And we’re off and running (well, limping) in Spring Term

Monday marked the start of Spring Term at Carleton — a gorgeous, sunny, record-breaking warm day, full of hope and promise and springtime and all the feelings that an especially warm March day brings.

As I write this, for the record, it’s in the 20s and windy — a miserable weather change that matches the change from “yay, a new term!” to the sinking reality of 10 more weeks of slog.

Spring Term, as I’ve written before, is the time we all hate the quarter / trimester system. Fall Term? Love it, because we get to enjoy all of August before starting up. Winter break? Especially love it, because we get a full break for the November and December holidays. Spring break? Fun for students, not at all a break for faculty, who frantically work to submit Winter Term grades before turning around to frantically prepare for Spring Term. Spring Term is when the reality sets in that we’re in the middle of a 6 month slog towards summer, and that when the majority of US institutions end their academic years in May, we’ll be at the midpoint of the term.

I’m heading into the term with an even emptier tank than usual. While I’m usually able to take a bit of a break during spring break (a day or two off at least), this wasn’t in the cards this year — and work even bled into both weekends. And a confluence of obligations means that I am completely swamped through the end of next week — and will be working the vast majority of this coming weekend as a result. Plus, the world is still a dumpster fire in many respects, and many of us are dealing with various forms of trauma.

The good news (?) is that I completely recognize that I am at / over capacity right now, and unlike Previous Amy, I recognize that this should not mean that I push myself even harder and beyond my limits. I also recognize that, while things won’t magically get all the way better when the confluence of obligations ends at the end of next week, I will at least regain more control over my time and to-do list. And, as I find myself saying often these days, that’s not nothin’.

The other good (?) news is that I’m taking this as an opportunity to triage, not just my own list but what I expect of my students. When putting together this week’s course activities, I removed one activity (developing a team contract) from the list and moved it to Week 3, because I knew that I didn’t have the energy to shepherd my students through that process this week and that the world would not end if students worked for a couple of weeks without a team contract. (And, in fact, there may be benefits in applying some of the tenets of iterative development that we’re discussing in class this week towards evolving team rules and norms.)

I then realized that there’s likely value in removing one thing from each week of the term. I do this when I write exams (in courses where I give exams). I draft the exam, take the exam and time myself to see how long it takes me, tweak the questions based on my experience taking my own exam, re-take the exam — and then I remove one question altogether. I do this to give students extra breathing room, so that they are not worried about finishing the exam. I also find that there’s always one question that may be a very fine question, but really doesn’t add anything to what I’m trying to assess. The same concepts are assessed elsewhere, or I realize that I could slightly modify a different question to assess the same concept. It stands to reason that there’s likely at least one activity I’m assigning or introducing each week that’s nice and all, but probably not strictly necessary for student learning. And if that makes everyone’s lives easier — my students, to make their loads more manageable; and mine / my course staff, to reduce the time spent assessing the activity and answering questions about the activity — well, then, that also benefits learning.

What are you triaging this week, either for yourself or your students? How are you preserving your own energy for the things that matter?

Frayed

Last week I quote-tweeted something that I haven’t stopped thinking about since:

(As an aside: if you have not read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, please put this immediately on your to-read list. It is a raw and real portrayal of grief, beautifully written.)

In his thread, Joshua Eyler talks about two meanings of “magical thinking”. There’s the “everything will be better/different SOON” aspect — so, for instance, why many colleges and universities chose to kind-of-sort-of open this year. And then there’s the point at which “this state of being is temporary because we remember when things were different last year” turns to “this is our new normal, like it or not”.

We’ve been living with the former version for a better part of a year, now. At my institution, we haven’t learned what the next term will look like until halfway through the present term — including the release of the official course schedule for the next term. So there’s a constant feeling of everything being up in the air, and of scrambling to put things in order once we do officially hear about the next term. (Advising in this environment is a nightmare, as you can imagine. Student: “I need to take this course to graduate. Will it be offered next term?” Me: “… maybe?”) I mean, yes, we can guess, but there’s a comfort in just knowing what to expect that’s been ripped out from under us. It’s also prime season right now for recruiting and hiring student researchers for the summer — and no one knows definitively whether we’ll be able to have students work with us in person at all, or in some limited fashion. Planning in any meaningful way is impossible.

