Non-academic pursuits during sabbatical, part 1: Volunteering

Most of my blog writing this year has been about the academic parts of my sabbatical. Part of the beauty of sabbatical, though, is the time to pursue other things in the spirit of rejuvenation. I realize I haven’t talked much about this aspect of my sabbatical, so in the next few posts I’m going to write about what else I’m doing with my sabbatical time. Part 1 (this part) focuses on volunteering. Parts 2 and 3 will focus on reading and physical pursuits, respectively. And in Part 4, I’ll talk about travel, which disappointingly has been more about work than about fun….but more on that later.

So….volunteering.

Longtime readers of this blog, and those who know me IRL, know that it’s part of my nature to pitch in and help out. Which means I often end up overcommitting myself…but hey, I’m working on it and getting better about setting boundaries!

I think it’s especially important to volunteer in my kids’ school and activities. Selfishly, it helps me keep tabs on what’s going on in my kids’ lives, what the social scene is like, etc. (This was really, really valuable when my daughter was the target of Mean Girl behavior a couple of years ago.) More importantly, it signals to my kids that their pursuits, and their education, is important to me, and it allows me to give back to my local communities and serve as a role model to other kids.

This year I’m volunteering each week in my son’s kindergarten classroom. I spend 45 minutes every Monday morning reading one-on-one with kids. The kids’ reading skills range from those who still struggle with the very simplest of words, to my son who is reading at least at a second grade level, if not higher. Most fall somewhere in the middle, and at this point recognize quite a few “sight words” and are using multiple strategies to deduce words they don’t know (sounding out, using context/pictures, etc).

I’ve been volunteering for a few months now, and many of the kids I’ve read with have progressed quite a bit. Many of them get very excited when they figure out a new word for the first time, and we share high-fives with those successes. Some of them have very strong opinions on the books and are picky about which book they select. One little girl (am I allowed to say she is my favorite?) has opinions about every book we read, and is unintentionally hilarious about sharing them. She is not happy with the books at her current level. She complains that they are too repetitive (they are), and one week in protest she provided running commentary on the book, summarizing the plot, rather than actually reading the words. (I thought about redirecting her, but her commentary WAS better than the book, and because summarizing/synthesizing is a valuable reading skill too!) This week she pointed out that she wished the book we were reading, which swapped out the harder words with pictures, included the word under the picture so that she could learn what the word looked like. (I found a piece of paper and wrote out the word — “squirrel” — and we talked about the word’s structure and patterns she saw in other similar words.) It’s a fun kind of challenge: figuring out when to let a kid struggle with a word and when to step in and help out; coming up with appropriate questions to see how much they understand what they just read; and keeping the wiggly ones focused on the task at hand. And of course my son thinks I’m a rock star for coming to his class each week.

I haven’t had many opportunities to volunteer in my daughter’s classroom, but I did get to go on the class field trip — snow tubing at a nearby ski hill. I am, however, still co-leading her Girl Scout troop. There are a bunch of new faces in the troop this year, and some long-time members decided not to continue, so it’s almost like leading a new troop. In addition to the normal Scout-y things like camping, leadership, and community service, we’ve spent some time casually talking about peer groups, “popular” kids, and self-esteem. One of my goals as a Girl Scout leader is to help the girls acquire and practice the skills they’ll need to successfully navigate the social aspects of middle school and high school while being true to themselves, and I feel like this year is a crucial year for setting the foundations for that.

Of course, volunteering is not something I only do when on sabbatical, but having the time and space to concentrate on volunteering is one of the aspects I enjoy about sabbatical. As I start to think about returning from sabbatical next year, I hope to find ways to continue to engage with my kids’ education and activities, even as my schedule fills up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Reading as a form of reflection and productivity

It’s one of those perfect Minnesota winter days today: a few inches of snow fell last night, snow still falling in the morning, the fluffy sticky snow that makes everything gorgeous. After getting the kids onto the school bus, I settled in to my cozy reading chair in my living room, next to the big window so that I could watch the snow fall, with a big pot of tea, a fuzzy blanket, a snuggly cat, some research reading, and the latest issue of Interactions.

