Random vignettes (bullets are sooo 2012)

autumn leaves

I.

Knowing that this year would be crazy busy for me, I chose my service wisely. I tried to select things that were staggered throughout the year, so that I could give my time and attention to them without stressing out too much. I tried to avoid January and February since that’s when hiring season will kick into high gear around here. I said no to some opportunities because I knew I wouldn’t have the bandwidth for them.

Even with all this careful planning, several of my service activities are now ramping up all at the same time, and all of them seem to require attention at precisely the same times.

So much for careful planning, huh.

*    *     *     *     *

II.

This term, I’m experimenting with all-electronic grading. I’ve always felt a bit squicky about all the paper involved in take-home exams and essays. But I’ve felt more comfortable grading on paper, so even when students turn in take-home exams or essays on Moodle, I tend to print them out to grade them. Moodle introduced a blind grading feature recently, and with this feature I decided to try and go all-electronic.

My system goes like this: Students turn in exams or essays in either Word or PDF format. If they turn in a Word file, I use track changes to make comments and/or indicate how many points they received on a question. If they turn in a PDF file, I use the annotation features in Preview to make comments, mark up the text, highlight passages, etc. Usually I also have an associated rubric on Moodle, but since I comment on their papers/exams directly I just refer them to the document for comments rather than repeating them in the rubric.

I was worried about the clunkiness of this, particularly with annotating PDFs. But I’ve been annotating PDFs I read for research for quite some time now (also to save paper), so I’ve gotten used to how to annotate in Preview and I have a pretty good workflow. And I’m actually enjoying it quite a bit. I can copy and paste comments between papers/exams (good when many students miss the same question or make the same mistake for the same reasons). I had all of my Networks exams open on my computer earlier, and I found it easy to switch back and forth between them, allowing me to grade like I normally do (one part of a question at a time for each student in the class). I find I make longer and more constructive comments and it takes me less time.

Interestingly, my Networks class appears to favor PDFs while my freshman seminar definitely favors Word docs. I’m not sure why this is.

*    *     *     *     *

III.

Tomorrow I embark on a new-to-me adventure. I’m serving as an external reviewer for a CS department review at another liberal arts institution.

I’m pretty excited about the opportunity. We went through our own department review a few years back (right after we brought our son home), but since I was on leave I had a pretty fractured view of the process. I am looking forward to meeting new people, talking about trends in the field, and seeing how another institution does things.

That said, the schedule for this thing looks pretty daunting! I am an extrovert and usually thrive on interacting with people, but I’m thinking I will need to sit and stare at a wall for a few hours after I get back to my hotel, especially at the end of the first full day. I know that the schedule has to be this way due to the short time frame, but ay caramba, this will test my extrovertedness for sure.

Teaching to the space

This term I am teaching in Carleton’s “interactive classroom”, more commonly referred to as the Sandbox. This is my first time teaching in this particular classroom, although I’ve admired it from afar since it opened for business in 2011.

The classroom is set up for collaboration. It’s a long, narrow room with 8 round tables, 6 chairs per table. Each table has a microphone, a large wall-mounted monitor, and a hookup to the projection system so that students can hook their laptops, etc to the monitor. (As the instructor, I can theoretically project this input onto the projection screen too, although I haven’t tried to do that yet.) The room also has whiteboards on 3 of the 4 walls (the 4th, narrow wall has windows), allowing each table access to plenty of drawing/scribbling space. There’s a teaching station in the middle of the room which also hooks up into the room’s projection system.

The setup of this room is perfect for the type of class I’m teaching. My class, Software Design, focuses on the art and science and practical aspects of programming, design, and development. It’s the perfect class for flipping, since much of the content is best covered by doing and not by telling. It’s also the perfect class for collaboration of all sorts: small group discussions, code reviews, design critiques, etc.

So, now that we’re five weeks in, how is the classroom working out? Is it everything I envisioned it would be and more? Or am I desperately wishing for a more conventional space? I thought this would be a good time to evaluate the good, the bad, and the ugly of this little interactive space experiment.

The good

I’ll start off by saying that there’s a lot to like about the space and overall I’m really enjoying teaching in it. The students have really utilized the space well from the start. Sure, they sometimes still play with the microphones before class starts, but in the first class meeting students were already playing around with the laptop hookups and using the whiteboards. The tables are excellent for discussions. One thing I didn’t anticipate is how loud the room gets during group activities (there are 38 students in the class, so we fill most of the room), but I think the round tables help everyone hear and participate (and focus!).

