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

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

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

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

Running

running clothes and bib number

Flat Amy the night before the 2016 Twin Cities Marathon.

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

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

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One of my favorite nearby trails.

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

Mom and daughter trail running.

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

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

Cross-country skiing

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

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

Taekwondo

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

Mom and son showing off their orange belts.

Newly-minted orange belts!

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

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

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

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

 

Non-academic pursuits during sabbatical, part 2: Reading

In Part 1 of this series on “what I’m doing on sabbatical other than work”, I talked about a couple of ways I’m volunteering in my kids’ pursuits. In this part, I’ll talk about some of the reading I’ve been doing. (In the next part, I’ll talk more about my physical pursuits.)

I have always loved to read, and when I have the opportunity, I’m a voracious reader. I read every night before bed, although many nights in the past few years I’ve only been able to read for 5-10 minutes before nodding off. One of my non-work sabbatical goals was to read more, particularly to whittle down the piles (virtual and physical) of books I’ve accumulated. Of course complicating matters is that I continue to acquire books, which means the pile never really shrinks. But this is a good problem to have.

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Part of the ever-growing pile of books.

Over the past few years I’ve mostly read on my Kindle, but this year I find myself reading more physical books. My daughter’s swim practices are just down the street from the local public library, so sometimes my son and I head there while my daughter swims. I can never, ever leave empty-handed, even if I already have a too-large pile of books at home. Again, this is a good problem to have.

I don’t want to include an exhaustive list of what I’ve read, mainly because I can’t remember a lot of what I’ve read for fun off-hand, but I’ll highlight some of the more interesting things I’ve read this year, so far, and some of the things that are still in my pile.

Computer science/research stuff

My reading in this category has been dominated by catching up on my backlog of technical papers and skimming back issues of CACM and IX. I’m 2 issues away from being caught up with IX, considerably further behind with CACM.

I’ve also done a bunch of reading about conducting interview- and survey-based research. I’m currently working my way through Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences, by Kristin Luker, which was recommended to me by a fellow POSSE participant. I’ve read through Learning from Strangers, by Robert S. Weiss,  and A Practical Introduction to In-Depth Interviewing, by Alan Morris, twice now and have found them tremendously useful.

Next on my list: The Internet of Women: Accelerating Culture Change by Nada Anid, Laruie Cantileno, Monique J. Morrow, and Rahilia Zafar; and Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, by Andrew Blum.

Teaching

I’m fascinated by the science of learning and using science to hone what I do in the classroom to help my students learn more effectively. I really enjoyed Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter C. Brown. I do daily quizzes/reading questions in my courses, but this book has given me a lot to think about in terms of perfecting what questions I ask students and how I ask these questions. It’s also helped me think about how I can help my students study more effectively. I’m currently reading Small Teaching, by James M. Lang, which along with science/theory of learning provides practical strategies for professors to implement in their classrooms. Lots of great ideas so far, and I’m only a few chapters in!

I also read and enjoyed The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking, by Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill. Each chapter describes a different technique for fostering engagement. Not all of them are applicable to my situation, of course, but again, I gleaned lots of great ideas from this book.

Productivity

I was eager to read Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber, because of all the buzz. But frankly, I found this book disappointing and depressing. And a bit obvious. Yeah, it would be really nice to have more time to think! My sabbatical proves that slowing down and reflecting leads to more creative, fulfilling work. But I didn’t think the “advice” was very practical. You know what would help? More recognition by our institutions that the level of work we are doing, particularly the hidden, unrecognized work like mentoring and service, is staggering and unsustainable. And then actually having our institutions put in the work of lightening our loads. I’m not going to hold my breath on this one, though.

More generally, I’ve been working my way through Gretchen Rubin’s books. I read The Happiness Project last year, just finished Happier at Home, and am now reading Better Than BeforeI appreciate Rubin’s books because she is honest about what works and doesn’t work for her (and about the ways she may annoy those around her while on her happiness crusades).