90 minutes later, I’d finished my research reading and Interactions, made an extensive to-do list for my newest research project, sketched out two new Comps (capstone) project ideas, and jotted down a few new ideas for my teaching in our summer program.

Only the reading and the making of the to-do list were on my agenda for the day. The rest were completely serendipitous.

I’ve made reading a priority during my sabbatical, because I rarely make time for it in my typical work life. Reading is often a serendipitous exercise for me, particularly if I’m reading within my field but not specifically for my research. Skimming through an issue of Communications of the ACM a few years back inspired me to embark on the research project I’ve been working on for the past few years. Flipping through books that randomly show up in my office has inspired at least 3 different Comps projects over the years. Reading within my research area also leads to serendipitous ideas. While reviewing the literature for my last submitted conference paper, I identified a hole in our understanding of the problem that I wasn’t even looking for — which led to the project I’m now embarking on, an entirely new line of inquiry.

The act of reading serves as an act of reflection for me. I let my mind wander productively as I read. The ideas on the page mix with ideas I didn’t even know I’ve been carrying around, new connections form, and new avenues appear. I sketch diagrams in the margins, make lists and outlines, save quotes, highlight sources to look up later. Reading in this way becomes a form of productive brainstorming for me, except somehow the ideas come out more fully formed than when I’m just brainstorming.

So if reading broadly is such a productively creative act for me, why don’t I make more time for it? Because it’s not as urgent as the other tasks on my list. Because it doesn’t directly contribute to moving my research forward. Because if I only have a limited amount of time to devote to research, it seems more prudent to spend it on something that will directly impact my research, like coding or writing or analyzing data.

But the truth is, reading does contribute to my research — and my teaching, and my service, too. Time for reflection is vital to remaining an active, engaged researcher and teacher. And as the past few years of burnout have taught me, time for reflection is key to remaining sane and creative in my work life, too.

Even though I still have months left of sabbatical, I’ve already started reflecting on what I want my work life to look like when I return next year. Making time to read on a regular basis will definitely be part of that vision.

 

Theme for 2017: Healthy

I used to have a tradition, before my life went completely crazy off the rails the past few years, of setting a broad intention, guiding principle, or theme for the year, either at the start of the new year or the start of the academic year. (See, for example, my theme for 2010 and the 2013-14 academic year). The idea behind a theme vs. a resolution is that a theme guides all of your actions and interactions for the year, providing a framework for how you want to operate in the world that year. It’s more holistic and, to me, feels more genuine than yet another thing to add to the to-do list.

I struggled and debated as to whether to bother setting a theme at all, and then, once I decided to do so, deciding on a theme. I spiraled into a pretty deep depression the first few days of the new year, and it took a good week for me to dig myself out to the point where I felt “normal” again and where everything didn’t feel overwhelming. I’m still trying to figure out what caused the spiral, but despair and a general feeling of hopelessness over local, national, and international events certainly isn’t helping.

Once I felt more functional, I debated over various themes. I threw around things like “take action”, “follow through”, and “courage”, which express my desire to be more politically engaged this year. But this didn’t quite address the other aspects of my life that I’d like to address this year: finding better balance between work and life once sabbatical ends, improving my mental health, working on research and pedagogy that broadens participation in computing, etc.

I kept coming back to one word, and I finally realized that this one word did, in fact, encompass how I’d like to operate in the world this year.

So, my theme for 2017 is:

Healthy.

Healthy, in the way we normally think of health: a reminder to take care of myself, both physically and mentally, so that I can be more fully present for the people, activities, and causes that matter most to me.

Healthy, in terms of only taking on what I can reasonably handle, in terms of work, commitments, and emotional caretaking. Letting go or delegating what I can’t, and not considering it a moral failing when I do either. Taking breaks and time to restore and recharge.

Healthy, in terms of improving the health and well-being of the communities around me. Continuing to work to make computing more welcoming to all, through my pedagogy, research, and service. Taking political action by making my opinions known to my representatives at all levels, a small part in being the change I want to see in the world. Serving as a role model and mentor to girls through Girl Scouts.

I’m excited by this year’s theme, and excited to explore all the different ways I can apply this theme in 2017.

Do you have a theme for the year? If so, what is it?

