The Many Faces of Midterm Break

One of the quirks of Carleton’s academic calendar — consisting of 3 10-week terms — is the one day midterm “break”. Monday of 6th week, no classes are scheduled, giving students and faculty a long weekend separating the first half of the term from the second half of the term.

While I’m unclear on the history of midterm break (it’s been around since well before I arrived), I suspect (or maybe just hope) that midterm break had noble origins. In my rose-colored glasses view of Carleton history, midterm break was established as a true break, a recognition of the need to recharge, at least for one day. (Putting aside, of course, that those who teach on a TTh schedule do not benefit explicitly from this break, but MWF faculty do.)

I realized very early on in my Carleton career that it was non-negotiable for my mental health to take this day as a full-fledged break. The few times I haven’t done this, the second half of the term was an unmitigated disaster. So I consciously make the decision to eschew work for the day. Sometimes I manage to get away for the weekend — this past fall, my daughter also had that Monday off, so we got away for a girls’ camping weekend in a state park. Other times, weather-permitting, I’ll get outdoors for a long hike, or ski, or run. Or catch up on errands and take myself out to lunch. Or, if I’m completely exhausted, hang out in a comfy chair with tea and books. Whatever I decide, it has to recharge me.

Because I believe so much in using break as a break, I no longer have projects due in my classes the day after break. I want my students to have the option to recharge and take the day off of work, too.

I believe I am firmly in the minority on both counts. I know that most of my colleagues use the time to catch up on work and grading, and I suspect many of my students do, too. I can understand this — it is nice to get things off of your plate, and to have rare uninterrupted time to accomplish those things that seem to keep getting pushed to tomorrow’s to-do list. And I suspect that my colleagues and students who do this also manage to take time for themselves — or at least I hope they do.

There is a trend, though, that concerns me, and that is Meeting Creep. I’ve blogged before about December Creep — the proliferation of meetings and workshops and other “optional-but-not-really” work-related events during Winter Break. In recent years, I’ve seen this same phenomenon around midterm break. There seems to me to be more pressure to hold and attend meetings on midterm break.

On the one hand, this makes perfect sense. Everyone knows that there are no classes, so it’s much easier to find time to get people together. And since there are no classes, you can spend less frantic time working through things, without trying to cram decisions and conversations into an hour-long meeting slot.

On the other hand, this becomes yet another pressure point for faculty, particularly junior faculty, faculty of color, and other historically marginalized faculty. I’m a full professor, and I still feel a twinge of guilt when I turn down a meeting request for that time. What happens when you feel like you don’t really have a choice, here? We should all have the freedom to say no to these requests for mental health reasons and to maintain boundaries, but the truth is some of us are freer than others — and that’s not fair.

In my December Creep post, I stated something which still holds true:

I wish our breaks really could be breaks. I wish that we didn’t feel the need to Fill All The Time With All The Things. I wish that we recognized that downtime—unscheduled time—is necessary and important for faculty (and staff!). That we recognized that this workload is really not sustainable.

“The Disappearance of Faculty Downtime”, November 26, 2014.

Next Monday — Monday of 6th week — you’ll most likely find me out in the woods somewhere with my snowshoes (weather-permitting, of course), following animal tracks and planning where to warm up with a mocha and a good book afterwards. I may be in the minority, but at the very least I hope my example makes it easier for someone with less power and privilege than me to maintain their own boundaries around their break time, in whatever way makes most sense to them.

Preparing for an especially busy term

I knew, going into this academic year, that my year would be especially busy. Between stepping into the STEM Director role, finishing my 3 year stint as the director of a cohort program, and teaching one more course than I should be due to a staffing shortage in my department, the year was going to be full, no matter what. I knew Winter Term, in particular, would be especially chaotic — several rounds of grant applications to review (and grant funds to award) in STEM, the selection of next year’s cohort in the cohort program, the selection of a new director for the cohort program, and tenure track hiring in my department. And despite my best efforts to avoid this scenario, my heaviest teaching term — 2 of my 4 courses this year — falls, you guessed it, in Winter Term.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve had a similarly full term — Winter 2016, to be exact, when I was teaching an overload, chairing a department, and chairing a tenure track search. That term almost broke me, even with my hyperfocus on self-care that term.

