And so begins a new chapter

Today is a day for celebration around these parts.

My three year term as chair is finally over. My sabbatical has officially begun. And last night, I handed in my materials for promotion to full professor. (If memory serves, I’ll find out whether my bid was successful next spring.)

I feel like I’ve been working so long without a break, running from one thing to the next, putting out metaphorical fires everywhere. Other than one last report I’ll need to submit in the next couple of weeks (which shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to complete), my work time for the next year and change is pretty much my own. It’s been a very, very long time since I could say that.

I have some posts brewing about a few things that I’ll try to get out over the next month. Lessons learned as chair, lessons learned from doing 3 tenure track hires in a row, and so on. I am looking forward to having time to blog again.

I am looking forward to having time to BREATHE again.

I’m also eager to start my sabbatical. I realized a couple of weeks ago that I do have something publishable, or very, very close to being publishable. I am pretty sure I can get this out by October. So that’s my near-term goal. In general, I’m just eager to spend lots of quality time thinking about, and actually working on, my research — something that’s been in very short supply lately.

But to be honest, the next week is all about celebration and relaxation. Today I’m taking the day off and spending some quality time with my son at his favorite place — the science museum. Tonight I’ll celebrate all three work milestones with my family. This weekend I’ll hopefully spend some quality time on my kayak. On the 4th, I’ll run our local 5 mile race and eat way too much (vegetarian) barbecue, as I normally do. I did not sign my kids up for any camps next week, so my kids and I will have a staycation of sorts. I plan to spend as much time with them outdoors as humanly possible to take full advantage of our gorgeous summer here.

Today begins a new chapter. I look forward to seeing what this chapter brings.

Transitions

moving boxesThis year is shaping up to be the year of transitions, for me and for my family.

After 12 years in the same office, I’m moving (temporarily, maybe?) to a different office, in the same building but separated from most of my departmental colleagues by 2 floors. Our newest hire is moving into my current office, close to pretty much the entire department, so that she can benefit from all the informal mentoring that proximity to more seasoned colleagues brings. While I’m sad to leave the only office I’ve known at my institution, the move does bring some good opportunities—my new hallway is filled with colleagues from another department, one we should have closer ties with, but don’t. I’m looking forward to making new connections, and to not having to climb 2 flights of stairs every morning!

(I discovered that the entire contents of my office fit into 10 boxes. Of course this is after a lot of purging, but still…after 12 years, I expected to have to pack more stuff.)

My son is starting a new preschool in the fall. Like many US parents of boys with summer birthdays, we’ve decided to wait one more year before sending him to kindergarten. For a variety of reasons we thought it would also be useful for him to have a change of scenery and routine to better prepare him for school. This is a huge change for him, as he’s been in the same daycare with the same provider and preschool teacher since we brought him home.

We’re also leaving the daycare that we’ve been at forever (since my third grader was 20 months old), and moving our kids to after-school care programs that work better with our new schedules. So we’ll have 2 kids at 2 different schools and in 2 different after-school care programs. Luckily the schools are just down the street from each other, and the schedules are mostly the same, but I can sense some tricky logistics days in our future. We have a really good daycare situation going right now, so it will be hard for us to say goodbye to that at the end of this month.

There are other changes, too. Our department continues to grow—we’re hiring tenure-track AGAIN this year. We’re no longer a small department, an identity we’ve worn proudly since we amicably separated (consciously uncoupled?) from the Math department 10 years ago. We’ve worked really well together as a small department, but now we need to figure out how to work well together as a medium-sized department. What does that even entail? I’m not sure, but I feel like I’ve made a few missteps lately as chair, and that I haven’t done a great job of making people feel heard and in the loop, so clearly some things have to change.

I’m also in my last year as chair, which means I’ll be starting to think about transitioning over the chair to the next colleague in line. (Complicating things is that this colleague is on sabbatical all this year, and I will be on sabbatical the following academic year. So much for easy transitions…) I’ll relish all of the “lasts” that will happen this year (last department retreat to plan! last department annual report to write!), but I’m sure I’ll also spend a fair amount of time thinking about what I still want to accomplish this year as chair.

Even our girl scout troop is changing! We’ve pretty much had the same core group of girls in our troop since kindergarten. Three, possibly 4, girls are leaving the troop, and it looks like we’ll have at least one new girl (possibly more, since we’re doing a bit of recruiting this year). It will be interesting to see how the social dynamics of the troop change, both as the girls grow up and as a different mix of personalities comes in.

