An academic summer, part 1: Research

June is here. Spring term is (finally, mercifully) over. And, if the questions I’m getting are any indication, the thoughts of the friends, neighbors, and acquaintances of faculty turn to one thing:

“So, do you have the summer off?”

I’ve been getting so many variations of this question lately that I decided I should write a post, describing what this academic is doing this summer. (Hint: It definitely does NOT involve having the summer off!) But as I thought about what I wanted to include in such a post, I realized that I had a potentially rather long post on my hands.

So, over the next couple of weeks I’ll be posting what my academic summer, this year, looks like. In this post, I’ll tackle what I and my students are doing research-wise. In subsequent posts, I’ll talk about what I’m doing for fun, rethinking how I perform mentoring and allyship, curricular projects, and, finally, what I’m specifically choosing not to do this summer.


Faithful readers of this blog may recall that my current project, Self-Healing Home Computer Networks, has two pieces to it: part mathematical, part social science.

The social science piece: where are the participants? and a new experiment

My main focus this summer is on the social science part of the project. The goal of this piece of the project is to deduce the language/terminology and troubleshooting strategies that non-technical people use when reasoning about, identifying problems with, and attempting to fix the computer networks within their homes. I’m working with two undergraduates, both brand new to research, on this project.

My original plan was to conduct more interviews (possibly with my students’ help), and to work with my students to code and analyze this data, so that we could start framing out a larger survey to conduct later this year or early next year with a larger participant base. We’ve been doing the latter — my students are learning how to work with qualitative data, and have been instrumental in drilling down deeper into a few of the sub-themes we observed on a first cursory pass through the transcripts.

However, the former is proving to be more challenging than I anticipated — I am struggling to recruit participants! I’ve done mostly offline and email blast friends and neighbors recruiting, and some flyering, with little success. I’m trying to revamp my recruiting protocol and seeing what’s possible in terms of online recruiting. While this is frustrating, it’s actually been a good learning experience for me and my students, showcasing the difficulty of conducting qualitative research.

(Shameless plug: if you are reading this and happen to either be in the south metro area of the Twin Cities, or know someone who is, and either would like to participate or knows someone who might like to participate, please contact me! I appreciate any help or leads I can get!)

My students started working with me during spring term, reading the relevant background literature and learning how to do qualitative research. Toward the end of spring term, we kicked around the idea of conducting a related experiment, simultaneously with the interview study: a card sort, using the terminology we’ve collected so far in the interviews. This has become the students’ main focus this summer. The students came up with other sources from which to extract potential terminology, and we have the framework of the experiment set up. We’re now refining the experiment as well as our IRB protocol, and trying to figure out our potential subject pool. Hopefully we’ll get to launch our experiment in a couple of weeks!

The mathematical piece: Where does this fit?

After the resounding and unfairly mean rejection of my workshop paper, I largely put that part of the project aside, partly to cool my anger and partly to concentrate on the other half of the project. My ego has (mostly) recovered, and so I’m spending some of my research brain cycles figuring out where to send this work out next.

I’ve framed this paper as a quality of experience management paper, with little success. So I am now trying to figure out how to reframe it. My instincts tell me that IoT (Internet of Things) management might be a better fit, so that’s where I’m concentrating my energies right now. I’m less familiar with the IoT conference/workshop space, and IoT is a pretty broad subfield, so identifying appropriate venues has proved challenging thus far. I think I need to figure out who in my professional network is working in the IoT space, and pick their brains for advice.

Mentoring students

Today I realized that I have not worked with students over the summer since the summer of 2014! For me, that’s an extraordinarily long hiatus. I worried that my research mentoring skills would be a bit rusty. Luckily, the two students that I hired make my job easy-peasy. They may be brand new to research, but they are SHARP and pick things up quickly. I’m actually having trouble keeping up with the pace they’re setting! They are eager to learn, and keep asking me what they should be reading. They have great ideas and keen insights.

As expected, they are not quite yet completely comfortable with failure or the uncertainty involved in doing academic research, but we’ve had some good conversations already about how to live with that discomfort.

One logistical piece I worried about before the start of the summer: my students’ lab is in a building all the way across campus from my office. Granted, my campus is small, and “all the way across campus” = a 10 minute walk. Still, it poses a challenge. In previous summers, my office was down the hall from the lab. Students could run down the hall to ask questions, and I could run down to the lab to help them troubleshoot/debug a problem, sketch out a design, etc. How do you replicate this kind of atmosphere with the physical distance? The solution we’ve found, which is working so far: longer lab meetings (usually an hour) mid-morning, and Slack for questions/discussions between meetings. While this hasn’t happened yet, if a question/discussion indicates that this would be better hashed out face-to-face, I’ll either run over to the lab or have the students come to my office.

We’re only in Week 2 of the summer, but I’m already excited about the direction my research is taking. I know that the work my students and I do this summer will set up a strong foundation for me (and maybe them and other students) to continue during the academic year — and that excites me, too.


