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!

Fostering department culture

One of the top things on my mind since taking over as department chair is culture: specifically, department culture. As chair, I set the tone for the department in various ways. I set the tone when I set the agenda for a department meeting or retreat: the topics I select, and the time I choose to devote to each, signals how much of a priority I think they are to the department. I set the tone when I interact with faculty and students, both new and returning. I set the tone when I represent the department at meetings and such, and when I advocate for the department to administrators and other campus offices and constituencies.

I’ve been thinking about this so much lately because the dynamics of our department are changing rapidly. We have a record number of majors (91 juniors and seniors at an institution of 2000 students) and a large number of non-majors who take or want to take our courses. We have two new full-time visiting faculty members and two part-time visiting faculty members to help us meet our course demand, which means we have almost equal numbers of visiting faculty (4) and tenure-track faculty (5). We’re conducting a tenure-track search this year to grow our department. We’re a little more balanced than we have been in terms of rank, with 2 full, 2 associate, and one tenure-track assistant prof, but the visitors definitely skew us younger. And perhaps the most challenging: we’re spread across 3 buildings, one of which is a 7-8 minute walk from the others.*

So what do I see as the main challenges to setting the tone of the department internally?

  • Keeping everyone in the loop. Up until now, we’ve very much had a “hallway conversation” approach to decision-making. That is, a nontrivial number of department decisions, discussions, etc. happened as a result of spontaneous hallway conversations. This model can work okay when everyone’s physically on the same floor in the same building, but assumes that all stakeholders are present. Even last year when most of us were on the same floor, this model didn’t work well because inadvertently someone (usually staff) was left out and wondering what happened. With faculty physically in different places, this model ceases to work at all. I suspect changing this aspect of culture will be one of the most challenging, just because we’ve operated under it for so long that it’s second nature. But as someone traditionally on the outside of the field, I recognize the harm and bad feelings that result from being left out of important conversations, so I’ll be looking at creative ways to make sure everyone stays informed and involved, no matter where their offices are or what their rank is.
  • Mentoring. We have so many young, early career faculty in the department! Most of our visitors likely have a tenure-track position at a similar institution as their long-term goal. Our tenure-track prof will be going up for tenure in a few years. I want to see all of them succeed. I want to make sure all of them have the tools to succeed. I want to make sure our tenure-track prof is doing all the right things to put her in a good position to earn tenure here, and I want to make sure as a department we’re giving her strong, consistent messages and useful, constructive feedback. I want the visitors to make the most of their time here, to learn as much as they can about teaching at an undergraduate institution, and to grow as teachers and scholars so that they put themselves in a great position to get hired on the tenure-track, here or elsewhere.
  • The student experience. It’s unclear exactly why we have such a large uptick in majors and in enrollments generally. I tend to chalk it up to the fact that we, individually and as a department, are just awesome. Seriously, though, I think we as a department offer students interesting, challenging classroom and research experiences; we do a good job of making our courses relevant to students; we are also approachable and fun and genuinely interested in our students. We don’t provide high barriers to entry, and I think that’s key as well, maybe even more important than the rest: we teach the intro students where they are. Can we continue to do this with such high student-to-prof ratios? Will we see a drop in non-major enrollments given that none of us are advising non-majors anymore, since our major advising loads put us at the advising limit? How can we continue to connect with our students as individuals given our high class enrollments? Finally, how can we make sure we have adequate physical spaces, for classes and collaborations and just general hanging-out, to support the large numbers of students, particularly in a building not designed for such numbers?
  • Balancing the proactive with the reactive. When a department grows and changes as rapidly as ours did, it’s easy to fall into “fire-fighting” mode, running from one crisis to the next. It’s really important to take and make time to step back and consider the larger picture, for the long-term health of the department and the major, but so hard to do when so many little things vie for your attention. But it’s also important to recognize the patterns in the little things that point out larger trends and lead to the larger discussions.

I don’t claim to know all the answers here, and most likely I’ll stumble and fumble as I try to make sense of the challenges, but I do look forward to the challenges and the opportunities as chair to address these. Hopefully I’ll get a handle on this sometime in the next 3 years, before my term is up!

* Those of you on large campuses are no doubt chuckling at this, but our campus is very compact, so a 7-8 minute walk is significant.

Random bullets of 7th week spring term

  • We’ve now officially reached the point in the term/school year where there is no schedule—there is just running from one crisis to another. I am too tired for planning anything beyond the next half hour.
  • Signs your job might be adversely affecting your family life: You joke about quitting  and your spouse says “can you? really? please?”. Uh-oh….
  • Everyone (neighbors, day care parents, random people on the streets) keeps asking me when my summer starts. This is the problem with the term system: we have 3 more weeks of classes. Heck, I just finished grading midterms! This is the tradeoff with terms: August is awesome, May stinks.
  • 2/3 of the readings in my Software Design class have been, well, let’s say not your typical textbook readings.* The tone is easy and conversational and a bit irreverent, but the content is still pretty hefty. Which is why I chose these readings—they get all the important points across in an engaging but nontrivial way. What I’m finding interesting, though, is how the students are reacting to these readings. A few off-hand comments and questions from a few students indicate that the tone obscures the fact that there’s quite a bit of substance there. This is especially true of the web usability reading. Next time I teach this course, I will make a more conscious effort to point out the theory behind the readings, but it’s been an interesting lesson.
  • We are not quite there yet, but someday (someday!) I will not find it remarkable that I have an all-female final project group.
  • Officially I don’t become department chair until July 1, but it’s kind of already started for me. Students have started coming to me asking all sorts of complicated questions about graduation and major requirements and special cases. I have a hiring meeting w/ some deans later this week. I’m already getting all manner of chair-related emails (particularly about budgets). I’ve started thinking about all sorts of processes and agendas and such. I’m glad for this transition time, but at the same time part of me is like IT’S TOO SOON! AAAARRRRGGHH!
  • One particular chair-related issue that’s keeping me up at night: We have 57 newly-declared CS majors. Yes, you read that number right. I’ll wait for you to pick yourself off the floor…. So, we need to put all these majors in project teams for Comps in 2014-15. How do we do this without completely overwhelming our faculty resources? Great question. Let me know if you figure it out.
  • Next week I’ll be at the NCWIT summit in Tucson. I look forward to the Summit every year (look for live tweets again!)—I always learn a whole bunch of new things, and it’s a great excuse to see the people I see at Grace Hopper and/or SIGCSE again (there is a lot of overlap in those crowds). This year I’ll be running a session in the Academic Alliance meeting along w/ my other team leaders. I’m excited—we have a great plan and great panelists lined up—but also nervous because part of our session involves a software demo. Trying not to panic about the many things that could and might go wrong there…yikes!

* Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think! and Freeman/Freeman/Sierra/Bates’ Head First Design Patterns