And while my schedule is what my schedule is, and I can’t control the number of responsibilities I have, I can control my approach. And, as I learned in Winter 2016, and in Winter 2019 when I had a challenging term despite advocating for a lighter term to deal with an expected heavy set of responsibilities, controlling my approach is crucial to maintaining my mental health.

Over at Dynamic Ecology yesterday, Meghan Duffy posted about her strategies for successfully dealing with a busy fall semester. The post contains excellent advice — blocking off time, saying no, etc. — advice that I will definitely borrow during this period of overwork. I’m also taking a few additional steps, to meet my responsibilities in as sustainable a way as possible.

First, I’ve modified the way I plan for the term. I tend to set research goals for the term at the start of each term, to keep myself on track and to keep myself from bailing on research, or spending my research time unproductively, when things get busy. I sketch out everything on my calendar for the next 10 weeks. But this term, there’s just too much to wrap my head around. So I’m only planning a month at a time, to prevent myself from getting too overwhelmed.

Second, I’m putting off interesting but not time-sensitive projects. I decided not to meet a conference paper deadline next week, because I can submit to the same conference in a few months and get feedback then. I’m fortunate in that I am not likely to be scooped in the interim, and I’ll be able to more fully concentrate on the paper starting in mid-March. I’d also originally thought about revamping the assignments in one of my classes to revolve around datasets, but decided that while this would be an interesting and worthwhile use of my time, it didn’t need to happen now. (“It doesn’t need to happen now” is kind of becoming my mantra this term…) I have a couple of research projects that I’ll move forward in smaller steps this term, but the bigger pushes forward will have to wait until Spring Term.

Third, I’m hyperfocusing on managing my energy levels. Monday was the first day of classes, and by the end of my first class I had very little left in the tank. And I still had another 70 minute class to teach! It also didn’t help that I still had some prep to do in between the two classes, so by the time the second class was over, I felt nearly catatonic. Lesson learned: No class prep can happen in between classes — I need to use that time to replenish my energy. This is especially important as an introvert, since teaching two courses means a lot more people time. I also want to experiment for a couple of weeks with upping my sleep. I normally get 7 hours, but my gut tells me that I’ll need 7.5, if not 8, hours of sleep to optimally function given everything on my plate. I need to move some things around and really restrict the time I spend on, say, social media, to make this work, but I’m willing to try.

Perhaps most difficult for me, I am embracing the art of delegating. One of my biggest strengths is the amount of self-motivation I possess. One of my biggest weaknesses is that this self-motivation tricks me into thinking “I’ll just do X, too.”, even when there’s no time for X. Additionally, being the truly effective leader I aspire to be means giving others control and responsibility, giving them guidance, and then getting out of their way. This term, I literally can’t do everything, so delegation is a must — both at work and at home. I need to ask for help. So I will ask for help. Even if internally, I’m cringing at the thought of “imposing” on someone with my ask.

Finally, I’ve decided to embrace the suck. Yes, it’s a difficult term. Yes, I have too much to do. What can this experience teach me about setting and maintaining boundaries? What can I learn about prioritizing? I’ll be meeting and interacting with a lot of new people — what can they teach me? How can I use my experiences, as painful as they might be in the moment, as part of my professional growth? Having so much on my plate means many opportunities to learn and grow, as a leader, a colleague, a mentor, and a professor. I want to take advantage of this unique time.

Are you staring down an especially busy time period, at work or in life? What strategies are you using to make it manageable? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.

Personal productivity: what I’m using now

I am a bit obsessed with productivity and productivity systems. I listen to productivity podcasts and read productivity books and blogs. I enjoy learning how successful people organize their lives and their schedules: what’s their morning routine? how do they get their kids out the door? how much do they sleep? how do they approach setting goals and tracking their progress towards those goals? what tools and systems do they use and recommend? Perhaps this obsession with efficiency, and with systems in general, is why I studied engineering in college.