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.)

#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.

Sabbatical report: Context switching

I’m now about 6 months in to my year-long sabbatical. Currently, I’m working on two very different sub-projects. Each sub-project is related to my larger research project on self-healing home networks, and each one approaches the larger project from the lens of the two subfields I straddle.

The first sub-project is more mathematical/theoretical. I’m attempting to create a mathematical model of a home network, based on my own measurement work and the measurement studies of others. I submitted a paper in December, which was rejected but got really helpful reviews. Even the infamous Reviewer 3 had constructive and kind things to say. (Thanks, anonymous reviewers!) So now I’m working to make the model more mathematically rigorous. This project approaches the problem of self-healing home networks from the computer networks perspective, and also harkens back to my electrical engineering days, when it seems like every graduate class I took had “processes” in the title (Stochastic Processes, Random Processes, etc.).

The second sub-project could not be more different from the first. It’s a qualitative, interview based study on how people reason about the networks within their homes. This project approaches the problem of self-healing home networks from the human-computer interaction (HCI) side. The research methods I’m utilizing are completely new to me, so the learning curve has been large. While I’ve done some math for this project (mainly freshening up my knowledge of statistics), the bulk of the work resembles work that a social scientist would normally do.

The disparity in approaches of the two sub-projects has made for some interesting work weeks. I spent a few days recently cozying up with my old Stochastic Processes textbook trying to remember the details of Markov chains vs. autoregressive models, drawing lots and lots of diagrams, and calculating transition probability matrices. I haven’t thought in such a mathematically rigorous way in a while, so while my skills are definitely rusty, it felt good to return to that mode of thinking. Interspersed with this work are days where I’m reviewing techniques for asking effective interview questions, testing out my recording equipment, strategizing about how to recruit participants, and refining my interview guide. This is an entirely new way of thinking and working for me, so I alternate between feeling like a fish completely out of water and invigorated by the intellectual challenge.

There was probably a time early in my career when I couldn’t fathom working in two such disparate areas. But now, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like that I’ve found my research passions in two very different subfields. I love that each field engages a different part of my brain. I appreciate that I’ve identified research problems that straddle both fields. I love the opportunity to do and write about math-y things AND design/people-y things. I love that I can use different tools and skill sets to construct models about the world.

I embrace and enjoy the context-switching that my research life entails.

#AcWriMo, Sabbatical Edition: The Final Reckoning

As I’ve done for the past few years, last month I participated in AcWriMo, the month-long academic writing extravaganza. I started the month with two goals:

  1. Complete an almost-submission-ready draft of a conference paper.
  2. Complete a rough draft of a new research study.

I chose this particular set of goals as a way to address some clogs in my research pipeline. Right now I have a lot of work in preliminary stages and/or various stages of write-up, but nothing out for review. I chose the first goal as a way to move something closer to the out-for-review stage of the pipeline, and the second goal as a way to move a project from the half-baked idea phase to the gee-I-could-start-collecting-data-soon stage.

So, how did I do?

I completely met my first goal. I have a complete draft of a conference paper ready to be tweaked for a particular conference. I did not start the month with a particular conference in mind. Instead, I decided to write a generic draft — more like a tech report — that I could then slightly tweak and reframe for particular venues. So all the source material is there, and all I need to do is edit it. And as luck would have it, a few days ago I found a conference with a mid-December deadline that’s a pretty good fit for it. I’ll need to cut 3 pages and I’ll need to reframe the intro to better fit the conference’s focus, but that should be pretty straightforward. So, bonus, this paper WILL be out for review soon!

I completely met my second goal. My literature search confirmed what I suspected — that this new study area is pretty underexplored. Reviewing the literature, and working through my stash of HCI books, gave me some good ideas for how I might explore this space, and I feel pretty excited about my study plan. Also, terrified, because the new study involves qualitative research methods that I’ve never, ever used before. (I am setting up a lot of meetings with my social scientist friends in the near future!)

I wanted to keep track of how I spent my writing time, so I logged my writing time, number of words, time spent coding, time spent on each project, etc. every day.

research time plot

Time spent over the month on the two projects. “Coding” was code development I did in conjunction with the conference paper.

As expected, I spent more time over the course of the month on the conference paper. This makes sense, because there was a lot more work to do on that particular project and it had a more defined finished product. I also find it interesting that the majority of the work on the new research study was done early in the month. I made a lot of progress early in the month, getting me almost all the way to my goal, which freed up my time to focus on the conference paper. (You can also clearly tell where the weekends are and where the long holiday weekend fell.)

number of words written

Number of words written over the month on the two projects.

It’s a bit demoralizing to see your word count go down over the course of the month, but this reflects the edits on the conference paper. There’s also a faster rate of word production (most of the time) for the new study, because most of that was “new” writing, so it was less edited and vetted. (It also includes the word count for notes I took while reading articles and books for the project.)

