Small gratitudes, summer edition

Any hopes I had for a bit of a respite between the end of my students’ summer of research and going full steam ahead with planning for fall term evaporated more quickly than you can say “can you make room on your calendar for….”. This week features All Of The Meetings, anti-racism education, two pedagogical webinars/conversations, and a two day virtual workshop. All good stuff, to be sure, but not at all conducive to catching one’s breath. Not to mention the ever-present and very real stress about what the school year will look like for the kiddos — the school district’s decision doesn’t come out until August 14 — and whether we should wait and see what the plan is or just go ahead and enroll them in the district’s online education program.

In the midst of a heavy week in the middle of spring term, I shared some small gratitudes, little things getting me through a difficult time. This week, when life feels overwhelming, I find myself reflecting on the small things that are getting me through the difficult times this summer:

Kayaking. I think in a past life I was a fish. I grew up swimming every day in the summer, and I worked as a lifeguard and swim instructor for half of my teens and 20s. I love everything about the water; it calms and centers me. Bonus for introverts: on a kayak, it’s easy to get far far away from people and close up to birds, muskrats, and turtles.

My blood pressure is dropping just looking at this picture…

Family food traditions. The formerly-7th-grader-now-8th-grader and I continue our Friday morning drive-through coffee tradition, although we have a new rule that she must be up by 9am or it can’t happen. The best weeks are the ones where she plugs in her phone to the car stereo and shares the music she’s listening to with me. I’ve discovered some new music through her! We also started, back in the spring, ordering takeout once a week on Tuesdays to support local restaurants, and we’ve continued it ever since. We take turns, so that everyone gets their favorites once a month.

I still dream about this meal.

Disc golf. The formerly-3rd-grader-now-4th-grader participated in a socially distanced “frisbee camp” one week in July where he learned how to play disc golf and ultimate frisbee. Long story short, we now own 2 sets of discs and we’ve been out a few times on one of the local disc golf courses. Neither of us are particularly good at it, but we have fun and we laugh at each other’s bad throws. And it’s easy enough to get in a quick 9 holes as a mid-afternoon break (well, at least on days that don’t feature wall-to-wall Zoom meetings).

My new home office. Despite the sometimes spotty Wi-Fi (I think we’ve finally pinpointed the cause and have a possible solution), I am loving my new office space. I love that I’m surrounded by my favorite color on the walls all day long. I love the view of the garden on the side of the house from my window. I love being close enough to the kitchen that I can get a quick coffee refill in the middle of a Zoom meeting. (This proximity also makes getting snacks more convenient, which is both a blessing and a curse.) And surprisingly, I love that I’m closer to what’s happening in the rest of the house (and have the option to close myself off from the chaos, too).

Not pictured: the crochet project in progress, which I now also keep in the office to work on during meetings where I’m listening and not taking notes.

What are you grateful for this summer?

Working spaces

For as long as I can remember, my partner and I have shared a home office.

For years, this arrangement worked beautifully. For many of those years, my partner worked primarily from home, running his businesses out of our house, while I worked primarily outside the home. For the past decade or so, his business occupied physical office space, so our home office became secondary office space for both of us. (This meant that I had the home office all to myself during my last sabbatical, for the most part.)

Within the past year, my partner’s business decided to downside their physical space and have everyone work from home as much as possible. He’s transitioned back to using our home office as our primary office, and we’d both planned on that arrangement for the long term.

Then, the pandemic hit, and we both found ourselves working exclusively out of the same office.

I enjoy sharing a workspace with my partner, despite his love of techno music as work music and his higher clutter tolerance. We’ve always been able to work comfortably and productively in the same room. It was nice this spring to have a Real Live Software Engineer sitting across the room when I was teaching Software Design, so that I could ask questions about how a particular concept plays out in his work/business as I prepared lectures and asynchronous activities. I’ve been able to help him with some Python questions as he’s found himself doing more Python programming lately. And there is something inspiring about looking across the room at someone completely engaged in their task at hand, doing what they love.

What doesn’t work, of course, are the meetings.

Given our positions in our respective workplaces, we both have a lot of meetings. Sometimes, these meetings overlap, in which case we play everyone’s favorite game, Who’s Going To Find Another Spot In The House With Decent WiFi This Time. But even if they don’t, they disrupt the other person. Noise cancelling headphones only block out so much. And then there are questions like, can you come back into the office in the middle of their meeting? will moving around disrupt the other’s meeting or be disruptive to the people on their meeting? are the contents of this meeting too sensitive for the other person to be present in the room? (Things like advising meetings, discussions involving intellectual property, etc.)

