Working with students in a transition summer

When I hired students back in March to work with me this summer, we were unsure of what summer would look like. Would students be allowed or required to live on campus? How many? Would we require vaccinations? Masks? Could students opt to live in Northfield and/or otherwise off-campus? Would labs have capacity limits? Because of this uncertainty, I erred on the side of maximum flexibility. I offered students the option of fully on-campus, fully remote, and (if circumstances allowed) a hybrid option where they could be mostly remote but in-person sometimes, and vice-versa.

Interestingly, I ended up with three students choosing three different options. I have one fully in person student, one fully remote student, and one student in person for the first half of the summer and remote for the second half. (Technically, the hybrid student will only be working remotely for me for one week, since they are taking a break to TA a virtual summer program.)

I thought the logistics of this would be more challenging, but after a few days of hiccups we figured out systems that work for us. I’ve used Slack with my research group for ages, so we are already in the habit of communicating with each other that way. (My students set up a private channel so that other students who are not working with me this summer don’t have to mute the entire workspace.) We’re using GitHub’s built-in wiki regularly to record our weekly team goals and check in to see how we’re progressing towards those. Students keep notes and papers in a shared Google Drive. We have a daily check-in meeting with a Zoom option. I thought we’d use one of the conference rooms in our computational research suite (which we share with chemists, physicists, astronomers, and biologists) for these daily check-ins, since they have projectors and fancy whiteboards. We tried this the first day and realized that the technology and layout of the room hindered our ability to get things done! We now meet in our research space, firing up Zoom on my laptop and gathering around it. (We do use an external microphone because it makes it easier for the remote person / people to hear everyone in the room.) We move the laptop closer to the whiteboard if someone wants to sketch something out. If we’re looking at code or a website, we make sure to tell anyone on Zoom specifically what file / document we’re looking at, and we’re (mostly) in the habit of referring to line numbers in code.

We’ll have another logistical change next week, moving the fully in-person student into a space with other CS research students from a different group, so that they are not all by themselves. I need to figure out if we’ll still do check-in meetings in the room my students currently occupy or if we’ll move these to my office. I suspect we’ll try both.

We’re in Week 4 of 8, and the project’s progressing about as I expected. Lots of false starts and dead ends, mixed in with some promising directions. My students are playing around with natural language processing libraries to determine if we can use natural language processing techniques on our tech support dataset to extract indicators of expertise (and, somewhat relatedly, confidence). They’ve spent most of their time figuring out how to slice and dice the dataset various ways: filtering out “noisy” tickets, attempting to separate out various constituencies (clients from IT workers, e.g.), identifying “superusers”, and so on. We decided yesterday that we will likely have enough data and analysis to put together at least a poster / extended abstract this fall, so that’s exciting!

One unexpected thing: the return of spontaneous tangents and rabbit holes during our meetings! Now, granted, we do and have gone off on tangents on Zoom meetings (last summer, with my fully remote students, and during the spring when we were all meeting remotely). But Zoom can’t capture that certain energy in the room that happens when you go down a rabbit hole or explore a peripheral path. And I didn’t realize (a) that I was missing that energy in the first place and (b) how much I missed that energy until the first time we went off on a tangent during a check-in meeting. As a result, our tangents feel more productive, and definitely more enjoyable. Yesterday, for instance, a student question about conferences (earlier this summer I mentioned that I wanted to try and take them all to an in-person conference once those are a thing again) led us to look up where various conferences in our field would be held in 2022, which led to parallel conversations about travel and about academic publishing. Another tangent last week helped me connect the dots between one of my Comps projects this past year and a particular avenue one student is exploring. Of course, not all tangents are productive, nor should they be. At the very least, they help me get to know my students better — and that’s something I also missed last summer, because again, Zoom conversations can only get you so far down that road.

While I’m a bit panicked that we’re already halfway through the summer of research (how did that happen?!), and while we have and will continue to experience hiccups, I’m very much enjoying this summer of research. I’m proud of my students’ progress and growth and proud of the work we’re co-creating. I’m enjoying getting to know my students, and interacting with “3-D people” again. And I’m excited to see where the second half of the summer takes us.