A look back at 2016

I wasn’t planning on doing an end-of-the-year post for 2016.

As far as I’m concerned, 2016 has way overstayed its welcome. In many respects, it’s been a shitty, difficult year from start to finish. From some really difficult, nasty, unbloggable stuff I dealt with in my last year as chair; to the extreme burnout from my job (which had taken such a toll on my physical, mental, and emotional health that I still haven’t fully recovered); to the passing of so many celebrities from my childhood and formative years (I learned about Carrie Fisher’s passing, I kid you not, as we were leaving the theater after watching Rogue One); to the dumpster fires and horrors that were our presidential election, Aleppo, Brexit, and any other number of world events — there’s a lot to be sad/angry/horrified by from 2016. So, yeah, 2016 can just go away, far far away, as far as I’m concerned.

But as I sat on the plane on the way home from my mom’s house yesterday morning, I realized that I didn’t want to end 2016 on a sour note. I’ve spent so much of my time and energy this year (necessarily) ruminating on the bad, but the truth is that a lot of good happened too. And frankly, I’d like to head into the new year with positive momentum to balance some of the anger and despair.

So I am doing an end-of-the-year post, a look back at 2016, focusing on some of the positives from the year. In a future post, I’ll talk about what I want to do to keep this positive momentum moving into the new year.

  1. It was a pretty good year professionally. 2016 was a pretty solid year professionally with a lot of interesting opportunities: co-chairing the Grace Hopper poster session (with an incredibly talented, warm, funny person whom I hope to work with again in the future!), attending Tapia for the first time, continuing to expand my work in academic civic engagement (including attending POSSE and finding an excellent community there), finishing up my stint as chair on (hopefully) a high note, submitting my promotion materials. It also brought clarity and better judgment: I turned down a service opportunity that would have meant a lot of visibility, but wouldn’t have fit in with my larger goals, in favor of a smaller, local opportunity that fits in much better with my larger goals (watch this space in the future for more on that!).
  2. I reprioritized family. My crazy-ass schedule last year meant that I wasn’t always present for my family, and when I was, I was too stressed to be fully present (or, as my kids observed, “You yell a lot when you’re home, Mom.”).
    Highline Trail, Glacier National Park, USA.

    Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, one of the (many) hikes we did on our epic road trip.

    I made the conscious decision to dial way back on work this summer: not supporting summer students, not teaching in the summer program, spending Fridays and several full weeks home with my kiddos. My spouse, kids, and I took a 2 week epic camping road trip (6 national parks/monuments/memorials*, 6 states**) this summer that was just amazing. My sabbatical means that I’m working sane hours, which means that I can be fully present on weeknights and weekends, which means I can actually enjoy family time. My son started taekwondo this year, and it looked like so much fun that I recently joined him. I’m looking forward to us earning our black belts together someday!

  3. I ran. A lot. 1089 miles, to be exact, not counting whatever I end up running today***, and (woo hoo) injury free! I ran my 2nd marathon in October and PRed by 9 minutes. Best of all, I found an online community of mother runners, some of whom I trained with virtually during my marathon training cycle and some of whom I still virtually keep in touch with. I’m looking forward to marathon #3 next year, and maybe some half marathons, too.
  4. Sabbatical, sabbatical, sabbatical. I can’t tell you how positive this experience has been for every single aspect of my life. I didn’t realize the extent to which my job nearly broke me last year, and over the last few years. I feel normal again. I’ve reset my priorities, my work habits, and my professional goals. I fell in love with my research again. I’ve already submitted one paper and sketched out a brand new research project that will really stretch me professionally. I wake up every day excited to get back to work, and that’s something I haven’t felt in a very, very long time.

I’m still not sad to see 2016 go, but reflecting on the good makes me feel a smidge more hopeful about 2017. In many ways, 2016 clarified what my personal truths are, and I plan on using these truths to frame and structure my 2017. There are many things I can’t control, but there are many things I can do to be the change I want to see in this world. And that, I think, will be my guiding principle for 2017.

* In the order we visited: Theodore Roosevelt, Glacier, Craters of the Moon, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Mount Rushmore

** Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming

***I am super tempted to run 11 miles today to make it an even 1100 miles for the year. We’ll see.

#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.