Winter…break?

Carleton’s Fall Term ended, mercifully, over 2 weeks ago (end of classes, finals, grades submitted, the whole enchilada). Because of the way our calendar works, nothing changed from the way Fall Term usually works — we’re always fully done by Thanksgiving, with grades due the following week. Of course, that was really the only thing that remained “the same” about Fall Term. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the term (and tie up a few loose ends), and once I do I’ll have a post about that wild adventure.

But for now, it’s Winter Break, that glorious 6 week stretch between Fall and Winter Terms. This aspect of our calendar is definitely a huge perk of this particular job. (We pay for it, dearly, later in the year, with a very short turnaround between Winter and Spring Terms and a Spring Term that lasts into June.)

And every Winter Break brings the urge to…schedule the hell out of the time available. Believe that I will, in fact, complete approximately 20 projects during that time, write for uninterrupted hours each day, and finally catch up on All The Things! Why yes, I will attend that pedagogical workshop! And review that article! And completely overhaul my professional web page!*

This year, I allowed myself an hour of Fantasy Winter Break Planning, where I listed out all of the glorious things I would do. I made myself write this out on a very large piece of paper. I filled up that whole piece of paper.

And then I told myself to pick 3 things. Not 3 categories of things. 3 things.

After I stopped bargaining with myself (“how about 4? 4 is close to 3. ok, well, what if the category is small?”), I picked 3 things, and except for one (which I haven’t started yet because these first 2 weeks have been more meeting-heavy than I anticipated and something had to give), I’ve been making consistent progress. And not stressing (too much) about all of the things I’m not doing. And, most importantly, not working every night and every weekend. (Weekends off! It’s been a while.)

So, what 3 things that are my priorities for Winter Break?

  1. Complete a draft of an article about civic engagement in computer science. This is actually an item on my #20for2020 list that was going to be my main focus during my lighter Spring Term last year. (Thanks, global pandemic.) I’ve chipped away at it here and there, and I’d like to get it, if not out for review by the end of the month, then at least in good shape to submit somewhere in early January.
  2. Clean up the dataset we’re analyzing in our current project. There’s some information in the dataset that really shouldn’t be in there (it wasn’t cleaned as thoroughly as we expected), and we’ve been removing it piecemeal, but now we’re left with the things that are trickier to remove. Normally I wouldn’t put a task like this as a major priority, but cleaning this properly is going to take some sustained time and attention — and I think the techniques will come in handy with some other research tasks down the road.
  3. Mid- and long-term STEM planning. I did some of this in the fall, but honestly I mostly operated in triage mode. My goal is to move the STEM Board from “mostly reactive” to “mostly proactive” and from “here are the tasks we do” to “here’s how we plan for the future”. I also may need to finish up some reporting from, um, the previous year….

Of course things are not all smooth sailing, because another opportunity just came to my attention that I think is worth making room for. The good news is that if I do decide to do this, it will be off my plate by next Friday and I may be able to get most of it done in a 3-4 hour block. The bad news is that I’d probably need to give up one of my weekend afternoons to make this happen. Not ideal, but I think the payoff will be worth it if it’s accepted.**

On balance, I feel less frantic than I usually do. I’m not trying to do All The Things, and I’m (mostly) comfortable with that. I know that I have room in January for some of those things, and that the world won’t end if some things happen in January instead of December. I also know that I don’t have to completely finish every single aspect of those 3 things for my Winter Break to be successful. Good, solid, consistent progress is plenty, especially for a year like 2020. And, one could argue, should be plenty for any year, even years that are not complete dumpster fires.


* this item legitimately makes it onto my December to-do list every single year. Have I actually done this? No, I have not.

**so, I guess my bargaining with myself did work, because I did manage to sneak a 4th thing into the mix!

Week 3: Reality and routines

We’re now 3 weeks in to our virtual spring term.

This is the point where we should be in some sort of rhythm. Students know us better, we know our students better. The students know the expectations: what happens in a class period, how should I prepare for class, what’s due when. The faculty understand the class dynamics and manage class periods and expectations accordingly. Everything should be humming along.

But that’s in a normal term.

