The secret life of professors: Winter break edition

Here at Carleton, we’ve been finished with Fall Term since right before Thanksgiving. While most of the rest of the academic world frantically writes, administers, and grades finals, we at least have a respite from the daily demands of teaching. The tradeoff, of course, is that right after Christmas we frantically scramble to get ready for the start of Winter Term, which starts right after New Years, while most of the rest of the academic world gets their respite.

Of course winter break is really only a small break, a break from the daily demands of teaching. Yet the myth persists, even among some who know me well (*cough cough* MIL *cough cough*), that I get to spend my 5-week break lounging on the couch watching Hoda and Kathie Lee, baking cookies, leisurely getting my Christmas shopping done, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, and in fact I will struggle this year like most years to get all of the holiday stuff done in time for the holidays.

So what is it that I’m spending my 5 weeks doing?

  • Wrapping up Fall Term. The first week+ of break is always spent finishing up the previous term. Lots and lots of grading, for sure, but I also like to take notes on what worked well in each class and what I want to change next time around.
  • Prepping for Winter Term. I’m teaching one class next term (thank goodness), and I’ve taught it before, but that doesn’t mean I can just waltz into class the first day and start teaching. I need to prep my syllabus, plan out all the projects, figure out exam dates, get the first few weeks of readings and reading exercises posted (this is particularly important when you flip your classroom, as I do), determine my office hours, and in general plan out the flow of the class for the term. Plus, since I’m teaching outside the building, I at some point need to take a field trip over to my classroom/lab and make sure all the right software is installed and ready to go.
  • Grant writing/research. This is the biggie. I still need to finish up some simulations that I didn’t get to last month, and then analyze the results. I need to look more closely at the data my students generated last summer and figure out if I can use it, or if I have to run more experiments. I need to revamp and revise the grant narrative, revise some supplementary documents, and add some new sections and language given some new language in the call for proposals. And did I mention I found a bunch of recent research that I have to skim through?
  • Other research activities. As odd as this sounds, I need to start planning for the summer now. I need to figure out how many students I want to hire, determine what I want them to do, write up a job description, recruit, and find them funding. I also need to start thinking about what I want the high schoolers to do and start figuring out how to recruit an undergraduate RA for that program. Plus I have some data lying around (and a rejected journal article) that I need to write up/revise and send out (again) for peer review.
  • Workshops. This week is the week of workshops. Earlier this week I went to one on a graduation requirement that many of our CS courses fulfill. Today and tomorrow I will be attending one on academic civic engagement in STEM. The former was tremendously helpful in helping me understand the requirement further and how the requirement is playing out on the ground, which will help me be a more effective chair as we set curricular designations for our courses. The latter is something I’m interested in for some of the courses I teach (as well as for Comps, our senior design projects). As useful as these are, though, they are time-consuming: all morning Monday and Tuesday, all afternoon today and all day tomorrow.
  • Hiring/chair stuff. One thing I’ve learned in my brief tenure as chair is that there’s always something unsavory or time-consuming that comes up that you have to deal with. Break time is no exception. Plus our application deadline for our TT position is looming, which means I need to both start dealing with the search stuff (figuring out who reads which applications, answering questions, scheduling search committee meetings, etc) and start reading and ranking applications.
  • And I almost forgot, ’tis the season for recommendation letters. Fortunately I’m only writing for a few students this year, but it’s still time-consuming—the drafting of the letter, but also the letter submissions, as each school has their own (different) process for doing things (their own rating scales, their own upload procedures, etc).

Reading this list makes me want to retreat to the couch with a plate of cookies!

There will be small breaks, of course—quick trips to visit family, days of fun with the kiddos when daycare is closed—and for those, the extra flexibility in my schedule really helps. But this, as with all my “breaks”, is definitely a working break, and demonstrates just how many hats I as a faculty member need to wear on a daily basis.

Back to work, then!