I’ve liked the experience of logging my output like this. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that you’re actually making progress when you’re slogging away day after day, but charts like these drive home the point that daily effort does add up over time. I also experimented with journaling about my research every day, and I’ve found that useful as well. I plan on continuing both practices beyond AcWriMo.

As always, I’ve enjoyed the community aspect of AcWriMo, and I will miss that. One of the many things I’ve been thinking about while on sabbatical is how I can recreate some of that supportive community around research and writing at my institution. I hope to come up with some concrete ideas and try them out next year.

I’m so glad I decided to do AcWriMo again this year. I almost didn’t participate because it felt like “cheating” since I am on sabbatical and I’m supposed to be laser-focused on my research. Participating provided me with a chance to reflect on my research practices and experiment with ways of working, as well as set specific and scary goals and make myself publicly accountable. And these are lessons that I’ll take with me beyond AcWriMo and into the new year.

#AcWriMo: Sabbatical Edition

Longtime readers of this blog know that November brings that annual rite of productivity for academics: Academic Writing Month, or AcWriMo for short. The premise of AcWriMo is simple: you set some ambitious research/writing goal(s) for the month and do your darndest to achieve those goals, with the support of a virtual writing community. I’ve participated in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015, and have always found it to be a worthwhile experience.

I’m a little late to the party this year — I didn’t finalize my goals until today. And it feels a teeny bit like cheating, since the purpose of being on sabbatical is to have the space to work on your research, so I don’t “need” this challenge to jump-start my research or get back into good research habits, which is my usual motivation for participating. But I really love the community and support around AcWriMo, and I really love the challenge of setting and trying to meet ambitious goals, so that’s reason enough in my book to join in!

I’ve decided on two main goals for AcWriMo this year:

  1. Complete draft of conference paper. I spent a lot of time this summer thinking about restructuring my research. In the process, I identified a line of research that I thought I could complete and submit as a conference paper by the end of this calendar year. I’ve made really good progress so far on this paper. I really really want to end the month with a completed draft that’s pretty close to submission-ready, because if memory serves there’s a submission deadline in early December for a conference that seems like a fairly good fit. To complete this goal, I’ll need to write, debug, and test some simulation code and run some experiments in addition to writing the paper. This is my main goal.
  2. Complete rough draft of new research study. The idea for this study also came out of my Summer of Reflection. I’ve been chipping away at it, but not making as much progress as I’d like. (So much to read! So little time!) With this project, I just need to buckle down, complete a preliminary lit review, and sketch out one or two possible study designs in some detail. The challenging part of this project (and probably what’s been holding me back) is that it’s way more of a “pure” HCI (human computer interaction) project than I’ve ever attempted, and is likely going to involve research methods that I’ve never used before. Exciting! and also terrifying.

As usual, I’ll be updating my progress here and on Twitter (@drcsiz) under the hashtag #AcWriMo. This year, there’s also a fancy schmancy tracking app that I’ll be using. And since I’m planning on writing anyway, I’ll also be participating in a  14 day writing challenge in the middle of the month. If all this doesn’t keep me accountable, nothing will!

Happy November writing, everyone!

And so begins a new chapter

Today is a day for celebration around these parts.

My three year term as chair is finally over. My sabbatical has officially begun. And last night, I handed in my materials for promotion to full professor. (If memory serves, I’ll find out whether my bid was successful next spring.)

I feel like I’ve been working so long without a break, running from one thing to the next, putting out metaphorical fires everywhere. Other than one last report I’ll need to submit in the next couple of weeks (which shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to complete), my work time for the next year and change is pretty much my own. It’s been a very, very long time since I could say that.

I have some posts brewing about a few things that I’ll try to get out over the next month. Lessons learned as chair, lessons learned from doing 3 tenure track hires in a row, and so on. I am looking forward to having time to blog again.

I am looking forward to having time to BREATHE again.

I’m also eager to start my sabbatical. I realized a couple of weeks ago that I do have something publishable, or very, very close to being publishable. I am pretty sure I can get this out by October. So that’s my near-term goal. In general, I’m just eager to spend lots of quality time thinking about, and actually working on, my research — something that’s been in very short supply lately.

But to be honest, the next week is all about celebration and relaxation. Today I’m taking the day off and spending some quality time with my son at his favorite place — the science museum. Tonight I’ll celebrate all three work milestones with my family. This weekend I’ll hopefully spend some quality time on my kayak. On the 4th, I’ll run our local 5 mile race and eat way too much (vegetarian) barbecue, as I normally do. I did not sign my kids up for any camps next week, so my kids and I will have a staycation of sorts. I plan to spend as much time with them outdoors as humanly possible to take full advantage of our gorgeous summer here.

Today begins a new chapter. I look forward to seeing what this chapter brings.