5 good things

The past few weeks have been hard on many fronts — the COVID front, the work front, the home front, the news cycle front, the everything-is-a-racist-mess front, the I-am-so-done-with-people front (not my students — they have been a bright, bright spot this term!) — ok, you get the picture. Suffice it to say the heavy, contemplative, possibly a bit navel-gazing, post I’d planned for today felt impossible to finish and not the kind of heaviness I wanted to pile on today.

When life gets impossibly hard, I draft a resignation letter that I have no intention of sending (or, at least, not yet) and fantasize about disappearing to a cabin in the woods and living as a hermit. But I also remind myself of the not-sucky things happening in my life. This is one part of the suite of tools I use to manage my anxiety and depression — and boy, have I needed those tools recently.

So when I did this exercise this week, as life spiraled downward, this is what appeared on my list.

Deep family conversations. We tend to have lively conversations (ok, sometimes those “lively conversations” are my kids fighting) over dinner, and given the nature and interests of my kids, I’m never sure where we’ll end up. This week’s topics included the geopolitical situation in the Middle East; sex education and what my kids are learning about healthy intimate relationships; the origins of capitalism; alternate economic systems and their pros and cons; how slavery built White wealth in the US. Lest you think we’re all deep topics, all the time, popular dinnertime conversation topics also include Why What Mom Cooked Tonight Is Gross and 20 Reasons Why I Hate School. I like how these conversations allow me a window into what’s on my kids’ minds and how they’re currently processing the world around them.

Morning reading habit. This year I added “read something vaguely work-related for 15 minutes” to my morning routine, right after I meditate. I’ve been able to finish a few books I’d been working my way through for a while, and generally get more work reading done. Reading is one of my favorite things, and starting the day with one of my favorite things usually starts me off on the right foot for the rest of the day — or at least keeps me somewhat zen through the first few crises of the day.

Injury rehab. Now admittedly, this seems like an odd addition to the list. But I’d kept injuring the same ankle and finally made a PT appointment. And learned that the ankle I badly sprained last spring never quite healed — and oh yeah, my calf muscles are so tight that they’re completely screwing up my running biomechanics. PT is hard and not always fun, but I appreciate knowing what’s causing my injuries and, especially, having a specific plan to follow every day to recover. When everything else is falling apart, there is real comfort in knowing that I have to do 50 reps of these 4 exercises and this many minutes of run/walk intervals and 2 minutes of those stretches — and that no matter what else happens, I can control this small part of my day.

Coffee. Coffee is always a good thing.

Vaccinations. I got my first dose of Moderna earlier this month (one of the first ones at Carleton!!) and will get my second dose at the end of the month. My partner got the Johnson and Johnson vaccine right before they paused it. The resident 8th grader is eager to get vaccinated once anything is approved for the 12-15 age group. I think all of my siblings and their partners, and my mom, have either finished their doses or are in between doses. And more of the people in my life are getting their first and second doses. Getting vaccinated has been a HUGE relief, easing some of the underlying stress and anxiety I’ve held for over a year now. I haven’t seen my family in forever and am looking forward to being able to travel to see them again. And I look forward to hugging local friends again. It’s been way too long.

What positive things are happening for you right now?

Looking forward

This week marks the end of Winter Term at Carleton. The day this posts is the last day of classes; finals end on the 15th. It’s been a long, tough term, every bit the slog we expected (and then some), and not that there’s much of a break before the start of Spring Term classes on the 29th, but it’s a break nonetheless that we all sorely need.

There’s a lot to be anxious about, to be sure — we’re not out of the woods with COVID just yet, and there’s the fear we’ll ease up too early on restrictions before enough of us can get vaccinated. One kid is back in school full time (and has already had a 2-week all-school shutdown because of COVID spread in the school) and the other goes back in just over a week. The continued violence against Asian-Americans worries me, both as a decent human being and as the mom of an Asian son. The trial of Derek Chauvin looms large over everything around here, too, making an already difficult week even more so for many members of our campus community.

