Preparing for an especially busy term

I knew, going into this academic year, that my year would be especially busy. Between stepping into the STEM Director role, finishing my 3 year stint as the director of a cohort program, and teaching one more course than I should be due to a staffing shortage in my department, the year was going to be full, no matter what. I knew Winter Term, in particular, would be especially chaotic — several rounds of grant applications to review (and grant funds to award) in STEM, the selection of next year’s cohort in the cohort program, the selection of a new director for the cohort program, and tenure track hiring in my department. And despite my best efforts to avoid this scenario, my heaviest teaching term — 2 of my 4 courses this year — falls, you guessed it, in Winter Term.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve had a similarly full term — Winter 2016, to be exact, when I was teaching an overload, chairing a department, and chairing a tenure track search. That term almost broke me, even with my hyperfocus on self-care that term.

And while my schedule is what my schedule is, and I can’t control the number of responsibilities I have, I can control my approach. And, as I learned in Winter 2016, and in Winter 2019 when I had a challenging term despite advocating for a lighter term to deal with an expected heavy set of responsibilities, controlling my approach is crucial to maintaining my mental health.

Over at Dynamic Ecology yesterday, Meghan Duffy posted about her strategies for successfully dealing with a busy fall semester. The post contains excellent advice — blocking off time, saying no, etc. — advice that I will definitely borrow during this period of overwork. I’m also taking a few additional steps, to meet my responsibilities in as sustainable a way as possible.

First, I’ve modified the way I plan for the term. I tend to set research goals for the term at the start of each term, to keep myself on track and to keep myself from bailing on research, or spending my research time unproductively, when things get busy. I sketch out everything on my calendar for the next 10 weeks. But this term, there’s just too much to wrap my head around. So I’m only planning a month at a time, to prevent myself from getting too overwhelmed.

Second, I’m putting off interesting but not time-sensitive projects. I decided not to meet a conference paper deadline next week, because I can submit to the same conference in a few months and get feedback then. I’m fortunate in that I am not likely to be scooped in the interim, and I’ll be able to more fully concentrate on the paper starting in mid-March. I’d also originally thought about revamping the assignments in one of my classes to revolve around datasets, but decided that while this would be an interesting and worthwhile use of my time, it didn’t need to happen now. (“It doesn’t need to happen now” is kind of becoming my mantra this term…) I have a couple of research projects that I’ll move forward in smaller steps this term, but the bigger pushes forward will have to wait until Spring Term.

Third, I’m hyperfocusing on managing my energy levels. Monday was the first day of classes, and by the end of my first class I had very little left in the tank. And I still had another 70 minute class to teach! It also didn’t help that I still had some prep to do in between the two classes, so by the time the second class was over, I felt nearly catatonic. Lesson learned: No class prep can happen in between classes — I need to use that time to replenish my energy. This is especially important as an introvert, since teaching two courses means a lot more people time. I also want to experiment for a couple of weeks with upping my sleep. I normally get 7 hours, but my gut tells me that I’ll need 7.5, if not 8, hours of sleep to optimally function given everything on my plate. I need to move some things around and really restrict the time I spend on, say, social media, to make this work, but I’m willing to try.

Perhaps most difficult for me, I am embracing the art of delegating. One of my biggest strengths is the amount of self-motivation I possess. One of my biggest weaknesses is that this self-motivation tricks me into thinking “I’ll just do X, too.”, even when there’s no time for X. Additionally, being the truly effective leader I aspire to be means giving others control and responsibility, giving them guidance, and then getting out of their way. This term, I literally can’t do everything, so delegation is a must — both at work and at home. I need to ask for help. So I will ask for help. Even if internally, I’m cringing at the thought of “imposing” on someone with my ask.

Finally, I’ve decided to embrace the suck. Yes, it’s a difficult term. Yes, I have too much to do. What can this experience teach me about setting and maintaining boundaries? What can I learn about prioritizing? I’ll be meeting and interacting with a lot of new people — what can they teach me? How can I use my experiences, as painful as they might be in the moment, as part of my professional growth? Having so much on my plate means many opportunities to learn and grow, as a leader, a colleague, a mentor, and a professor. I want to take advantage of this unique time.