My checklist for wrapping up summer research with students

This week marks the end of my summer research collaboration with my students. I usually wrap up research by the end of July/first week of August so that I can spend some quality time with my family and particularly the kiddos before school starts back up. Granted, this is more of a perk when we haven’t been cooped up together for months….

I digress.

The last research week is always hectic. No matter how on track we’ve been all summer, there’s always a lot to do to wrap things up. Finish the analyses. Make sure all the code is in the repo. Make sure all of the code is commented. Get a rough draft of the eventual conference paper to some stage of “completion”. And so on. A million little details, some of which inevitably slip through the cracks.

Every summer I tell myself I will make a checklist of what needs to be done. Every summer I fail to do so. Maybe it’s because I see my students every day, or almost every day, so part of me assumes that it will come up during a meeting, or that I’ll pop into the lab and remind them to do whatever just popped into my head.

But this summer, we’re all online, in 3 different cities in 2 different time zones. I’ve gotten in the habit of putting more things in writing, more formally. More lists, more systems in place. More structure.

Turns out, this put me in the perfect mindset to finally write that checklist.

Here’s my checklist for this summer. I suspect that in the future, particular details might change based on the nature of the project, but that the overall categories and most of the items will largely stay the same, or at least very similar.

I. Complete project writeup. (I always have students write something up about the project, no matter where we ended up. I think it’s important for students to get some practice writing for a technical audience.)

  •  Write up the methodology for each of the analyses you completed.
  •  Write up the results for each of the analyses you completed. Include graphs/tables.
  •  Write up the takeaway points for each of the analyses you completed. What did you learn? What do you think the results indicate? What are the next steps that should be done?

II. Check in and clean up all code. (I’ve learned the hard way over the years that students need to be reminded of this, and also of specifically what I mean by “clean up”.)

  •  Make sure all code is commented. Think of You, Six Months From Now. What does You, Six Months From Now need to know/remember about what’s in this code?
  •  Write a TODO list for each of the (major) scripts you wrote. (You can put this at the top of the file, in the comments.) What’s not working that needs to be fixed? What’s working imperfectly that needs to be fixed? What are the things you hoped to get to, but ran out of time?
  •  Write up how to execute each script. (You can put this at the top of the file, in the comments.) What data files does this operate on? Where are they specified in the code? Are there command line arguments? Any other assumptions that you made that others should know when running the script?

III. Write up onboarding docs and next steps for next set of students. (This is still a work in progress. Students, understandably, find it difficult to anticipate what others will struggle with, and invariably forget what they struggled with early on in the project.)

  •  Make sure all README files are up to date.
  •  Write up a “Start Here” document that describes what students starting on the project should know about the project, the code, and the data. (I ended up outlining this document for them, because they were really struggling with what to include.)
  •  Make sure all metadata documents (on all datasets) are updated, correct, and easy to find.

IV. Write up a short reflection for me about your experience. (You can defer this until next week if you’re overwhelmed!) Email is fine for this. (I don’t always remember to ask for this, and I always regret when I forget! I learn so much from these reflections.)

  •  What were you hoping to get out of this experience?
  •  How much of that do you feel you accomplished this summer?
  •  What, if anything, surprised you about your experience?
  •  What were you hoping to accomplish/get out of this experience that you did not?
  •  What work are you most proud of, and why?
  •  When/if I write letters of recommendation for you, what parts of your contributions to this project would you like me to emphasize?
  •  What advice would you give to future students on this project?
  •  What advice would you give to me to help me better mentor future students on this project?

V. Celebrate a job well done! (Admittedly, this is trickier to do in the time of Covid. Usually I take them out for lunch, but that doesn’t work when we’re all in different locales. I will likely send my students a little gift of appreciation and a note, but I’m still trying to figure out what to send.)


Do you use a checklist with your research students to keep track of end-of-the-project todos, or at other stages of your research project? I’d love to hear your experiences.

