Midterm … ish … update

We’re currently in Week 7 of 10 of Spring Term, and the only good thing I can say about this state of affairs is THANK GOD the administration moved fall term registration, and advising, to the summer, because if I had to meet with all of my advisees on top of everything else going on this week, I would probably run away to join the circus.

No one is ever at their best at this point in our academic year. Every other institution in the universe (it seems) is out for summer, and we’re all sick of each other and exhausted and cursing our calendar. This year those feelings are amplified. I poll my class every Wednesday (anonymously and when I remember) to see how they’re doing, and this week over half the class responded with some level of “not great”. A good number of my students are dealing with some pretty serious stuff. The other day one of my colleagues said “I wish we could just give everyone an A and send them home at this point.” Which, to be honest, sounds like an excellent strategy.

I have to say that I’ve mostly struggled through the term, too. Work continues to be a firehose, and I continue to work more hours on weekends than I’d like. There are difficult growing pains connected to my leadership role. My course grader went MIA for a good chunk of the term. Both kiddos are really struggling. I’m dealing with a level of exhaustion I haven’t experienced since I-don’t-know-when.

And yet.

I’m fully vaccinated, as is my partner, as are many of my close friends here. I’ve hugged people I don’t live with, for the first time in over a year! And one of my kids is now vaccine-eligible, and is hounding us to schedule their appointment ASAP.

I’ll be hosting students IN MY RESEARCH LAB, PHYSICALLY in a few short weeks.

My Software Design students are awesome and a lot of fun to teach. I am having a blast.

I submitted an article to a journal earlier this month! Something I’d been thinking about writing for a while and then struggling to complete for months. I convinced one of my favorite staff people to coauthor, and writing with her was one of the high points of this academic year. And I’m currently working on another paper, on work I did with students a couple of years ago, which I hope to get out for review by mid-summer.

I was elected to the college’s tenure-and-promotion committee, a 3-year stint. This is super important (and hard!) work, particularly as we figure out what faculty reviews and evaluation look like post-COVID. I’m humbled that my colleagues trust me to be a thoughtful voice in these discussions and deliberations.

Most importantly, despite everything else going on, I feel a rare sense of … calm. A sense that all of the important stuff will get done, maybe not quite on the timeline I’d like, but still, done. That the stuff that doesn’t get done wasn’t really important in the first place. That the current state of affairs, no matter how frustrating or difficult, is temporary. This is a rare state for me in normal circumstances, but especially during the spring, where my depression and anxiety are typically at their worst. Perhaps all that hard work in therapy is starting to pay off.

I hope this week, despite whatever else is on your plate, that you are able to find some small bit of calm among the chaos.

Grieving the term I was “supposed” to have

It’s human nature, I suppose, to believe that at some mythical time in the future, your life will be “better”. “Once I defend my thesis, life will be so much less stressful!” becomes “Once I earn tenure, I’ll have much more control over my time!” becomes “Well, maybe once I make full professor, things will calm down a bit and I can catch my breath….?”

Of course we know deep down this isn’t true. Our responsibilities and tasks change as we move through life. Sure, we may get rid of one set of stressors, but these are quickly replaced by a different set of stressors. As kids grow out of the toddler stage into the school-age stage, we parents don’t have to watch them quite so carefully or so much to make sure they don’t, say, run into traffic or eat something poisonous. But we trade this vigilance for the stress of helping them navigate bullying, friendships, schoolwork, failure. The stressors are much different, but they are no less stressful.

I’ve been around long enough that I can recognize when magical thinking starts to creep in, and I do a pretty decent job of nipping it in the bud.

But, I do have a somewhat related coping strategy that I trot out when I’m in the middle of a way too busy, overscheduled, how-is-it-possible-for-one-person-to-handle-this-load term (like Winter Term this year), that I’ve found quite successful. And that’s: “If I can just make it to the end of the term, then X will be off my plate.” Or: “If I can just make it to the end of the term, then I’ll still have X, Y, and Z responsibilities, but I will have much more control over my time.”

I like this strategy, because it acknowledges that next term won’t necessarily be less stressful, but it will be less full, or more in my immediate control. And that, I’ve found, is enough to motivate me to keep slogging through in the present, because I know there’s a future payoff. Also, it prevents me from falling too deep down the well of despair.