Are you staring down an especially busy time period, at work or in life? What strategies are you using to make it manageable? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.

How I won NaNoWriMo 2019

NaNoWriMo 2019 Winner Badge
Things I did not know about myself before I started: apparently, I am motivated by badges.

A month ago, I embarked on a quest with hundreds of thousands (287,327 in 2018, for instance) of other writers around the world: to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.

Or, in my case, a memoir of sorts.

My original goals for NaNoWriMo were somewhat modest: to write, every day, on one of the stories in the list of stories I drafted at the end of October. A list that ended up growing and shifting over the course of the month, as I combined shorter vignettes into longer “stories” and added stories that came to mind as I wrote. I committed to minimal, if any, editing, so that I could just get the words out and onto the page, without judgment. I thought that 50,000 words would be nice, but not necessary.

And, to make the time for this endeavor, I decided that writing this draft would “count” as my scholarship for the month.

My NaNoWriMo word count, plotted as a line graph. Source: nanowrimo.org
That upward trend line is addicting to me, as it turns out. The top, darker line is my cumulative progress over the month, while the bottom line is the target line to get you to 50,000 words in 30 days.

For accountability, I committed to logging my progress daily on the NaNoWriMo site (which generates pretty graphs and infographics for you as you progress). I also figured, since I’ve found forums like those at NCFDD (Carleton is an institutional member) useful, that I’d use the various NaNoWriMo forums to both keep myself on track and to encourage others.

By the end of the month, I’d drafted 14 complete or mostly complete chapter/stories and wrote 52,158 words.

I’d “won” NaNoWriMo!

So, how did I do it?

A bar graph of my word count by day. Source: nanowrimo.org
My daily progress. You can see the pain points towards the end of the term, and my day off on Thanksgiving. And the spikes at the end when I became motivated to finish early — which I did, on November 29.

I found the stats and daily progress charts addicting. Seeing the upward trend of the cumulative graph, and the bars on the daily graph, provided much-needed motivation, much like Jerry Seinfeld’s chain. I’d calculated I needed just under 1700 words a day to stay on pace to hit 50,000, so I rounded that up to 1700 and tried to hit that. I ended up hovering around 1800 per day. This gradually built up a cushion of sorts, so that when the end of the term got messy and busy, as it always does, I could do a lighter writing day without falling behind the pace.

Posting my progress on Twitter and Instagram helped motivate me to keep writing, particularly when I hit the Week 2 Slump that veteran WriMos warn about, when you hate everything about your writing and question your sanity for embarking on such a foolish quest.

Having that story list was key when I did hit the inevitable slumps, as was my commitment to minimal editing. The story list also helped me find holes, or time periods with fewer stories than others, and privilege drafting one story over another on a day when I couldn’t decide where to start.

Surprisingly, I found the community aspect the least helpful, mainly because I didn’t really have time to engage as I would have liked. (See: end of Fall Term.) I didn’t utilize the buddy system, and I only spent a little bit of time on the local forums, and a bit more time than that following hashtags on Twitter and Instagram.

The thing that surprised me the most was just how fickle my memory is about certain details. I’ve carried many of these stories around in my head for years, with some pretty vivid details. But the supporting details, I found, were hardest to recall. Who was in that feminist junior faculty book group, and what year did we meet? Did I encounter Foot Fetish Man in just that one class before the hallway confrontation, or was there a longer history? I tried my best to not let these lapses in memory derail me, writing around them and keeping a list of details to research later.

The thing that helped me the most was my daily research habit. I’m already in the habit of working on my research for at least 30 minutes a day, so it was straightforward to swap in “writing a memoir” for “drafting a conference paper”, which is what I would have been doing last month. I ended up writing for about an hour a day most days, but honestly, I was working on research for about an hour a day most days throughout Fall Term, so again, the transition felt natural.

So, what’s next?