Kicking off a virtual research summer

Before everything in the world changed, I hired two amazing student researchers for the summer. Both rising juniors, both amazingly talented, both with skill sets and interests perfectly fit to my summer project. Both completely new to research.

I fantasized about poring over new datasets together, teasing insights out of troubleshooting comments. Sketching out schema and models on a shared whiteboard in the lab. Daily check-in meetings and random coffee/cookie breaks. Puzzling over what research questions we could feasibly start to answer in 7 weeks. Watching my student collaborators learn and grow and become independent problem solvers. In short, all of the reasons I so very much enjoy mentoring students in research.

Instead, we have Virtual Summer Research, with the three of us in different cities spread across 2 time zones. Much like the spring, all of us confined to small Zoom boxes, Slack messages, and git commits.

We’re now in Week 2 of the Great Virtual Summer Research Experiment, and things are….going. Actually, that’s not at all fair. They are going quite well, all things considered. My students are learning just how much they don’t know about programming in Python. As am I. 🙂 They’re playing with BigData queries and figuring out more complex SQL than they used in Software Design with me this year. We’re all learning how to write web scrapers and use NLTK. I think we’re pretty close to settling on a specific set of research questions.

So, how do you mentor brand new research students, students who’ve never done research before and were hoping to learn what computer science research is, when you’re all online?

Well, honestly, I’m still trying to figure that out. But here’s what I’ve done so far.

  1. Drastically modify my expectations. I’m usually pretty laid back about setting super specific deliverables, because there are so many unknowns when pursuing a research question and I find that following my students’ lead usually yields excellent results. We’re all exhausted after spring term and unsure about fall and beyond. Because of that, my goal for my students this summer is: let’s play with some datasets and new-to-us tools and learn something we didn’t know at the start of the summer. Any progress is forward progress.
  2. Daily short morning check-in meetings via Zoom. Daily morning meetings are the norm in my research lab in any year, in-person or virtual. Everyone reports out on what they’ve been working on, where they’re stuck, and what they want to work on that day. With our CDT/PDT split, meetings happen a bit later (11 am) than in an in-person summer (usually 9 or 10 am). On the plus side, this gives me plenty of time to get some of my own work done, run/workout, and wrangle/feed my night owl kiddos before the daily check-in.
  3. Building community. I make sure to start our daily check-ins by checking in with everyone — how are you feeling, what fun things are you up to, etc. Yesterday I found a site of 200 getting-to-know-you questions, and you can bet that I will abuse the heck out of those questions this summer.
  4. Asynchronous updates over Slack. We use Slack throughout the day as a low-key way to keep each other updated. We all post questions or issues we’ve run into. So far it’s just me answering the questions, but I suspect as the students become more comfortable with each other and with the research, they will chime in.
  5. Modeling question asking and help seeking. Based on lessons learned teaching online in the spring, I’ve tried to be more explicit than normal in modeling question asking and help seeking. I share my own mistakes throughout the day. I walk students through how I found bugs in my code/queries and through how I’m debugging the code/queries. When I learn something new, I post that, too. I want students to know that it’s ok to mess up and ok to ask for help — and that in fact messing up is par for the course when doing research.
  6. More specific how-tos. I didn’t realize just how much time I spend physically showing students how to do something (install a script, use a module, debug code) until now. When students struggle, I can’t just sit down with them in pair programming mode, with them driving and me directing (or vice versa), as I normally do. So I’m writing a lot more sample scripts than usual, and creating very specific step-by-step documentation. (I probably could create some videos, too, but I haven’t done that yet.) As a bonus, I’ll definitely use this documentation in the future to orient new students to the research.

In a normal summer, we build community among our students within Computer Science and within the broader STEM at Carleton community. Students work side-by-side in the same lab as the other CS research students. STEM professors talk about their research at weekly Tea Talks. This virtual summer features a weekly virtual professional development seminar for STEM students, run by our STEM Program Manager, with topics such as how to read a scientific paper, how to use library resources effectively, STEM careers/grad school, and how to build a relationship with your research mentor. In CS, we’re working on ways to re-create Cookie Hour, and we have a (so far lightly utilized) Slack workspace for everyone doing summer research as a way to try and re-create “computer lab culture”. Only about half of our summer students in CS have started, so we’ll see if traffic picks up when more people are researching.

