All in for AcWriMo 2014

November is just around the corner, which means once again it’s time for AcWriMo! For those who don’t know, AcWriMo is the academic’s version of NaNoWriMo (in which people pledge to write a novel during the month of November). The academic version is a bit more fluid—participants set their own academic writing goals for the month, declare these publicly, then write write write “like there’s no December!”.

I’ll admit that I waffled a bit on whether to participate or not this year. I’ve participated the past 2 years, with considerably more success in 2012 than in 2013. I already know it’s going to be a busy, busy month. And yet, I sort of need a kick in the pants as far as my research goes—I’ve stalled a bit and have been spinning my wheels, so if properly executed, this challenge might just get me unstuck and moving forward again.

So, I’ve decided I’m in!

I have 2 goals this month:

  1. Revise my failed NSF proposal from 2012. This was the plan for last year, but ultimately I was not able to revise the grant sufficiently enough for resubmission. I need and want to resubmit it this year. My goal here is to get as much of the narrative and supporting documents done as possible, meet with our awesome grants person, figure out where the holes are, and make a concrete, specific plan to fill in those holes before the deadline (and, more realistically, before I have to start reviewing applications for our tenure-track job, in mid-December).
  2. Draft my next conference paper. I have nothing in the publication pipeline right now. There’s some old data that I’ve never written up for publication, and I sense that some of our newer work might be almost ready to send out. The work-in-progress paper that we successfully submitted this summer shows me that there’s definite interest in our new work, so the sooner I can get some of this data out, the better.

Up until last week, I was really good about protecting my research time (although I don’t always spend this time productively—see “spinning my wheels”, above), and I already have time blocked out on my calendar for research 3 days a week. I plan on carving out a bit more time (20-30 minutes) on my busier days (Tuesdays and Thursdays), and carving out some time on Sunday evenings as well (which I’m hoping will set the mood for the week).

To combat some of the problems I had last year making progress, I plan on having specific, measurable goals/tasks for each writing session (word count, sections revised, checklist written, etc), which I’ll try and set out every week in advance. I’m also going to embrace the strategy of writing as a means of figuring out what to do next, i.e. start with drafting a section as a means of figuring out what data I need, how I will present it, etc. I think this will be the key to get me unstuck in my current work. I’ve done this with great success in the past, so I just need to get back into this habit (and then follow through with actually doing the rest of the work!).

You can follow my AcWriMo exploits on Twitter (@drcsiz), or follow AcWriMo more broadly on Twitter using the hashtag #acwrimo.

Here’s hoping for a productive November!

Preparing students for less-supportive environments

Over at Small Pond Science, I have a post today about how the events at last week’s Grace Hopper conference led to a discussion about better preparing our students to navigate less-supportive environments, particularly in jobs, internships, and research positions. Check it out, and if you have any insights to share, join in the conversation in the comments!

Catching my breath

Today, for the first time in weeks, I am working at home, in my sun-drenched home office, with my work tunes playing, a steady supply of hot tea, and my feet propped up. Save for a few phone calls and a flurry of emails earlier, my day has been blissfully interruption-free. I’ve actually had time to think for more than 5 minutes! I tackled (and finished) a task that I knew would take me a while that I’ve been saving for a day like today. I’ve caught up on the million little things that have been piling up over the past month-plus, and will tackle a bunch more this afternoon. I may even finish the draft of the exam I’m giving in class on Friday. (Dare I dream that I’ll even get to “read a research article”, the last item on my list for today?)

The past month and a half has been a whirlwind of running from one thing to the next (sometimes literally). Service activities that I thought would be quite manageable morphed into time-suckers. Some unbloggable things happened that required more time and energy than I had to spare, but that had to be dealt with immediately. (If there’s a silver lining there, it’s that I now know an awful lot more about the existence of various campus resources, and that info will definitely come in handy in the future.) Then there’s scheduling, scheduling, and more scheduling—finalizing the spring term schedule, making the schedule for next year and the year beyond. At least the spring schedule was easy—a room change here and there, perhaps a change in the course capacity. I’m quickly learning that making a schedule and satisfying a million usually conflicting constraints is hard, hard, hard. And hiring, which has pretty much taken up all of my time for the past month and a half. (Logistics! Campus visits! Entertaining! And that’s after going through the amazingly challenging work of reading applications and narrowing down the strongest pool I’ve ever seen.) If it weren’t for my research student this term, there would be no research happening this term. And thank goodness I’m teaching one course that I’ve taught many times in the past, with an incredible group of students who has made my job as a teacher so much easier this term, because otherwise I’m sure I would not be sleeping at all.