There were many things in this category that got me through a very difficult Winter Term:

  • Teaching only one 6-credit course in the spring, one that I’ve already taught twice this year, allowing me to use some of the time I’ve spent revamping this course the past 2 terms to do some long-overdue long-range planning for STEM at Carleton.
  • Fewer scheduled-in obligations in the spring, allowing me more freedom over how I spend my day-to-day time, along with time to schedule overdue face-to-face conversations with people I want to know better in my STEM Director role.
  • Working with my newly-hired research students in the spring to get them up to speed on the new line of research we’ll be doing this summer.
  • Meeting and getting to know the new crop of Summer Science Fellows, a cohort program I direct, in the spring.
  • Time and space in the spring to write up a couple of papers that are overdue to be submitted somewhere.

And of course, there’s always the joy of getting to know a new crop of students, to learn their personalities and quirks, and to engage with them in the classroom and office hours.

It was only yesterday that I finally recognized, in the middle of a telehealth call with my therapist, that part of what I was experiencing, the general malaise and sadness and anger and anxiety, was grief.

Grief, over the term I was “supposed” to have.

Grief, over the term I’d “earned”.

Grief, over all the things I’d looked forward to that would no longer happen.

Grief, over the necessary and fundamental changes to the way I work.

Naming my feelings as grief has been freeing. I still grieve, and it’s still hard, but now that I recognize that’s what I’m doing, I can deal with it more effectively. I can pin what I’m feeling to a stage of grief, and try strategies appropriate to that stage of grief to deal with it. I can be sad and angry over what was supposed to be, because being sad and angry is normal in grief. And I can feel hopeful some days and fatalistic others, because those are also part of grief.

Acknowledging this grief is also helping me as I frantically put together some semblance of my course for the start of Spring Term next Monday. As I develop reading quizzes and triage parts of topics and revamp my rubrics to be more specifications grading-like, I keep in the back of my mind that my students, too, are grieving the loss of whatever their expectations were for Spring Term. And while I always try to err on the side of compassion, remembering my student’s grief guides me to lead with compassion in all aspects of my course design.

Many of us are grieving as we navigate this new normal. Hopefully, remembering this will guide us to be more compassionate with each other, as we all figure out ways to accept and deal with our grief.

The Many Faces of Midterm Break

One of the quirks of Carleton’s academic calendar — consisting of 3 10-week terms — is the one day midterm “break”. Monday of 6th week, no classes are scheduled, giving students and faculty a long weekend separating the first half of the term from the second half of the term.

While I’m unclear on the history of midterm break (it’s been around since well before I arrived), I suspect (or maybe just hope) that midterm break had noble origins. In my rose-colored glasses view of Carleton history, midterm break was established as a true break, a recognition of the need to recharge, at least for one day. (Putting aside, of course, that those who teach on a TTh schedule do not benefit explicitly from this break, but MWF faculty do.)

I realized very early on in my Carleton career that it was non-negotiable for my mental health to take this day as a full-fledged break. The few times I haven’t done this, the second half of the term was an unmitigated disaster. So I consciously make the decision to eschew work for the day. Sometimes I manage to get away for the weekend — this past fall, my daughter also had that Monday off, so we got away for a girls’ camping weekend in a state park. Other times, weather-permitting, I’ll get outdoors for a long hike, or ski, or run. Or catch up on errands and take myself out to lunch. Or, if I’m completely exhausted, hang out in a comfy chair with tea and books. Whatever I decide, it has to recharge me.

Because I believe so much in using break as a break, I no longer have projects due in my classes the day after break. I want my students to have the option to recharge and take the day off of work, too.

I believe I am firmly in the minority on both counts. I know that most of my colleagues use the time to catch up on work and grading, and I suspect many of my students do, too. I can understand this — it is nice to get things off of your plate, and to have rare uninterrupted time to accomplish those things that seem to keep getting pushed to tomorrow’s to-do list. And I suspect that my colleagues and students who do this also manage to take time for themselves — or at least I hope they do.

There is a trend, though, that concerns me, and that is Meeting Creep. I’ve blogged before about December Creep — the proliferation of meetings and workshops and other “optional-but-not-really” work-related events during Winter Break. In recent years, I’ve seen this same phenomenon around midterm break. There seems to me to be more pressure to hold and attend meetings on midterm break.

On the one hand, this makes perfect sense. Everyone knows that there are no classes, so it’s much easier to find time to get people together. And since there are no classes, you can spend less frantic time working through things, without trying to cram decisions and conversations into an hour-long meeting slot.