Here are a couple of other things I’d like to try:

  • Co-working time. My dismal office hours failure this spring has me thinking about ways to encourage office hours attendance. One idea: rebrand some number of office hours as “drop-in co-work time”. Open up Zoom or Google Hangouts, and work “side-by-side” as we’d do in my office or in the computer lab. This mode of working would be especially ideal as we dive into new datasets — staring at the same data and thinking aloud as we’d do in an in-person summer.
  • Presenting results virtually. We do a lot of informal show-and-tell at daily check-ins during in-person summers. We haven’t done this yet, virtually. I want to get into the habit of frequent, low-stakes presentations, as a way to share work in progress. Bonus: this will help hone our Zoom skills, preparing us all for another term or year of at least partial online learning (which seems likely at this point).

If you’re working virtually with research students this summer, I’d love to hear how it’s gone for you. How are you building community? What’s worked and what’s failed? What tools have you found most and least useful? Comment here, and/or tweet and @ me (@drcsiz). Let’s continue the conversation.

Week 7: Research….?

The end of the term rapidly approaches, and while I’m way far behind in grading and checking in on student engagement (I just cannot spend another minute staring at Moodle logs, ugh!), I’m actually slightly ahead in course prep. This is good, because the other parts of my job demand my attention this week (let’s just say there are some deadlines I’m coming right up against, a bit uncomfortably). This also means I have a bit more time to think about…

…research.

On the one hand, it seems completely ludicrous to worry about scholarship at a time like this. With all the uncertainty, the death, the sickness, the despair — the very real, troubling issues and impossible decisions facing us — pursuing scholarship seems downright frivolous some days. For those of us dealing with anxiety and depression, there are simply some days where doing anything beyond the bare minimum is nigh impossible, too. Apply sustained focus to messy problems? No thank you.

But for me, research is a regulating force, a welcome intellectual escape of sorts. I get my best teaching ideas when I’m steeped in my research, as odd as that sounds. I’ve found a community of writers in the NCFDD forums that I enjoy engaging with. I’m working on several diverse projects that excite me, that I really want to move forward. I’m currently writing up one, with a goal to publish it by the end of the calendar year. Bolstered by my NaNoWriMo experience last fall, I’m also working towards publishing (for some definition of “publishing”) my work for non-academic audiences.

And, of course, I committed to working with students this spring and summer…so I need to keep up with them!

In short, I had some good momentum going before the world fell apart in March. And while some days I just can’t muster the energy to do just. one. more. thing., most days I find myself making time for scholarship.

Now, granted, this is scholarship with a lighter touch. I know I don’t have the energy or attention span to tackle the toughest research problems on my plate. When the pandemic hit in March, I actually took writing up that project I mentioned above off my plate temporarily, because I knew sustained writing was not happening. Instead, I did some lower stakes work, playing around with BigQuery on Kaggle and exploring alternate datasets for our summer project. I did a lot of reading, a lot of list-making, and a lot of free-writing. I explored the proceedings of new-to-me conferences and the table of contents of new-to-me journals, to identify possible publishing venues. Only within the past few weeks have I felt energized enough to go back and tackle the writeup.

My goals are smaller, my expectations lower. And that’s ok. I may be moving forward more slowly, but I’m moving forward. That’s more than enough for now.

My perspective of the reach and scope of my research morphed in the past few months. I recognize that my academic civic engagement work with our capstone is, actually, part of my scholarship now. With that realization, I now treat my work in that space as serious academic work, worthy of my research time and attention. I also recognize that my other work also has a public scholarship angle that I should and can pursue. Recognizing this opens up more paths and possibilities — and an opportunity for my capital-R-Research to cross paths with my curricular civic engagement work in the fall. In addition to clarifying my priorities in life more generally, I guess the pandemic clarified my priorities in my work life.