I really, really, REALLY needed a day like today. When you’re in the midst of such craziness, you almost lose a sense of your surroundings—you’re so focused on getting something done in the moment so that you can move onto doing something else in the next moment, and you don’t dare stop to breathe because the sheer volume of what needs to be done may drown you. But that’s not healthy or sustainable. (In fact, the moment things calmed down a teeny bit? I got sick. Of course.) We need time to reflect, time to work carefully and deliberately, time to sit and stare out the window and think. Time to not be interrupted. Time to consciously decide what to do next. Time away from the tsunami of tasks and demands. Time to control the to-do list, instead of having it control you.

The next few weeks are still packed—our seniors present their Comps on Saturday, we’re still in the process of hiring, the term ends soon, and I’ll be at SIGCSE next week (yay!). So this respite is brief. On the other hand, these upcoming weeks are at least manageably packed, and you can bet I’ll be making time to, if not fully re-create today, at least partially re-create it, even if it’s just closing my door for an hour and consciously deciding how *I* want to spend that time.

#acwrimo final accounting

AcWriMo 2013 is over and done and in the books, and so it’s time for the final reckoning…er, accounting. So, how did I do in meeting my goals?

Goal: Spend at least 30 minutes a day (6 days a week) on research or research writing. To meet this goal, I needed to spend 25 days on research for a total of 750 minutes this month. In reality, I spent 15 days on research for a total of 620 minutes. Thankfully, on over half of the research days I worked for more than 30 minutes, which bumped my minute total up. If we go just by minutes spent on research, I’m only about 4 days short of my goal.

My big enemy here was not procrastination, but time. I had some days which can only be described as bat-shit crazy, plus I had a few work travel days interspersed in there as well which messed with my productivity. I could have easily let this demoralize me, but instead I just treated every day as a separate and independent day. Didn’t have time to do research the previous 4 days? So what—today is a new day and I can squeeze my 30 minutes in today, which means I’m 30 minutes closer to reaching my goal of finishing my grant application.

Goal: Finish all of the major experiments that I need for my grant resubmission. This was the most nebulous and thus hardest goal to meet. As I mentioned in my previous post, “all of the major experiments” is a moving target, since it seems like every experiment I run leads to more questions than answers. Luckily, towards the end of the month I switched tactics and started writing some simulation programs to get at some of the same questions from a different angle. This was much more successful: I got unstuck and now have a clear(er) path forward.

Actually, it was all that spinning of wheels in the first part of the month, where I felt like I was hitting dead end after dead end, that led to the insights that led to the simulation code. So once again, failure saves the day!

Goal: Draft an outline/plan for the rest of the grant narrative revisions. I didn’t even begin to address this one. However, in reviewing some old notes when analyzing some data, I did find a partial outline from several months ago, so at least I have a starting point.

So I didn’t fully meet my stated goals, but I still accomplished a lot this month. AcWriMo refocused me on my research, which in turn reenergized me. I’m not where I want to be with my grant resubmission, but I’m definitely further along in the process than I was at the start of the month, and I gained some much-needed focus and perspective. I’m disappointed that I wasn’t more disciplined and didn’t work more days out of the month, sure, but on balance I think it went well enough.

One thing I do enjoy about AcWriMo is the community that forms on Twitter—I enjoyed reading everyone’s tweets about progress made or not made, milestones met and goals accomplished (or not). Towards the end of the month, there was some grumbling on Twitter about how November is the wrong time for AcWriMo—it’s a busy time! Too busy! It should be at a less busy time! I understand the sentiment behind that. But I think that largely misses the point about AcWriMo. It’s easy (or easier) to commit to writing/research when you have fewer things on your plate. The real test is how well you can commit to writing/research when life is at its craziest. And I think that’s part of the point of AcWriMo: it helps you form that crucial habit of writing/research every day, even when (especially when) you’re too tired or have eleventy-million things going on. Because if you can find time for your research when you don’t have time for research—well then, finding time for research the rest of the year is easy-peasy by comparison. If you can form a habit under the worst of circumstances, you should be able to maintain it under better circumstances. So I hope that AcWriMo continues just where it is, just for that reason.