On the other hand, this becomes yet another pressure point for faculty, particularly junior faculty, faculty of color, and other historically marginalized faculty. I’m a full professor, and I still feel a twinge of guilt when I turn down a meeting request for that time. What happens when you feel like you don’t really have a choice, here? We should all have the freedom to say no to these requests for mental health reasons and to maintain boundaries, but the truth is some of us are freer than others — and that’s not fair.

In my December Creep post, I stated something which still holds true:

I wish our breaks really could be breaks. I wish that we didn’t feel the need to Fill All The Time With All The Things. I wish that we recognized that downtime—unscheduled time—is necessary and important for faculty (and staff!). That we recognized that this workload is really not sustainable.

“The Disappearance of Faculty Downtime”, November 26, 2014.

Next Monday — Monday of 6th week — you’ll most likely find me out in the woods somewhere with my snowshoes (weather-permitting, of course), following animal tracks and planning where to warm up with a mocha and a good book afterwards. I may be in the minority, but at the very least I hope my example makes it easier for someone with less power and privilege than me to maintain their own boundaries around their break time, in whatever way makes most sense to them.

Designing a term with mental health in mind

It was the start of Week 9 of our 10 week winter term, and I found myself staring at a blank text editor page on my computer monitor, textbook open beside me, praying for some, any, inspiration. “I’ll post Problem Set 7 on Monday,” I told my students. It was Monday, already, and I had nothing.

I was so, so, so tired. Physically tired, from several weeks of not enough sleep. Mentally tired, from juggling an overwhelmingly overfull term containing a basically new prep and significant service responsibilities and hiring. Emotionally tired, from the hours I spent every day dealing with significant and difficult issues with one of my kiddos, who’s really struggling this year. But I had to suck it up. I had to get this written, and posted, so that….

So that what? I found myself thinking. Judging from my interactions with students in class, and the messages they’re sending me about class, they are also exhausted, and overwhelmed. Every class is piling on work. Seniors are finish up Comps. The course material is challenging, and the textbook is actually in many cases hindering their learning. Everyone is on edge.

Will that final problem set add to their learning? Is the added stress worth it, or will it be more conducive to their learning to ease off the gas a bit and let them catch their breath?

If I clearly didn’t want to write this problem set, did I think my students really wanted to do this problem set?

When I framed the problem that way, the answer was clear. I sent a message to the class, letting them know that there would be no Problem Set 7. The relief, and appreciation, was immediate and palpable.

I’d fallen into the trap of thinking that if students are not producing, they’re not learning. But there’s a time to produce, and a time to reflect, and it’s hard to produce when you’re tired and overscheduled and overstimulated. And judging from the student responses on the final exam on the topic that would have been the focus of Problem Set 7, the in-class only exposure to the material produced the desired learning outcomes anyway.

I thought about this experience a lot when planning out my spring term course. The end of spring term is traditionally even tougher than the end of winter term. We don’t get much of a break between winter and spring terms, and by early June we’ve been slogging away exhaustedly for months. And the end of the year brings All Of The Events. The department picnics. The awards thingies. The end of year celebrations. So. many. surveys. If I can give them just a bit of breathing room, some time to engage at a slower pace with the material, with more carefully curated “products” spaced more thoughtfully with the rhythms of the term — well, that’s a gift to them and to me (and my course staff!).

I thought about this from a personal standpoint, too, when planning out my term. While I still have significant service responsibilities that will only continue to ramp up, my workload is way more manageable and realistic than it was in the winter. (I might even be able to take most weekends off!) But. Spring term is when my depression kicks into overdrive, like clockwork. And I know that if I’m not on top of it, it can quickly derail my life and my productivity. Being kinder and gentler to myself by allowing time to engage with life and reflect and work at a slower pace, sets myself up for success. And setting myself up for success reduces the inevitable feelings of being a complete failure which come out in droves in the spring, driving me deeper into my depression.

If I know that slowing things down is good for my own mental health, doesn’t it stand to reason that it will be good for my students’ mental health, too? Particularly since a good number of our students manage their own private battles with anxiety and depression and other mental health issues?

I still need to move a few things around in my syllabus to make this goal a reality, but I’m excited to see how this revamp of expectations, and this kinder, gentler approach to teaching, goes. And I’m curious to see what impact my kinder, gentler approach to spring term has on my depression management during what’s for me the toughest time of the year.

