Non-academic pursuits during sabbatical, part 1: Volunteering

Most of my blog writing this year has been about the academic parts of my sabbatical. Part of the beauty of sabbatical, though, is the time to pursue other things in the spirit of rejuvenation. I realize I haven’t talked much about this aspect of my sabbatical, so in the next few posts I’m going to write about what else I’m doing with my sabbatical time. Part 1 (this part) focuses on volunteering. Parts 2 and 3 will focus on reading and physical pursuits, respectively. And in Part 4, I’ll talk about travel, which disappointingly has been more about work than about fun….but more on that later.

So….volunteering.

Longtime readers of this blog, and those who know me IRL, know that it’s part of my nature to pitch in and help out. Which means I often end up overcommitting myself…but hey, I’m working on it and getting better about setting boundaries!

I think it’s especially important to volunteer in my kids’ school and activities. Selfishly, it helps me keep tabs on what’s going on in my kids’ lives, what the social scene is like, etc. (This was really, really valuable when my daughter was the target of Mean Girl behavior a couple of years ago.) More importantly, it signals to my kids that their pursuits, and their education, is important to me, and it allows me to give back to my local communities and serve as a role model to other kids.

This year I’m volunteering each week in my son’s kindergarten classroom. I spend 45 minutes every Monday morning reading one-on-one with kids. The kids’ reading skills range from those who still struggle with the very simplest of words, to my son who is reading at least at a second grade level, if not higher. Most fall somewhere in the middle, and at this point recognize quite a few “sight words” and are using multiple strategies to deduce words they don’t know (sounding out, using context/pictures, etc).

I’ve been volunteering for a few months now, and many of the kids I’ve read with have progressed quite a bit. Many of them get very excited when they figure out a new word for the first time, and we share high-fives with those successes. Some of them have very strong opinions on the books and are picky about which book they select. One little girl (am I allowed to say she is my favorite?) has opinions about every book we read, and is unintentionally hilarious about sharing them. She is not happy with the books at her current level. She complains that they are too repetitive (they are), and one week in protest she provided running commentary on the book, summarizing the plot, rather than actually reading the words. (I thought about redirecting her, but her commentary WAS better than the book, and because summarizing/synthesizing is a valuable reading skill too!) This week she pointed out that she wished the book we were reading, which swapped out the harder words with pictures, included the word under the picture so that she could learn what the word looked like. (I found a piece of paper and wrote out the word — “squirrel” — and we talked about the word’s structure and patterns she saw in other similar words.) It’s a fun kind of challenge: figuring out when to let a kid struggle with a word and when to step in and help out; coming up with appropriate questions to see how much they understand what they just read; and keeping the wiggly ones focused on the task at hand. And of course my son thinks I’m a rock star for coming to his class each week.

I haven’t had many opportunities to volunteer in my daughter’s classroom, but I did get to go on the class field trip — snow tubing at a nearby ski hill. I am, however, still co-leading her Girl Scout troop. There are a bunch of new faces in the troop this year, and some long-time members decided not to continue, so it’s almost like leading a new troop. In addition to the normal Scout-y things like camping, leadership, and community service, we’ve spent some time casually talking about peer groups, “popular” kids, and self-esteem. One of my goals as a Girl Scout leader is to help the girls acquire and practice the skills they’ll need to successfully navigate the social aspects of middle school and high school while being true to themselves, and I feel like this year is a crucial year for setting the foundations for that.

Of course, volunteering is not something I only do when on sabbatical, but having the time and space to concentrate on volunteering is one of the aspects I enjoy about sabbatical. As I start to think about returning from sabbatical next year, I hope to find ways to continue to engage with my kids’ education and activities, even as my schedule fills up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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End of summer musings on (lack of) rejuvenation and (too much) service

Summer is supposed to be a season of rejuvenation for academics. While research and service obligations remain, we get a break from teaching. Theoretically, since teaching is the major part of my job, this should mean that my summer schedule is (a) more low key, (b) more relaxing, (c) less time consuming, and (d) less stressful.

This summer, my schedule was none of these.