Productivity as a concept has come under attack lately, and I can’t say that I disagree with these points. I view productivity systems as a way for me to make sure I’m on top of, and making room for, what’s truly important in my life (both at and outside of work), and spending my limited energy doing things I value, and not tracking down things, notes, ideas, etc.

Since I love hearing about what works for other people, I thought I’d share a snapshot of what’s currently working for me. Maybe you can get some ideas for your own systems from what I do. And I’d love to hear about systems and tools and tricks that you’re loving right now, and how you use them.

Tools

I use a mix of paper and digital tools to keep on top of things. It’s easier for me to plan and mentally process things on paper, but features of digital like tagging and alarms keep everything organized. My workflow involves writing things down and then transferring them to some cloud-based tool. At first glance, this might seem inefficient, but I’ve found that transcribing allows me to engage with my notes on a deeper level, to see patterns and connections I didn’t previously notice, so it’s definitely worth the time I spend on it.

My low-tech tools include:

Notebook with daily intentions and to-do lists.
My current daily notebook, with the big-ass paper calendar in the background.
  • A daily notebook. I use notebooks in various parts of my life — one as a lab notebook, one dedicated to leadership work, one to record craft project ideas and sketches, one as a journal — but I use one notebook as my catch-all planner and meeting note taker. My daily intentions and to-do lists go here. Meeting notes go here. Things I want to remember from a conversation, or from whatever I’m reading, that need to be transferred somewhere else later, go here. It’s also a good place to jot down those “oh, I need to do this” thoughts that like to intrude while you’re in deep focus mode. I’ve tried daily paper planners before, but I really like the non-structure of the notebook, so that I can tweak my daily format as much as I’d like as the mood arises.
  • A big monthly paper calendar. At the start of every term, and summer, I sit down to plan out my goals for that term. I can’t plan unless I can “see” the time laid out, so a few years ago I bought a big-ass paper calendar. I put any important dates on there, work and home, so that I can keep those in mind when scheduling projects (for me and for my classes). In the summer, I put the kiddos’ summer camp dates, which helps me see when I have child care coverage and how much coverage I have. Once my planning is done, I lay out the pages for the term-in-progress on a long desk surface in my school office that otherwise would be wasted space, so that again, I have a visual representation of the term and know what’s coming up.

My high-tech tools include:

  • Evernote. This is my digital catch-all. I transcribe meeting notes and put them here (along w/ meeting agendas), so that I can tag and organize them. Clippings of articles I’ve read and want to revisit, or want to read later, go here. Ideas for classes I’m currently teaching or will be teaching go here — which comes in handy when, say, you only teach your signature elective once every 3 years. I keep my notebook system simple: home, school, research, and STEM Director. (I do need to clean up my tags, though — they are getting a bit unwieldy!)
  • Todoist. I adore lists, and particularly to-do lists. I had a hard time finding a digital to-do list keeper that works with my brain, but Todoist is pretty much perfect for me. Minimal interface, and allows me to categorize by project and assign due dates.
  • Google calendar. With all of the hats I wear at work, and with 2 busy kiddos (and both my husband and I with active hobby lives too), having a digital calendar is basically a necessity. It’s also much easier to schedule meetings when someone can see when I’m free and when I can see when they’re free, since who has time for 10 back-and-forth emails setting up a time and place to meet?

Systems/habits

As much as I love my tools, it’s the systems and habits that keep my life from spiraling into chaos. (Well, most days anyway. Having kids means you can only control so much. Having a kiddo with special needs means every day is going to have some degree of chaos, and every day’s chaos will be different.) The habits remind me to pause and reflect and not just run from one thing to the next, which is my natural inclination.