The room layout is also a good visual cue for me. As I’ve mentioned before, one thing I still struggle with in my flipped classrooms is just shutting up already and letting the students get to work. Seeing the students all set up and ready to collaborate reminds me (most of the time, not always) to make my remarks brief so that the students can get to the task(s) at hand. The layout also makes it easy for me to visit each group during collaborative work and to interact with everyone in the group. It’s harder to hide/not participate at a small, round table! There’s definitely a community and a camaraderie in the classroom, and a pretty relaxed, comfortable atmosphere, and I think the space plays a large role in that climate.

Basically, the room makes collaborative work so easy and natural that it seems a shame to “waste” it on lecturing, so I’m more mindful of how I structure my class meetings. My pedagogy has really benefited from the space as a result.

The bad

There are some definite quirks of the room that take some getting used to. Luckily many of these quirks can be creatively managed.

First, with the teaching station in the middle of the room, I have my back to about a third of the class when I stand there. This forces me to walk around the room, which I tend to do anyway when I talk, so not a big deal. But it is problematic if I have to do a demo, or write notes (see next paragraph). I made a few jokes early in the term about my “rudeness”, so I don’t think the students mind too much, but it’s a bit off-putting to me.

Second, even though the room has tons of whiteboard space, the glare and sight lines mean that there’s no good spot for ME to write notes for the class. This is the biggest drawback, because I primarily teach using the board (I only use slides for complex diagrams and discussion questions.) So I don’t write on the board—I write notes on a tablet PC which is projected to the main screens in the room. It works, but it’s not the most natural thing in the world for me, which means I don’t write as much in terms of notes, summaries, etc. as I usually do on a typical board. Which means I think much more carefully about the points I do write/project for the class, so I guess that’s a net win.

Third, the room gets surprisingly loud. Now, I definitely don’t have a problem with vocal projection (I inherited my grandmother’s lack of brain/mouth filter and lack of an “indoor voice”), but even I have a hard time getting people to simmer down when I want to move on from an activity. There’s enough of a delay on the lights that flashing the lights doesn’t work well. I’m still working on a good mechanism to quiet down the room without destroying my voice in the process. (Suggestions welcome!)

The ugly

There’s a lot of collaborative work we can do without computers in this course. However, at the end of the day this is a SOFTWARE design course, and every so often it makes sense to do collaborative work on computers (duh). There are no computers in the space other than the one at the teaching station, and students don’t reliably bring their laptops to class. This means that we end up sometimes meeting in the classroom and sometimes meeting in the computer lab—which is all the way across campus, in my building. (For instance, last week we met in the classroom on Monday and in the lab on Wednesday and Friday.) Now, there is a lab in the same building, but there was not enough time to get the software I needed installed in this lab before the start of classes, hence this imperfect solution. I do try to announce well in advance and multiple times when we have a classroom switch, but students are understandably annoyed when they accidentally go to the wrong room (it’s a 10 minute mistake—the time it takes to walk across campus). Also, I would much rather have the students working on computers in the classroom space, to facilitate cross-pair sharing and discussion (which is harder to pull off in the lab, set up like a conventional computer lab—long and narrow, computers in rows).

The verdict

The room is quirky, and I wish it had dedicated computers, but it works, and works very well for this class. Here’s the most telling testimonial: I’m teaching this same class next spring, and I’ve already put in a request for a room switch so that I can teach the class in this room again. (Hopefully this will give me enough lead time to get the proper software in the computer lab in the same building.) I’m enjoying the way the space challenges my approach to class planning and to pedagogy, and I’m really enjoying the classroom climate fostered by the space. It will be interesting to get my students’ perspective on their mid-term evaluations—I am curious to see if their experience of the space is as positive as mine. Regardless, I’ve enjoyed the chance to try out a new-to-me space and break out of my normal teaching routine!

5 things that helped me survive summer, 2011 edition

At the end of the past two summers, ProfHacker’s contributors all posted on 5 things (technologies, activities, foods, etc) that got them through the summer; their 2011 lists were just posted. Last summer I did the same. So, continuing that tradition (can it be a tradition after only 2 years?), here are the 5 things that helped me survive the summer of 2011.