The draft is still not complete. I haven’t started a few key stories, and a few others are not quite finished. There are holes, particularly in my post-doc and post-tenure years. I could probably spend an entire NaNoWriMo just finishing the draft and get another 50,000 words, although I don’t know if I want to wait until next November to do so.

There are all those missing details I mentioned above, so I’d like to do some research — interviewing people, perhaps, or figuring out if I can dig up old and now defunct blogs from my past, or find old emails. (This is where my habit of getting rid of things on a regular basis proves detrimental!)

I’d also like to publish this, eventually, somehow. But the structure is still in flux. Should this be a proper memoir, meaning I’ll definitely have to fill in more of the time periods for consistency’s sake? Or would this work better as a series of connected essays around some central themes, like belonging and boundaries? And if I go the essay route, which seems better suited to the structure at this point, do I try to publish a few as standalone essays first? Questions, questions!

What’s definitely next: continuing to write on a more consistent basis. I really enjoyed the process of writing every day — the discipline, the creativity, the sense of purpose I felt. I’ve continued to blog for as long as I have because I enjoy telling stories. This project was storytelling on a larger scale. Ideally, I’d find time everyday to continue this project, maybe coming up with a monthly word target (10,000?) until I finish whatever I count as my “first draft”. Realistically, that’s not in the cards — December belongs to other projects, and Winter Term will be especially busy with other priorities. But I can certainly find some time each week, and that’s certainly better than nothing, particularly if it’s something that’s rejuvenating me.

So, NaNoWriMo is over, but for me, NaNo continues. I’m excited to see where this all ends up.

Personal productivity: what I’m using now

I am a bit obsessed with productivity and productivity systems. I listen to productivity podcasts and read productivity books and blogs. I enjoy learning how successful people organize their lives and their schedules: what’s their morning routine? how do they get their kids out the door? how much do they sleep? how do they approach setting goals and tracking their progress towards those goals? what tools and systems do they use and recommend? Perhaps this obsession with efficiency, and with systems in general, is why I studied engineering in college.

Productivity as a concept has come under attack lately, and I can’t say that I disagree with these points. I view productivity systems as a way for me to make sure I’m on top of, and making room for, what’s truly important in my life (both at and outside of work), and spending my limited energy doing things I value, and not tracking down things, notes, ideas, etc.

Since I love hearing about what works for other people, I thought I’d share a snapshot of what’s currently working for me. Maybe you can get some ideas for your own systems from what I do. And I’d love to hear about systems and tools and tricks that you’re loving right now, and how you use them.

Tools

I use a mix of paper and digital tools to keep on top of things. It’s easier for me to plan and mentally process things on paper, but features of digital like tagging and alarms keep everything organized. My workflow involves writing things down and then transferring them to some cloud-based tool. At first glance, this might seem inefficient, but I’ve found that transcribing allows me to engage with my notes on a deeper level, to see patterns and connections I didn’t previously notice, so it’s definitely worth the time I spend on it.

My low-tech tools include:

Notebook with daily intentions and to-do lists.
My current daily notebook, with the big-ass paper calendar in the background.
  • A daily notebook. I use notebooks in various parts of my life — one as a lab notebook, one dedicated to leadership work, one to record craft project ideas and sketches, one as a journal — but I use one notebook as my catch-all planner and meeting note taker. My daily intentions and to-do lists go here. Meeting notes go here. Things I want to remember from a conversation, or from whatever I’m reading, that need to be transferred somewhere else later, go here. It’s also a good place to jot down those “oh, I need to do this” thoughts that like to intrude while you’re in deep focus mode. I’ve tried daily paper planners before, but I really like the non-structure of the notebook, so that I can tweak my daily format as much as I’d like as the mood arises.
  • A big monthly paper calendar. At the start of every term, and summer, I sit down to plan out my goals for that term. I can’t plan unless I can “see” the time laid out, so a few years ago I bought a big-ass paper calendar. I put any important dates on there, work and home, so that I can keep those in mind when scheduling projects (for me and for my classes). In the summer, I put the kiddos’ summer camp dates, which helps me see when I have child care coverage and how much coverage I have. Once my planning is done, I lay out the pages for the term-in-progress on a long desk surface in my school office that otherwise would be wasted space, so that again, I have a visual representation of the term and know what’s coming up.