I read Chris Bailey’s blog A Life of Productivity fairly regularly, so this year I read The Productivity Project, the book about his year researching and implementing different productivity techniques. Like Rubin, I appreciate Bailey’s honesty about what worked for him and what didn’t, and his critical look at conventional productivity wisdom (not to mention his willingness to try some really bizarro things for the project, like living in isolation for something like a week).

Just for fun

I’ll just mention a couple of fun reads to close this post out…

I adore Jenny Lawson, a.k.a. The Bloggess, and if you’re not reading her blog you should definitely add it to your feed. She blogs and writes candidly about mental illness, chronic illness, and owning your weirdness. Let’s Pretend this Never Happened is laugh-out-loud-until-you’re-crying hilarious, and this year I read her second book Furiously Happy, which is no less hilarious. (She has a brand new book out, too!)

I like reading historical/adventure books, and I just finished reading The Tunnels: Escape Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill, by Greg Mitchell. It was interesting to read this book at this time in our own history, with attempted muzzling of the press and talk of building a wall; as well as to hear the stories of those who risked their lives to help their fellow citizens to freedom.

What have you been reading lately that you’d recommend? Have you read any of the books here?

The secret life of professors: Graduation edition

Unlike most of the rest of the universities and colleges in the US, our academic year just finished up (we have 3 10-week terms instead of semesters). Graduation was on Saturday (thank you, rain, for largely holding off until the OUTDOOR ceremony ended!), and I’m just now finishing up final grades for spring term.

Being at a small school means that almost all the faculty go to graduation. Yes, every year. (Well, I did skip one year when I was traveling to a conference, but other than that, I’ve gone every year.) There are definitely parts of graduation that I look forward to all year: watching the students process in, the student speeches (I can’t remember a single bad student speech in any of the graduations I attended), and my personal favorite, the “gauntlet” at the end, where the faculty form 2 lines and the graduates process out of graduation and through our faculty “tunnel”, where we greet them with handshakes, hugs, and applause.

But of course, not all of graduation is teddy bears and gumdrops and rainbows. Let’s face it, some parts are just plain b-o-r-i-n-g. And if you get a bad and long-winded speaker(s)….well, it’s gonna be a loooooong morning. (Luckily this year’s speaker was short, to the point, and thought-provoking.)

So, you may ask, what do professors do to pass the time when the graduation ceremony starts to drag? Luckily I’ve spent years observing faculty behavior in the field (literally—remember, our graduation is held outdoors!) and field-testing various strategies. This extensive research led to this list of my favorite graduation time-passing strategies:

  1. Guess the Institution: If you’ve been to a college/university graduation lately, you likely noticed the faculty sporting Hogwarts-like robes, some of them downright colorful. Those colors have meaning! The robe’s color signifies the institution of the wearer’s PhD (although not all schools offer colored robes—black is the default everywhere), and the various colors on the hood signify….other things. (Field of study among other things, if memory serves.) If you’re lucky enough to be sitting on stage, or towards the back of the faculty section (so you don’t look weird turning around and staring at your colleagues, duh), you can spend a lot of quality time trying to figure out if that particular shade of purple signifies Northwestern University or the University of Washington, which school has that interesting shade of rust, and whether everyone wearing green is from the same institution.
  2. Count the Academic Honors: A good game to play if all students walk across the stage in your ceremony, or if a speaker is really going on and on and on for a while. This game is great because it has a number of variations. If you’re short on time or lazy, you can count the students who are not graduating with honors, because this number (at least at my school) will be way smaller than the number graduating with honors (thank you, grade inflation?). The statistically minded can separate out the cum laudes from the magna and summa cum laudes, or break the counts down by major, division (STEM vs. the social sciences!), male/female, etc. (My institution has the summas walk the stage last and separates them out in the program, so some of the computation is already done for you!) The possibilities are endless!
  3. Speaker Bingo: What is it about graduation that brings out the cliches in speakers? Rather than rolling your eyes at any “two roads diverged in the wood” or “oh the places you’ll go” references, see how many cliches you can rack up. Will the president make that same cultural reference he’s made every year? Will there be an appeal to the “newest alums” to donate? Who will use the first Maya Angelou quote? The truly organized will actually make bingo cards beforehand; the rest of us will say “hey, we should make up bingo cards next year!” and then just tally them on the back of the program.
  4. Facebook/Twitter: Duh. Or, formerly, crossword puzzles (I haven’t seen these out at graduation in a few years, though).