I’ll probably sign up to do AcWriMo again next year, but honestly, I aim to continue on with AcWriMo every month of the year—continuing on with the habit I re-established during the month of November. And that, I think, means that AcWriMo on balance was ultimately a success for me.

Friday random bullets

  • I’ve struggled a bit this term with finding time every day for research. I find it relatively easy to do early in the week, but the end of the week (W-F) tends to run away from me. This morning I squeezed in about an hour of good, quality research. Since then, I’ve been about twice as productive as I usually am when I skip research. Note to self: make time for research every day!
  • I’ve been using a standing desk for a few weeks now. I have a temporary one rigged up using this Ikea hack. I need to saw a bit off of the bottom of the shelf brackets to get the keyboard tray to a better height, but so far, I’m loving it! It does, however, influence my choice of shoes—I am less likely to pick the shoes that are mostly-but-not-completely comfortable and more likely to pick, say, flats everyday. I sense a visit to a tailor in my near future to get some pants re-hemmed….
  • The new prep is going well so far. I’m glad I had the trial run of the material during our summer program. I was most worried about (a) the writing component of the course and (b) running a mostly-discussion class. (I’m used to incorporating all sorts of active learning activities in my courses, but pure discussion plays a small role in those.) I still need to grade their first essays, but I’m trying to be very transparent with my expectations (publishing my rubric with the assignment, specifically spelling out criteria, etc). We’ll see if that helped on the first paper. As for discussion, I’ve done a couple of pure-discussion classes, but for now am mainly sticking to small group discussions/activities, and that’s working well so far. As a bonus, the participation rate in the whole-class discussions seems to be increasing, maybe because students are gaining confidence in the small group discussions?
  • On a related note, we had our “clients” (the Librarians) visit our class on Wednesday, or rather we visited them, to discuss our term-long project: reenvisioning the Library’s home page. I am always appreciative when staff take time out of their very busy schedules to visit my classes, and the discussion was fabulous. The students came prepared and eager, with great insights, and of course our librarians rock, so it was a great, great class session.
  • Today is the last day of drop-add. I’ve signed a bunch of drop-add forms today for my advisees. I’m guessing there are other deadlines today or soon too, because I’ve also signed a bunch of forms as chair (adding the major, graduating early, etc). I think I am the most popular person in the department today. 🙂
  • I’ve had a number of exhausting discussions lately around diversity and privilege. Necessary, for sure, but exhausting. Exhausting because of the slow pace of change and the level of awareness. It’s caused me to reflect a lot more on my responsibilities in my role as chair, as a woman in computer science, and as a professor in leading these discussions. This may be a longer post at a later point, when I have better-formed ideas.
  • The exhausting part may also be due to the return of my insomnia, the bane of my existence last winter. It’s not nearly as bad as it was then, but dude, I’m tired and just want to sleep—is that so wrong?

And on that sleepy note, I’m off to class. Have a great weekend everyone!

Random thoughts for a Friday afternoon

  • Our summer high school program ended today in a whirlwind. Poster session + meeting parents + lunch + filling out evaluations on my 11 students + 3 weeks of intense work = exhaustion. But happy exhaustion. 
  • Would I do this again? Absolutely. I have a longer post on this, but it will have to wait until my brain functioning returns. 
  • My experience with this program will definitely help me structure my first-year seminar (on the same topic) better. And help me understand the abilities, maturity level, attention span, etc of my class. So participating in this program was a win on many levels.
  • I am going to miss my students. Some more than others, obviously. I sincerely hope I see some of them at Carleton in a year or two. 
  • I am taking a much-needed break next week. Let’s see if I can go an entire week without checking my email. This is essential, I feel, for me retaining any sense of my sanity. And also essential because the craziness will start up again a week from Monday—just looking at my calendar for the end of August gives me hives.
  • My research students’ last day is also today. They completely surpassed my goals for the summer. We have more preliminary data for the grant application I plan to resubmit. (Also, because they completely surpassed the goals, I will have to completely redo the timeline. Trust me, this is a good problem to have.)
  • Juggling my research mentoring obligations with the summer program was very challenging. Would I do it again? I’m not sure. On the one hand, by the time the summer program started the research students were very much working independently. On the other hand, not having me around to answer questions and bounce ideas off of was a detriment to the project. I’ll need to give this some more thought.
  • And on that note, there is a pint of cider at a local pub that is calling my name. Happy Friday everyone!