My high-tech tools include:

  • Evernote. This is my digital catch-all. I transcribe meeting notes and put them here (along w/ meeting agendas), so that I can tag and organize them. Clippings of articles I’ve read and want to revisit, or want to read later, go here. Ideas for classes I’m currently teaching or will be teaching go here — which comes in handy when, say, you only teach your signature elective once every 3 years. I keep my notebook system simple: home, school, research, and STEM Director. (I do need to clean up my tags, though — they are getting a bit unwieldy!)
  • Todoist. I adore lists, and particularly to-do lists. I had a hard time finding a digital to-do list keeper that works with my brain, but Todoist is pretty much perfect for me. Minimal interface, and allows me to categorize by project and assign due dates.
  • Google calendar. With all of the hats I wear at work, and with 2 busy kiddos (and both my husband and I with active hobby lives too), having a digital calendar is basically a necessity. It’s also much easier to schedule meetings when someone can see when I’m free and when I can see when they’re free, since who has time for 10 back-and-forth emails setting up a time and place to meet?

Systems/habits

As much as I love my tools, it’s the systems and habits that keep my life from spiraling into chaos. (Well, most days anyway. Having kids means you can only control so much. Having a kiddo with special needs means every day is going to have some degree of chaos, and every day’s chaos will be different.) The habits remind me to pause and reflect and not just run from one thing to the next, which is my natural inclination.

Here are the habits and systems that currently work for me:

  • Daily meditation. A few years ago when I went back to therapy, my therapist strongly suggested I try meditation as a way to manage my depression and anxiety. (They even led me through a short meditation at one session, which I thought was cool.) Now, if I don’t start my day with 10 minutes of meditation, I feel lost, uncentered, and unfocused. I use the Headspace app and love it, but there are many other good ones out there too.
  • Daily intention setting. I don’t remember where I got the idea for setting daily intentions instead of starting the day or week with a long and loosely prioritized to-do list, but that’s been a game-changer for me. (You can see a couple of examples in the image of my daily notebook, above.) When new tasks come in, I weigh them against my intention/priority list for the day before deciding whether to tackle or table that task. The 3 limit forces me to prioritize AND be realistic about my available time. Listing my intentions in my daily notebook allows me to go back and see patterns: what days were hard for me? what days’ lists were too ambitious? Bonus: I’ve retrained my brain (most days) to acknowledge that I’m not a terrible person if I didn’t meet all 3 intentions — it just means I was not cognizant of what the day held when I set those intentions.
  • One sentence journal. I think this idea came from one of Gretchen Rubin‘s books. I love the idea of journalling, but not the (self-)expectations around journalling (the journal has to be a complete record of your life and feelings, etc). But committing to writing at least one sentence a night about the day? That’s easy. So, I write at least one sentence in my journal every night before bed, reflecting on something that happened that day. Often I end up writing several sentences, but if I’m mentally exhausted I’m only on the hook for one. Keeping even such a minimal journal has actually been super beneficial for recognizing patterns in my depression and anxiety, which means my therapist and I can figure out better systems for keeping that in check. And it’s a great way to remember what happened last year, 2 years ago, and so on.
  • Sunday night meeting. I got this idea from NCFDD originally, the idea of sitting down with yourself and your calendar and all of those notes you took during the previous week on various projects and figuring out how you’re going to spend your time and energy the coming week. Sunday nights work because it’s a good way to transition from the weekend to the work week, but I’ve also done this first thing Monday morning, or sometimes even Sunday morning, if Sunday’s heavily scheduled. I also use the time to make sure I’m working towards the goals I set at the start of the term, and to readjust goals and timelines if necessary.

As with everything, my systems and tools are a work in progress. I suspect in 6 months at least one of these tools or systems will change — but for me, that’s part of the fun!