And yet.

I find myself more hopeful lately, more willing to look ahead to what we might be able to do in the future. I’m looking forward to more things, with fewer qualifiers — more “when”, less “if”. More outright planning, less contingency planning.

Here are some specific things that I’m particularly looking forward to, in no particular order.

  • In person research with students. While we’ll still have restrictions and a community covenant in place, we received word yesterday giving the go-ahead to host students in our lab spaces this summer! I plan on giving my students the choice of in-person or virtual research this summer so that I can be as flexible as possible — and honestly, I’ll likely give that option to students from now on, pandemic or no. I am positively giddy that I will be able to work side-by-side with students this summer, scribbling on whiteboards together and talking face to face. We’ll finally get to use our brand new research spaces, too!
  • My Spring Term course. I’m teaching Software Design to what looks to be a big group (40 students, plus or minus a few). I adore teaching Software Design. I’ll still be teaching fully online. I taught this course online last spring, and it went fine. But I’ve learned so much since then, and I’m super eager to pour what I’ve learned into redesigning the course for the upcoming term. Luckily, we’re talking tweaks and not wholesale changes, but I suspect they’ll make a huge difference into the class flow.
  • Getting vaccinated! Unlike some states, higher ed faculty and staff in MN are not classified as “essential workers” for the sake of vaccination priority, and because of my age and my relatively good health status, I’ll be in the last priority group for vaccination. That said, I am signed up several places for “please call me if you have open vaccine that you need to get in someone’s arm by the end of the day”. And by all accounts, MN’s vaccination rate is accelerating. I’m on track for a summer vaccination, but with any luck, I might even be vaccinated before my research students start their work this summer. Fingers crossed!
  • Summer gatherings. To be honest, I think it will be a long time before I’m comfortable in someone else’s indoor space mask-free. But the improving weather opens up more opportunities to gather, carefully, outside, with a wider swath of people. I’m excited to see friends “in 3-D” that I’ve only seen on Zoom for months. And maybe this summer we’ll actually be able to use the season passes to a nearby amusement park that I bought in late summer 2019…

As spring arrives and as more possibilities open up, what brings you hope? What things are you looking forward to doing?

One year

This coronavirus pandemic is quite scary. I am wondering if we’ll have a completely virtual spring term. It seems likely at this point.

Personal journal entry, March 10, 2020.

Oh, 2020 me. How naive you were.

I blogged a few weeks back about the exhaustion and grief we’re collectively feeling as we approach the one year “anniversary of the pandemic.” The idea of a pandemic anniversary is interesting in and of itself, but I take it to mean the anniversary of the massive shutdowns in the US, when schools moved online and businesses closed down and events were canceled and you couldn’t find a roll of toilet paper or a container of bleach anywhere. So, early March.

When I wrote the post, I wondered how I would actually feel when the “anniversary” finally arrived. Would it be an emotional experience? Would I experience a wave of grief? Would I feel hopeless, sad, angry, pissed off? Or perhaps numb? And when, exactly, might these emotions hit?

I found some answers this past weekend, when I found myself continually going down the rabbit hole of replies to a simple tweet by NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro:

How I spent my Saturday night — and, er, more time on Sunday than I care to admit.

Reading the replies proved a surreal experience, transporting me right back to early March. Details I’d pushed out of my mind to make way for a survival mindset resurfaced:

