Serendipitous thinking time

Flying back from a family trip this weekend, too exhausted to read, I put on my headphones, dialed up a podcast (Teaching in Higher Ed, which I absolutely love), and closed my eyes. Instead of dozing, I listened and let my mind wander a bit, stopping to jot down notes as the mood struck — some about the podcast, many about random things that popped into my mind as I listened that were tangentially related to the podcast. I noted a few tools and productivity tips to try. I jotted down ideas for my upcoming fall classes. I sketched out a possible model for a new evaluation piece in my Software Design course. I didn’t intend to do any of these things, but having the time and space to just sit with my thoughts and no agenda led to some creative thinking and planning.

As I exited the plane, my first thought was that this sort of time for serendipitous thinking is what I will miss most when coming off of sabbatical.

My second thought: time for serendipitous thinking, as I’ve learned this year, is absolutely essential for my productivity and for my well-being.

Spending time on things not immediately related to my work — like listening to TIHE, or reading more broadly in my field and across fields and disciplines — allows my brain the opportunity to step back, to learn new things, and the space to make new connections. Some of my best ideas for class activities, projects, case studies, etc. have come from leafing through ACM interactions or Communications of the ACM, from articles that often have little to do with the course’s subject matter. Listening to The Hilarious World of Depression podcast caused me to reflect on my course management policies and think about how I can be a more compassionate, yet still fair, professor to my students who are struggling. These are just a few examples from this year alone.

Sure, I can still do these things while not on sabbatical. But it’s hard to justify time to sit and really listen to an episode of TIHE, or flip through back issues of interactions, when you have a line of students outside your door and 100 emails to answer and a class to prep and grading to do and a paper deadline and and and…..

Yet my work is richer and more fulfilling when I do make time for these things. So how do I successfully make time?

In the past, I’ve tried blocking out specific time to, say, read journal articles each week. The problem is that even though that time is blocked out, I still view it as fungible — if something else comes up, or I’m stressed about getting other things done, well, this is not immediately due so I can just skip it, just this once. And then once becomes twice, and then it’s 3 months later and the journal articles are sitting there gathering dust.

Yet I am able to successfully block out research time every day on my calendar, even though most of the time there’s not anything immediate about getting research done (besides paper or grant deadline time). I’ve gotten past the mindset that research time is fungible and convinced myself that research time is important, despite the lack of immediate deadlines. I think I just need to do the same with “serendipitous thinking time”. Maybe not every day, but I think I can manage at least once a week. That seems like a good starting place.

Do you carve out time for serendipitous thinking in your workweek? If so, how do you manage it and keep that time sacred?

Summer plans

Well, it had to happen eventually — my year-long sabbatical is now over, and I’m officially into summer. Which means it’s time for summer plans and setting summer goals.

Since I’m a visual person, this year I decided to make a big ol’ summer calendar and write/draw out all of my responsibilities, goals, etc. on it. I found this exercise immensely helpful — and as a bonus, it helped me figure out which weeks the kids have various camps. With 2 kids in 2 different age groups (for camp program purposes), you can imagine how complicated this becomes. In fact, there are only 4 weeks this summer where both kids are in the same camp/location at the same time.

Summer calendar

Summer calendar, in progress last week. It is much more filled in now!

We also decided this summer to purposely not schedule the kids for the entire summer. So there are weeks or partial weeks where the kids are hanging out at home with me. After a disastrous day last week where I spent more time dealing with kid shenanigans (my own and the neighbors) than on the work I needed to complete, I came up with a daily task list for the kids to complete on the days they are home with me. So far it’s worked really well.

Summer to-do list for kids.

Thank you, Pinterest, for inspiring the entries on this list.

What’s also worked is setting a strict time limit on my own work for the day, letting the kids know how much time I will spend working and when I plan to be done. And reminding them that every interruption moves that time back. And scheduling fun things to do together after I finish working, like going to the pool or playing games. (I’m not sure who looks forward to that time more, my kids or me!)

We have a couple of shorter trips planned, plus like last year I blocked off the entire last week of August for Mom’s End Of Summer Fun Camp, which was a big hit with the kids. And I am back to teaching in our high school summer program, after a year off from that. Having those sketched out on the mega-calendar helped me visualize the time I have available to work on other projects.