On overwork and taking a pause

There are the plans you painstakingly make at the start of each academic term. The list of projects you’ll complete by March. The daily research/writing time you slot in on your calendar like any other meeting. The schedule of when you’ll send things to collaborators, getting them off your plate so you can move on to the next project. The time you set aside for class prep and class administration. The downtime on weekends for catching up with your family and friends and doing things that restore your soul.

And then reality hits, and there are the plans (or lack thereof) that you actually follow.

So far, Winter term has been an exercise in rescheduling and pivoting. From the polar vortex bringing near-record cold and wind chills (and 4 straight days of school cancelations for the kiddos — but none for Carleton, of course <eyeroll>), to service obligations that are all taking 10 times longer than expected (and thus still occupying valuable space on the to-do list), to the realities of teaching a course for the first time in 6 years, to collaborators and students and colleagues who are similarly overwhelmed by life and the dumpster fire that is our world these days….well, suffice it to say it’s been a challenging term.

The biggest unanticipated challenge for me? Course prep. I expected that course prep would take up a bigger chunk of my time than it normally does, given that I last taught this course in Fall 2012. But OH MY WORD, some days course prep and course administration feels all-consuming. Having 39 students in a class that requires a lot of hands-on time from me is overwhelming. And for reasons I won’t go into here (*cough* backups that weren’t really backups *cough*), I am creating about 80% of my course materials from scratch. Problem sets. Reading quizzes. Reading assignments. In-class exercises. Mini-lectures. The good news is that I am thoroughly enjoying the process, and redoing almost everything gives me the freedom to reimagine the course from how I taught it previously. That’s a tremendous gift. And chances are good that I’ll be teaching this course several times next year, so putting in the work now will make Future Amy’s life much, much easier. BUT. It is still very, very time-consuming. And most of this time is coming at the expense of my weekend fun time, which means I haven’t taken an entire weekend day off since the first of the year, and my research time.

For someone who’s worked very hard to give herself permission to take time for self-care and restoration, working every weekend has taken a huge toll on me. Before the polar vortex hit, I realized that I was heading quickly into burnout land. The polar vortex gave me permission to hibernate in my house, cancel anything that required me to physically be anywhere else but my house (including class and office hours), and while I spent much of that time working, it was at my own pace and not the panicked, break-neck pace I’d gotten used to. I caught up, sort of. I didn’t have to be constantly “on”, something that’s draining for an introvert like me. And not having to be anywhere meant that I could take breaks to do things that restore me, like craft, color, and work on puzzles.

There’s still way too much on my plate, but I’m at the point where I feel like I can manage it better, and where several things are close to finished. I think I can actually take the majority of this weekend off, for a change! And — dare I say it? — I should be able, starting next week, to get back into my daily research/writing practice, and make progress on something other than advising my research students on their projects.

A snapshot of (the quickly ending) Fall Term

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

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

Teaching: Revisiting an Old Favorite Class

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

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

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

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

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

Research: Papers, Papers, Papers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

An academic summer, part 2: fun

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

Races and coming back from injury

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

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

Why not a sprint triathlon, I thought?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday funday

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

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

Taking time off

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

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

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


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

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

Dealing with a professional slump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflecting on the transition back

As fall term comes to a close (our last day of classes was yesterday), I’ve been reflecting on my experience coming back from a year-long sabbatical.

Overall, the transition has been easier and less painful than I anticipated.

One of the big concerns I had was the loss of my “free” nights and weekends. While on sabbatical, I took weekends off (except for my Sunday night meeting), and only worked on weeknights occasionally. I worried that the sheer volume of work I’d be facing would translate into squeezing work in every night after the kids went to bed (thus skimping on sleep) and trying to squeeze work in on already-packed weekends.

Luckily, I’ve been able to mostly avoid working on the weekends, save for an hour or two on Sunday evenings, and my weekday evening workloads have been manageable. Yet I seem to get more done!