I’ve always dealt pretty well with transitions. I tend to like new opportunities and new adventures; thinking about new possibilities excites me. So I’m approaching this year mostly with anticipation, with just a bit of anxiety thrown in. My kids are also pretty easy-going about change, so I’m sure they’ll do fine. I worry a teeny bit about my son, but that’s because we’re asking him to make the biggest changes, and so I’m sure he’ll have some rough days while he gets used to the “new normal”. (Knowing him, though, it will mostly be fine. He’s a pretty amazing kid.)

So here’s to heartfelt goodbyes and new beginnings, and lots of new adventures in the year to come!

By the numbers

As chair, I spend quite a bit of time with numbers of various sorts. There are budget numbers and enrollment numbers. There’s the number of sections of courses per term and per year. Relatedly, there are FTE numbers, or how many warm bodies do we have to teach courses and how many courses are they teaching at any given time….you get the idea.

At this time of year, when sophomores declare their majors, I hyper-focus on numbers related to the sophomores. This includes the number of students who’ve declared as computer science majors, the difference between the size of this year’s class and the previous few years’ classes, the percentage of women and underrepresented minorities, and the “yield” from certain courses, among others. Looking at these numbers gives me the opportunity to assess the state of the department on a mini-scale: a quick way to determine if we’re where we want to be and heading in the right direction.

In many respects, our numbers are excellent. My quick and possibly inaccurate sampling of the usual suspects indicates that we are now the largest department on campus in terms of majors in the sophomore, junior, and senior classes (tied with Biology), and that we have the largest number of majors in the sophomore class (followed by Biology and Economics, who if memory serves are tied). At the time of this writing, we have 50 majors, which is right in line with the past 2 classes (55 in the current junior class and 54 in the current senior class). I suspect we will stabilize in the mid-50s once the double majors declare—there are some omissions from our current list that I’ve already talked with about double-majoring, so I am just waiting for them to come to me with forms in hand at some point over the next few weeks.

There is one number of which I am insanely proud: I taught a first-year seminar in the fall of 2013 on Human-Centered Computing, and 7 of the 16 students in that course (who are now sophomores) declared as computer science majors. I was hoping for a good yield from that course, but frankly I was stunned at just how high the yield was! What an argument for the importance of teaching courses outside the major sequence. (Note to self: remember this when putting together the 2016-17 schedule!)

There are some numbers that concern me. Our major population is diversifying, but we could definitely be doing much better in this regard. Also troubling: after 2 years of 30-35% women majors, our sophomore class is just 20% women. Again, these numbers might creep up a bit once the double majors declare, but the percentage is not going to change significantly.

The decrease in the percentage of women has me pondering the possible reasons. Has there been a culture shift in the department? Are we doing something differently in Intro or in our “first-tier” required courses (data structures, math of CS, organization and architecture) that we weren’t doing 3-4 years ago? Are the larger class sizes off-putting more to women than to men? Are there things that we’re neglecting to do, now that we’re swamped with students, that we used to do, to foster community? (For instance, I used to send short, personal emails to Intro and Data Structures students encouraging them to take more CS courses, but I don’t always remember to do that to the same degree as I did in the past. What effects does this have on retention in the major?) In short, what’s changed?

Another factor I pondered on my walk across campus to class today: what effect does having senior faculty teach some of those “key” courses have on recruitment and retention? Now, we have a vibrant cohort of assistant professors and visitors who are doing a fabulous job, and many of them are teaching those key courses. But I think it’s important, for many reasons, to have us old fogies the senior, tenured folks at these entry points, too. And that’s the problem: we are so busy and so over-committed as a senior group that we’re teaching many fewer courses. For instance: There are 4 tenured professors in my department (2 full, 2 associate). The normal teaching load per tenure-track professor is 5 courses a year (2-2-1 or some variation). So among us, we should be teaching 20 courses. Next year? We are teaching 11. One person is on sabbatical all year, one is essentially teaching half-time because he was elected faculty president, and two of us have a course release (me for being chair, another colleague for chairing a large campus committee). And two of us are leading senior capstone groups as one of our “courses”, which means that we’re teaching 2 fewer “classic” courses. And because of scheduling and expertise constraints, with maybe 1-2 exceptions we’re teaching all upper-level courses.