I have a few projects that I’m working on this summer:

  • I received an internal curricular grant to get things up and running for my HFOSS Comps project. I’m going to spend that time getting involved in the developer community and making connections; figuring out how to contribute to the project, and how my students can contribute; and creating/modifying learning activities for and from the foss2serve community.
  • Starting to conduct interviews for my interview project. I’m a couple of months behind on this because some other projects consumed my time this spring, but I hope to get at least 5 interviews completed this summer. I’m hoping to load these up in the weeks that the kids are in camp/summer programs.
  • Continuing my state diagram/model project. The paper continues to evolve, the modeling language is mostly complete, and now I need to get the event/transition part of the model working in simulation.  I don’t expect to finish this over the summer, but I hope to get the bulk of the design done so I can finish coding it up in the fall.
  • Prep for fall term. There are some minor changes I want to make to Software Design, which I’m teaching this fall and winter. I’ll need to touch base with my community/campus partners for the other 2 Comps projects I’m supervising. I need to update my website. I’m also taking over as mentor/director of the Summer Science Fellows program at Carleton, so I need to figure out what happens when with that program and figure out what to do in the fall seminar I’m leading for this summer’s fellows, along with some other logistical things.

My main goal this summer, though, is to not stress about the things that don’t get done. There are only a few things that need to be completed this summer, but for the rest, the world will not end if I fall a bit behind. I need to make sure I am relaxed, refreshed, and ready to tackle the academic year, and that is really my number one priority this summer.

Uniform

astronauts

The power of the uniform!

I recently listened to a podcast where the hosts talked for a bit about adopting a uniform. The idea behind a uniform is that it takes out some of the decision making we do every morning by reducing the number of options: if we basically wear the same thing every day, there are fewer decisions to make about getting dressed, which means we’re not drawing down our cognitive resources early in the day.

I’ve actually been thinking about this idea lately, although it wasn’t until I heard the podcast that I assigned it the label “uniform”. Since I largely work at home this year, I mostly wear one of two outfits: jeans, a t-shirt, and a cardigan; or leggings and a sweater. There’s a bit more variety in my teaching outfits when I’m not on sabbatical, but I’ve come to realize that I’m most comfortable in a “uniform” of a dress and a cardigan. And on non-teaching days I tend to wear jeans, a nice shirt, and a cardigan. (I guess I love my cardigans!) I’ve been thinking about paring down my wardrobe to the pieces I wear most often and letting go of the rest to reflect the reality of how I dress. (Do I really need 8 pairs of dress pants if I only wear 2 of them on a semi-regular basis?) Of course I haven’t actually done anything about this yet, but the idea intrigues me.

This got me thinking about other “uniforms” I’ve adopted in my life to make my life easier and remove some of the decision fatigue:

  • Breakfast. I go through phases on what I eat for breakfast on weekdays, but I realized that I basically switch between two meals. Right now those are a smoothie; or eggs, avocado, and spinach on toast. Given that mornings are chaotic trying to get myself and the kiddos ready for the day, it really helps to just decide “sweet or savory?” and go from there.
  • Moodle course pages. Moodle (our course management system) can be overwhelming for students and faculty alike (so many boxes! so many links! so many things vying for attention!). About 4-5 years ago I came up with a “template” for my course Moodle pages that I’ve been using ever since. I tweak it a bit every year, but the overall structure remains the same: content boxes in the same places, content each week organized into the same categories, etc. It’s one less thing I have to think about when putting course content together. And if students have taken a class with me before, they (in theory) know where to find everything associated with the class. Now, it would be SOOOOO nice if Moodle actually allowed me to save my “template” so that I didn’t have to re-invent the wheel every class, every term…..
  • Comps (capstone) projects. Next year, all three of the Comps projects I’m supervising are academic civic engagement projects. Even though they involve very different campus/community partners, they all entail the same main tasks and have the same structure. This has made conceptualizing and planning the projects much easier, because I’m doing basically the same tasks, just with three different partners. In theory, this will also make managing the projects easier, because each team will be performing the same tasks, just at different times and in different contexts. Unusually for me, I also have a few project ideas on the back burner for next year — so the existence of this pattern makes it easier for me to generate project ideas, too.