You can’t go home again

Next week I’ll be in Chicago for the NCWIT summit*. Carleton’s an Academic Alliance member so I’ll be representing us there. I always look forward to the summit—this is my third one—but I’m especially excited about this one because Chicago is my grad school home.

I’ve been back to Chicago a number of times since I graduated, but I’ve never made it back to campus. My advisor left right before I finished, so that’s one big tie back to campus that’s not there anymore. But I still do have a number of ties there, and so this year I decided that I’d make the time to go back and visit my home of 5 1/2 years.

I’ve spent a good part of this week setting up meetings and letting people know I’ll be on campus. It’s awesome (and a bit weird) how many people remember me. Especially since it’s been…let’s say, a number of years…since I graduated. Of course I’m eager to discuss research with like-minded people, so I dutifully did some poking around on the various labs’ and groups’ sites.

In the process of poking around, I learned two things that really shouldn’t shock me anymore, but still did:

  1. I have zero research interests in common with my old lab. Zero.
  2. My research interests are much more aligned with the CS faculty than the ECE faculty.

Now, you are probably thinking “well, DUH! You are a computer scientist, after all!”  And yes, you’re absolutely right. I’ve identified as a computer scientist for at least 9 years now, and probably longer since the switch to CS really happened during my post-doc days. But part of me still identifies more as an electrical engineer. That was my undergrad identity. That was my grad school identity. That’s what I thought I was going to be when I grew up. Identities are hard to shake, apparently, even if they don’t quite fit anymore.

The thing is, shaking that identity, and taking some risks to do so, opened up a world of possibilities that wouldn’t have existed had I stayed the course. My postdoc, my current position, and all the research opportunities of the past…bunch of…years, none of that would be possible if I hadn’t decided to assume a new identity as a computer scientist. And of course, it was my time at my grad school alma mater that put me in the position in the first place to make that identity switch—where I gained the confidence in myself, and constructed a support group, and worked on the right research projects, to allow me to ultimately explore and eventually assume the computer scientist identity.

So I’ll visit my old lab and my thesis committee and reminisce a bit about my engineer-self. And I’ll make some new acquaintances as my computer scientist-self. And I’ll feel equally comfortable in both worlds, even if I can’t exactly talk research with my old lab anymore.

* If you are a reader of this blog and will be at the NCWIT summit next week, please introduce yourself and say hi!


How I spend my time

As you may recall, last week I promised to account for my time and post the results here in response to Yet Another Article About Faculty Not Working (YAAAFNW). On Monday I found out about #dayofhighered, in which academics tweeted/blogged/etc about their days to bring awareness to how faculty (and academic staff) spend their time. (You can see my tweets in the sidebar.) The tweets give the story about a day in my life as prof, but I wanted to highlight the results from my time accounting experiment last week as well. Plus I wanted an excuse to make pretty pie charts. (I never get to make pie charts for my research results, so this is nerdily thrilling for me. Yes, I’m serious.)

Now, going in I indicated that my time totals might be a bit wonky due to several factors: single parenting, first week of classes (= lighter workload), light teaching and service term. And in fact there were unforeseen snafus: one kid had major sleep issues (falling asleep and staying asleep), which threw my schedule into all sorts of disarray. Also, the combo of single parenting, sleep issues, and first week back in the classroom meant that a few evenings when I would normally have worked for a few hours, I vegged instead due to sheer exhaustion.

I would have guessed around 40 hours of work, and I wasn’t too far off: the total hours I spent working came out to just under 39 hours.

The first two charts show, in hours and percentage of time, how my work hours broke down into broad categories: teaching, research, admin, service. “Admin” is sort of a catchall category: I counted general email, general reading for work, work-related social media, chatting with colleagues, etc. in this category.

Hours spent working on various tasks during one week

Figure 1: Hours spent working on various tasks last week

Percentage of hours spent on various work tasks in one week

Figure 2: Percentage of hours spent on various work tasks last week

As expected, teaching takes up the majority of my time, with administrative tasks coming in second. Sadly, I spent twice as much time last week on administrative tasks as research. However, the research breaks down to roughly an hour a day, which is respectable during the term (and certainly better than zero). This number will definitely improve over the course of the term—I’m guessing it will stabilize around 8 hours/week (except during the craziest of weeks), due to my lighter teaching load.