I credit a couple of things for this:

  • More deliberate scheduling of tasks. I’ve done the “put your writing/research time on your calendar” trick forever, and that helps me prioritize writing and research even during the craziest times of the term. I’ve started doing that with other things — blocking off time for class prep, or administrative tasks, for instance. In addition to providing more structure to my workday, it eliminates the worry over when certain things will get done.
  • Meditation. I started meditating this summer, at the suggestion of my therapist, as a way to manage my anxiety and depression. I know it is not for everyone, but it has worked wonders for me. In addition to helping with my anxiety and depression, I’ve found it easier to focus on one thing at a time — so when I’m working on something, I’m thinking only about that and not the million other things that I could also be doing at this particular time. Not surprisingly, this increased focus means I complete things more quickly, and my work is of higher quality.

The one thing I did not expect? My lack of stamina, mentally and physically.

Before sabbatical, most days I’d be able to power through mentally until the end of the day, before my energy started to wane. Now? By 3pm I’m EXHAUSTED, mentally and physically. And it feels like it takes me longer to recover from that exhaustion; taking a short break doesn’t help as much as it used to.

Perhaps this is partially due to our family’s schedule this fall, where I’m often picking up one or both kids after work and going straight to one or more sports practices or other evening activities. There’s no real downtime for me until later in the evening, so perhaps anticipating that, my mind shuts down early as a means of self-preservation?

Perhaps it’s because I got used to a different, more deliberate pace of working while on sabbatical, with some down time built in between tasks. Now, I often move right from one task to the next out of necessity — which means fewer mental and physical breaks over the course of a day.

Whatever the reason, it’s a pattern that’s persisted over the course of the term. I know that winter term will be even more hectic than fall term: we’re hiring (we’re hiring! come work with us!); I’ll be selecting a new cohort of Summer Science Fellows (and faculty research mentors) and helping our current cohort find summer positions; there’s lots of Comps stuff that happens winter term and I’ll be doubly hit with that as advisor to 3 groups and our department’s Comps organizer. And my family’s schedule is not going to get any less hectic this winter — in fact, my daughter is moving up an age group on her swim team, which means we’ll have to figure out how to get her to one additional practice per week, on top of everything else going on.

For me, the solution probably lies in finding ways to work downtime into my workday so that I don’t exhaust my cognitive resources early. And that’s something I’ll reflect on during our long break between fall term and winter term.

#AcWriMo 2017: Slaying my research demons

It’s November 1, which long time readers of this blog know means that it’s time once again for #AcWriMo! Academic Writing Month is the academic’s version of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Academics commit to 30 days of research progress of all types — getting articles/book chapters/book proposals/dissertations completed and/or out for review, starting a new project, completing a literature review, writing simulation code, etc.

I’ve been a long term participant in AcWriMo (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). Every year I think “maybe this is the year I skip it”, but every year I come back. There is something about the public accountability, the thrill of keeping research momentum going during a crazy busy time of the academic year, and the community that keeps me coming back. Even this year, when I have a daily writing practice that’s going rather well and projects that I’m making clear progress on.

This year, I’m using AcWriMo to not only make research progress, but also to confront some of my own research demons. You see, there’s this research project that I started on sabbatical — an interview project — that’s stalled. Yeah, part of it is because I’m busy, but a bigger part of it is because I have completely psyched myself out about it. I’m at the stage where I should be interviewing subjects that I’ve recruited, and I’ve stalled out on the recruiting stage. Because recruiting participants is Scary and it means I might have to Talk To People I Don’t Know or, worse, Ask People I Know And Like To Give Up Some Of Their Precious Free Time To Help Me. (And I hate asking people for help.)

But stalling out means that I probably missed out on an opportunity to submit this project to a Late Breaking Work track at CHI. And I am kicking myself because that would have been a primo opportunity to present this work, or at least get some early feedback.

So while I have some other projects I’m working on — a fellowship application due mid-month, a conference paper with a January deadline — I’m only going to specify one goal for this year’s AcWriMo. And that is to get back on track with this interview project. With one goal, I won’t be as tempted to work on my other projects as a means of avoidance, and prioritize them over the interview project. The interview project becomes the priority.