What uniforms have you adopted in your own life? Do you wear a “uniform” in your day-to-day life?

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:STS-133_Astrovan_pre-flight_photo.jpg

Reading as a form of reflection and productivity

It’s one of those perfect Minnesota winter days today: a few inches of snow fell last night, snow still falling in the morning, the fluffy sticky snow that makes everything gorgeous. After getting the kids onto the school bus, I settled in to my cozy reading chair in my living room, next to the big window so that I could watch the snow fall, with a big pot of tea, a fuzzy blanket, a snuggly cat, some research reading, and the latest issue of Interactions.

90 minutes later, I’d finished my research reading and Interactions, made an extensive to-do list for my newest research project, sketched out two new Comps (capstone) project ideas, and jotted down a few new ideas for my teaching in our summer program.

Only the reading and the making of the to-do list were on my agenda for the day. The rest were completely serendipitous.

I’ve made reading a priority during my sabbatical, because I rarely make time for it in my typical work life. Reading is often a serendipitous exercise for me, particularly if I’m reading within my field but not specifically for my research. Skimming through an issue of Communications of the ACM a few years back inspired me to embark on the research project I’ve been working on for the past few years. Flipping through books that randomly show up in my office has inspired at least 3 different Comps projects over the years. Reading within my research area also leads to serendipitous ideas. While reviewing the literature for my last submitted conference paper, I identified a hole in our understanding of the problem that I wasn’t even looking for — which led to the project I’m now embarking on, an entirely new line of inquiry.

The act of reading serves as an act of reflection for me. I let my mind wander productively as I read. The ideas on the page mix with ideas I didn’t even know I’ve been carrying around, new connections form, and new avenues appear. I sketch diagrams in the margins, make lists and outlines, save quotes, highlight sources to look up later. Reading in this way becomes a form of productive brainstorming for me, except somehow the ideas come out more fully formed than when I’m just brainstorming.

So if reading broadly is such a productively creative act for me, why don’t I make more time for it? Because it’s not as urgent as the other tasks on my list. Because it doesn’t directly contribute to moving my research forward. Because if I only have a limited amount of time to devote to research, it seems more prudent to spend it on something that will directly impact my research, like coding or writing or analyzing data.

But the truth is, reading does contribute to my research — and my teaching, and my service, too. Time for reflection is vital to remaining an active, engaged researcher and teacher. And as the past few years of burnout have taught me, time for reflection is key to remaining sane and creative in my work life, too.

Even though I still have months left of sabbatical, I’ve already started reflecting on what I want my work life to look like when I return next year. Making time to read on a regular basis will definitely be part of that vision.

 

Theme for 2017: Healthy

I used to have a tradition, before my life went completely crazy off the rails the past few years, of setting a broad intention, guiding principle, or theme for the year, either at the start of the new year or the start of the academic year. (See, for example, my theme for 2010 and the 2013-14 academic year). The idea behind a theme vs. a resolution is that a theme guides all of your actions and interactions for the year, providing a framework for how you want to operate in the world that year. It’s more holistic and, to me, feels more genuine than yet another thing to add to the to-do list.

I struggled and debated as to whether to bother setting a theme at all, and then, once I decided to do so, deciding on a theme. I spiraled into a pretty deep depression the first few days of the new year, and it took a good week for me to dig myself out to the point where I felt “normal” again and where everything didn’t feel overwhelming. I’m still trying to figure out what caused the spiral, but despair and a general feeling of hopelessness over local, national, and international events certainly isn’t helping.

Once I felt more functional, I debated over various themes. I threw around things like “take action”, “follow through”, and “courage”, which express my desire to be more politically engaged this year. But this didn’t quite address the other aspects of my life that I’d like to address this year: finding better balance between work and life once sabbatical ends, improving my mental health, working on research and pedagogy that broadens participation in computing, etc.

I kept coming back to one word, and I finally realized that this one word did, in fact, encompass how I’d like to operate in the world this year.

So, my theme for 2017 is:

Healthy.

Healthy, in the way we normally think of health: a reminder to take care of myself, both physically and mentally, so that I can be more fully present for the people, activities, and causes that matter most to me.