  • The discussions with my partner about whether, and how, to “stock up” for something like this. Did we even own bleach? What about Lysol? How much food do we have in the freezer and pantry?
  • Thinking back to every sniffle and fever going back to December 2019 — had it already gone through our family? (Answer: no, since I’ve been repeatedly tested and have donated blood and nothing’s shown up.)
  • The growing sense of unease about being out in public.
  • Taking extra precautions with the snacks I brought in for the last day of class project showcase, and ransacking my office to find hand sanitizer (March 11).
  • Wondering if the middle school musical (where elder kiddo had a one-line singing solo!) would go on as scheduled, and/or if the black belt midterm test slated that same weekend would still happen. (Answer: no to the musical, yes to the test.)
  • The all-faculty meeting on March 12, the day after the last day of Winter Term classes, where we were all crowded together in one room to hear the announcement that we were moving to an online Spring Term. (And feeling increasingly uneasy about all being in the same room, unmasked and not distanced, during what was now clearly a pandemic.)
  • The last time I ate in a restaurant — Friday, March 13, with the younger kiddo, after finishing the first part of our black belt midterm tests. (Pizza, ginormous homemade soft pretzel sticks, and probably root beer.)
  • The moment the kids’ schools shut down for “extended spring break” (March 16) — and the realization that my professional and family roles would be tightly intertwined for the foreseeable future.

I certainly didn’t expect that we’d still be at home (largely), still not vaccinated, still with a pandemic raging. And, in some respects (I’m looking at you, Texas, and all the other states without mask mandates), in potentially worse straits. I didn’t know that my mood most days would still swing between numbness, despair, fury, exhaustion, and just a wee bit of hope.

But I also didn’t expect that I’d become reasonably competent in teaching online, and that I’d embrace certain aspects of that medium. I didn’t know that the pandemic would force me to reckon with almost everything I believed and thought I knew about grading and radically change how I evaluate student work. I didn’t think that our super active family would actually welcome the cessation of extracurriculars and embrace the concept of wide-open evenings and weekends spent together.

The answer to “how will I feel when the anniversary arrives?”, so far, is pretty much “the same way I feel most days during this pandemic”, with perhaps a growing sense of hope over everything else. Mixed, too, with a bit anxiety over what our new, post-pandemic normal will be.

What feelings are you experiencing as we hit the one year mark of the pandemic?

What’s for dinner?

My family cooks and eats dinner at home the vast majority of the time. This was true in the Before Times, and it’s certainly true now. We probably went out to dinner about once a week, usually on Friday or Saturday; we’ve now swapped that with Takeout Tuesdays. But the rest of the week, we cook.

When my now 8th grader was a teeny tiny baby, we started meal planning, which made life sooooo much easier. (It also vastly simplifies grocery shopping.) We still meal plan, selecting not just what we’ll cook that week, but also slating dishes on particular nights. We try to match the complexity of the meal with the anticipated energy level of that evening — so, say, I don’t attempt to make a 2-hour vegetarian meatloaf after a full day of meetings. And we try to mix new-to-us dishes with old favorites each week.

I thought I’d share some of the dishes we’ve “discovered” lately, along with some old reliable favorites. Partly because I love sharing dinner ideas as much as I like it when others share dinner ideas with me. And partly because this week’s been unexpectedly heavy and a little levity can’t hurt.

A couple of notes: While my family is not vegetarian, I am (although I do eat fish every once in a while), and I do the majority of the meal planning and about 70% of the cooking. So we cook vegetarian or pescaterian about 95% of the time, and the recipes posted here reflect that. Also, these are dishes in our winter rotation — our summer menu is less oven-heavy and more salad-and-grill heavy.

5 new-ish dishes we’ve loved

Instant Pot Enchilada Rice, from Cook With Manali. We recently got an Instant Pot and most of what we’ve tried has been a hit. (Biggest disaster? Grits.) This recipe works especially well after a long day, because other than a bit of chopping and a minute of sauteeing, it’s really just dump-everything-in-and-start. And it has a definite comfort food feel to it.

Instant Pot Red Curry Lentils, from Pinch of Yum (an overall reliable source of good recipes). My family’s not a huge fan of Indian or Indian-inspired food, much to my chagrin, but there are a few recipes they’ll eat without complaint, and even fewer they’ll outright request. This is one of the rare ones that gets requested. A true dump-and-cook recipe, served over rice and/or with garlicky naan.