In retrospect, it was a perfect storm. By the end of spring term, I was exhausted and completely burned out. However, I went right from spring term into finals grading frenzy and graduation, and from that right into working with my (amazing, wonderful, and extraordinarily productive, thank god!) undergraduate research students. (I finished my grades on a Friday, went to graduation on Saturday, and was in the lab with my students on Monday.) I had a couple of major service tasks that carried on into the summer, one of which took up about 3 orders of magnitude more time and 4 orders of magnitude more drama than I anticipated. I had the drama of submitting a paper at the last minute, finding out it was accepted at the last minute, and then having to create and ship a poster off overseas since I couldn’t travel to the conference (see: last minute notification). And I once again taught in our CS program for high school students (while juggling the paper drama, service drama, and supervising undergraduate research). Oh, and chairing a department, unfortunately, does not take a hiatus during the summer.

What this means is that I’m still burned out and exhausted, and I’m worried about being in this state of mind going into the new academic year. However, the good news is that we’re on trimesters, so we still have a few weeks before the fall term starts. (Whew!) Also, next week I finally, FINALLY, get to take a break (although, sadly, not from email, since we’re too close to the start of the year). While I know this won’t completely rejuvenate me, it’s a start.

One of the silver linings of the Summer of Craziness is that I’ve done some serious reflection on the ways in which I commit and overcommit myself. By the end of the last academic year, I was burned out in general, but mainly burned out on service. The service activities I did that used to bring me joy were now causing me stress, either because the workload was larger or different than I’d been led to believe, or because people weren’t sharing the load equally. I also took on too much, because I misestimated the lifecycles of various projects. I’ve since quit the activities that were no longer bringing me joy, and said no to a bunch of requests that have come in recently. (I’ve discovered a magic phrase: “I am overcommitted, but here’s the name and contact info of someone who might be able to help.”)

Jettisoning a lot of this service work has been very freeing. And it’s allowed me to jump on an opportunity that really excites me. For a while, I’ve been lamenting that I don’t have time to volunteer in my kids’ lives. Now I do, and so this year I’ll be co-leading my daughter’s Brownie Girl Scout troop! I should note that this is something that’s a bit out of my comfort zone, and there have been moments that my co-leader and I have said to each other “what did we get ourselves into?”, but I am super excited to do something totally different in the name of service, and be a role model to younger girls. My daughter is excited, too, and happy that we’re doing something we both share and believe in together. And who knows, maybe we can work some CS concepts into one of the badges or journeys or whatever!

So this year, after my much-needed and much-deserved break, I’ll return to whip my syllabus into shape, help our new faculty member settle in, advise our newest students, and figure out realistically what the attention span is of the second grade set. And that is a challenge I’m really looking forward to.

Guest post: Constructing a summer (at Small Pond Science)

Today I’m guest-blogging over at Small Pond Science on what it takes to plan for a summer of researching with undergrads. (Hint: it takes longer than you might think!) You can read the post here.

The plan is to blog over there about once a month, on the general theme of “doing science” at teaching-centered institutions. I will still blog here as well, hopefully less sporadically than of late. I’m excited for this new blogging adventure!

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.

Summer program midterm evaluation

We’re halfway through our inaugural summer program for high school students. I am happy to report that I am surviving so far (some days, barely) and mostly having a great time.

I talked a bit about the program in a previous post, but to recap: 31 students, divided into 3 groups. Mornings are class time: each week they take one class for 3 hours each day in a different specialty (this year: human-computer interaction (HCI), robotics, and evolutionary computation), rotating among the specialties each week. In the afternoons, they do research with faculty. So I teach HCI for 3 hours every morning, and in the afternoon I have 11 students doing research with me in HCI. So far the program seems to be working rather well.

It was hard for me at first to figure out how to structure my course and research for the high schoolers. I have zero experience with high school students, so I went into this with more questions than answers. How much did they already know? How quickly could they learn? How would they compare intellectually to Carleton students? What could I realistically expect them to do research-wise in 3 weeks?

I decided to assume that these students would be on par with Carleton students (after all, these are students that we hope will come to Carleton), and structured my curriculum appropriately. I set up my class meetings similar to how I would set up a Carleton class (well, similar to 3 class meetings rolled into one day), with similar content and similar activities. I figured it would be easier to adjust down than adjust up if necessary. One major change: more lecturing, since I couldn’t count on them reading the appropriate material before class. I’m not totally comfortable with that aspect, but consider it a necessary evil.