As for the latter version: we’re quickly approaching the year mark of the pandemic in the US. We were lucky at my institution that Winter Term 2020 wound down just as everything shut down, so at least we had the closure of a “normal” term before heading into our first pandemic term, Spring Term 2020. But the adrenaline’s finally wearing off, as we approach this anniversary. It’s been almost a year of pandemic teaching, a year spent on screens and/or with very restrictive, cautious interactions with students. And now that the adrenaline’s wearing off we’re left with the exhaustion, the sadness, the grief, and the anger, and we’re finally forced to confront all of it head on.

Professors and staff members shoulder impossible burdens of care of students, burdens foisted upon us last March and unrelenting since. Of course, many of us are here because we care deeply about students and their growth and development, and want to support them in myriad ways. But support requires more heavy lifting in a pandemic — more checking in with students, more flexibility, more following up, more modes of engagement. Work we all agree is necessary and are committed to doing, and at the same time feels crushing under the weight of everything else we are asked to do. There is no room, but somehow we’re making room — usually at great cost to our physical, emotional, and mental health. Our reserves are shot, and yet we’re still giving and expected to give from an empty well.

This intersection of grieving and depletion means that no one is at their best. We’ve collectively reached our limits, with predictable consequences. Innocuous emails requests yield fraught or panicked responses. Comments we might have shrugged off in the Before Times, we now construe as personal attacks. Conversations end in anger or hurt feelings, or both. We take advantage of any opportunity to unload our frustrations and our despair on someone, or something, else. Or, worse, we hold it all in and seethe internally until we reach a new breaking point.

And this doesn’t even acknowledge that for many of us, home is less of a respite than it ever was. Home confronts us with the ways our communities are failing us, impossible choices about school and child care and elder care, isolation, and family members whose reserves are also shot and are not at their best.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I’ve been thinking a lot about all of this lately, and what, if anything, I can do about it. I think acknowledging and naming what we’re collectively experiencing is important, and I would love to see campus leaders publicly acknowledge this grief AND this depletion. The all-to-rare “thank you for your hard work” doesn’t cut it anymore — we need our leaders to recognize and name the struggle, and stop pretending it doesn’t exist. That doesn’t remove the burdens, of course, but it would be comforting to know, and hear, that administrators see and understand our struggles.

Personally, I’ve been trying to extend more grace to others — and to myself. If an email rubs me the wrong way, I set it aside until I can go back with a clearer mind and a more helpful response. If an interaction goes south, I try to remind myself that the other person is more likely to be reacting to all the other stressors in their life and not necessarily to the matter at hand. I don’t respond in the moment unless I have to, and then I pick my words carefully. I’ve given myself permission to drop more balls than normal for self-preservation purposes. But to some extent, I have more freedom to do this than many around me — so I’m also finding ways to help other people drop balls and set more realistic expectations for themselves. Do I have a minute to pitch in and take something off of their plate, perhaps because it’s something I can do more easily for whatever reason? Can I help a junior colleague think through what’s truly essential to their teaching and course design so that they can cut through the noise of “here are ALL THE THINGS you NEED to be doing to support students at this time”? (Guidance that, in our eagerness to embrace flexibility and effective modalities in online teaching and be all things to all students and the BEST ONLINE INSTRUCTORS EVER, has been sorely lacking.) In my leadership roles, can I streamline my asks so that we’re still moving towards our goals but in more efficient ways?

To do this, though, I have to be honest about my own limits. About my need to get enough sleep to face the day ahead. Forcing myself to let go of things that are usually non-negotiable — running a certain number of days per week, cooking a “real dinner” every night, aiming for a perfect score on my upcoming black belt test. About what I can and can’t give to my kids right now. About the ways in which my family needs to do more around the house to support all of us. About what I can and can’t worry about (see: imperfect decisions about in-person school for the kiddos). About the ways in which I am grieving and exhausted — and the ways in which others in my life can support me in this time.