Creamy Garlic Tuscan Salmon with Spinach and Sun-Dried Tomatoes, from eatwell 101. This is a “feels fancy” dinner that comes together pretty quickly. We’ve served it with fettuccini on the side, or with roasted veggies and potatoes. It would probably be really good with mashed potatoes, too.

David Tamarkin’s Baked Feta with Chickpeas and Greens, from Mark Bittman. My kids were deeply skeptical about this one, but it’s quickly become a family favorite. The tomato sauce alone is delicious. Crusty bread for dipping is a must.

Mediterranean Nachos, from Fork in the Kitchen. You could probably speed this up by using already-made pita chips, but honestly making your own (assuming you start with really good pita bread) makes this extra special. This is also good for the picky eater crowd because you can top your own with whatever combo of veggies and such you want. (Leftovers are great, too!)

5 old favorites

Peanut noodles with spinach and tofu (pra ram tofu). I don’t use a recipe for this other than for the peanut sauce, which comes from Moosewood’s Simple Suppers cookbook. (It’s pretty much this recipe, substituting coconut milk for the water.) Stir fry tofu until crispy; stir fry spinach; serve over buckwheat soba noodles.

Crock-Pot Veggie Loaded Baked Potato Soup, from Peas and Crayons. Even the soup-hater in my house will eat this. Very much a comfort food dish. You could probably serve this with a salad, but we go full-carb and break out the crusty bread.

The Best Detox Crock Pot Lentil Soup. Another Pinch of Yum recipe. I normally cringe at the thought of “detox” anything, but this soup is truly delicious. I’ll often throw in a parmesan rind for extra flavor (I keep rinds in the freezer just for this purpose) and serve with beer bread.

Sheet pan veggies. Another no-recipe dish that’s really versatile, because you can use whatever you have on hand, change veggies with whatever’s in season, add beans or not, serve with grains or potatoes, etc. Right now our favorite combo is brussels sprouts, cauliflower, potatoes, and garbanzo beans. (And leftovers make good omelette fillings for the next day’s breakfast or lunch.)

Mujadara. We use a recipe from a well-loved Lebanese cookbook, but the recipe is pretty similar to this one. It’s a really simple lentils and rice dish with caramelized onions, and one where you can just start it and then go do other things until it’s ready, checking in occasionally.

What have you been cooking lately? Have you tried any recipes that are now in your regular rotation? I’d love to hear what you’ve discovered and what you’re eating lately that’s bringing you joy.

Breaks are not optional

View of trees and a distant river from a ridge in Whitewater State Park, MN
View from atop a ridge on one of the hikes we did last week, in Whitewater State Park in Minnesota.

This summer has been difficult for many reasons, not least because, unlike most summers, there hasn’t been any sort of let-up in the workload. We rushed right from the end of the academic year into discussions and debates about Fall Term, and from there into preparing for a very complicated Fall Term. Many of us juggled this with mentoring research students and trying to get some semblance of scholarship done. We count on the firehose of work in early June to subside to a more steady gardenhose flow from mid-June through at least the first half of August, but this summer has been one long firehose of work.

Not to mention, of course, the underlying mid- to high-level stress of living through a pandemic.

Taking a true and sometimes extended break from work at some point in the summer is non-negotiable for me. I’ve learned over the years that I need to take at least a week, if not longer, to completely unplug and detach from work (and from social media). Otherwise, I enter the new academic year burned out, and that almost always spells disaster by Spring Term, if not sooner.

This break often entails packing up the car and the family and hitting the road for some quality time with Mother Nature. My family loves camping, and loves national and state parks, and it’s a rare year when our break doesn’t feature some or all of these. We usually take off in August, although last year’s epic romp through Colorado and parts of Utah happened in June, just to mix things up a bit.

We’d just started kicking around ideas for this summer’s adventure when everything shut down. As the spring wore on, we resigned ourselves to the fact that there would be no epic road trip this summer, and likely no getaway at all. I started thinking about what a “break” might look like in a summer with no child care and no place to go.