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.

On non-teaching terms and productivity and mental health

This was supposed to be a post about how I spent my non-teaching term. This was supposed to be a post examining how one structures a term when one is not teaching but is not on sabbatical either. This was supposed to be a post about productivity and workload and the other parts of my job beyond teaching. I tried to write that post. I really, really did. But I finally realized that I could not write that post without addressing the twin elephants in the room, and the roles they played in my non-teaching term: anxiety and depression.

I was diagnosed with mild-to-moderate anxiety and depression in April 2011, after I had a panic attack on a treadmill at the gym. Looking back, my anxiety and depression likely have been around since 6th grade. (Looking back, that panic attack at the gym was also not my first panic attack.)  But I didn’t grow up knowing what anxiety and depression really were. I assumed the voices in my head, the ones that constantly told me I wasn’t good enough or lovable enough and questioned everything I did and second-guessed every decision I made, that made me worry worry worry about everything, plausible and not, all the time, 24-7, the brain never ever turning off….I thought that was normal. That was my normal. I thought I was flawed, that I wasn’t good enough or lovable enough, and that I just needed to work harder, and harder, and harder still. And when I found myself stuck, not able to work, paralyzed by self-doubt or fear of failing and proving the voices in my head right…well, I just assumed that was a moral failing on my part, and beat myself up for not trying harder.

The diagnosis in 2011 was a revelation. My doctor was telling me, finally, that these voices are in fact NOT normal, and that in fact it’s not normal to go through life with your brain on hyperdrive 24-7. She gave me language to understand what was happening. She prescribed some meds. She sent me to a psychologist. And for the first time in years, when the meds kicked in, my brain calmed down. The voices backed off. It was a revelation. So this is what “normal” feels like, I thought! It was…freeing.

I am fortunate that most of the time, I can control my anxiety and depression without meds and without therapy, by taking care of myself: sleeping enough, eating well, exercising regularly. Running and swimming are especially helpful for me. But I have triggers that make it harder to successfully apply these strategies. Extreme stress is one trigger (which I’ve had in spades over the past year and a half). Spring term, for whatever reason, is the other. My latest working theory on the latter is that I’ve used up a lot of my mental reserves in fall and winter terms, and that I start to realize just how many things I haven’t accomplished in the year that I intended to accomplish. The voices in my head seize upon this as proof of my incompetence, and the cycle begins again.

This spring term has been especially rough. The anniversary of my dad’s death weighed heavily on me in April. Things came up unexpectedly at work that demanded my attention, putting more on my plate than I had planned. We were still hiring into April. I fell behind on my research and on my carefully constructed project plans. And I’ve been dealing with on and off insomnia for months. So my reserves are shot…and this has brought a perfect storm for the anxiety and depression to rear their ugly heads again.

I spent a lot of this term beating myself up over how “unproductive” I was. When I’m in the throes of anxiety and depression, I don’t and can’t recognize that they are there, and I fall back into my old patterns of assuming I’m flawed. It took me a long time to be able to take a step back and recognize what was happening. Now that I can, and have, I’m doing what I can to keep them at bay. I’m cutting myself some major slack. I’m spending time on research activities that don’t trigger my feelings of failure as much: designing experiments, collecting data, rewriting code, reading the literature. I’m spending more time reading in general, the things that have piled up over the last year that I’ve intended to read but never got around to reading. I’m making a game out of other aspects of my job (“Let’s see how much of this policy document I can write in the next 10 minutes. Go!”). I’m digging my way out of the hole I made for myself, slowly but surely. And I have an appointment later this month where I’ll discuss with my doctor maybe going back on meds for a while, just to help me regulate myself again.

I’ve also recognized that the unstructured time of my non-teaching term likely made things worse with my anxiety and depression. All that free time leaves a lot of time for the voices to note that you’re not working hard enough, or fast enough, or producing enough, which feeds into a cycle of paralysis and self-doubt, which in turn feeds the voices. This is something that I will definitely need to watch for on my upcoming sabbatical.

So the story of this term was not the triumphant story of Amy Conquering All Of The Tasks. It was not the story of the Successful To-Do List. It was not the story I wanted to write, or wanted to live. But it was the story of Getting Some Things Done Despite Myself and of Recognizing My Limitations. And that, I suppose, is a good enough story for now.