  1. Evernote. Oh Evernote, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Seriously, Evernote has become my favorite and most indispensable tool. I keep my meeting notes there. I keep my checklists and to-do lists for my various projects there. If I have a thought I want to follow up on later, or a paper I need to track down, or a teaching idea I’d like to research, or a link I don’t have time to read…I just make a note and tag it. Evernote syncs to all my computers and to my phone, so I can access these things everywhere. I also use it for non-school stuff too, like recipes or notes on future trips or contact info of people I meet. I. Love. Evernote!
  2. Checklists. I am waaaaaaay overcommitted right now. I have various research and service and teaching projects in various stages of (un)done-ness. Keeping track of everything was stressing me out big time earlier this summer. In a fit of frustration one day, when I was so paralyzed I couldn’t get anything done, I started a master checklist. I have a note in Evernote (of course) called “Next steps on various tasks”, with a section for each project and at most 4 “next things” to do on those projects. When I feel stuck or overwhelmed or not sure what to work on next, I open up the list, pick something, and go. Keeping the older tasks, checked off, on the list also helps me see how much I’ve done this summer, which helps the psyche.
  3. Google Docs. This made the list last year too, but it’s really an indispensable part of my workflow. My research students kept personal lab notebooks on there, and we kept a group “lab notebook” as well. It’s once again helped my collaborations immensely, particularly the development of a set of linked courses with a colleague. This summer it’s allowed us to share and collaborate on our linked syllabi, develop rubrics, and keep track of meeting notes with various support staff. We’d not be half as organized if not for Google Docs!
  4. Cold-press coffee/home-brewed iced tea. At the end of last summer, I learned how to make cold press coffee in my french press. I am now seriously addicted to the stuff. (Decaf, since caffeine gives me migraines.)  A few years ago I also figured out how to brew my own iced tea from regular tea bags, which tastes so much better than the special iced tea bags. This sounds trivial, I realize, but a good tall glass of homemade iced coffee or iced tea makes me happy, and is like a mini-treat every day. Since I haven’t had a break since school started back in January, any little thing that feels like a little break in my day makes things better.
  5. Running. I ran my first ever half marathon this summer. I’ve been a runner for a while, but the longest race I’ve done before this was 4 miles. I discovered that I absolutely love distance running. I looked forward to my long runs on weekends all week long. Training forced me to take time for myself (which I have a hard time doing) and to focus on something other than my job (which I also have a hard time doing). It also taught me to be more patient (building up mileage slowly) and flexible (sometimes your run is not going to go the way you expected, and you have to deal with that). Running the race and crossing the finish line (and recording a faster time than my target!) was the high point of my summer, and I’m still buzzing from the experience! Best of all, I stayed injury-free.
Honorable mentions include yoga, being part of a CSA, awesome undergrad research students, and a super support system of friends and family.
What helped you survive the summer?

An open letter to Moodle

Dear Moodle,

I have really enjoyed working with you all these years.  I appreciate that you allow me to post course content, assignments, news feeds, etc, all in one place; that you take care of populating my course calendar with due dates, collecting student assignments and the feedback from the grader on those assignments; and that you automagically compute my grades for me (although, I hate to admit, I do double-check in Excel just to be sure you’re correct).  Sure, we have some misunderstandings from time to time, and there are things I wish you could do better, but what relationship is without its problems, right?

However, there is one thing that I wish more than life itself that you would learn to do.  One thing that would save me countless hours of repetitive work, wailing and gnashing of teeth, and all that jazz.  Just one simple thing:

Templates.

You see, dear Moodle, I have decided to give daily reading assignments in my class.  Really, the only thing that differs on these assignments is the reading assignment date and the actual readings.  The format on all of these is exactly the same. So I’d love to be able to create one reading assignment, and then “clone” it 27 times (one for each class meeting).  Or, even, create a new assignment and then be able to select the desired template (that I’ve created within Moodle, ideally) for that assignment.  Heck, this would also work well for the more classic assignments I’ll be giving, since each of those assignments have the exact same headers and some of the same content.

But alas, this is not to be.  I am forced to go in and create an entirely new assignment and re-create all of the content and layout from scratch.  Or—and I hate to admit that I’ve been sneaking around, cheating on you, dear Moodle, but I have—create a template outside of you and copy/paste this template into each assignment.

So please, dear Moodle.  I know that if you love some….er, something, you should not demand that it change just to suit you, but I feel this is all for the best.  I just want you to be the best course management system that you can possibly be.  In light of this, is my simple request really too much to ask?