So next time you find yourself at a graduation ceremony that’s dragging, feel free to use one of these time-tested strategies for making it through to the end. Feel free to add your favorite graduation games in the comments!

Reading list

A running (and mostly true) joke in my house is that I don’t read anything during the term that’s longer than a magazine article. I’m too busy, too brain-fried, too whatever, to devote the time and mental energy to reading. Which is a shame, because I love to read.

One of the perks of being on leave was that I was able to start reading for fun again. And I realized how important it was for my mental health to find a way to incorporate reading back into my life again, especially during the term. Plus, the backlog of books on my nightstand, desk, and bookshelves is really getting embarrassing. (Add to this the fact that my library now has a better structure in place for ebooks, and I’m really in trouble!)

So as we head into spring term (Monday!), here’s what’s on my reading list currently:

User interface/web design

I am leading an independent study this term in user interface design for the web, so a good part of my reading is preparation for that.

  • The Elements of User Experience, by Jesse James Garrett. I have about 10 pages left to go in this one—it’s an easy read, and short. It’s interesting comparing and contrasting this one with Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, one of my favorite books on the subject. I’m still trying to figure out if my student should read this or Krug first.
  • Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity, by Jakob Nielsen. A classic, but one I’ve (embarrassingly) never read.
  • The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman. This one’s actually a re-read—I’ve read it many times before, but re-reading it always brings fresh insights.

Gender and computing

The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise, by Nathan Ensmenger. This one hit my radar from a tweet (which of course now I can’t find), and looks like an interesting treatment of how the computing culture evolved as it did. (Which may, hopefully, give some insight into how it can be made more welcoming.)

Just for fun

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall. While I’m pretty sure I’d never want to do ultramarathons, I’m fascinated by those who do. The author tracks down the Tarahumara, a reclusive tribe in Mexico for whom running extreme distances is a way of life. I found this while browsing the ebooks at my local library and am reading this using the Kindle app on my iPhone, which in itself is an interesting and informative exercise in interface and interaction design. (Maybe I should refile this as “work” reading, then?)

What’s on your reading list currently?

Five mistakes I always make the first day back at school

  1. Wearing heels. I don’t care if it’s the most comfortable pair of heels I own, or if I can normally spend hours and hours on my feet in them. After a summer of wearing nothing but sandals and flip-flops, any “real” shoes mean P A I N . And with opening convocation later and the reception afterwards…well, there’s a lot of standing around. Ouchie.
  2. Packing too little food. I don’t know what it is about getting back into teaching, but those first couple of weeks I am constantly ravenous. Today I ate my lunch at 10:30am and was starving by noon. I am on my second post-lunch snack now.
  3. Planning 70 minutes of material for a 50 minute class. 50 minutes goes by so fast. I always overplan.
  4. Planning on doing substantive work on my own the first day. Teaching is exhausting. The first day back, I am brain dead when I’m not in front of the class. I actually have “do paper revisions” on my to-do list today. Ha. Ha ha ha ha ha.
  5. Forgetting how much I’ve missed teaching over the summer. I enjoy the time away from the classroom during the summer, the less-structured time to think and plan. But…when I get back in front of the students the first day, the adrenaline and excitement kick in and I remember all the reasons I love this job so much.