The “dangers” of escalating enrollments?

Eric Roberts, a professor of computer science at Stanford and someone who spends a lot of time and energy thinking about, improving, and researching CS education practices, wrote a guest post at the Computing Education blog addressing the wildly increasing enrollments in university-level CS courses.  The post is very interesting and thought-provoking, but I’ll admit I started reading it with a bit of unease.

The demand for CS courses today is interesting, because as Roberts points out, it’s not just in the Intro course.  It starts there, for sure (Stanford, like us, is seeing record enrollments in Intro CS), which makes sense—the economy is not all that hot right now, students want to make themselves more marketable, and finally people are realizing that knowing at least a bit about technology is a Good Thing.  But that doesn’t explain all the demand, because the record enrollments extend “up the stack”, as it were, into the upper-level courses:

What my colleagues and I are seeing today is entirely different [from what we saw during the dot-com bubble in the late 90s]. The students who are now inflating the ranks of CS106A are, it seems, deciding to take a computer science course as a way of bolstering their credentials before they emerge into a weak economy. Most have majors in other areas but recognize, probably correctly, that having programming skills will likely increase their chances of gaining employment in their own field. A surprising number of those students, however, once they get into our introductory courses fall completely in love with the material and continue on to double the size of the downstream courses in the curriculum.

This explains what we are seeing here, too—our 300 level courses often have enrollments in the high 20s, and one of our 300 level courses this spring (Data Mining) actually filled to capacity before registration ended!  And this is translating into majors—32 so far in the sophomore class, with more expected due to double majors.  Our students are falling in love with CS!

So how do we keep the love alive?  How do we make sure that this is not another bubble?  How do we sustain the interest in CS and, at the same time, support these larger numbers of students, so that they get the quality CS education they deserve?

And this is where the “nervous” part I mentioned comes in.  As Roberts points out in the post, the computing field saw a similar rise in demand in the early 1980s, followed by a precipitous drop in interest.  In a 1999 SIGCSE essay, Roberts discusses a bit of what happened:

At some point in the 1980s, these strategies [to deal with the demand] proved insufficient, forcing departments to restrict demand by imposing limits on enrollment. Some institutions attained these limits by setting strict quotas on the number of students who could major in computer science or by requiring extraordinarily high GPAs to declare computer science as a major. Others achieved the same effect without formal limitations, simply by making the introductory courses so difficult that relatively few students would continue in the field.

Students in the mid 1980s did not decide not to major in computer science but were instead prohibited from doing so by departments that lacked the resources to accommodate them. Given the pressures departments faced at the time, these restrictions may well have been necessary. Moreover, they did, in the end, mitigate the crisis. They did so, however, at an enormous cost. At a time when industry needed more people to sustain its momentum, universities were forced to cut back. The flow of students collapsed, and industry was faced with a shrinking labor pool. Given the complexity of any economic system, it is usually impossible to prove causality, but I have believed for some time that the crisis in academic computer science during the 1980s contributed significantly to the industrial decline at the end of the decade.

The paper goes on to discuss why this is bad for various constituencies, but the biggest deleterious effect?

Enrollment limitation will almost certainly have a disastrous effect on the diversity of the undergraduate computer science population. Students from weaker school systems and those who have not had the opportunity to work with computers at home will have much more trouble with introductory courses designed to act as filters for a limited- admission major. Similarly, studies have documented the fact that women are likely to underrate their own abilities with respect to their male counterparts [16]. Faced with a highly competitive admissions process, women are more likely to choose other options in selecting a major. From 1986 to 1991, the number of men graduating with bachelor’s degrees in computer science dropped by 34 percent, while the number of women declined by 51 percent [2]. (emphasis mine)

And this is why I am nervous.  I am hoping that we’ve learned our lessons from the 1980s and that we, as a CS education community, will find more productive and positive ways to deal with the demands on our limited department resources than imposing quotas and re-adopting the “weed-out” mentality that I hated so much as an engineering major.  It is more important than ever, at this point, that we continue the practices that attract all comers to our major, and that we continue to refine our practices in retaining a diverse population in our classes and in the CS major.  It is most important that we do this in times of wealth, so that we can be proactive instead of reactive and build upon the strength of our numbers.

I hope the CS field is up to the challenge!