We’re all frayed, grieving, and more imperfect than ever right now. Let’s remember this, and extend ourselves and those around us the grace we all so desperately need in this moment.

Winter term: Goal setting and structure

After spending over a year holding on for dear life while running as fast as I can on a hyperspeed treadmill and juggling flaming chainsaws, I find myself in the enviable position of having A LIGHT TEACHING TERM. I’m advising two capstone “Comps” groups, running a one-credit seminar for a research cohort program, and working with research students.

To be fair, this is my heavy term for my administrative role, which means I’ll be racing on a treadmill of a different sort. But at least I won’t be juggling a heavy administrative load with a heavy teaching load, like I did last winter. (Do. Not. Recommend.) The workload is still significant, but the rhythm is completely different. More meetings, less rushing to post things on Moodle. More strategic planning, less specifications grading. More reporting, less recording video lectures and demonstrations.

More control over my time, less I-need-to-be-in-front-of-students time.

Knowing myself — and recognizing that the events of the past year, and the past week, have pushed my anxiety and depression into overdrive — I know that if I’m not careful, I can easily fall into a black hole of despair. The lack of a strict structure and schedule is not my friend in this regard.

One thing that does help? It’s the start of the year, which means it’s goal-setting time! And even Depressed and Anxious Me loooooooves a good goal-setting session. So I’ve tried to use this to my advantage — leveraging my goals to set up systems and a structure that should hopefully keep me on track this term, or at least keep me from falling too deeply into the abyss.

Goals

I decided to have my #21for2021 list serve as my goal list for the year, and tried to structure it accordingly, with work, home, and personal goals.

In Week 1 of 2021, I did manage to do (7) (call Mom), but failed to do (9) (reach out to someone in my work network). Whoops.

I usually set monthly goals, goals for each academic term (plus the summer), and weekly priorities (which I set at my Sunday Meeting). This year I’m still doing the monthly goal-setting and weekly priorities lists, but I’m experimenting with true quarterly goals (January-March, April-June, July-September, October-December). Quarters mostly overlap with academic terms, so it’s not a huge departure. It’s in these monthly and quarterly goals where I’ll get SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound) and detailed. If 2021 is anything like 2020 (or, er, even worse than 2020), these semi-frequent checkins will allow me to reevaluate and pivot if a goal just doesn’t make sense given the circumstances.

Notebook listing goals for the first quarter of 2021.
My first quarter goals for 2021. “Sustainability” seems to be the theme.

One thing I would like to be better about is rewards! I tend to finish something big and move on, without marking the achievement. (I still haven’t celebrated my promotion to full professor, or being named to my administrative position!) This is…not healthy. And probably not the best example for my kiddos. One of my January goals is to submit a paper for review — so maybe I should start by celebrating that win when it happens!

Crafting a routine

With lots of open time and lots of tasks to fill that time, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, or move from thing to thing without making much progress on anything. I’ve had some luck with “theming” my days in the past, so I’m using that this term. I give each day a “theme” that defines the type of work I’ll focus on for that day. For example, here are my themes for this term:

  • Leadership Mondays. I focus mainly on tasks associated with my administrative role. I meet with my dean and my program manager, work through project to-do lists, and do some long-term and short-term planning. I also set aside some time to do some leadership role-related reading — right now, for instance, I’m reading From Equity Talk to Equity Walk, which is useful to approximately 5673 parts of my job.
  • Deep Work Tuesdays. I always reserve Tuesdays for deep work, since I rarely teach on Tuesdays and I try hard to protect the day from meetings. I work on research and writing projects. If there are any big leadership things I didn’t finish on Monday, I’ll work on those on Tuesdays, too.
  • Research / Writing Wednesdays. Wednesdays are a bit more fragmented, with more meetings, so I use them to finish up writing and research tasks from Tuesday, and do research and writing tasks that are a bit clearer and more focused. If I happen to have a light meeting day, I’ll take advantage of that to do more deep work.
  • Meeting Thursdays. Thursdays are my heavy meeting days. This is where I put all those small tasks that I can do between meetings and / or when my brain is fried from peopling.
  • Career Planning Fridays. This ends up being more aspirational, because Fridays also become a dumping ground for everything that didn’t get finished Monday through Thursday and / or tasks from all of those Thursday meetings. But since I do have the luxury of devoting Mondays to administrative tasks, I’m really trying hard to reserve part of Fridays for long-term career planning — touching base with mentors, putting together materials for an administrative job search, figuring out what roles I might want to pursue, career-focused reading, etc. (Right now I’m reading How to Be a Dean.)