I’m dealing with some more practical aspects of my research, too. The dataset I counted on for this summer’s project might not be ready and available for us by the summer. I have ideas, outlines, and drafts of IRB proposal documents for two studies I could conduct — but I hesitate to commit to either, struggling with the ethics of asking people to devote time to my research when they’re already stretched thin in so many other areas. I need to resolve these ASAP, since summer’s fast approaching (my students start on June 15, officially!), but answering these questions is…not easy.

Research-wise, though, I’m fortunate in many aspects. My work does not require physical lab space or specialized equipment and materials. I can work anywhere, as can my students. I did not have to cancel my students’ research experience, because I can mentor them remotely. I have tenure, so I don’t have to worry about productivity hits or hiccups.

(I spend a lot of time thinking/worrying about our junior faculty: how best to support them and mentor them, and more importantly how best to advocate for them when they go up for tenure. This is one place I can use my power and my position to be a strong voice for fairness and compassion in the tenure process, and maybe make a real difference in the tenure experience for my junior colleagues.)

It will be interesting to see what a summer of remote research looks like. Schedules, I think, will be more important than ever, to provide some sense of normalcy and certainty. Schedules for me, of course, but also for my students — how can I help them figure out what works for them? This is a hard skill to master, so how do I facilitate this skill-building remotely? All but one of my kids’ camps have been canceled for the summer, so what does a summer without child care look like? And how will I juggle my research work and childcare responsibilities with what’s likely to be heavier time commitments to course prep (and possibly moving an entire elective online)? Without a chunk of vacation in August, how will I give myself time to truly unplug, something that’s necessary for me to thrive and survive the academic year?

I guess we’ll see how it goes.

What my PhD Taught Me

This past December, I quietly marked a milestone: my 20th anniversary of earning my PhD.

Earning my PhD was one of the most challenging exercises I’ve ever undertaken. It was intellectually difficult, of course, but it was also difficult in other, unexpected ways: navigating the tenure denial, reinstatement, and then departure of my thesis advisor; negotiating a change in advisor and research topics between the MS and the PhD; coping with undiagnosed anxiety and depression; dealing with sexism and harassment.

I’ve spent some time recently reflecting on the past 20 years, post-PhD, and specifically what key lessons I’ve taken with me from the experience. Here, I’ll share the top 3 lessons from that time, and how they’ve served me in my career.

Lesson 1: Earning my PhD taught me as much about how to “learn” a subfield as it did about the process and history of inquiry in my specific thesis subfield.

I haven’t done a single bit of research on my thesis topic (other than getting articles out from the diss) since defending. I transitioned to other research projects in related areas in my postdoc, continuing one of those when I arrived at Carleton, and have continued to branch out to other areas since. I’m in the process of learning an entire subfield in which I was not trained (HCI), and for the moment, primarily publishing in that space.

It’s true that I learned enough to make me the “world expert” on my thesis topic at the time. But those skills are useful for picking up any subarea in any subfield. Skills like knowing how to do a literature search and review. How to learn, develop, and practice the common research methodologies in an area. How to learn the predominant writing style, and develop and tweak it to your own writing style. How to review and critique your own ideas and the ideas of others. How to figure out how the questions that inspire you, fit into the discourse of the field/subfield. How to frame an argument. How to discuss and contextualize results.

And, as it turns out, a number of those skills translate well to learning new topics and areas enough to teach them — a skill that’s vital when you teach at a small liberal arts school, where more often than not you’re teaching “outside your area”.

Lesson 2: Perseverance and consistency are underrated keys to success.

Inspiration gets way more credit than it should in terms of conditions for success. We like to think the most successful researchers are the ones with the best ideas. And that’s true, to a point. But the best ideas often start out as messy ideas — “quarter baked, not even half-baked” ideas as one of my post-doc colleagues called them. You need time and patience to wade through the muck of an idea or question to find the core nugget. And you need to be willing to play the long game, because sometimes you have to wade through A LOT of muck to get anything useful, and sometimes you wade through a lot of muck only to realize that it’s all muck, and you need to start over. Or, you think you’ve found the nugget, but those reviewing your work disagree and think it’s still muck.