I decided to break the teaching category down further. In the plots below, “student” refers to student contact hours outside of class—office hours, random drop-ins, conversations after class, etc. “Classroom” refers to actual time spent in the classroom (or meeting with my independent study student). Note that total teaching hours are slightly higher here than in the first two figures because in some time periods I did two different types of teaching tasks, so I double-counted those.

Hours spent on various teaching tasks last week

Figure 3: Hours spent on various teaching tasks last week

Percentage of time spent on various teaching tasks last week

Figure 4: Percentage of time spent on various teaching tasks last week

I spend the majority of my time prepping (almost 15 hours of my 39 hour week last week), and about as much time in the classroom as I do outside the classroom with students. (According to David Levy, though, I only worked 4.25 hours last week. If only.)

So, what did I learn?

  • “Admin” takes up a much larger portion of my time than expected.
  • I spend 3 times as much time prepping for class as I do in class.
  • Even though I have a grader, I still spend time on grading, about half of that managing my grader.
  • Last week was typical percentage-wise, I think, but low hours-wise. Even so, my “light” week was just under 40 hours.

I’d like to repeat this experiment again later in the term, perhaps during a “heavy” week. The differences would be interesting, and I’m particularly interested in how much time my job takes up during those crazy weeks vs. during light weeks like this one. But one thing’s for sure: I’m not lounging on my back deck sipping margaritas all day!

How does your workweek break down?

Do professors live the slacker life?

So it appears yet another blowhard has written yet another ill-informed article about the easy-peasy, carefree life of the college professor. (h/t Melissa at Confused at a Higher Level for the link) Go on over and read the article if you’d like, but for those of you who are college professors, you’ve probably heard it all before a zillion times, so maybe you just want to skip it and keep your blood pressure down. (You’re welcome.)

The article contains the obligatory statements—professors only work when they’re in front of the classroom, professors have a month off at Christmas and all summer off, etc. It also contains gems like this:

Such a schedule may be appropriate in research universities where standards for faculty employment are exceptionally high — and are based on the premise that critically important work, along with research-driven teaching, can best be performed outside the classroom. The faculties of research universities are at the center of America’s progress in intellectual, technological and scientific pursuits, and there should be no quarrel with their financial rewards or schedules. In fact, they often work hours well beyond those of average non-academic professionals. Unfortunately, the salaries and the workloads applied to the highest echelons of faculty have been grafted onto colleges whose primary mission is teaching, not research.

and (emphasis mine):

An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals.

I could spend another several blog posts unpacking all that is problematic and plain wrong with these statements, but this got me thinking. Most of my friends, family, and neighbors, while they may not understand exactly what I do, at least get that I spend long hours working. And yet I still hear the comments about how nice it will be to have my summer off or, in the case of the parental leave I just had, how nice it was to just spend time with my son. The reality, of course, is that I don’t get summers off, and leaves are not really leaves. So there’s still a lot of mystery behind what professors do all day, and that leads to articles like the one above.

I’m also interested in quantifying just how many hours a week I do spend on my job. I have a general idea, but I’ve never sat down and calculated how many hours a week I work, or where those hours go. How much time do I spend on class prep vs. research vs. student contact hours? How much of a time suck is email? How many night and weekend hours does my family lose to my job? And so on.

So this week, I’ll be accounting the time I spend on my job. Every 15 minutes (when feasible—I won’t do this in the middle of class, obviously), I’ll jot down what I’m doing, and at the end of each day and at the end of the week I’ll tally everything up. And I’ll share what I learn with you. Probably in pretty charts and graphs.