Healthy, in terms of only taking on what I can reasonably handle, in terms of work, commitments, and emotional caretaking. Letting go or delegating what I can’t, and not considering it a moral failing when I do either. Taking breaks and time to restore and recharge.

Healthy, in terms of improving the health and well-being of the communities around me. Continuing to work to make computing more welcoming to all, through my pedagogy, research, and service. Taking political action by making my opinions known to my representatives at all levels, a small part in being the change I want to see in the world. Serving as a role model and mentor to girls through Girl Scouts.

I’m excited by this year’s theme, and excited to explore all the different ways I can apply this theme in 2017.

Do you have a theme for the year? If so, what is it?

A look back at 2016

I wasn’t planning on doing an end-of-the-year post for 2016.

As far as I’m concerned, 2016 has way overstayed its welcome. In many respects, it’s been a shitty, difficult year from start to finish. From some really difficult, nasty, unbloggable stuff I dealt with in my last year as chair; to the extreme burnout from my job (which had taken such a toll on my physical, mental, and emotional health that I still haven’t fully recovered); to the passing of so many celebrities from my childhood and formative years (I learned about Carrie Fisher’s passing, I kid you not, as we were leaving the theater after watching Rogue One); to the dumpster fires and horrors that were our presidential election, Aleppo, Brexit, and any other number of world events — there’s a lot to be sad/angry/horrified by from 2016. So, yeah, 2016 can just go away, far far away, as far as I’m concerned.

But as I sat on the plane on the way home from my mom’s house yesterday morning, I realized that I didn’t want to end 2016 on a sour note. I’ve spent so much of my time and energy this year (necessarily) ruminating on the bad, but the truth is that a lot of good happened too. And frankly, I’d like to head into the new year with positive momentum to balance some of the anger and despair.

So I am doing an end-of-the-year post, a look back at 2016, focusing on some of the positives from the year. In a future post, I’ll talk about what I want to do to keep this positive momentum moving into the new year.

  1. It was a pretty good year professionally. 2016 was a pretty solid year professionally with a lot of interesting opportunities: co-chairing the Grace Hopper poster session (with an incredibly talented, warm, funny person whom I hope to work with again in the future!), attending Tapia for the first time, continuing to expand my work in academic civic engagement (including attending POSSE and finding an excellent community there), finishing up my stint as chair on (hopefully) a high note, submitting my promotion materials. It also brought clarity and better judgment: I turned down a service opportunity that would have meant a lot of visibility, but wouldn’t have fit in with my larger goals, in favor of a smaller, local opportunity that fits in much better with my larger goals (watch this space in the future for more on that!).
  2. I reprioritized family. My crazy-ass schedule last year meant that I wasn’t always present for my family, and when I was, I was too stressed to be fully present (or, as my kids observed, “You yell a lot when you’re home, Mom.”).
    Highline Trail, Glacier National Park, USA.

    Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, one of the (many) hikes we did on our epic road trip.

    I made the conscious decision to dial way back on work this summer: not supporting summer students, not teaching in the summer program, spending Fridays and several full weeks home with my kiddos. My spouse, kids, and I took a 2 week epic camping road trip (6 national parks/monuments/memorials*, 6 states**) this summer that was just amazing. My sabbatical means that I’m working sane hours, which means that I can be fully present on weeknights and weekends, which means I can actually enjoy family time. My son started taekwondo this year, and it looked like so much fun that I recently joined him. I’m looking forward to us earning our black belts together someday!

  3. I ran. A lot. 1089 miles, to be exact, not counting whatever I end up running today***, and (woo hoo) injury free! I ran my 2nd marathon in October and PRed by 9 minutes. Best of all, I found an online community of mother runners, some of whom I trained with virtually during my marathon training cycle and some of whom I still virtually keep in touch with. I’m looking forward to marathon #3 next year, and maybe some half marathons, too.
  4. Sabbatical, sabbatical, sabbatical. I can’t tell you how positive this experience has been for every single aspect of my life. I didn’t realize the extent to which my job nearly broke me last year, and over the last few years. I feel normal again. I’ve reset my priorities, my work habits, and my professional goals. I fell in love with my research again. I’ve already submitted one paper and sketched out a brand new research project that will really stretch me professionally. I wake up every day excited to get back to work, and that’s something I haven’t felt in a very, very long time.