5 things that helped me survive summer, 2011 edition

At the end of the past two summers, ProfHacker’s contributors all posted on 5 things (technologies, activities, foods, etc) that got them through the summer; their 2011 lists were just posted. Last summer I did the same. So, continuing that tradition (can it be a tradition after only 2 years?), here are the 5 things that helped me survive the summer of 2011.

  1. Evernote. Oh Evernote, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Seriously, Evernote has become my favorite and most indispensable tool. I keep my meeting notes there. I keep my checklists and to-do lists for my various projects there. If I have a thought I want to follow up on later, or a paper I need to track down, or a teaching idea I’d like to research, or a link I don’t have time to read…I just make a note and tag it. Evernote syncs to all my computers and to my phone, so I can access these things everywhere. I also use it for non-school stuff too, like recipes or notes on future trips or contact info of people I meet. I. Love. Evernote!
  2. Checklists. I am waaaaaaay overcommitted right now. I have various research and service and teaching projects in various stages of (un)done-ness. Keeping track of everything was stressing me out big time earlier this summer. In a fit of frustration one day, when I was so paralyzed I couldn’t get anything done, I started a master checklist. I have a note in Evernote (of course) called “Next steps on various tasks”, with a section for each project and at most 4 “next things” to do on those projects. When I feel stuck or overwhelmed or not sure what to work on next, I open up the list, pick something, and go. Keeping the older tasks, checked off, on the list also helps me see how much I’ve done this summer, which helps the psyche.
  3. Google Docs. This made the list last year too, but it’s really an indispensable part of my workflow. My research students kept personal lab notebooks on there, and we kept a group “lab notebook” as well. It’s once again helped my collaborations immensely, particularly the development of a set of linked courses with a colleague. This summer it’s allowed us to share and collaborate on our linked syllabi, develop rubrics, and keep track of meeting notes with various support staff. We’d not be half as organized if not for Google Docs!
  4. Cold-press coffee/home-brewed iced tea. At the end of last summer, I learned how to make cold press coffee in my french press. I am now seriously addicted to the stuff. (Decaf, since caffeine gives me migraines.)  A few years ago I also figured out how to brew my own iced tea from regular tea bags, which tastes so much better than the special iced tea bags. This sounds trivial, I realize, but a good tall glass of homemade iced coffee or iced tea makes me happy, and is like a mini-treat every day. Since I haven’t had a break since school started back in January, any little thing that feels like a little break in my day makes things better.
  5. Running. I ran my first ever half marathon this summer. I’ve been a runner for a while, but the longest race I’ve done before this was 4 miles. I discovered that I absolutely love distance running. I looked forward to my long runs on weekends all week long. Training forced me to take time for myself (which I have a hard time doing) and to focus on something other than my job (which I also have a hard time doing). It also taught me to be more patient (building up mileage slowly) and flexible (sometimes your run is not going to go the way you expected, and you have to deal with that). Running the race and crossing the finish line (and recording a faster time than my target!) was the high point of my summer, and I’m still buzzing from the experience! Best of all, I stayed injury-free.
Honorable mentions include yoga, being part of a CSA, awesome undergrad research students, and a super support system of friends and family.
What helped you survive the summer?

Thought for the day

Why is it that, as a computer scientist, I get all bent out of shape when technology doesn’t work for me?

I’ve spent the better part of yesterday afternoon and this morning unsuccessfully trying to get a server up and running, and nothing is working.  I’m sure most normal people would just shrug, maybe take a break, and come back to try again later.  I, however, seem to take it as a sign of my professional incompetence.  “I’m a computer scientist!” I wail. “I actually understand this stuff!  So it should just work!”  After all, I’m a technology professional, so of course all technology should work perfectly for me, on the first try!

Do other professionals do this?  Do English majors despair when they can’t find the right words to write in a greeting card?  Do mathematicians question their credentials when their checkbook is balanced incorrectly? (“Damn, I always forget to carry the one!  Stupid stupid addition!”)  Do librarians lose it when they just can’t find that book?