Research is deeply unsexy, when you think about it.

My PhD trained me to show up and put in the time every day, whether I felt like it or not, whether I got some workable results or found a bug that meant I had to throw out all the code I wrote over the last month. It taught me to deal with the inevitable rejections of conference and journal papers and grant proposals, to dust myself off, identify the key points of valid criticism, and try again. It helped me grow a thicker skin. (Which, as it turns out, is also helpful when you work with undergrads at a teaching-focused institution and teaching evaluations play a large role in your tenure case.) At the same time, it helped me develop confidence in my ideas and in my work, which has also helped me persist when a line of research seems to be heading nowhere.

I’ve since used this perseverance to good purpose in my personal life, from training for marathons to earning my black belt to recovering from injuries to navigating the world of international adoption. Consistency and perseverence yields results.

Lesson 3: Your network is your lifeline.

Grad school was not a shiny happy experience for me, as I alluded to above. It was hard. As one of the few women in the program, it was isolating. It could have been lonely — if I hadn’t found my people.

The connections I made with the women in my department were my lifeline. My roommate, a fellow EE major from my undergrad institution, with whom I navigated those early years and classes. The woman who started in my lab at the same time, who took almost every class with me, studied for months with me for the quals, suffered through our respective dissertations together, and became a close friend. The women in other labs, both older and younger, who became friends and allies and fellow advocates for change. The (painfully few) women professors, who modeled how to deal with everyday sexism with grace and strength and modeled how to change the system from within the system — and that leaving a toxic situation instead of attempting to change it is sometimes the best choice.

I also learned how to identify male allies, and how to cultivate those connections, with both peers and professors. I’m grateful to the male professors who helped me figure out ways I could foster change in the department, and who willingly went to bat for me. I still use those lessons to this day. And to my peers, who helped provide pockets of acceptance and safety in an environment that often felt unwelcoming.

At the time I was in grad school, the idea of a “mentor network” was not in vogue — but that’s exactly what I was developing. I’ve continued to do this post-PhD. My network was vital to my earning tenure, and navigating my department as the only woman professor. It continues to be vital as I explore moving into administration full time in the next phase of my career. And it continues to grow.

And of course, as a senior woman in my field and department (and academia generally), I work to improve my mentoring skills, so that I can be a valuable resource, sounding board, and advocate for those coming up behind me.


I wish, in retrospect, I’d written down my reflections at my other PhD anniversaries. How did I view the PhD 5 years, 10 years, 15 years out? How did my recollections, and what I deemed important, change over time? Hopefully, when the 25th anniversary rolls around, I’ll remember to jot down my thoughts.

However, one thing was true then, is true now, and will be true in the future, I’m sure of it: I will not mark the anniversary by re-reading my dissertation. No. Thank. You.

End of summer musings on (lack of) rejuvenation and (too much) service

Summer is supposed to be a season of rejuvenation for academics. While research and service obligations remain, we get a break from teaching. Theoretically, since teaching is the major part of my job, this should mean that my summer schedule is (a) more low key, (b) more relaxing, (c) less time consuming, and (d) less stressful.

This summer, my schedule was none of these.

In retrospect, it was a perfect storm. By the end of spring term, I was exhausted and completely burned out. However, I went right from spring term into finals grading frenzy and graduation, and from that right into working with my (amazing, wonderful, and extraordinarily productive, thank god!) undergraduate research students. (I finished my grades on a Friday, went to graduation on Saturday, and was in the lab with my students on Monday.) I had a couple of major service tasks that carried on into the summer, one of which took up about 3 orders of magnitude more time and 4 orders of magnitude more drama than I anticipated. I had the drama of submitting a paper at the last minute, finding out it was accepted at the last minute, and then having to create and ship a poster off overseas since I couldn’t travel to the conference (see: last minute notification). And I once again taught in our CS program for high school students (while juggling the paper drama, service drama, and supervising undergraduate research). Oh, and chairing a department, unfortunately, does not take a hiatus during the summer.