I’m still not sad to see 2016 go, but reflecting on the good makes me feel a smidge more hopeful about 2017. In many ways, 2016 clarified what my personal truths are, and I plan on using these truths to frame and structure my 2017. There are many things I can’t control, but there are many things I can do to be the change I want to see in this world. And that, I think, will be my guiding principle for 2017.

* In the order we visited: Theodore Roosevelt, Glacier, Craters of the Moon, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Mount Rushmore

** Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming

***I am super tempted to run 11 miles today to make it an even 1100 miles for the year. We’ll see.

#AcWriMo, Sabbatical Edition: The Final Reckoning

As I’ve done for the past few years, last month I participated in AcWriMo, the month-long academic writing extravaganza. I started the month with two goals:

  1. Complete an almost-submission-ready draft of a conference paper.
  2. Complete a rough draft of a new research study.

I chose this particular set of goals as a way to address some clogs in my research pipeline. Right now I have a lot of work in preliminary stages and/or various stages of write-up, but nothing out for review. I chose the first goal as a way to move something closer to the out-for-review stage of the pipeline, and the second goal as a way to move a project from the half-baked idea phase to the gee-I-could-start-collecting-data-soon stage.

So, how did I do?

I completely met my first goal. I have a complete draft of a conference paper ready to be tweaked for a particular conference. I did not start the month with a particular conference in mind. Instead, I decided to write a generic draft — more like a tech report — that I could then slightly tweak and reframe for particular venues. So all the source material is there, and all I need to do is edit it. And as luck would have it, a few days ago I found a conference with a mid-December deadline that’s a pretty good fit for it. I’ll need to cut 3 pages and I’ll need to reframe the intro to better fit the conference’s focus, but that should be pretty straightforward. So, bonus, this paper WILL be out for review soon!

I completely met my second goal. My literature search confirmed what I suspected — that this new study area is pretty underexplored. Reviewing the literature, and working through my stash of HCI books, gave me some good ideas for how I might explore this space, and I feel pretty excited about my study plan. Also, terrified, because the new study involves qualitative research methods that I’ve never, ever used before. (I am setting up a lot of meetings with my social scientist friends in the near future!)

I wanted to keep track of how I spent my writing time, so I logged my writing time, number of words, time spent coding, time spent on each project, etc. every day.

research time plot

Time spent over the month on the two projects. “Coding” was code development I did in conjunction with the conference paper.

As expected, I spent more time over the course of the month on the conference paper. This makes sense, because there was a lot more work to do on that particular project and it had a more defined finished product. I also find it interesting that the majority of the work on the new research study was done early in the month. I made a lot of progress early in the month, getting me almost all the way to my goal, which freed up my time to focus on the conference paper. (You can also clearly tell where the weekends are and where the long holiday weekend fell.)

number of words written

Number of words written over the month on the two projects.

It’s a bit demoralizing to see your word count go down over the course of the month, but this reflects the edits on the conference paper. There’s also a faster rate of word production (most of the time) for the new study, because most of that was “new” writing, so it was less edited and vetted. (It also includes the word count for notes I took while reading articles and books for the project.)

I’ve liked the experience of logging my output like this. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that you’re actually making progress when you’re slogging away day after day, but charts like these drive home the point that daily effort does add up over time. I also experimented with journaling about my research every day, and I’ve found that useful as well. I plan on continuing both practices beyond AcWriMo.

As always, I’ve enjoyed the community aspect of AcWriMo, and I will miss that. One of the many things I’ve been thinking about while on sabbatical is how I can recreate some of that supportive community around research and writing at my institution. I hope to come up with some concrete ideas and try them out next year.

I’m so glad I decided to do AcWriMo again this year. I almost didn’t participate because it felt like “cheating” since I am on sabbatical and I’m supposed to be laser-focused on my research. Participating provided me with a chance to reflect on my research practices and experiment with ways of working, as well as set specific and scary goals and make myself publicly accountable. And these are lessons that I’ll take with me beyond AcWriMo and into the new year.