Fortunately, things are under enough control in Minnesota that in-state camping seemed to be a relatively safe option for a getaway. So we scaled back our epic road trip aspirations, picked a state park we’ve been wanting to visit, and made camping reservations.

My partner and I suffer from Cram-Vacation-Too-Full-Itis, as our kids like to point out. So this year, we worked hard to unschedule our trip. (And yes, I realize how ridiculous that sentence sounds.) Only one park over the 4 days, not several. Only one campsite, no moving around from park to park. We hiked in the (late) morning, once everyone was up and fed; took a long break back at the campsite for lunch, board games, and naps/reading; went swimming/fishing in the late afternoon; and relaxed around the fire in the evening. I started and got through half of a novel that’s been on my reading list for a while (which I’ve since finished) and worked on two small crocheting projects.

Yes, there were a couple of times where I found myself thinking, “should we get out and explore the area some more?” I am, after all, a textbook Type A personality. But for the most part I relaxed into the un-schedule. And I made sure to take the rest of the week off once we got back, instead of diving back into work.

I started this week fresh and able to work on some longer-term vision-y stuff I was blocked on pre-trip. Things still feel hard, but they feel more manageable. And that’s why taking a break is so valuable, and so non-negotiable for me.

Have you been able to take a break this summer? How are you rejuvenating yourself this weird summer?

Week 9: Teaching during trauma

I had a different post planned. But that post will have to wait.

I had different plans this week. I don’t even remember what they were, now.

I planned on relief and closure.

Instead, I mourn. I rage. I despair.

I worry. For my Black students, grieving and raging and (once again) doing the emotional heavy lifting and educating and wondering if, not when, they will ever see justice and equity in our institutions in their lifetimes. For my friends, students, and colleagues living in the Twin Cities, with front row seats to the protests, the destruction of neighborhoods, the police violence, the National Guard marching down their streets. For my friends, family, and students living in other cities, with their own front row seats to their cities’ protests and police violence. For what’s going to happen as our president threatens more violence and military action, rather than calling for reflection and mourning and reform.

I flail at what I should be doing. How do I put into words what can’t be put into words? How do I let my students know that honestly, at this point coursework does not matter? It just does not matter. But in a way that doesn’t put the burden on them to advocate for themselves to me, at a time when their emotional and physical energy is already overdrawn? What about a statement of solidarity? How can you draft a coherent statement of solidarity when all you want to say is “We’re furious. We despair. It’s all a mess. We don’t know how to fix it. But we owe it to you to try, and to not make you do any more heavy lifting. It’s our turn now. You need to rest.”

I do my best. I put something into words for my students, giving them an out if they need an out from the end of the term obligations. I check in on people (but not as often as I should). I put something into words for our department, to get us started on a statement of solidarity. Others will finish it, because I’m out of words. I do the same for the STEM Board. It’s clunky. I hope others will help me make it less so. I make sure to be present, more so than I have been. I give myself permission to just keep up, just for a few days until I regain some footing.

I read. I recommend books I’ve already read to others. We all should have done this years ago. But now is better than never.

I take a good, hard look at what I’m doing. What am I doing? What concrete actions am I taking, can I take, will I take? How will I ensure this drive and commitment doesn’t fade away with the news cycle? How can I lead others in taking concrete actions, too?

I meet my class synchronously for the last time later today. I’m still not sure how I’m going to spend that time with them. I’d planned on having them reflect on the course learning goals in the context of their coursework this term. I may still do that, but instead with an eye towards how we can apply the learning goals they achieved to practicing software development in an ethical and just way. I may just listen, and let them lead.

I listen. I observe the conversations of the students and activists. I learn. I read. I catch up to where I should have been years ago. I take action, baby steps, not enough steps.

It’s a start.

48

Today I turn 48.