I do think we’ve reached an imperfect rhythm. Faculty at this point have pretty much figured out what technologies to use and what to let go — although many of us are still learning how to use them effectively.* Course structure is pretty much set. I’ve developed my own rhythm for preparing and posting materials for each week, and settled on a Moodle structure that seems to work ok.

I’m still trying to develop rhythms around grading and keeping track of student engagement. I thought I’d found a good structure for grading — and then my course staff student found a number of flaws and technical issues with that structure. Technical issues aside, I’m still trying to wrap my head around what should I be evaluating vs. what do I feel comfortable having my course staff student grade. (Also taking into account what they feel comfortable grading!)

Student engagement is trickier to keep on top of. Sure, Moodle lets me check student completion (and download this into a spreadsheet), and sure, I can probably check my Zoom logs to figure out who attended a class and who did not. But these feel unnatural. In a normal term, I pay attention to who’s attending and not attending class, which I can do by quickly scanning the room. I note who dominates small group discussions and who’s clearly tuning out or shutting out. I rely so heavily on visual, physical cues. Honestly, trading those instincts and skills for reviewing logs is exhausting, even though it seems like it should be much easier to measure engagement quantitatively than qualitatively.

Course rhythms aside, the constant uncertainty is clearly starting to wear on us collectively. Everyone seems a bit more fragile and frayed, quicker to jump to conclusions or to snap. It’s hard to focus when there’s so much up in the air.

This is the time of year where we should be finalizing plans for summer research, where planning for next fall ramps up. In our department, we’re still trying to hire a visitor for next year. I’m in charge of next year’s Comps (senior capstone projects), and we’re drafting project descriptions and reviewing each others’ drafts, in advance of the big topic reveal on May 7.

But we still don’t know whether we’ll have summer research this year, or if so what that looks like. And we have no idea what fall term looks like, either. So every plan we make needs at least one contingency plan, if not several. Will this Comps project work if we’re still virtual this fall? What does “mentoring new faculty” look like when everything is virtual? If we’re on campus but socially distancing (if that’s even possible, which I doubt it is), and we have to severely limit the number of students in a physical classroom, how badly does this torpedo our carefully-planned schedule? How do we ensure that our current majors (and the 50-some new majors that just declared) get into the classes they need to graduate if class sizes are severely limited?

I don’t want to end this post on a low note, and while things are challenging I also don’t want to leave you with the impression that everything is doom and gloom. So let me share a couple of positives from this week:

  1. My 7th grader and I, pre-pandemic, had a standing coffee and bagels date every Friday morning. We’d go to a local coffee shop near her school and I’d drop her off at school afterwards. We’ve found a way to continue that — every Friday morning we drive to an awesome local coffee shop in the next town over, go through the drive-through, and then sip our drinks as we drive home. It’s been a nice little grounding ritual for both of us.
  2. I’ve started including a bonus “hey, if you click through to this optional resource and watch/read it, respond to this set of bonus questions on Slack” in one lecture or activity per week. Not many students share out on Slack, but the ones that do post thoughtful and insightful reflections. This week’s option involved Microsoft Bob, and I appreciated the way they analyzed what Bob did well and what it got wrong. Reading these bonus reflections always makes me smile.

Wherever you’re reading this, and wherever you are in your term or semester or life, I hope you are staying safe and healthy, and that you’ve found a routine of sorts that works for you.


*Yesterday I learned — in real time — what Zoom co-hosts can and cannot do. Hilarity sometimes ensued.

Thoughts on moving into academic leadership, part 1

I’ve alluded to a significant change in my work life in my posts for a few months now. I’ve shared the news with those who know me in real life (which, for all I know, is the entire readership of this blog anyway, ha ha), but I’ve been a bit quiet about it on the blog, because I wanted to do a full post about my thoughts behind this transition and not just drop the news.

Starting next year, I will be Director of STEM at Carleton.

This is a 3 year, essentially half-time administrative position. This means that except for next year, I will teach 3 courses instead of 5. (Due to complicated staffing/leave issues in my department, I’m taking one for the team next year and teaching 4 courses.) Teaching-wise, this isn’t a huge change for me, since I’ve been in various positions with course releases continuously since 2013. And in 2012 I had a term of parental leave, so it’s been a looooong time since I’ve taught 5 courses in a year.

