad for this transition time, but at the same time part of me is like IT’S TOO SOON! AAAARRRRGGHH!
  • One particular chair-related issue that’s keeping me up at night: We have 57 newly-declared CS majors. Yes, you read that number right. I’ll wait for you to pick yourself off the floor…. So, we need to put all these majors in project teams for Comps in 2014-15. How do we do this without completely overwhelming our faculty resources? Great question. Let me know if you figure it out.
  • Next week I’ll be at the NCWIT summit in Tucson. I look forward to the Summit every year (look for live tweets again!)—I always learn a whole bunch of new things, and it’s a great excuse to see the people I see at Grace Hopper and/or SIGCSE again (there is a lot of overlap in those crowds). This year I’ll be running a session in the Academic Alliance meeting along w/ my other team leaders. I’m excited—we have a great plan and great panelists lined up—but also nervous because part of our session involves a software demo. Trying not to panic about the many things that could and might go wrong there…yikes!

* Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think! and Freeman/Freeman/Sierra/Bates’ Head First Design Patterns