I’m also taking advantage of the flexibility to incorporate reading for work into my daily routine, something which all too often gets pushed off of the to-do list. I now read for 15 minutes right after I meditate each morning, so I can check it off the list right away. I’m hoping I can make this enough of a habit that I’ll continue it in the spring, when I have a more traditional teaching schedule.


However you’re approaching goal-setting and routine establishment this year, whether you’re going all-in or stepping back in the name of self-care, I hope this year is starting off well for you. And I’d love to hear your goals and strategies for approaching what looks like another uncertain year.

Winter…break?

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!

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….?

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?

Week 5: Small gratitudes

This has been a hard week in many respects. Amid more uncertainty about the fall (and beyond), my institution postponed advising days and fall registration until the summer. We reveal next year’s Comps projects (senior capstones) today, despite not knowing if and when we’ll be back in the fall. As “Comps Czar” for next year, I’ve been scrambling to get everything in place — and there are a lot of moving pieces to make that happen. I need to figure out which of the many students awarded STEM research grants this summer need to defer or decline said grants because of project cancellations — and help students deal with the uncertainty, sense of loss, and stress these cancellations bring. And of course, the news continues to be a raging dumpster fire, bringing its own uncertainty, sense of loss, and stress.

I surprised myself the other day, then, as my thoughts wandered to small, positive changes in my professional life and routine. There’s much that’s hard and frustrating, for sure. But there are also things to be enjoyed and celebrated.

Morning routine. Pre-pandemic mornings found me racing against the clock to squeeze in research OR a workout before getting the rest of the family off to school and myself off to work. Nowadays, my night owl family happily sleeps in, giving me a couple of hours of uninterrupted morning time, and plenty of time to meditate, get some research or writing done (or record videos), and get out for a run/workout. (Assuming I get up in time to take advantage of this time block, which is not always the case….)

Better breaks. When I’m stuck on a problem, I go shoot hoops in the driveway, or drag a kid outside for some chalk art or a short walk. Midday spontaneous card games are now possible. (Bonus: this kind of counts as math!) Even just stopping what I’m doing to check in on the kids sometimes leads to interesting and unexpectedly deep conversations about life. (Mostly the kids use it as an opportunity to proclaim their boredom, but hey, nothing’s perfect.)

Tackling that tech tool someday/maybe list. Past Me thought, about once a year, about mixing up my teaching with new-to-me technologies. Should I make videos to mix in with my targeted pre-class readings? Is there a digital way to have students annotate web pages, rather than having them scribble on paper copies which then gather dust in my office? Should I have more reading quizzes for immediate feedback? Well, the pandemic sort of forced my hand on this one. That said, now that I know more about lecture recording (and captioning!), Hypothes.is, etc., I plan to use them more, even after we return to face-to-face instruction. On a related note….

Designing for accessibility and flexibility. Every term, I have at least one student who, because Life Happens, misses a bunch of classes and then has to scramble to get caught up. Well, Life Happens to all of us on a daily basis now, and flexibility is the rule rather than the exception. This experience is making me reflect more deeply on how all the pieces fit together, about how students can demonstrate learning gains, and about alternate ways of presenting and assessing material. I want to carry this compassionate design forward. In a similar vein….

Deep pedagogical reflection. This is my third time this year teaching Software Design, and going into the spring I thought things were pretty set content-wise. As I put together readings, activities, lectures, demos, etc., I’m realizing that even some of this “must-include” material really….isn’t. I’ve been forced to streamline and cut. In the process, some of the things I deemed “essential” are really just, on closer inspection, “nice to have”. I can already see that preserving these cuts leave room for even more meaningful engagement once we move back to face-to-face instruction. With the uncertainty of fall, I’ll be applying this same lens to my fall course (Computer Networks), and I’m really excited to see how that evolves into a tighter course as a result.

