A snapshot of (the quickly ending) Fall Term

It’s Week 9 of our 10 week Fall Term, and I am sitting here wondering just where the hell September and October went. Seriously, wasn’t yesterday the start of the term? (Guess I should take “Goals for Fall Term” out of the blog post idea queue, then….)

It’s been a busy fall term, and it feels like I have a lot more on my plate than usual. I chalk this up to a combination of a number of projects currently on my plate plus continuing recovery from my broken elbow this summer. All of it interesting (for varying definitions of “interesting”). So here’s a look at some of what I’ve been up to the past couple of months.

Teaching: Revisiting an Old Favorite Class

I love teaching Intro. I love guiding students through their first (or one of their first) experiences with programming, algorithm design, and algorithmic thinking. I love the pace of the class, the creativity my students bring to the projects and in-class exercises, the material, and even the wide variety of backgrounds and experiences of my students.

I used to teach Intro all the time. But an influx of young ‘uns and visitors and general scheduling oddities meant that I haven’t taught it since Winter 2015. So I was thrilled to see Intro on my schedule twice this year, Fall and Spring term. But also a bit worried: would this be like a new prep for me, given the long-ish layoff?

Complicating matters is that I switched from a textbook I loved, but for which I could no longer justify the hefty price, to a perfectly fine lower cost textbook. Which meant I’d have to rework my reading assignments, at the very least.

The layoff and the textbook switch led me to approach the class as if I hadn’t taught it before. I revisited and revised all of my learning goals. I did a full backwards design of the class. I mapped topics and projects to learning objectives to make sure they still matched and were still relevant. I added a lab on ethics¬†(which I’ll be blogging about in the coming weeks) and replaced the two exams with 5 quizzes (really mini-exams). I committed to using Slack as a communications medium — with, I’ll be honest, a bit of trepidation.

Luckily, the workload has been manageable. I spend a reasonable amount of time prepping (nowhere close to new prep time, but a bit more than “I recently taught this” time). The majority of my class is first year students, which makes for a really neat class dynamic — and I’m really enjoying the mix of personalities. I truly look forward to teaching every MWF and I’m having a good time in the classroom. The Slack experiment is going better than expected — and has been extremely useful for sharing code with students during and after class. All in all, it’s been a most excellent return to the realm of Intro CS!

Research: Papers, Papers, Papers

Being at an undergraduate-only institution means my research collaborators are undergraduate students. And I’ve lucked out in the student department lately. I have two amazing student researchers, both now junior CS majors, who have worked with me since last spring. They designed and ran their own experiment this summer, and even recruited an interviewee, conducting and then transcribing the interview, too! This fall, we’ve concentrated on analyzing the results from the summer experiment, and are using these results to plan out our next set of experiments.

My stretch goal for my students was to have them submit an extended abstract to the student research competition at SIGCSE, since SIGCSE’s in Minneapolis next year. I’m happy to say they met this goal! I have no idea how reviewers will receive our work, but in any case, it was a good experience for my students — and a good opportunity for me to reflect on where the work is now and where we should go next.

My students are working on one aspect of my larger research project, and my goal this fall was to primarily work on that as well. But, I have a rejected conference paper that I’ve been sitting on since last spring, from the other aspect of my project. And I happened to stumble upon a CFP for a conference that’s a pretty good fit for the paper. And the deadline was a bit uncomfortably close, but not impossibly so. So, I was able to revise that paper and get it back out into the review stream. Bonus: revising that paper helped me think through the next stages of that project, and I’ve moved that project back into the rotation. Our upcoming long break between Fall and Winter terms will be the perfect time to get some sustained work on that project completed, and move me towards my next conference paper.

So, I went from maybe 1 paper-ish thing submitted to 2 paper-ish things submitted! Gold star for me.

Career Planning: What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up?

I’ve had the idea in the back of my head that someday, maybe, I’d go into academic administration. Within the past year or so, I decided to explore this path more proactively. I did the scary thing of VERBALIZING TO A DEAN that I was contemplating administration. I applied for a few grants (unsuccessfully) that would have funded some leadership-type projects I’ve been considering. (I’m still working on the projects, just without the funding.) I mentioned my goals in conversation with faculty colleagues from other liberal arts schools at Tapia.

Lately, I’ve taken this up a notch or 5.