Love and syllabi,

Amy

Five things that helped me survive summer

A couple of days ago over at ProfHacker, there was a post (by all the contributors) listing five things—technologies, activities, random items, etc—that helped them get through the summer, made them more productive or happier, etc.  (Suprisingly, I haven’t seen too many other academic bloggers pick this up, other than here.)  I thought this was an interesting exercise and decided to give it a whirl.

So, here are my five things:

  1. Google Docs. This has been indispensable for my work this summer.  I’ve always had a very hard time getting my research students to maintain up-to-date notes and documentation about their work.  This summer, we decided to use Google Docs for this purpose.  It is so nice to have a complete record of all of our notes, crazy ideas, paper drafts, etc all in one place, all easily accessible and editable by everyone.  I’m also using it in two other collaborations—planning a linked course for Fall 2011, and planning a regional conference.  I’m not sure how I effectively collaborated without it!
  2. Running/daily exercise. I’m one of those people whose brain cannot function if the body has not been moving.  I need exercise to keep my sanity and keep my head clear.  This summer has been one of the few in recent memory that I haven’t been injured or sick or otherwise unable to run for part of the summer, and it’s been wonderful rediscovering the joy of running.  It makes getting up at the buttcrack of dawn much more bearable.
  3. A super support system. Peer mentors are a powerful thing.  I have a wonderful group of women whom I meet weekly for coffee.  Sure, many of these “working sessions” (ahem) turn into gossip fests, but they are also places for encouragement and butt-kicking.  We share each others’ successes and brainstorm ways to get each other unstuck.  We share information and strategies.  We keep each other sane, on-track, and laughing.
  4. A great group of research students. Selecting research students is always something of a crap shoot:  just because a student is bright in the classroom doesn’t necessarily mean s/he will be good at research, because the skill sets are somewhat different (a point I discussed in a previous post). Over the years, I’ve been mostly lucky in this regard.  This summer, my students have been especially strong.  They work very well together as a group, and individually as well, and have pushed our research way beyond what I expected this summer.  Most days now they shoo me out of the lab so that they can get work done!  Working with them has allowed me the time and space to concentrate on other aspects of my work as well, and to think more clearly about the future of my work.
  5. Interlibrary loan and ebooks (tie). I am almost certain that I have checked more out of the library through interlibrary loan this summer than I have in my previous 7 years at Carleton combined.  And this summer, I bought my first ebooks (because I was too impatient to wait for the paper versions to ship, but still).  Recently I’ve expanded my view of which subfields relate to my research, and by expanding my view, I’ve discovered a whole new set of literature that will help push my research forward (and possibly in all-new directions!).  I’m now way behind on my reading, but I’m also looking forward to scholarly reading in a way I haven’t for a long time.

Not making the list, but honorable mentions, include taking time away from Carleton (sometimes you just need to get away), rediscovering the joy of entirely free weekends and mostly free evenings, and my iPhone, which allowed me to go away for a week and not bring my laptop with me.

What helped you survive the summer?

What are you searching for?

If you’re visiting this blog, most likely something about writing conference papers or Moodle, apparently.

I love numbers and stats and trends and all that fun stuff, so about once every other week I take a look at my blog stats.  I like to see where people are coming from (referrals), what posts they’re reading, etc.  (My favorite discovery:  If you put “getting things done” in your blog title, you get a lot of hits!)

The most fun part, though, is looking at the search terms people use to get to this here blog.  So, what are the most popular search terms of all time for this blog?*

  1. Searches for me directly (N=59).  This was by far the most popular search item.  I had to laugh, though, about the 2 people who found me by searching for my URL.  Um, if you already know my URL….oh, nevermind.
  2. Moodle (N=37).  People came here to complain or learn about font sizing in Moodle.  Well, at least I fulfilled the first wish…
  3. How to write a conference paper (N=34).  Um, yeah, I hope those people weren’t looking for actual advice on that one…
  4. This is what a computer scientist looks like (N=16), and variations thereof like “how to look like a programmer” and “how to look like a scientist”.  I’m probably not the world’s authority on either, since no one believes me anyway when I tell them what I do for a living!
  5. Barbie-related searches round out the top 5 (N=14).

And here are some of my favorite random searches that led people here:

  • why do computer scientists like mountains.  Good question!  I know I like mountains, but I can’t speak for all computer scientists…
  • becoming a computer scientist when older.  Not sure how I am the authority on this, since I went straight through to grad school….although I did take a bit of a break before becoming a professor…
  • good problems to talk about.  I kinda dig this one.  I hope these 2 people found something to talk about!  (But as we all know, writing good problems is hard.)
  • innovative female design.  Again, another cool search term, and I wish I had more interesting links than these—but I guess it’s a start…

However you got here, whatever led you to this blog, thanks for stopping by and reading!