Here are the habits and systems that currently work for me:

  • Daily meditation. A few years ago when I went back to therapy, my therapist strongly suggested I try meditation as a way to manage my depression and anxiety. (They even led me through a short meditation at one session, which I thought was cool.) Now, if I don’t start my day with 10 minutes of meditation, I feel lost, uncentered, and unfocused. I use the Headspace app and love it, but there are many other good ones out there too.
  • Daily intention setting. I don’t remember where I got the idea for setting daily intentions instead of starting the day or week with a long and loosely prioritized to-do list, but that’s been a game-changer for me. (You can see a couple of examples in the image of my daily notebook, above.) When new tasks come in, I weigh them against my intention/priority list for the day before deciding whether to tackle or table that task. The 3 limit forces me to prioritize AND be realistic about my available time. Listing my intentions in my daily notebook allows me to go back and see patterns: what days were hard for me? what days’ lists were too ambitious? Bonus: I’ve retrained my brain (most days) to acknowledge that I’m not a terrible person if I didn’t meet all 3 intentions — it just means I was not cognizant of what the day held when I set those intentions.
  • One sentence journal. I think this idea came from one of Gretchen Rubin‘s books. I love the idea of journalling, but not the (self-)expectations around journalling (the journal has to be a complete record of your life and feelings, etc). But committing to writing at least one sentence a night about the day? That’s easy. So, I write at least one sentence in my journal every night before bed, reflecting on something that happened that day. Often I end up writing several sentences, but if I’m mentally exhausted I’m only on the hook for one. Keeping even such a minimal journal has actually been super beneficial for recognizing patterns in my depression and anxiety, which means my therapist and I can figure out better systems for keeping that in check. And it’s a great way to remember what happened last year, 2 years ago, and so on.
  • Sunday night meeting. I got this idea from NCFDD originally, the idea of sitting down with yourself and your calendar and all of those notes you took during the previous week on various projects and figuring out how you’re going to spend your time and energy the coming week. Sunday nights work because it’s a good way to transition from the weekend to the work week, but I’ve also done this first thing Monday morning, or sometimes even Sunday morning, if Sunday’s heavily scheduled. I also use the time to make sure I’m working towards the goals I set at the start of the term, and to readjust goals and timelines if necessary.

As with everything, my systems and tools are a work in progress. I suspect in 6 months at least one of these tools or systems will change — but for me, that’s part of the fun!

A late start to summer

When your institution’s on the quarter or trimester system, summers have a different rhythm than for most of the rest of academia. By the time graduation and the due date for final grades rolls around in mid-June for us, the semester schools are nearly halfway through their summers. And while most of the rest of academia frantically preps through the month of August, we enjoy a full month of summer, knowing that we’ll have a couple of weeks in September as an extra buffer before our fall starts.

Most years, I structure my summers to take an extended break in August, opting to “front-load” my summer meetings, large tasks, and research student mentoring so that I can use August mainly for relaxation and restoration. We typically vacation as a family in August (and I fully disconnect during that time, something I look forward to doing all year!), and we give our kids a break from structured camps and activities the last 2 weeks of August before they return to school.

This summer, we tried something different, opting to vacation in June right after spring term and the kids’ school years ended. Due to some complicated scheduling, we ended up returning from vacation just in time to turn around and head back out on the road for my brother’s wedding, which meant we were on the road for 3 weeks all together. Since our trip involved camping and national parks, we wanted to see if the parks and campgrounds would be less busy (and, in the desert areas, less hot) in June than in the height of tourist season in August. (Answer: Yes, but we traded crowds for snow — no joke!) And since I knew I would not be working with research students this summer so that I could concentrate on my job transition, I had some freedom in terms of scheduling my own summer.

So, how did it go?

The pros

  • A natural break between school and summer means less burnout off the bat. The march from January through mid-June with only a short break between winter and spring terms is mentally brutal and exhausting. I often start my summers depleted as a result. It felt lovely to make a clean break after turning in my spring term grades and to give my brain a rest. By the time we got back, I was ready and eager to dive back in to work.
  • Fewer things are scheduled in June vs. August. Back to school events (screenings, tests, meet the teachers, etc) start up in mid-August in my kiddos’ district, so we often find ourselves playing the “can we miss this or do we need to schedule the vacation around this?” game, particularly if we want to vacation later in August. This is less of a problem in June for the kiddos. I did have to skip out on a few end of year things at my institution to make the vacation/wedding combo work out, and I missed out on meeting up with alums back for reunion, but I generally also find there’s less going on in June than in mid- to late-August, work-wise.
  • Fewer crowds. There were still plenty of people at the parks, but definitely fewer than we’ve encountered on our August trips. We could do all of the tours we wanted, when we wanted, at Mesa Verde, and navigated Rocky Mountain NP easily (the 2 parks we were most worried about).
  • More realistic about my summer plans and goals. One trap I routinely fall into coming out of spring term is seeing the summer stretch out ahead of me and thinking that I’ll develop some superpower that will allow me to complete about 6 months worth of work in 8 weeks. It hasn’t happened yet. Starting my “work summer” in July has given me a more realistic view of how much time and energy I have available this summer. When I finally sat down to plan out my summer on Monday, I found that I was more pragmatic about the time and energy I have available and could better map out how much time I could spend on various projects. For the first time, I have a realistic set of goals and priorities!