What this means is that I’m still burned out and exhausted, and I’m worried about being in this state of mind going into the new academic year. However, the good news is that we’re on trimesters, so we still have a few weeks before the fall term starts. (Whew!) Also, next week I finally, FINALLY, get to take a break (although, sadly, not from email, since we’re too close to the start of the year). While I know this won’t completely rejuvenate me, it’s a start.

One of the silver linings of the Summer of Craziness is that I’ve done some serious reflection on the ways in which I commit and overcommit myself. By the end of the last academic year, I was burned out in general, but mainly burned out on service. The service activities I did that used to bring me joy were now causing me stress, either because the workload was larger or different than I’d been led to believe, or because people weren’t sharing the load equally. I also took on too much, because I misestimated the lifecycles of various projects. I’ve since quit the activities that were no longer bringing me joy, and said no to a bunch of requests that have come in recently. (I’ve discovered a magic phrase: “I am overcommitted, but here’s the name and contact info of someone who might be able to help.”)

Jettisoning a lot of this service work has been very freeing. And it’s allowed me to jump on an opportunity that really excites me. For a while, I’ve been lamenting that I don’t have time to volunteer in my kids’ lives. Now I do, and so this year I’ll be co-leading my daughter’s Brownie Girl Scout troop! I should note that this is something that’s a bit out of my comfort zone, and there have been moments that my co-leader and I have said to each other “what did we get ourselves into?”, but I am super excited to do something totally different in the name of service, and be a role model to younger girls. My daughter is excited, too, and happy that we’re doing something we both share and believe in together. And who knows, maybe we can work some CS concepts into one of the badges or journeys or whatever!

So this year, after my much-needed and much-deserved break, I’ll return to whip my syllabus into shape, help our new faculty member settle in, advise our newest students, and figure out realistically what the attention span is of the second grade set. And that is a challenge I’m really looking forward to.

Guest post: Constructing a summer (at Small Pond Science)

Today I’m guest-blogging over at Small Pond Science on what it takes to plan for a summer of researching with undergrads. (Hint: it takes longer than you might think!) You can read the post here.

The plan is to blog over there about once a month, on the general theme of “doing science” at teaching-centered institutions. I will still blog here as well, hopefully less sporadically than of late. I’m excited for this new blogging adventure!

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 thoughts for a Friday afternoon

  • Our summer high school program ended today in a whirlwind. Poster session + meeting parents + lunch + filling out evaluations on my 11 students + 3 weeks of intense work = exhaustion. But happy exhaustion. 
  • Would I do this again? Absolutely. I have a longer post on this, but it will have to wait until my brain functioning returns. 
  • My experience with this program will definitely help me structure my first-year seminar (on the same topic) better. And help me understand the abilities, maturity level, attention span, etc of my class. So participating in this program was a win on many levels.
  • I am going to miss my students. Some more than others, obviously. I sincerely hope I see some of them at Carleton in a year or two. 
  • I am taking a much-needed break next week. Let’s see if I can go an entire week without checking my email. This is essential, I feel, for me retaining any sense of my sanity. And also essential because the craziness will start up again a week from Monday—just looking at my calendar for the end of August gives me hives.
  • My research students’ last day is also today. They completely surpassed my goals for the summer. We have more preliminary data for the grant application I plan to resubmit. (Also, because they completely surpassed the goals, I will have to completely redo the timeline. Trust me, this is a good problem to have.)
  • Juggling my research mentoring obligations with the summer program was very challenging. Would I do it again? I’m not sure. On the one hand, by the time the summer program started the research students were very much working independently. On the other hand, not having me around to answer questions and bounce ideas off of was a detriment to the project. I’ll need to give this some more thought.
  • And on that note, there is a pint of cider at a local pub that is calling my name. Happy Friday everyone!