Capstones in the virtual age

How do you properly fete your senior majors during a pandemic year? That’s the question I’m pondering, as the Person In Charge Of The Capstone Experience (aka “Comps Czar”) in my department.

In non-pandemic times, such a celebration looks something like this:

  • We gather everyone together — senior majors, friends, family, faculty members from our department, faculty members from other departments, teammates, coaches, Northfield community members, sometimes even an appearance by our college president — in the Weitz Center on a Saturday morning/early afternoon.
  • We hear lightning talks from all of the Comps teams in the Weitz Cinema. (This is so everyone has a chance to see what the other groups did, since no one can see every talk.)
  • We stage multiple tracks of longer talks in various rooms throughout the Weitz Center throughout the morning and early afternoon.
  • We feed our guests — coffee and pastries in the morning, lunch towards the end of the day.

We do as much as we can to make the day feel like a celebration of the hard work our majors put in, not just to their Comps projects, but in their entire CS major career.

Up until last year, all of our Comps projects took place Fall and Winter terms. Last year, and again this year, we gave students the option of Fall/Winter or Winter/Spring Comps, partly to give students (and faculty!) more flexibility in completing the major and going on off-campus study programs.

This means that last year, we held a completely “normal” gala in late February for our Fall/Winter groups…and scrambled to assemble ad-hoc online talks in May for our Winter/Spring groups.

Now, of course, we have the benefit of foresight — no large-scale, in-person gatherings for the foreseeable future. Which means we can actually plan for an online celebration. Which, yay, planning! But at the same time, yikes! How do we pull this off?

The answer to how well we manage to pull this off is still a couple of weeks out. But as the date approaches, I thought it would be worthwhile to share how I’ve approached planning a large-scale virtual event.

First, what are the guiding principles under which I’m operating?

  1. The event must have the feel of a community celebration of our students and their accomplishments. This is my top priority.
  2. The event must allow students to present their work to the public in a way that is meaningful to them.
  3. The event must be accessible to a wide audience. Sure, we could do some cool back channel-y things in Discord or replicate between-tracks conversations in But if we want friends, family, and people outside of the CS universe to feel welcome and comfortable, best to limit the number of technologies we ask them to navigate.
  4. The event must not tax our audience unnecessarily. “Zoom fatigue” is a thing, and we need to be cognizant of this while carrying this event out.

Second, how am I putting these guiding principles into practice?

  1. Community celebration feel: I’m keeping the same structure as an in-person Comps Gala: starting the day with lightning talks (pre-recorded!) from all of the teams, talk tracks, etc. I also decided to keep the Gala on a Saturday, so that we could schedule all of the talks on the same day and have it “feel” like Comps in a “normal” year. Basically, we didn’t have to change this, so I chose not to change it.
  2. Present work in a meaningful way. We tend to steer our students towards the “traditional talk” structure when presenting at the Gala, probably because of inertia more than anything else. This year, we’re allowing students more latitude in how they present their results. If they want to pre-record and play back their talk while answering questions live in the chat? Wonderful. How about a sustained demo? OK! I suspect most if not all of the teams will default to a traditional talk because it’s more familiar to them, but they may decide to forgo slides for other visuals, include more short videos, or be a bit creative in other ways. Another plus: students don’t have to structure their talks around the technology available in a particular classroom space, and don’t have to try and swap laptops in and out during the presentation, which frees up considerable mental energy.
  3. Accessible to a wide audience. Here I’m going with the “Zoom is a universal technology” philosophy, so that’s all we’re using. Still, there were a nontrivial number of decisions to make around the use of Zoom: is each track its own Zoom meeting? or each talk? should we have a “hallway chatter” breakout room where people can gather between tracks? I decided on a single Zoom meeting, with breakout rooms for each track and one for “hallway chatter”. There will be at least 2 CS faculty in each breakout room to handle any shenanigans that might occur. One thing I am curious to see: will more people attend the Gala, given that no one has to travel to or navigate a physical site to participate?
  4. Acknowledge “Zoom fatigue”. I decided to slightly shorten the length of each track and lengthen each break, from 40 minute talk / 10 minutes of questions / 10 minute break to 30-35 minute talk / 10 minutes of questions / 15 minute break. It’s not a lot, but it “feels” more manageable, particularly for those of us staring down an entire morning of talk attendance. The shorter tracks might also make someone on the fence about attending more apt to attend, since the time commitment is smaller and they can dip in and out of the Gala rather than committing a half day to it.

Will this work? Who knows? At a minimum, we’ll have a space for all of our students to gather and show off their work to the community, a community which may or may not resemble the communities of Comps Galas past. As host and emcee of the event, I’m thinking of ways to welcome the community that will establish that community celebration vibe. And as someone who’s organized and run these events before, I’m eager to see what possibilities this virtual medium presents that we could perhaps carry forward when our Galas can be in person again.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer planning in the time of COVID-19

notebook page listing summer 2020 goals

In a typical year, as soon as I submit spring term grades, I pull out the planner and the ginormous desk calendar and plan out the summer. It’s one of my favorite rituals, marking the end of another academic year and the start of a block of “me time”. Well, for a work definition of “me time”, anyway.

But “typical” ceased to exist in March. And the transition from spring term to summer research happened in a blur. Summer planning was superceded by webinars on remote teaching design, administrative tasks popping up like the overeager clover in our backyard, onboarding two brand-new research students, and oh so many meetings.

So that’s how I found myself on June 30, whiteboard marker in hand, finally ready to sketch out a plan for the summer.