First, I was accepted to, and am participating in, the HERS Institute at Wellesley this academic year. The homework, and the activities and sessions at the first weekend in October, have been extremely useful so far. And a bit scary, since some (many?) of them drive me outside my comfort zone. My cohort is full of amazing, inspiring, energetic women — my 60 new colleague best friends. ūüôā I’ve figured out so much about myself, my strengths, my weaknesses, my unstated goals, already! I feel like this experience is preparing me very well for whatever comes next in my career — and has helped me thing more broadly and expansively about the possibilities. The next session is coming up next weekend, and I can’t wait!

Second, and scarier: I put my name forth for consideration for an administrative position at my institution. No matter what the outcome, putting myself forth has helped me think through my priorities, and will be a good experience for figuring out how to pursue opportunities in the future.

Life: Recovery Takes Time, and a Boatload of Medical Appointments

My newest hobby is attending multiple occupational therapy appointments each week, as I continue to rehabilitate my broken elbow. The good news is that the breaks are completely healed, and I’ve been cleared to do whatever I want! I’ve worked my way slowly back to running, and on Monday I ran 30 minutes nonstop. Which doesn’t seem like much given I’m a 3-time marathoner, but was a huge milestone after months of “just” walking or walk/running to avoid jostling my elbow too much. I can now fully participate in taekwondo, although I still can’t do a full pushup (not even on my knees). But that will come in time. I’ve also started swimming again, and while I need to make a few adjustments to account for my reduced range of motion, swimming has felt good.

The not as good news is that it’s been a long, slow, uncomfortable slog to regain my range of motion and strength. Apparently, elbows are difficult entities. My therapy exercises are uncomfortable and sometimes painful. My progress stalled out for a while (thanks, scar tissue in the elbow!), but I now seem to be moving forward again, thanks to ultrasound and Graston treatments. There is a chance I might need surgery again to clear out the plethora of scar tissue that’s formed in the elbow, but I hope I can avoid that.

I used to scoff when people said they could “feel the weather changing” in their joints. I don’t scoff any more, because this is now my lived experience. I feel old.


Even with everything on my plate, it’s been a manageable term. Sure, some days require some Herculean logistics, and I’ve had to move around my office hours more than I care to admit to accommodate the less-movable OT appointments, but I’ve managed to keep my weekends mostly work-free and my sanity mostly in check. Here’s hoping the end of the term is as manageable as the rest of the term has been (fingers crossed).

 

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Reflecting on the transition back

As fall term comes to a close (our last day of classes was yesterday), I’ve been reflecting on my experience coming back from a year-long sabbatical.

Overall, the transition has been easier and less painful than I anticipated.

One of the big concerns I had was the loss of my “free” nights and weekends. While on sabbatical, I took weekends off (except for my Sunday night meeting), and only worked on weeknights occasionally. I worried that the sheer volume of work I’d be facing would translate into squeezing work in every night after the kids went to bed (thus skimping on sleep) and trying to squeeze work in on already-packed weekends.

Luckily, I’ve been able to mostly avoid working on the weekends, save for an hour or two on Sunday evenings, and my weekday evening workloads have been manageable. Yet I seem to get more done!

I credit a couple of things for this:

  • More deliberate scheduling of tasks. I’ve done the “put your writing/research time on your calendar” trick forever, and that helps me prioritize writing and research even during the craziest times of the term. I’ve started doing that with other things — blocking off time for class prep, or administrative tasks, for instance. In addition to providing more structure to my workday, it eliminates the worry over when certain things will get done.
  • Meditation. I started meditating this summer, at the suggestion of my therapist, as a way to manage my anxiety and depression. I know it is not for everyone, but it has worked wonders for me. In addition to helping with my anxiety and depression, I’ve found it easier to focus on one thing at a time — so when I’m working on something, I’m thinking only about that and not the million other things that I could also be doing at this particular time. Not surprisingly, this increased focus means I complete things more quickly, and my work is of higher quality.

The one thing I did not expect? My lack of stamina, mentally and physically.

Before sabbatical, most days I’d be able to power through mentally until the end of the day, before my energy started to wane. Now? By 3pm I’m EXHAUSTED, mentally and physically. And it feels like it takes me longer to recover from that exhaustion; taking a short break doesn’t help as much as it used to.