Here is what I plan to do this month:

  • Revamp the project timeline. Given I probably can’t make this late breaking work deadline, where is the next logical place to send this work? Preferably something with an early spring deadline. And then work backwards from there to figure out what to do each week.
  • Rethink my recruiting strategy. The way I’ve positioned this study is not working. I need to rethink how and where I’m recruiting subjects, and redo my “advertising campaign”.
  • Schedule and conduct some damn interviews already! I do have a few people who expressed interest in participating….er, months ago. I plan on following up and hopefully scheduling at least one interview by the end of the month.
  • Complete some of the writing on the eventual conference/workshop paper. There are sections I can draft — the intro, the methods, the lit review — that will save me lots of time later when deadlines loom.

As always, you can follow my progress (and others’ progress too) on Twitter, using #AcWriMo. And as always, I’ll have an update here at the end of the month on how I did.

Good luck to all of those participating! May the writing gods smile upon you.

Random thoughts, Friday before first day of classes edition

The week before classes is traditionally very busy. Lots of meetings, faculty retreat, Academic Fair, advising especially if you have first year advisees — not to mention, the rush to get everything ready for the first day of classes. And the busy-ness and franticness, I’m finding, is amped up to 11 (on a scale of 1-10) when you’re coming off sabbatical.

I’m finding a few things more challenging than usual:

  • Interacting with people. Oh, so many people! Comparatively at least, since I’m used to working by myself at home with only my cats for company. I’ve found I need a lot more alone time to recover after these encounters, more time than usual. Tuesday and yesterday afternoon were especially brutal — Tuesday because of faculty retreat (a half day filled with people! ack!), and yesterday due to a combination of meetings + Academic Fair (where first years can go and learn about the academic departments and services) without a break. Last night I could barely function or think. Good times.
  • Emails. Emails emails emails. I’m realizing I was spoiled on sabbatical: not only was I getting way fewer emails, but also I could ignore about 90% of the ones I did get. Not so anymore. I’ve fallen way behind on email processing this week, so in addition to the 1000 other tasks I have to do today to get ready for next week, I have to pencil in time to tackle at least the more pressing ones. And let’s not mention the Slack channels I’m on, where conversations have ramped up quite a bit in the last week.
  • Getting all the logistics in place for the term. This includes things like coordinating meetings with community and campus partners for our capstone projects, which affects the times and days of the week I meet with my capstone groups. And reserving lab space for in-class labs. And finding a meeting time and place for the science fellows seminar. Which, you guessed it, means lots of emails. Oh yeah, and figuring out office hours and blocking off time for research and class prep and and and …. ok, deep breaths.

I know that This Too Shall Pass and Everything Will Somehow Get Done By Monday. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. ….

* * *

I’m really enjoying my new office and my new building. My hallway consists of me, the director of our learning and teaching center, and the new writing program director. Lots of potential for great conversations and maybe projects with both. The Cinema and Media Studies/Music admin offices are across the hall, as well as CAMS and Music faculty offices and the Learning and Teaching Center. Being in such an interdisciplinary spot is going to be really interesting!

Our department has a Slack channel now, since we’re spread out (2 of us are in my building, and the rest are spread between 3 floors of another building), as a way of communicating small things and having small discussions/getting questions answered. I’m also getting used to the fact that my colleagues now call me on the phone to have once were quick hallway conversations. I’m used to ignoring my phone — I guess I can’t do that any longer.

I do hope the construction noise outside my window ends when classes start.

My building is 2 blocks from downtown, which means 2 blocks from coffee shops and the bagel place and restaurants and such. Plus there is a coffee shop in my building. I foresee a lot of coffee and bagels in my future this year. Perhaps I won’t be losing the Sabbatical 5 Pounds I gained last year. But, on the other hand, this means more interesting places to walk when I am feeling stir-crazy and need to clear my head.

* * *

And on that note, it’s back to class prep and email taming and all of the other Friday before classes start tasks. To all the Carls new and returning: see you on Monday, and have a fabulous fall term!