And on a completely frivolous note:

Morning coffee rituals. Again, now that mornings are not an all-out sprint to the bus stop/car, I don’t have to gulp down coffee as I get ready or scramble to get it into a travel mug without spilling it all over myself (and/or forgetting to put the lid on tightly enough….). I’ve made a mini-ritual over savoring my coffee throughout the morning. Sure, it’s small and frivolous, but it makes the entire morning seem more relaxed and enjoyable….even if the work I’m doing while sipping is hard or frustrating.

What are the small silver linings you’ve found as your routine changed? I’d love to hear from you.

Week 4: Exhaustion and energy levels

We’re limping to the end of Week 4 of Completely Virtual Spring Term, and everyone is exhausted.

Like most weeks, I’ve spent the better part of this week in Zoom meetings of various types, and in each one energy levels were noticeably low. My learning community, which meets every other week and is normally fairly engaged, was noticeably more subdued and resigned this week. I’m pretty sure one of my students in my synchronous class meeting yesterday, at one point, put their head down on whatever flat surface serves as a desk as I was talking. I’m running a meeting later today, and I’m already assuming that it will be similarly low energy.

I think there are several reasons for the exhaustion we’re all clearly feeling, besides whatever’s going on in our personal lives. The novelty of learning online is gone. There’s a ton of uncertainty about this summer (will we have summer research? when will a decision come down?) and next year (is it even possible to be back on campus in the fall?). We can’t plan with any certainty. The administration holds off on decision making so they can weigh the many factors and integrate new information as it comes in, which makes sense. At the same time, we all just want to know what’s going to happen so that we can prepare, which also makes sense. It’s like Waiting for Godot, except Godot is a deadly virus we don’t fully understand.

I suspected at the end of last week that my students were starting to drag, so I eased up a bit this week. No recorded lectures except for the Sunday one where I review the previous week and preview the current week. Time built in to work on their project proposals, so only 2 readings for the week. In yesterday’s synchronous class meeting, I straight-up lectured with a teeny bit of interactivity, which I rarely do — but there were a lot of questions related to the reading, and I think my students have a bit of teamwork fatigue, so it seemed like the right decision. They need to complete 2 labs, but they’re structured so that students can work on parts of them here and there, and have the option to work completely solo or alongside their teammates/classmates.

Normally, Midterm Break occurs the Monday of 6th week, but this term it’s this coming Monday (of 5th week), since the term is only 9 weeks instead of 10. We all clearly need this break at this point. I’ve been reflecting on changes I can make to the flow of the course for the second half. I’ll poll my students tomorrow to check in with how much time they’re spending on various activities, and what technical (and personal issues) continue to interfere with their learning. My kiddos’ school district declared a long weekend this weekend, so they have Friday and Monday off. We rarely all have off on my Midterm Break, so I’m thinking about what kind of safe, socially distanced adventures we could do as a family that day, just to do something different. (Note to self: check if state park pass is still valid!)

In the meantime, I’m experimenting with ways to increase engagement in my classes and the meetings I run. I plan to break the participants in today’s STEM Board meeting into smaller discussion groups in the hopes that people will feel more comfortable sharing ideas with fewer “face boxes” than on a screen of many “face boxes”. I held my first Q&A Friday class session last week, and ended up working through examples with students in a much smaller group. Even with the limitations of Zoom, that felt the closest to “real” teaching that I’ve done this term, and I ended the session rejuvenated instead of exhausted for a change. I tagged specific questions (and the students who posted them) in Slack that I promised to get to in Wednesday’s class, and I used chat more heavily than usual. Even though everyone could see the chat, I made sure to read/summarize contributions and attribute them to the students who made them, as a way of affirming their participation and their ideas. A few students have started privately messaging me questions/comments via chat during class, and I want to encourage that as an option for those too shy to participate in public. Engagement still falls short of what I’d like, but I’m taking baby steps to get it closer to that ideal.