The cons

  • “That’s it?” I didn’t realize just how much I enjoy anticipating our late summer trips until we returned from this early summer trip. I feel deep and profound sadness that there’s no trip in August to look forward to.
  • “Now what?” It felt weird and a bit disconcerting to me to be almost a month in to my summer and not have any summer goals/plans set for work. It’s July and I don’t have a summer routine yet. This lack of routine is also problematic for the kiddos, and I find we’re working harder than we usually do to help the kids navigate their summer routines and rhythms.
  • Less end of year slack. I didn’t realize how much I, and those around me, rely on the first couple of weeks of summer to wrap up the academic year, until I was forced to wrap up everything in time to pack up the car and head out of town. For me, this meant more meetings during Reading Days that I would have typically scheduled for the week after graduation, and some meetings that I’ve had to push off until August. The Reading Days meetings felt frantic, and the August meetings run the danger of us forgetting valuable items in the interim.

Would we do this again, taking a break right off the bat? I think so, although I am curious to see how I’ll feel in August and how this changes the end of the summer rhythms, both family-wise and work-wise. I am not sure I could pull this off in summers where I have student collaborators, but that might depend on the collaborators and how long we’ve been working together. I do know that I feel more refreshed, more centered, and more confident going into my “work summer” than I’ve felt in forever, and I’m looking forward to seeing if I can sustain that through August.

Designing a term with mental health in mind

It was the start of Week 9 of our 10 week winter term, and I found myself staring at a blank text editor page on my computer monitor, textbook open beside me, praying for some, any, inspiration. “I’ll post Problem Set 7 on Monday,” I told my students. It was Monday, already, and I had nothing.

I was so, so, so tired. Physically tired, from several weeks of not enough sleep. Mentally tired, from juggling an overwhelmingly overfull term containing a basically new prep and significant service responsibilities and hiring. Emotionally tired, from the hours I spent every day dealing with significant and difficult issues with one of my kiddos, who’s really struggling this year. But I had to suck it up. I had to get this written, and posted, so that….

So that what? I found myself thinking. Judging from my interactions with students in class, and the messages they’re sending me about class, they are also exhausted, and overwhelmed. Every class is piling on work. Seniors are finish up Comps. The course material is challenging, and the textbook is actually in many cases hindering their learning. Everyone is on edge.

Will that final problem set add to their learning? Is the added stress worth it, or will it be more conducive to their learning to ease off the gas a bit and let them catch their breath?

If I clearly didn’t want to write this problem set, did I think my students really wanted to do this problem set?

When I framed the problem that way, the answer was clear. I sent a message to the class, letting them know that there would be no Problem Set 7. The relief, and appreciation, was immediate and palpable.

I’d fallen into the trap of thinking that if students are not producing, they’re not learning. But there’s a time to produce, and a time to reflect, and it’s hard to produce when you’re tired and overscheduled and overstimulated. And judging from the student responses on the final exam on the topic that would have been the focus of Problem Set 7, the in-class only exposure to the material produced the desired learning outcomes anyway.

I thought about this experience a lot when planning out my spring term course. The end of spring term is traditionally even tougher than the end of winter term. We don’t get much of a break between winter and spring terms, and by early June we’ve been slogging away exhaustedly for months. And the end of the year brings All Of The Events. The department picnics. The awards thingies. The end of year celebrations. So. many. surveys. If I can give them just a bit of breathing room, some time to engage at a slower pace with the material, with more carefully curated “products” spaced more thoughtfully with the rhythms of the term — well, that’s a gift to them and to me (and my course staff!).