Perhaps this is partially due to our family’s schedule this fall, where I’m often picking up one or both kids after work and going straight to one or more sports practices or other evening activities. There’s no real downtime for me until later in the evening, so perhaps anticipating that, my mind shuts down early as a means of self-preservation?

Perhaps it’s because I got used to a different, more deliberate pace of working while on sabbatical, with some down time built in between tasks. Now, I often move right from one task to the next out of necessity — which means fewer mental and physical breaks over the course of a day.

Whatever the reason, it’s a pattern that’s persisted over the course of the term. I know that winter term will be even more hectic than fall term: we’re hiring¬†(we’re hiring! come work with us!); I’ll be selecting a new cohort of Summer Science Fellows (and faculty research mentors) and helping our current cohort find summer positions; there’s lots of Comps stuff that happens winter term and I’ll be doubly hit with that as advisor to 3 groups and our department’s Comps organizer. And my family’s schedule is not going to get any less hectic this winter — in fact, my daughter is moving up an age group on her swim team, which means we’ll have to figure out how to get her to one additional practice per week, on top of everything else going on.

For me, the solution probably lies in finding ways to work downtime into my workday so that I don’t exhaust my cognitive resources early. And that’s something I’ll reflect on during our long break between fall term and winter term.

Random thoughts, Friday before first day of classes edition

The week before classes is traditionally very busy. Lots of meetings, faculty retreat, Academic Fair, advising especially if you have first year advisees — not to mention, the rush to get everything ready for the first day of classes. And the busy-ness and franticness, I’m finding, is amped up to 11 (on a scale of 1-10) when you’re coming off sabbatical.

I’m finding a few things more challenging than usual:

  • Interacting with people. Oh, so many people! Comparatively at least, since I’m used to working by myself at home with only my cats for company. I’ve found I need a lot more alone time to recover after these encounters, more time than usual. Tuesday and yesterday afternoon were especially brutal — Tuesday because of faculty retreat (a half day filled with people! ack!), and yesterday due to a combination of meetings + Academic Fair (where first years can go and learn about the academic departments and services) without a break. Last night I could barely function or think. Good times.
  • Emails. Emails emails emails. I’m realizing I was spoiled on sabbatical: not only was I getting way fewer emails, but also I could ignore about 90% of the ones I did get. Not so anymore. I’ve fallen way behind on email processing this week, so in addition to the 1000 other tasks I have to do today to get ready for next week, I have to pencil in time to tackle at least the more pressing ones. And let’s not mention the Slack channels I’m on, where conversations have ramped up quite a bit in the last week.
  • Getting all the logistics in place for the term. This includes things like coordinating meetings with community and campus partners for our capstone projects, which affects the times and days of the week I meet with my capstone groups. And reserving lab space for in-class labs. And finding a meeting time and place for the science fellows seminar. Which, you guessed it, means lots of emails. Oh yeah, and figuring out office hours and blocking off time for research and class prep and and and …. ok, deep breaths.

I know that This Too Shall Pass and Everything Will Somehow Get Done By Monday. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. ….

* * *

I’m really enjoying my new office and my new building. My hallway consists of me, the director of our learning and teaching center, and the new writing program director. Lots of potential for great conversations and maybe projects with both. The Cinema and Media Studies/Music admin offices are across the hall, as well as CAMS and Music faculty offices and the Learning and Teaching Center. Being in such an interdisciplinary spot is going to be really interesting!

Our department has a Slack channel now, since we’re spread out (2 of us are in my building, and the rest are spread between 3 floors of another building), as a way of communicating small things and having small discussions/getting questions answered. I’m also getting used to the fact that my colleagues now call me on the phone to have once were quick hallway conversations. I’m used to ignoring my phone — I guess I can’t do that any longer.

I do hope the construction noise outside my window ends when classes start.

My building is 2 blocks from downtown, which means 2 blocks from coffee shops and the bagel place and restaurants and such. Plus there is a coffee shop in my building. I foresee a lot of coffee and bagels in my future this year. Perhaps I won’t be losing the Sabbatical 5 Pounds I gained last year. But, on the other hand, this means more interesting places to walk when I am feeling stir-crazy and need to clear my head.

* * *

And on that note, it’s back to class prep and email taming and all of the other Friday before classes start tasks. To all the Carls new and returning: see you on Monday, and have a fabulous fall term!

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.