47 was a challenging year. On the plus side, I achieved some big goals. I started my first big academic leadership role, STEM Director, and while I’ve scrambled to fit my responsibilities into a schedule with too few course releases, I’ve really enjoyed the challenge and the ability to think and act within a wider and broader scope. I revamped one of our core courses and taught it 3 times this year, and it’s been such a joy to teach it (yes, even online this term!). I taught my first taekwondo classes, as I work towards earning my instructor certification. I wrote a memoir as part of NaNoWriMo. I ran 2 trail races. And, last but not least: I earned my black belt in taekwondo!

The last two goals I’m especially proud of, not just because they’re the result of hard work and perseverance, but also because they show that you can do new, hard, athletic things no matter your age.

47 also saw a global pandemic that upended pretty much every aspect of our lives, and continues to do so. It brought a tough (although not altogether unexpected) diagnosis for one of my kiddos, one which we struggle with every day and which truly requires a village to handle. (The absence of that village, even with some of them being on hand remotely, has made daily functioning in this pandemic very difficult for the kiddo, and for us.) Then there was the sprained ankle that derailed my half-marathon training the same week I started. And work, particularly the first half of the academic year, proved grueling and demoralizing for various reasons I can’t get into here.

48 starts off with a ton of anxiety, uncertainty, and angst. So much remains up in the air, about what summer and fall will look like (particularly a summer without child care, which I’ll talk about in a future post), and about how this pandemic will play out. How can anyone plan in this type of environment, when plans may very well prove to be fiction?

But 48 brings a lot of hope, too. I’ll test for my second degree black belt next winter. I plan on running a half marathon, virtual or otherwise, this fall. I’m advising 2 exciting Comps projects, both of which will catapult me clear out of my comfort zone. Our entire Science Complex will be open and fully online in the fall, and I’m so excited to lead the sciences in our new space (and with ALL of the course releases I’m supposed to have!). And I have a few projects in the works that I’m eager to move forward in the coming year.

I’m also looking ahead to the big 5-0, planning a big, epic adventure. Hopefully the state of the world will allow for big, epic adventures at that point….

To be honest, Pandemic Birthday will not be all that different from Normal Birthday. Normal Birthday typically entails lots of solo time for this introvert to rejuvenate from Too Many People During the Week/Too Many End of Term Shenanigans. Pandemic Birthday? Also lots of solo time, although more out of necessity than out of a need to escape people. I’ll head out for what counts for a long run these days (5 miles). Rumor has it that the family is planning some kind of breakfast and some kind of coffee treat for me post-run. I’ll alternate between doing my own thing and hanging out with the family, spending as much time as possible outside. We’ll order in to support a local business, instead of eating out. And hopefully there will be chocolate cake with plenty of frosting to end the day.

Here’s to a new year of adventures…hopefully more of the good kind than of the bad kind!

Grieving the term I was “supposed” to have

It’s human nature, I suppose, to believe that at some mythical time in the future, your life will be “better”. “Once I defend my thesis, life will be so much less stressful!” becomes “Once I earn tenure, I’ll have much more control over my time!” becomes “Well, maybe once I make full professor, things will calm down a bit and I can catch my breath….?”

Of course we know deep down this isn’t true. Our responsibilities and tasks change as we move through life. Sure, we may get rid of one set of stressors, but these are quickly replaced by a different set of stressors. As kids grow out of the toddler stage into the school-age stage, we parents don’t have to watch them quite so carefully or so much to make sure they don’t, say, run into traffic or eat something poisonous. But we trade this vigilance for the stress of helping them navigate bullying, friendships, schoolwork, failure. The stressors are much different, but they are no less stressful.

I’ve been around long enough that I can recognize when magical thinking starts to creep in, and I do a pretty decent job of nipping it in the bud.

But, I do have a somewhat related coping strategy that I trot out when I’m in the middle of a way too busy, overscheduled, how-is-it-possible-for-one-person-to-handle-this-load term (like Winter Term this year), that I’ve found quite successful. And that’s: “If I can just make it to the end of the term, then X will be off my plate.” Or: “If I can just make it to the end of the term, then I’ll still have X, Y, and Z responsibilities, but I will have much more control over my time.”