There are other issues sharing an office full time, of course. Recording videos is tricky when someone else is in the room. (“Hilarity” ensued yesterday when my partner declared that I typed too loudly, and requested that I stop typing while he was actively recording.) We do our best work at different times of the day, so if someone is trying to think through a thorny issue while the other is demanding they watch “just this one cute cat video, come on, it will just take 30 seconds”, that’s a problem. This also means that during different times of the day, one or the other of us is the “go-to” parent. But if a kid interrupts one of us and we’re both in the same space, they interrupt both of us.

So the other day we decided to split up our offices. We have a guest room on the main floor that’s, shall we say, lightly/not at all used right now (other than a storage spot for skis and a table we want to get rid of). This weekend, I’ll move into that space.

One of my kiddos LOVES rearranging furniture, so I’ve tasked her with figuring out where to put my desk, where to move the futon and other furniture currently in the room, etc. (Except that table — that’s going out to the curb — and the skis, which hopefully will finally make it up to the attic.) I may be able to “borrow” a whiteboard from my partner’s business, because a nice big whiteboard is a nonnegotiable part of my office setup. I need to figure out if my 2 plants can weather the shift in light, as the new office space has north-facing windows. I also need to figure out how many of my books should move to the new space with me, and take down/rehang my bulletin board and race medal rack. And I need to figure out all of those little touches that will make the space feel like my workspace.

I recognize that I am ridiculously fortunate that I live in a house with room for not one, but multiple spaces for quiet work, with decent WiFi and enough resources. I think about this a lot when I think about my students (and colleagues!) negotiating space within their own homes to work, attend class, and think deeply about thorny problems. I know that for many of them, a space of their own is impossible or difficult to come by. That, and so much about this pandemic, has reinforced just how important our spaces are to our productivity, safety, and well-being.

Now, where did I put that screwdriver….?

Thinking about space, part eleventy-thousand

I’ve posted here in the past about my obsession concern with spaces and what they signal: who’s welcome here, what kind of work is done here, etc. I’ve been thinking about space again recently—specifically, research space and recruitment to the field and how the two intersect.

A bit of background: Last year Carleton started a new computer science summer program for high school students. The program lasts 3 weeks, and consists of classes in the mornings and guided research in the afternoons. I teach an HCI (human-computer interaction) module in this program, and my guided research group works on HCI projects related to my actual research.

Last year, when I taught in the program, I had pretty much the perfect lab space for my guided research group. It was one of our CS labs. Only half the room has computers, and these are pretty nicely spaced out. The room also features windows/natural light, lots of whiteboard space, and a sitting/collaboration/conversation area. The space allowed people to move around freely, sketch out ideas, and step away from the computer from time to time.

lab space sketch

Figure 1: A sketch of last year’s lab space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Due to room availability and other issues, I won’t have this lab space again this year. Instead, my research group will be housed in our new teaching lab. While this space is great as a teaching space, it’s not so great as a collaborative space. Here’s what the layout looks like, roughly:

lab space sketch

Figure 2: The lab space I’ll be in this year. Much different from last year’s space!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The computers are in rigid rows on immovable tables. There’s a fair amount of whiteboard space, but it’s all in the front of the room. It’s harder to move around, and there’s no space to step away from the computers.

The worst part for me? No windows! (The horror!)

My challenge is to find a way to turn this space into a more collaborative, welcoming space. Not only do I want to make it more workable for the type of research work my students will be doing, but I also want to make it less clinical/sterile and more warm—because this will be the primary working space for high school students whom we’d like to become computer scientists someday, and there’s not much about this space that says that computer science is fun or welcoming or collaborative.

So how do I plan to pull this off?

  • Removing some of the computers and half of the chairs from the room. This will free up some table space for sketching, conversations, and planning away from the computer, and improve the walking flow around the room.
  • Large sticky note pads and markers, to make up for the lack of whiteboards around the room. I’d love for the walls of the room to be covered with sketches, lists, mockups, user stories, etc. by the end of the program!
  • Designating the front of the room as our large group meeting space. Sometimes we’ll need to discuss things without the distraction of the computers, and it turns out there’s enough room in the front to pull up chairs and chat as a group. (It will be a little tight, but it will work.)
  • Pictures on the walls, to make up for the lack of windows. I’m thinking nature pictures, so that maybe we’ll forget about the lack of windows!

I haven’t been able to do any of this yet since there’s some construction going on in the room, but I’ll be curious to see how things work out next week when I’m able to get in there and start rearranging things, and see if I can make my vision a reality. It will also be interesting to see if these few cosmetic changes will really change the feel and environment of the room, or if the signals in the room will be too strong to overcome. Regardless, it’s an interesting experience and challenge, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out in the end.