There are a few caveats: This week is the first week of spring term, so you could argue that it’s not a “typical” week, but it will still be busy and somewhat representative. This is also my “light” term, in that I’m only teaching one course, and since I’m coming off of leave my service responsibilities are a bit light (although I did just take on a new service task). I’m also single parenting this week, so my family hours will necessarily be higher and my schedule a bit wonkier. But this exercise should still give the general idea of where my time goes.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go dust off my tweed jacket*—classes start tomorrow!

* actually, I do own a tweed jacket, but it’s definitely more “ladies who lunch” than “old guard professor”. And it contains pink. And no elbow patches.

The myth of being “on leave”

This weekend, I spent some time hanging out with some of my lovely neighbors. As we were chatting about our kids and work and such, someone asked “So when are you returning to work from parental leave?”

I gave my standard answer (spring term), of course. But mentally I was reviewing this week’s calendar and to-do list. The 2 job candidates coming in this week mean I have to be on campus 2 afternoons for 2 meetings and 2 job talks. (My spouse went back to work this week, which means we are juggling schedules to make this happen.) This also means I have to review the 2 candidates’ files before I meet with them (ideally!). I have 5 letters of recommendation for 4 different students that are due between now and next Monday. Which means 5 different web sites, formats, and sets of questions to deal with. I’ve only written for two of the students before, so I have to draft 2 letters from scratch. (Looking ahead, there are a bunch more letters due around mid-February, also for students for whom I haven’t previously written.)

Now, let me mention before I go further into this post that my department, and particularly my department chair, has been amazing, even though my last-minute change of leave is causing a fair amount of inconvenience. They are, I think, more protective of my time than I am, and have taken great pains to make sure that I am only involved in the most crucial things—things like the department review, and hiring, which were scheduled before my leave changed—and in the most minimal way possible. They have also largely let me decide how much I can contribute to the review and hiring, and have honored my choices. I’m very grateful to work in such a supportive environment.

But the fact is, I’m tenured faculty, and there’s a limit to how much “on leave” I can be. Sure, I could refuse all requests to write letters for students, but I’ve worked closely with all of the students for whom I’m writing letters and in some cases can write the strongest letters for them. I suppose I could refuse, on principle, to participate in our department review, and not meet with the external reviewers—but as a tenured member of the department, I have a deeply vested interest in making sure our department is headed in the right direction. Ditto with hiring. And I haven’t even talked about research, which again theoretically could stop for a few months. But we just got a paper weakly rejected from a conference that can and should be turned around quickly. If I stopped paying attention to my research for a few months, the startup costs to get back into the swing of things would be heavy. So ideally I need to be thinking about research, finding a new venue for the paper and fixing its (minor) flaws, etc.

So I’ll continue to spend my days chasing around an active toddler, my nights hoping that said toddler will sleep through the night, and squeezing in work during naptime and that little sliver of time between the kiddos’ bedtime and my bedtime. Even though some days I’d rather be playing video games or napping or reading or cleaning up the playroom that now perpetually looks like it was hit by a tornado. And when someone comments on how nice it must be to be on leave from my job, I’ll just grit my teeth and grin and say “Yes, isn’t it?”.

Random things of CS interest on the web

Spring term is typically the busiest for me, and this term is no exception—in fact, it’s probably the busiest term I’ve had at Carleton since my first year on the job!  This means I have about 50 blog posts that are written in my head, but 0 of them have actually made it to the blog.  Oops.

Lots of interesting stuff has popped up on the web lately, though, so in absence of any real content, I thought I’d point out some of the things that have caught my eye and my attention lately.

First, springtime at Carleton means that the sophomore class declares their majors.  This year, the CS department has 32 newly-declared majors!  (And that doesn’t even count the double-majors who have not declared CS yet.)  We are now the 7th (or 8th—looks like some of these tables have some errors) most popular major on campus.  This also means, as the linked article states, that just under half of our CS majors are in the sophomore class.  Our gender ratio has also vastly improved—we have 7 women (if memory serves) out of a class of 32 (and again, that doesn’t include double-majors).  Given that we have one woman each in our junior and senior classes, this is awesome news, and a trend we hope we can sustain.