(And on a totally unrelated note:  I’ve been very bad about putting up any sort of blogroll, but I’m going to put one up Real Soon Now.  So if you’re a regular or semi-regular or hey, even a drive-by reader and you’d like to be on the blogroll, leave a comment.  Thanks!)

* I’m not exactly sure how WordPress calculates these—for instance, none of the GTD-related searches are showing up in these stats, and that’s been a fairly popular search term this week.  So these may be a bit inaccurate or out of date.

Ada Lovelace Day Spotlight: Radia Perlman

The next time you visit Facebook, do a search on Google, waste time on YouTube, or do anything online, stop and thank Radia Perlman.  It’s her algorithm that makes it possible for data to traverse the Internet, thus earning her the nickname “Mother of the Internet”.

Dr. Perlman is a Fellow at Intel, and has spent her career working on computer networking and computer security.  She earned bachelors and masters degrees in mathematics from MIT in the 1970s and a PhD in computer science from MIT in 1988.  She’s worked for many big-name companies throughout her career, from BBN to DEC to Novell to Sun.  She has nearly 100 patents in networking and security technology and has authored two widely-used and innovative textbooks.

(On a personal note, I saw Dr. Perlman speak at Grace Hopper in San Diego in 2006—she presented some of her more recent security work.  The talk was very interesting and thought-provoking, and afterwards I got to speak to her for a few minutes one on one—one of the highlights of that conference for me!)

Dr. Perlman’s most famous contribution—the one that earned her her nickname—solved a particularly thorny problem in the early days of computer networks:  how do we ensure that data gets to its intended destination without getting hopelessly lost, or going in circles?  How can we determine the path that data should take when going from one place to another?  (If you consider for a second just how many millions of computers, smart phones, appliances, and other devices exchange information over computer networks—well, you get a sense for just how important this problem is not only to solve, but to get right!)

Unfortunately, her first attempts met with….well, I’ll let this snippet from a 2006 article in Investor’s Business Daily tell the story:

Radia Perlman had a solution for an information routing problem. Unfortunately, no one was listening.

It was the mid-1970s, and Perlman was a software designer for computer network communication systems — and one of the few women in the field.

At a vendor meeting where engineers were asked to help with the routing problem, Perlman spent 30 minutes illustrating her solution with an overhead projector. But the event organizers ignored her findings. Why? Because she was a woman. What did women know about computers?

“At the end of the meeting, the organizers still called for a solution after I had just given them one, which really irked me,” she said.

She persisted, though, because she believed in herself and she also believed in her solution.  Eventually she made her way to DEC, where her solution met with more receptive ears….and the rest is history.

In a nutshell, her solution is what we call a spanning tree.  Let’s say that you have a bunch of computers that are connected together, and that you want to send data from Computer A to Computer B.  There are most likely multiple routes the data could take, because there’s more than one way to get from A to B.  Spanning tree ensures two things:  (1) that there is a way for data to get from Computer A to every other computer in the network in a “straight line” (i.e., without doubling back to a computer it’s already visited on its journey), and (2) that these data “paths” are the shortest and/or most efficient ones possible in this network.  So not only does spanning tree ensure that my data can get from A to B, but that it will do so in the most efficient way possible.

The really cool thing about this algorithm is that the computers in the network figure this all out themselves, without human intervention.  This means that if something happens to the network—a computer crashes—the network can figure out a new spanning tree all on its own, as soon as it figures out that there’s a problem.  This sort of self-healing behavior is what makes our modern-day, large, sprawling Internet possible—without it, things would surely ground to a halt often, because computers are always failing and crashing and otherwise misbehaving.

Dr. Perlman has made many other fascinating contributions throughout her career—for instance, I just learned that as an undergraduate, she worked on ways to teach computing to very young kids using LOGO and TurtleGraphics.  Her more recent work is more heavily security focused, studying new ways to encrypt and decrypt data, make files “disappear reliably”, and do distributed authorization. In 2005, she won a Woman of Vision Award for Innovation from the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.

Throughout her career, her work has been ahead of its time, and I look forward to continuing to follow her career and her contributions.

(Post for Ada Lovelace Day—thanks Suw Charman-Anderson for organizing it again this year!)