The research was trickier. I wanted them to do actual research, as in research I’m actually working on right now. But I don’t have time to instruct them in all of the necessary background knowledge, and again, it was unclear to me how their backgrounds would translate into ability to contribute meaningfully to a research project. Also, as I’ve mentioned, my current project is brand-new and I don’t fully understand all aspects of it yet! I settled on having them create visualizations (via web pages) for some of the data we’re currently collecting, and presenting this data in a way that our target demographics would understand and that would teach them about how the system works. I figured they would be able to get at least something up and running by the end of the 3 weeks.

So, how is it going so far?

My instincts were correct for the classroom portion: intellectually, the students are on par with Carleton students. They are bright, engaged, and (mostly) delightfully wacky. They are doing the same level work in class, by and large, that my college students do. The one key difference: it is harder to keep them on task. So, for instance, my college students can typically stay on task for 25-30 minutes, whereas for the high schoolers it’s more like 10-15 minutes. This probably has something to do with different developmental stages. At any rate, as long as I factor this in to my daily class plan, I’m good.

Content-wise: well, it’s always hard to boil down an entire field into 15 hours of class instruction, but I think I did a good job for the most part selecting content. I’d definitely jettison some activities next time and refine others, and choose what to lecture about differently. The beauty of this program, though, is that I repeat the same class 3 times, so I have the opportunity this week to fix the things I didn’t like about how class went last week, and things are already going more smoothly.

The research portion is also going well. I made one major tactical mistake: I decided to give a brief overview of the computer networks portion of the research so that they could concentrate on the HCI aspect. By Thursday of last week, though, it was clear that my high school researchers were struggling in developing visualizations because they didn’t really understand what they were visualizing and why. So I spent all of our research time on Friday afternoon doing Networks 101 and giving a more detailed overview of the project. I told them they could ask any question, no matter how stupid they thought it was—and of course, there were no stupid questions and a ton of excellent questions. We covered a ton of ground, and by the end of the day they felt much more confident about what they were doing and why.

The other issue I’m facing is that I may have underestimated what they are capable of doing. Many are getting a little bored of the prototyping tool and so we decided they should learn HTML and actually code up the sites they’ve been prototyping. That’s been a big hit so far. Some of the groups may also end up doing some more with the raw data than I originally intended, which is also great. I had my undergraduate research students come in this afternoon and “consult” with each group, which I think both my high school students and my undergraduates enjoyed.

The whole experience has been fun and enriching and ultimately is helping me become a better teacher and better research mentor. That said, it is EXHAUSTING. This week is a bit better than last because the research is underway and I’m repeating last week’s curriculum, but it’s still very busy and very packed. Fitting all my other responsibilities, as chair and faculty member and research mentor, into these packed days has been quite the challenge. But at this point, even with the mental and physical exhaustion and the challenges, I would definitely do this again next year, and in fact am looking forward to doing this again next year.

Trusting the process

For the past 9+ weeks, I’ve been following a training plan for the half-marathon I’m running 2 weeks from this coming Saturday. The training plan is a typical one: each week has 4 days of running. One of the 4 days involves speedwork: intervals, a tempo run (i.e. “run at this pace for this number of minutes”), or hill repeats (run up a hill fast, walk down, do it again and again). One of the days is a long run. The long run gets progressively longer, as does the speedwork, as the weeks go by. And the plan ends with a “taper” period: after you’ve spent all this time building up your mileage and endurance, you cut back and let your body rest before the big day.

There are no guarantees, of course: the plan doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get injured or sick, or that you won’t wake up the day of the race facing 95 degree temperatures and 100% humidity and have to throw your time goals out the window. Rather, the idea is that if you put in the work and follow the plan, you put yourself in the best possible position to finish the race and meet whatever other (usually finishing time) goals you have.

It is easy, particularly as race day looms, for you to get cynical and to doubt the plan. How can you really be prepared to run 13.1 miles if your longest training run is only 12 miles? Why aren’t the long runs done at the pace you intend to race at, but rather at a much slower pace? How on earth do 6×400 intervals prepare you to run at race pace? At some point, you just have to trust the process, to know that each piece of the plan each week contributes to your execution on race day, and to go with it.

Trusting the process is something that I do often as a professor. When I teach, I trust that if I’ve prepared properly—digging up and digesting background readings, developing illustrative examples, working through in-class activities, anticipating likely questions and points of confusion—then class is most likely going to go well. I can’t guarantee this, of course—my students might come ill-prepared, or bring low energy to the class, or an activity might bomb in unintended ways—but most often, everything will be fine. In research, unexpected twists and turns often pop up, but if I follow the plan—think carefully and methodically, locate and read the relevant literature, weigh the evidence carefully, analyze and reanalyze the data, be super-observant and dig deeper into the data—eventually I’ll succeed, even if “success” is not how I originally pictured or intended it.