Similarly, Harvard’s CS department seems to be doing spendidly in the gender ratio realm as well with their sophomore class. 41%!! Way to go, Harvard!

This is good news too, since NCWIT recently pointed out that the number of computer-related jobs will increase by 22% (projected) between 2008 and 2018.  Gender (and racial, and ethnic) diversity just makes good economic sense!

I love this inspiring story of a young recipient of the Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship.  Natasha Nesiba, a freshman at New Mexico State University, started mentoring middle and high school girls while still in high school, and continues to do so.  When she also received a university scholarship to attend NMSU, she decided to endow a scholarship for the CS department with the Anita Borg Scholarship funds, so that the department could support talented Hispanic women in CS.  Congrats, Natasha, and way to go!

Female Computer Scientist recently posted some advice for young female computer scientists—or, really, for any of us, on self-esteem and taking the long-term view:

If you place your self-worth in the hands of another, then every time you are rejected (which will happen frequently over the course of your career), it will feel like being punched in the gut. It’s very tempting to be over-the-top excited when Dr. Famous lavishes praise on you, and Dr. Awesome invites you to serve on a program committee, and Dr. Woot cites your paper. These are all good things to be happy about, but on the other hand you don’t want to be devastated when Dr. Famous rejects your paper, Dr. Awesome gives you a scathing review, and Dr. Woot rips you to shreds in front of 2000 of your closest colleagues.  Be like a tree and all of that. Roll with the good and the bad. If you take this view, the outcome of a single event matters much less.

Right on, FCS!

Finally, ever wonder how people get their start in programming?  What inspires them to learn?  A new project is soliciting stories about just that topic.  Visit the site, read the stories (a random one is generated every time you refresh or revisit the page) and/or contribute your own.  I am so posting this in my Intro CS Moodle page!

Happy reading!

Role playing and role modeling

Yesterday, a new Barbie joined the menagerie of Barbies at our house.  (actually 2—of course I had to order one for myself!)  My 3.5 year old daughter, who loves Barbies, was excited to have a new Barbie, of course.  And I was excited to share with her that this Barbie was special, because she has the same (approximately, anyway) job as her mom and dad.

Usually, when the Barbies come out, the pretend play trends towards dance class, or school, or taking care of animals, or (my personal favorite) a mash-up involving flying, castles, Shrek, hot lava, and dragons.  But with this Barbie, the play was definitely….different.  See, Barbie went straight to work.  Where she worked, and took some phone calls, and worked some more, then went home to cook dinner and then—you guessed it—work on “her project”.

Anyone who knows me IRL, or who’s read this blog for more than 5 minutes, knows how passionate I am about diversifying the field of CS, of opening up the possibilities of CS particularly to women, so that women will start seriously seeing themselves as, and considering themselves to be, computer scientists.  And of course I extend this to my own daughter.  I want her to see computer science as something that she can do and that she’ll want to do:  a very cool, interesting, exciting, innovative field.  So far she’s very interested in computers—if she had her way, she’d play games on my iPhone all day, and we just gave her a hand-me-down laptop so she can start exploring and playing on her own.  So it pained me a bit to see how her play reflected how she sees me, and her dad, as computer scientists:  someone who works all the time.

I want my daughter to associate computer science with fun, and whimsy, and discovery, and not just long hours of work.  But of course the reality is that I, and my husband, do work long hours, and clearly she sees that and has absorbed that.  And of course she hears how excitedly we talk about our jobs, and our projects, at home, but at this age seeing is more powerful than hearing.

My wish is that I can do a better job of role modeling for her what it means to be a computer scientist.  I want to make sure she sees, and notices, the love and passion and excitement I have for my work.  I want her to recognize that I’m doing stuff that actually will make the world a tangibly better place.  I want her to see that you can be passionately involved in your work and still have time for other passions outside of work too.  And maybe next time we play Barbies, Computer Engineer Barbie will join the other Barbies on the hunt for dragons….and then they’ll all go back to the Barbie Townhouse and code to their hearts’ content!