So what are my take-away points, after this navel-gazing romp through the numbers?

  • We have a vibrant department. Our enrollments are healthy and strong, and this is translating into majors. And our majors are awesome—I’m very excited about our newest class!
  • We need to continue to prioritize “outreach” in terms of first-year seminars and similar courses. It’s definitely worth it, even it if means offering one fewer course for our majors per year.
  • We need to take a closer look at our culture. I’d like to informally talk to students to get a sense of what’s happening “on the ground”. In particular, I want to chat with the leaders of our 2 student groups, particularly our Women in Computing group, and our SDAs (student departmental advisors) and get their thoughts on what we’re doing well and what we might do differently.
  • Similarly, we need to individually look at what we’re doing as faculty to encourage our students to explore computer science, and make sure all those best practices we’ve honed over the years are still in play.
  • Frankly, I’m not sure what to do about the overcommitted senior faculty issue. I sense this issue is not going to go away anytime soon—to be honest, I’d be shocked if one of us old fogies is not tapped for an administrative post in the next 3-5 years. But are there ways we can work with the faculty affairs committee, for instance, to ensure that we can both serve the college *and* staff our courses appropriately? (For instance, could this committee check with departments before allowing a nomination for a major campus position to move forward, to make sure they are not inadvertently causing a staffing crisis for that department? In short, could opportunities be timed better for *all* parties involved?)

The CS department is a totally different place now than when I first arrived. We worked hard as faculty to grow what we hope is a welcoming, open, fun culture. I am confident that we can continue this moving forward, but just as it took lots of energy and commitment to get us here, so too will it take energy and commitment to keep us here. I hope we’re up to the task.

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.

Leading in the midst of tragedy

On Saturday, the Saturday at the end of 8th week of winter term, our computer science seniors gathered to present their Comps (group capstone projects, for those readers outside of Carleton). The day typically has a celebratory feel: this is the culmination of 2 terms of hard work on their part, and this is their chance to present their work to their friends, family, and classmates. The morning started, as it usually does, with a welcome from the CS faculty, which this year I gave.

Except instead of welcoming the students, friends, and family like I normally would, I stood in front of all those gathered, with the rest of the CS faculty at my side, and tried to speak words that would make some sense at all of the tragic events of the day before: the loss of three students, including one of our junior majors, and the serious injuries to two other students.

Someone asked me later what I said. To be honest, I have no idea. The shock and grief were too much. I remember going to the front of the room and picking up a microphone (and then handing it off to one of our seniors when I couldn’t figure out how to turn it on). I remember talking, but not the actual words. I remember asking for a moment of silence. I remember thanking everyone. And the next thing I remember, I was sobbing in the ladies’ room.

Our students carried on admirably, given the circumstances. I think it helped that we were all together that day, as a department, and that we had something else to concentrate on for a while. It helped that we rearranged the schedule so that we could attend the memorial service in the middle of the day. But I’ll admit I was splitting my time between listening to the presentations and figuring out what we, as a department, should do: for our grieving students, for the family of Paxton, for each other.

There is nothing in the chair’s handbook that walks you through what to do as a department when a student passes away. There is nothing in the faculty handbook that indicates what you should do the first class meeting after a tragic event plunges a campus into grief, or how to counsel students who are struggling to make sense of something that makes no sense at all, who are grief-stricken and in shock and maybe feeling even more alone than before. There is nothing in my years of on-the-job experience that remotely prepares me for what I, as a faculty member and as a department chair, am dealing with now.

So I’m figuring things out as I go along. I didn’t plan any special remarks for class—I went with what I was thinking at the moment, and I honestly told my students that I wasn’t sure how to proceed, either, but that I would just try. That we’d be flexible and figure things out together and see where that left us. That it was important to reach out and to keep talking and to use the available campus resources. That I am also a resource that they can lean on, even if I don’t exactly know what I’m doing. That the next days and weeks and months would be sad and hard, but that we are a strong community and that ultimately that will get us through.

This afternoon and this evening, we will gather as a department to remember Paxton especially, but also James and Michael, and send healing thoughts to Will and Connor. It won’t be enough. It won’t be nearly enough. But it’s something, and we’ll figure out the rest as we go along.

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.