I thought about this from a personal standpoint, too, when planning out my term. While I still have significant service responsibilities that will only continue to ramp up, my workload is way more manageable and realistic than it was in the winter. (I might even be able to take most weekends off!) But. Spring term is when my depression kicks into overdrive, like clockwork. And I know that if I’m not on top of it, it can quickly derail my life and my productivity. Being kinder and gentler to myself by allowing time to engage with life and reflect and work at a slower pace, sets myself up for success. And setting myself up for success reduces the inevitable feelings of being a complete failure which come out in droves in the spring, driving me deeper into my depression.

If I know that slowing things down is good for my own mental health, doesn’t it stand to reason that it will be good for my students’ mental health, too? Particularly since a good number of our students manage their own private battles with anxiety and depression and other mental health issues?

I still need to move a few things around in my syllabus to make this goal a reality, but I’m excited to see how this revamp of expectations, and this kinder, gentler approach to teaching, goes. And I’m curious to see what impact my kinder, gentler approach to spring term has on my depression management during what’s for me the toughest time of the year.

On overwork and taking a pause

There are the plans you painstakingly make at the start of each academic term. The list of projects you’ll complete by March. The daily research/writing time you slot in on your calendar like any other meeting. The schedule of when you’ll send things to collaborators, getting them off your plate so you can move on to the next project. The time you set aside for class prep and class administration. The downtime on weekends for catching up with your family and friends and doing things that restore your soul.

And then reality hits, and there are the plans (or lack thereof) that you actually follow.

So far, Winter term has been an exercise in rescheduling and pivoting. From the polar vortex bringing near-record cold and wind chills (and 4 straight days of school cancelations for the kiddos — but none for Carleton, of course <eyeroll>), to service obligations that are all taking 10 times longer than expected (and thus still occupying valuable space on the to-do list), to the realities of teaching a course for the first time in 6 years, to collaborators and students and colleagues who are similarly overwhelmed by life and the dumpster fire that is our world these days….well, suffice it to say it’s been a challenging term.

The biggest unanticipated challenge for me? Course prep. I expected that course prep would take up a bigger chunk of my time than it normally does, given that I last taught this course in Fall 2012. But OH MY WORD, some days course prep and course administration feels all-consuming. Having 39 students in a class that requires a lot of hands-on time from me is overwhelming. And for reasons I won’t go into here (*cough* backups that weren’t really backups *cough*), I am creating about 80% of my course materials from scratch. Problem sets. Reading quizzes. Reading assignments. In-class exercises. Mini-lectures. The good news is that I am thoroughly enjoying the process, and redoing almost everything gives me the freedom to reimagine the course from how I taught it previously. That’s a tremendous gift. And chances are good that I’ll be teaching this course several times next year, so putting in the work now will make Future Amy’s life much, much easier. BUT. It is still very, very time-consuming. And most of this time is coming at the expense of my weekend fun time, which means I haven’t taken an entire weekend day off since the first of the year, and my research time.

For someone who’s worked very hard to give herself permission to take time for self-care and restoration, working every weekend has taken a huge toll on me. Before the polar vortex hit, I realized that I was heading quickly into burnout land. The polar vortex gave me permission to hibernate in my house, cancel anything that required me to physically be anywhere else but my house (including class and office hours), and while I spent much of that time working, it was at my own pace and not the panicked, break-neck pace I’d gotten used to. I caught up, sort of. I didn’t have to be constantly “on”, something that’s draining for an introvert like me. And not having to be anywhere meant that I could take breaks to do things that restore me, like craft, color, and work on puzzles.

There’s still way too much on my plate, but I’m at the point where I feel like I can manage it better, and where several things are close to finished. I think I can actually take the majority of this weekend off, for a change! And — dare I say it? — I should be able, starting next week, to get back into my daily research/writing practice, and make progress on something other than advising my research students on their projects.

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. 🙂 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).

 

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?