Hopefully this weekend serves as a vital reset for all of us, and we come back ready to tackle whatever the second half of the term holds in store for us.

Routines and the first week of classes

After an extra week of spring break, after all of the planning and worrying and scrambling and course-modifying, spring term classes started on Monday.

So far, it’s going….ok. I have my first synchronous meeting with my class later today, so I’ve only interacted with some of them via email and Slack at this point. I have a short activity planned that sets up the next asynchronous activity they’ll complete, but I suspect that most of the meeting will involve all of us getting used to being online together, and answering questions about the class. And we’re only meeting for 30 minutes, which is not a lot of time.

I’m still trying to figure out what an “appropriate” amount of asynchronous work is per week. I doubt I will get this exactly right at any point this term. I am trying to be ok with that.

I managed to put all of my students on teams, based on time zone and working hours preferences. There were 2 students who didn’t respond to my pre-term survey (and, I just checked, who haven’t even accessed the Moodle page for the course yet), so I had to make my best guesses for them. (Note to self: reach out to them after finishing this post!) One student dropped the course immediately after I made the team assignments (I am pretty sure those events were independent), and I suspect I may have to do a bit of team-shuffling if others drop. I’ll admit: this part of course administration was difficult for me, because I’ve developed a team formation activity that I adore that I had to abandon this term. There isn’t the time, or the space, or the ability to carry out this exercise virtually, so I had to make do with imperfect data. Which, come to think of it, is kind of the theme of this term.

So far, I’m giving my video lecturing skills a C+. My least favorite, and least effective, ways of teaching are (a) lecture and (b) slides, so this is not a shock. I may have found a compromise: slides, but presented using Explain Everything so that I can scribble on them to my heart’s content. (And now that I have a decent stylus, scribbling should be easier for me to do and for my students to read.)

My kids, who also got a bonus week of spring break as their school district moved learning online, started back last week, so they’ve had a week to find and settle in to a routine of sorts. Having their routine set is helping me immensely as I try to figure out my routine for the term.

One thing that works in my favor: everyone else in my family is a night owl, and I’m a morning person. So I have a couple of hours of reliable, uninterrupted work time in the mornings. I’ve started doing some screencasts and other recordings since the house is quiet and I won’t be interrupted during part of that block (the other part I reserve for research). But since I’m still in my pajamas, I haven’t done any recordings with me on video during that time.

Last week, as the kiddos started online learning, we quickly learned that one of us needs to be actively supervising the 3rd grader, who struggles with attention and focus and has some combination of IEP and 504 plans in place for a variety of reasons. 10am to noon is “school time” for the kids. During that time slot I work in the same room as the 3rd grader, so that I can help him stay on track, plan what to do and in what order, answer questions about what his teacher likely means, and provide some semblance of quality control. The 7th grader has started hanging out with us in that room, too, so it’s like a little homeschool party in the mornings. This means, however, that I can’t get any deep work done, so I reserve that time to catch up on email and do some of the less taxing administrative work for my course and for my STEM Director job.

My spouse, in turn, takes the kiddos outside in the afternoon between his meetings, so that I get a bit of an uninterrupted break to work on deeper tasks. Or, increasingly, to attend my own online meetings. The kids are pretty self-directed, but left to their own devices they tend to…spend all their time on devices. So we do have to do some redirection during their free time, because there is such a thing as too much TikTok and too much Minecraft.

The uncertainty is the toughest thing to deal with at this point. We have a routine that mostly works. Will we be doing this for a couple more weeks? The rest of the school year? Next fall? It’s that sense of not knowing that makes it difficult to fully settle into our ways of working and spending our free time. And the uncertainty definitely casts a pall over everything we’re doing right now.

I’m curious to see how the rest of the week goes, and particularly how my first synchronous class goes. I suspect that next week will feel different from this week, as the novelty wears off and as reality sets in. I wonder about sustaining our energy and engagement levels, with this degree of change and angst and worry.

I hope I’m up to the challenge.

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.