I like this strategy, because it acknowledges that next term won’t necessarily be less stressful, but it will be less full, or more in my immediate control. And that, I’ve found, is enough to motivate me to keep slogging through in the present, because I know there’s a future payoff. Also, it prevents me from falling too deep down the well of despair.

There were many things in this category that got me through a very difficult Winter Term:

  • Teaching only one 6-credit course in the spring, one that I’ve already taught twice this year, allowing me to use some of the time I’ve spent revamping this course the past 2 terms to do some long-overdue long-range planning for STEM at Carleton.
  • Fewer scheduled-in obligations in the spring, allowing me more freedom over how I spend my day-to-day time, along with time to schedule overdue face-to-face conversations with people I want to know better in my STEM Director role.
  • Working with my newly-hired research students in the spring to get them up to speed on the new line of research we’ll be doing this summer.
  • Meeting and getting to know the new crop of Summer Science Fellows, a cohort program I direct, in the spring.
  • Time and space in the spring to write up a couple of papers that are overdue to be submitted somewhere.

And of course, there’s always the joy of getting to know a new crop of students, to learn their personalities and quirks, and to engage with them in the classroom and office hours.

It was only yesterday that I finally recognized, in the middle of a telehealth call with my therapist, that part of what I was experiencing, the general malaise and sadness and anger and anxiety, was grief.

Grief, over the term I was “supposed” to have.

Grief, over the term I’d “earned”.

Grief, over all the things I’d looked forward to that would no longer happen.

Grief, over the necessary and fundamental changes to the way I work.

Naming my feelings as grief has been freeing. I still grieve, and it’s still hard, but now that I recognize that’s what I’m doing, I can deal with it more effectively. I can pin what I’m feeling to a stage of grief, and try strategies appropriate to that stage of grief to deal with it. I can be sad and angry over what was supposed to be, because being sad and angry is normal in grief. And I can feel hopeful some days and fatalistic others, because those are also part of grief.

Acknowledging this grief is also helping me as I frantically put together some semblance of my course for the start of Spring Term next Monday. As I develop reading quizzes and triage parts of topics and revamp my rubrics to be more specifications grading-like, I keep in the back of my mind that my students, too, are grieving the loss of whatever their expectations were for Spring Term. And while I always try to err on the side of compassion, remembering my student’s grief guides me to lead with compassion in all aspects of my course design.

Many of us are grieving as we navigate this new normal. Hopefully, remembering this will guide us to be more compassionate with each other, as we all figure out ways to accept and deal with our grief.

Navigating the new normal

About an hour after I last posted, Carleton’s president emailed the campus with the announcement we’d all been sort of expecting anyway: Carleton’s moving all instruction online through at least Midterm Break in early May, and likely beyond.

The complete details, as one might imagine, are still very much in flux. Because how could they not be? We’re all in uncharted territory here. But what we do know: Finals end as planned today. Students have an extra day (until Wednesday) to vacate campus. Students can petition to stay if they really can’t leave, and we’ll have services to support them. Spring break’s extended by a week, until April 6, to help faculty and staff reconfigure courses and course support for online learning. Spring term will end on time, and be a week shorter than a normal spring term.

Everyone’s a little lost, and everything feels off right now. My extended Friday office hours were part instruction and part informal therapy session. I invited students to just show up even if they didn’t have questions if they felt unmoored and like they needed to be around others, and a few took me up on that, sitting and working or listening while I answered others’ questions. Some of my senior advisees are scrambling to graduate early, because they can, and I’ve been helping them navigate the ad-hoc accelerated process and think through their options.