June 30 marks the end of the first half/second quarter of the year. A day of either nerdy joy or nervous reckoning for the planners among us (like me!). Time to review yearly/quarterly goals! Make new quarterly goals! Get those colored pens and checklists ready!

Except…what do you review when you abandoned quarterly goal-setting in March, in favor of just surviving the anxiety and uncertainty? How do you set goals beyond the next week, or the next month, when everything is up in the air?

In March, I switched to monthly goal setting, which while not perfect seems to be the right mix of long-ish term thinking and short-term focus in these times.

Notebook page with July goals listed
Research goals for this month. I’m collaborating with students on the first 2, so it’s not quite as daunting as it looks.

But summer’s a slightly different beast — less scheduled time, more open time. And even during a global pandemic, I’m reasonably confident that my core work activities won’t change. Granted, on some aspects, like teaching, I’m making predictions as to whether I believe I’ll be teaching in person or online. But even there, designing courses as if we’ll be online buys me, and my students, the most flexibility and accessibility, so no real harm if I guess wrong.

So I made — not quite a quarterly plan, but July-through-mid-September plan. Which seems like just the right amount of looking-ahead time.

notebook listing teaching and research goals
2 of my 4 goal categories. “Leadership” and “Personal” are on the next pages.

A few notes:

  • I’ve wanted to completely overhaul my Networks elective for years, and it’s never risen to the level of urgency. What better time than a global pandemic to just throw everything out and start from scratch, amiright? Short term pain and lots of it, but definitely for long term gain.
  • I’m advising two sections of our capstone (“Comps”) next year, in Fall and Winter terms. One should be easy to morph to partially/mostly/all online. The other is with a community partner (on local digital divide issues! so excited about this project!), and that’s going to take a lot of creative planning to pull off. I see a lot of August meetings around this….
  • There’s a ton of stuff under “Leadership” (not pictured, because some of it is not bloggable), that will take up a bunch of my time and energy this summer. I’m hoping to compartmentalize that as much as possible. I’ve also made time and space for things like getting my administrative CV together, updating my LinkedIn, etc., so that when a leadership opportunity presents itself, I’ll have my materials ready to go.

As I finished up my planning, I realized that I did in fact have a version of yearly goals to review — my #20for2020 list!

#20for2020 goals update. Some things clearly were not going to happen, but surprisingly much of the list survived the triage.

Given how much is on my plate lately, I was pleasantly surprised that the entire list was not a train wreck. And at how much was still relevant and do-able, in some form. Also, clearly I need to get cracking on those handwritten notes….and the signature mocktail…and our will!

Are you a planner? How have you been planning in these uncertain times? What strategies work for you?


Today I turn 48.

47 was a challenging year. On the plus side, I achieved some big goals. I started my first big academic leadership role, STEM Director, and while I’ve scrambled to fit my responsibilities into a schedule with too few course releases, I’ve really enjoyed the challenge and the ability to think and act within a wider and broader scope. I revamped one of our core courses and taught it 3 times this year, and it’s been such a joy to teach it (yes, even online this term!). I taught my first taekwondo classes, as I work towards earning my instructor certification. I wrote a memoir as part of NaNoWriMo. I ran 2 trail races. And, last but not least: I earned my black belt in taekwondo!

The last two goals I’m especially proud of, not just because they’re the result of hard work and perseverance, but also because they show that you can do new, hard, athletic things no matter your age.

47 also saw a global pandemic that upended pretty much every aspect of our lives, and continues to do so. It brought a tough (although not altogether unexpected) diagnosis for one of my kiddos, one which we struggle with every day and which truly requires a village to handle. (The absence of that village, even with some of them being on hand remotely, has made daily functioning in this pandemic very difficult for the kiddo, and for us.) Then there was the sprained ankle that derailed my half-marathon training the same week I started. And work, particularly the first half of the academic year, proved grueling and demoralizing for various reasons I can’t get into here.

48 starts off with a ton of anxiety, uncertainty, and angst. So much remains up in the air, about what summer and fall will look like (particularly a summer without child care, which I’ll talk about in a future post), and about how this pandemic will play out. How can anyone plan in this type of environment, when plans may very well prove to be fiction?

But 48 brings a lot of hope, too. I’ll test for my second degree black belt next winter. I plan on running a half marathon, virtual or otherwise, this fall. I’m advising 2 exciting Comps projects, both of which will catapult me clear out of my comfort zone. Our entire Science Complex will be open and fully online in the fall, and I’m so excited to lead the sciences in our new space (and with ALL of the course releases I’m supposed to have!). And I have a few projects in the works that I’m eager to move forward in the coming year.

I’m also looking ahead to the big 5-0, planning a big, epic adventure. Hopefully the state of the world will allow for big, epic adventures at that point….

To be honest, Pandemic Birthday will not be all that different from Normal Birthday. Normal Birthday typically entails lots of solo time for this introvert to rejuvenate from Too Many People During the Week/Too Many End of Term Shenanigans. Pandemic Birthday? Also lots of solo time, although more out of necessity than out of a need to escape people. I’ll head out for what counts for a long run these days (5 miles). Rumor has it that the family is planning some kind of breakfast and some kind of coffee treat for me post-run. I’ll alternate between doing my own thing and hanging out with the family, spending as much time as possible outside. We’ll order in to support a local business, instead of eating out. And hopefully there will be chocolate cake with plenty of frosting to end the day.

Here’s to a new year of adventures…hopefully more of the good kind than of the bad kind!