In a way, trusting the process is similar to taking the long-range view while paying attention to the day-to-day details. If you think too hard about the long-term goal, it can seem impossible to obtain. But if you get too caught up in the day-to-day, you can easily get discouraged. When you trust the process, you do the day-to-day while keeping your attention on the long-term goal. One motivates the other.

Trusting the process is something that’s often difficult for new researchers. New researchers may not know or understand the long-term goal. They may get caught up in the day-to-day, and possibly even overwhelmed by it. They may not see how the day-to-day and all the small, sometimes seemingly inconsequential tasks, all work to contribute to the end goal. This can be particularly true of new projects, where perhaps the end goal is still a bit fuzzy or in flux. And teaching trust of the process is tricky, because at some point, the person just has to buy into the idea.

This is definitely happening in my lab this summer, with my brand-new project and new-to-research students. So how am I teaching trust in the process? I’m not sure if I’m doing it well or even passably at this point. What I try to do is remind my students of why we’re doing what we’re doing and continually framing the problem and the research. I do it by being specific about the small tasks we need to do to get there. I remind them of what we’ve done so far and how what we’re doing next both builds upon that and gets us closer to our end goal.

So far the trust is not completely there, but that’s ok. They are skeptical, but game. They ask lots of questions, including lots of variations on “so why are we doing this again?”, which is exactly what they should be asking. They’re starting to figure out the “next small thing” on their own. I may not get them all the way to trusting the process by the end of the summer, but if I can at least get them partway there, I’ll consider that a victory.

Summertime, and the living is….hang on, there’s a student at my door with a question

Oof.

It’s been a busy, busy summer so far, and we’re only a week and a half past graduation!

My research students started last week. At that point, I was still trying to wrap up grading and other things from the end of the term, trying to get as much off my plate as possible before July 1, when I become department chair, and….basically not sleeping. In addition to getting three new-to-research students up to speed on a new-to-all-of-us project. (Which NSF declined to fund. Boo hiss. I probably have a post on that coming up later.) So you could say that I haven’t been at my most productive.

New students take a lot of hand-holding at first. This is true on any project. The title of this post is pretty much how my week has gone. It’s hard to get traction when you’re constantly interrupted. However, the interruptions are necessary and expected and, as I keep telling myself, will become less and less frequent as we get deeper into the project and as my students gain more confidence and skill in their work.

Despite pretty much every single thing possible going wrong the first 2 days of the project (software not installed, logins not working, networks not working), my students have made some good progress so far. They’re learning some new-to-all-of-us APIs (and coding in new-to-some-of-us languages), and yesterday they started working on the “brains” of our future testbed network. I’m pretty pleased with where they are and where they are headed, so far, and think we’ll make some serious headway on the project this summer.

The hand-holding aspect is interesting, though. There are things I expect them not to know: the finer points of how networks work, for instance. (I introduced them to traceroute and ping yesterday. I love how traceroute = magic, at least at first.) Or how to use a poorly-documented API. But there are always unexpected roadblocks: language features I assumed they’d know but don’t really. How to effectively Google. How to decipher certain cryptic error messages. How to debug code past a certain level. Working with undergraduates is very much a form of teaching, and I think it’s very easy to forget that.

As I mentioned above, I’ve had a hard time gaining traction in my own work. This is mainly because the work I have to do requires a fair amount of mental energy and focus: figuring out how to best respond to my NSF reviews (i.e. what new experiments/simulations do I need to develop and run) so I can resubmit the grant later this year; develop curriculum for the summer program (and my A&I seminar); analyze the data from my Software Design course for our department assessment report. But my energy, and thus my brain, is scattered. I need to get back on track, and soon!

(As if on cue, one of my students just appeared at my door with a question.)

For the rest of this week, I will work to get back into some semblance of a rhythm of work and try to rein in my derailed productivity. I’ll continue to help my students become more self-sufficient. And I’ll try to get more sleep so I can be halfway functional. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll close my door for a bit so I can reclaim some of my time, before the next interruption…oh, wait, hang on a sec…