We started immediately as a department thinking through some of the practical aspects of moving computer science instruction online, and have already agreed on some common tools to use and/or test drive before April 6. It’s certainly helped that many companies who provide online learning tools are moving to make those free to educators and students during this time. We arrived quickly at the minimum technical configuration our students need to have to participate remotely, which will help ITS plan to provide resources to students who need them. My chair has been an absolute rock star in all of this: attentive to the myriad details while still taking time to make sure we’re all comfortable in our teaching assignments and keeping us talking to each other. And our technical associate’s been working overtime to help us figure out the technical details of things like remote access to servers and other department resources. I feel as though we’re ahead of the curve as far as department preparedness goes.

This week, Grading All The Things and wrapping up winter term are my priorities, as well as making sure my kids, who are now on extended spring break through the end of the month, are not killing each other and/or spending 12 hours a day on screens. I have a ton of administrative tasks that fell off of last week’s to-do list when the announcement hit, that must get done this week. So any planning for spring at this point will be during those down moments when my mind wanders, or perhaps as a break from grading to quell my building anxiety. Next week, planning begins in earnest, and I hope to chronicle my thoughts and plans here as I, and we, navigate this new, strange normal.

How are you, and your institution, navigating your new normal?

Professoring in a time of uncertainty

The end of Winter Term is always tough and often frought. There’s the normal end-of-term stuff, of course: the projects and papers due the last day of classes, the impending final exams and projects, the day-to-day academic work that ratchets up weeks 9 and 10. There’s the unique-to-winter-term stress: seniors finishing up Comps and figuring out what to do post-Carleton, visiting graduate schools or going on interviews or finding out about fellowship applications. Everyone else figuring out how they’ll spend their summers. There’s extra stress on faculty: putting next year’s schedule into place, wrapping up tenure-track hiring, assessing Comps projects, hiring student researchers for the summer, dealing with graders who inexplicably disappear at the worst time. (Thankfully, not something I am dealing with this year, but something I seem to deal with most years.) And of course, everyone’s sick of winter at this point, and that certainly doesn’t help anyone’s mood.

Everyone is tired, frustrated, cranky, and stressed.

Now, add a global pandemic to the mix.

I find myself, like many others, glued to the news cycle. Unable to focus. Worried and uncertain. Largely angry at the nature of the (non) response in the US. Wondering what if. What if what if what if?

Carleton’s in an unusual spot in that our term is ending in the next 5 days, and we head into an almost 2 week spring break before the next term starts. This buys us as an institution some time. Not much, but some. We’re starting fresh anyway on March 30, which, I imagine, makes it slightly easier to pivot to something else. (With “something else” likely some form of online learning.) But for how long?

This morning I’m attending a workshop on online instruction, put on by our learning and teaching center and our academic technologists. I’m looking forward to learning about what we have available at Carleton to facilitate learning and instruction when we’re not face-to-face with our students. And I’m equally looking forward to being in a room with my colleagues, commiserating and sharing coping strategies during this challenging time. I’m also hoping we’ll get some indication as to what’s going to happen for the start of spring term, although I suspect we won’t get a clear answer today. (But maybe at least a hint?)

A couple of weeks ago, I started thinking, during idle moments while walking between meetings and on my commute, about modifications I’d make to my spring course should we move online. What topics could I shuffle? What content could I make into labs? How would I carry out a group project when no one’s in the same room? And, more importantly, how can I keep at least some elements of these once things return to “normal”, because these sorts of modifications likely increase the accessibility of my courses. I’m now grateful that I started pondering these questions when I did, so that I can move forward with planning and not feel quite so overwhelmed.

Beyond that, I’m trying to extend others, and myself, extra grace. Checking in with others. Writing a gentler final exam for my students. Acknowledging the stress we’re all under. Taking time for deeper conversations, and giving others the gift of really listening to them. Connecting. Remembering to eat healthy foods, get to bed (mostly) on time, and exercise. Brainstorming ways I can help out neighbors and friends should they fall ill or should we be under an extended quarantine.

It’s not much, but it’s a start.

How are you coping with these uncertain times?