This position is brand new as of this year (we have an acting director now). The position codifies a reality we’ve faced for a while: the sciences don’t exist in a bubble. We share resources: grant initiatives, student research funds, classroom space. We have similar agendas, and face similar issues around student achievement and career readiness and broadening participation. We do research that crosses disciplinary boundaries. We want our students to contribute in positive ways to the campus, local, state, national, and global communities via academic civic engagement. And starting this coming fall, we will all share a new science facility.

This last piece — the new science facility — is the catalyst for the change. Moving into a new physical space presents a golden opportunity to rethink and reimagine our relationships to each other, as departments and programs, as people, as disciplines, as scholars and teachers. The new facility was designed for collaboration and sharing; how can we ensure that we all have a collaborative and sharing mindset?

To that end, a handful of us met last year to work through different models of coordination among the sciences. How could each department and program’s voices be represented? Who should, and how should they, coordinate the shared resources, ideas, and initiatives? How should we develop a vision for the future of the sciences at Carleton, and who should direct and guide that vision, and represent it to the dean (who ultimately makes the decisions)? We developed a couple of models and put them up to a vote among the science faculty and staff. The model that “won” features a representative board of science faculty and staff from each department and program, a staff person to serve as program manager for the day-to-day details (whom we are currently hiring), and a faculty member to serve as the director or “vision point person” for the whole enterprise, working with the dean and the program manager and the board to make this vision a reality.

When the call went out for the STEM Director position, I’d just started participating in the HERS Institute, a leadership program whose goal is to get more senior women into administrative roles within academia. I’d been contemplating a move to administration for some time and because of my HERS participation, I’d started to think about what a good first move in this direction might look like. The part-time nature of the STEM Director position appealed to me as a way to “try out” academic administration, in a space that also allows me to think about things I’m passionate about, like interdisciplinarity, broadening participation, inclusion, student/faculty collaborations, and academic civic engagement, on a larger scale. So I put my name in for consideration….and the rest is history.

I’ve been sitting in on the STEM board meetings this term, to get a sense of how the board operates. At this week’s meeting, we’ll be setting an agenda for next year. I’m excited to hear what the board feels our priorities should be, and eager to have some time this summer to reflect on how to help bring those to fruition. The dean, present director, and I have started brainstorming about public, creative ways to introduce the new space to the community, as well as how to start off with communal and community-building events among the sciences. My HERS leadership project (more on that in my next post!) examined ways to build community in the new space in ways that are welcoming, inclusive, and thoughtful, and how this might extend to other collaborations beyond those in physical space.

I’m excited, and more than a bit nervous, about some of the challenges I’ll be facing. New buildings bring new, unforeseen problems, and while half of the sciences are moving into the space in the fall, construction continues in the rest of the space. How do we navigate around the physical limitations of the building? And how do we ensure that our community building welcomes all of the sciences, including the ones not physically in the building until the following year? The fact that this is a brand new position also brings challenges: we’ve outlined, to the best of our abilities, what the position entails, but what does it really entail? What are the unwritten rules and expectations? What did we forget to anticipate? I’ll get to shape this role as I occupy it, and that’s both exciting and terrifying. On a personal note, what will happen to the research I’m doing with my student collaborators, and my work on academic civic engagement in CS? I’ll have to figure out how I can carve out space for those, and what that looks like over the next few years.

In my next post (Part 2 of this special mini-series on academic leadership), I’ll talk more about my HERS Institute participation and what lessons I’m taking from that as I move into this role.

Reflections on my first year as department chair

Yesterday marked my one year anniversary of becoming department chair. (I celebrated by driving my kids around to various appointments all afternoon and making about 1,000 rainbow loom bracelets with my daughter. Ah, the exciting life of a working mom.) While the first year went quickly, I won’t lie: there were times when I wasn’t sure I was going to survive the year, or not come into work sleep deprived yet again. As with everything in life, there have been good parts and bad parts, and I thought it would be useful to reflect and summarize how my first year went.

The good

Being in this position has reminded me that I work at a truly terrific institution, with thoughtful and creative colleagues and a supportive administration. We’ve dealt with some tricky issues as a department this year, and the conversations around them have been thoughtful and considerate. We listen to each other even when we disagree with each other. I’m so grateful to work in such a highly functioning environment with colleagues that I both like and respect, and in many ways they have made my job so much easier this year.

While there is a lot of truth to the observation that being in charge of faculty in any capacity is like herding cats, I have actually been able to “be the change I want to see” in my department. For a long time, I’ve had a vision for the department’s environment, the way we present ourselves, and the way we carry out our business, and I’ve been able to start implementing parts of that vision this year, with some early successes. I’m grateful that my colleagues are on board, but it’s also thrilling to know that I can actually cause change in our department and that I can influence our environment and policies.

On a related note, I enjoy that I’m in a position that allows me to think more long-term about the success of the department, and to direct how we have those long-term conversations. Being chair allows me to set the priorities of the department—in consultation with my colleagues, of course!—and to direct our collective attention. Every time I craft a department meeting agenda, I get to engage in this type of thinking: how do we balance the things that need immediate attention with the things we need to discuss for the long-term health of the department? It’s a different type of creativity.

Finally, I’m a problem solver at heart, and this job involves a lot of problem solving. Sometimes I have to think quickly on my feet, and sometimes I get the luxury of taking a step back and weighing the different options. I enjoy the challenge of both types of problem solving, and the satisfaction of finding a solution that, if not everyone is happy with, at least everyone can live with.

The bad

Workload. Workload workload workload. There’s only so much I can delegate, and even with judicious delegating, the workload still felt oppressive at times. There’s always some paperwork that needs my attention, or some task that needs to be done, or a budget item that needs to be reviewed, or a question/issue from a student or colleague. It. Never. Ends.

My time is no longer my own. In an ideal world, I’d start my day with my office door closed, working on research or doing some last-minute class prep, for an hour or so, before even opening my email. In the real world, I check my email first thing because there’s usually something I have to deal with Right Now (or more commonly, 5 Minutes Ago).  My research in particular has taken a huge hit as a result, but there were some days that I’d go into class less prepared than I’m comfortable with because something came up at the last minute.

Relatedly, running a search is a major time suck. Everyone in the department is busy during hiring season, especially in a small department like ours where all tenure-track faculty and all staff participate in the process. But traditionally in our department, department chair = search chair, and the search chair’s load is at least 5x everyone else’s load (save for the admin). And calling perfectly wonderful people to let them know they are no longer under consideration for our position? Well that sucks about as much as you can imagine. (That said, making the call to invite someone to campus or offer them the position, and getting to meet our short list via Skype interviews? That stuff is fun!)

The learning curve? Steep. Very steep. I’m hoping some stuff that seemed to take me forever this year will take me less time next year, since I’ll have done it already, but there’s so much I don’t know that I spend a lot of time learning, and looking things up, and hunting things down, and calling people when all else fails.

Finally, having to hold people accountable is difficult. I’m a pretty dependable person, and I tend to naively assume that everyone else generally behaves that way too. Not so. I spend more time than I’d care to admit chasing people down for things, many of whom should know better by now. Sometimes I also have to hold people accountable for their less-than-stellar behavior—thankfully, this is fairly uncommon, but let’s just say that sometimes people don’t think of the larger consequences (to the department, to their colleagues or students) before acting, and sometimes I have to be the one to clean up the ensuing mess.

The ugly

Oh come on, you didn’t think I’d actually be able to share the train wrecks, did you? Thankfully, there wasn’t much in the Ugly category, but the stuff there is definitely unbloggable. I will say this: the ugly stuff always came without warning and typically forced me to drop everything and deal with it immediately, and was usually people-related. If there’s a silver lining, this year’s Ugly stuff did highlight some “blind spots” in the way we operate, all of which are fixable, and all of which will be fixed. I’m not so naive to think that this will preclude any more Ugly stuff from happening, but I’m hoping it will lessen the probability of this year’s flavor of Ugly stuff from happening.

***

So there you have it. I survived, I learned a ton…and I need to figure out a way to clone myself. I’m looking forward to the challenges of my second year as chair and hoping that some of it comes easier, or at least is more expected, than this year.