Non-academic pursuits during sabbatical, part 3: Playing outdoors

Continuing in the series on “what I’m doing on sabbatical other than work” (parts 1 and 2 here), in today’s post I’ll talk about the athletic stuff I’ve been up to this year.

Physical activity has always been vitally important to my well being. As I’ve discussed on the blog before, it’s a really important strategy for helping me manage my depression and anxiety. It also helps me focus and, many days, is the only time all day I can count on having all to myself. What’s different about physical activity during sabbatical is that I have more flexible time to devote to the activities I love, which allows me to explore them in ways I can’t often do.

I’ll focus on three activities here — two which I do already, and one which I started this year.

Running

running clothes and bib number

Flat Amy the night before the 2016 Twin Cities Marathon.

Long time readers of this blog know that I love to run, especially long distances. I ran my first marathon in 2014 and immediately upon finishing said “I can’t wait to do this again!” I ran marathon #2 last October, which meant that I trained through the summer and the first few weeks of fall, when my schedule was light. While I found the training in 2014 to be manageable enough even with my summer schedule and fall teaching, it was really nice to have a pretty free schedule for this round of training, so that I could, say, do my long runs on weekday mornings and not have to spend a few hours away from my family on a Saturday or Sunday.

I’m currently training for marathon #3, which I’ll run in June. Again, it’s nice to have the freedom to do my long runs during the week, so that I can spend time with the family on the weekends. Training through the winter has been challenging — black ice! strong winds! cold temps! — but thanks to the relative lack of snow, I’ve managed to do most of my training outside and avoided the dreaded treadmill.

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One of my favorite nearby trails.

One aspect of running that I’ve really indulged in, taking advantage of my flexible time, is trail running. I am lucky in that I have a number of great trails minutes from my house. Trail running in the fall is one of my absolute favorite things, and I made sure to do quite a bit of it this past fall (after the marathon, of course!).

Mom and daughter trail running.

My occasional running buddy. I introduced her to trail running this year.

My kiddos are starting to catch the running bug, too. My daughter and I have run two 5Ks together, and she’s on my case to run another one together this spring. (She’s between sports right now — basketball just ended and swimming doesn’t start up until April — and wants to run more with me in the interim.) My son asked us to sign him up for track this year, which shocked us since he usually fights us on any attempt at organized sports. It will be fun to see how this goes.

Cross-country skiing

My philosophy about winter is, if you’re going to live in a cold climate, get out there and enjoy it! (And bundle up!) So after living here for about 6 years, I learned to cross-country ski. I started off with classic but eventually switched to skate. Which is hard and frustrating but fun and beautiful all at the same time.

Unfortunately, we’ve had a string of mild winters so there hasn’t been much snow worth skiing lately. Luckily one of the parks nearby makes their own snow, so this year my better half and I sprung for the “all parks” pass so that we could ski whenever we wanted. (I still didn’t get out as much as I’d hoped, but at least I got out there a few times.) One of these days I’ll get the hang of it enough so that I won’t feel like Drunk Frankenstein while skiing. Maybe.

Taekwondo

We signed our son up for taekwondo this fall. He’s not into playing team sports, but we wanted something that would give him some exercise and also help with his focus and self-control. I ended up taking him to class most of the time, and sitting there watching him. It looked like fun. In December, his studio let parents practice for free. (Genius, right?) So I thought, why not? I could sit here and watch, or participate. So I participated.

Mom and son showing off their orange belts.

Newly-minted orange belts!

Well, their marketing ploy worked, and even though I swore up and down I didn’t have time to pick up another hobby, I jumped in. Now my son and I take classes 2-3 days a week together. We’ll earn our yellow belts in May and by mid-August will be camo belts. (And then we’ll start SPARRING in class! Woo hoo!) It’s been a fun and interesting challenge — as much mental as it is physical. I treasure the fact that this is time my son and I get to spend together. I like that I’m modeling behaviors for him like perseverance, dealing with failure, etc. And I like that I get to show young kids that moms/women can be powerful and strong, too!*

Taking part in these activities — particularly the outdoor ones — reminds me of the importance of “getting outside to play”, as I call it. While I’ve always found ways to fit physical activity into my busy schedule (pre-dawn runs, anyone?), it’s been a real treat having the choice to, say, run at mid-morning when the sun is up and it’s a bit warmer, or ski in the afternoon before picking up the kids, or explore new-to-me trails. I’m encouraged to find ways to continue to incorporate these activities into my life after I return from sabbatical next year.

In the final installment of this series, I’ll talk about travel: what I expected, and what actually happened. (Spoiler alert: even with flexible time, when you have young kids at home traveling is hard.)

*For most of the time I’ve been practicing, I’ve been the only mom in my class. But recently, two other moms have started coming to classes. I don’t know if seeing me practice influenced their decisions at all, but it’s nice to have more adult women in the class.

 

Non-academic pursuits during sabbatical, part 1: Volunteering

Most of my blog writing this year has been about the academic parts of my sabbatical. Part of the beauty of sabbatical, though, is the time to pursue other things in the spirit of rejuvenation. I realize I haven’t talked much about this aspect of my sabbatical, so in the next few posts I’m going to write about what else I’m doing with my sabbatical time. Part 1 (this part) focuses on volunteering. Parts 2 and 3 will focus on reading and physical pursuits, respectively. And in Part 4, I’ll talk about travel, which disappointingly has been more about work than about fun….but more on that later.

So….volunteering.

Longtime readers of this blog, and those who know me IRL, know that it’s part of my nature to pitch in and help out. Which means I often end up overcommitting myself…but hey, I’m working on it and getting better about setting boundaries!

I think it’s especially important to volunteer in my kids’ school and activities. Selfishly, it helps me keep tabs on what’s going on in my kids’ lives, what the social scene is like, etc. (This was really, really valuable when my daughter was the target of Mean Girl behavior a couple of years ago.) More importantly, it signals to my kids that their pursuits, and their education, is important to me, and it allows me to give back to my local communities and serve as a role model to other kids.

This year I’m volunteering each week in my son’s kindergarten classroom. I spend 45 minutes every Monday morning reading one-on-one with kids. The kids’ reading skills range from those who still struggle with the very simplest of words, to my son who is reading at least at a second grade level, if not higher. Most fall somewhere in the middle, and at this point recognize quite a few “sight words” and are using multiple strategies to deduce words they don’t know (sounding out, using context/pictures, etc).

I’ve been volunteering for a few months now, and many of the kids I’ve read with have progressed quite a bit. Many of them get very excited when they figure out a new word for the first time, and we share high-fives with those successes. Some of them have very strong opinions on the books and are picky about which book they select. One little girl (am I allowed to say she is my favorite?) has opinions about every book we read, and is unintentionally hilarious about sharing them. She is not happy with the books at her current level. She complains that they are too repetitive (they are), and one week in protest she provided running commentary on the book, summarizing the plot, rather than actually reading the words. (I thought about redirecting her, but her commentary WAS better than the book, and because summarizing/synthesizing is a valuable reading skill too!) This week she pointed out that she wished the book we were reading, which swapped out the harder words with pictures, included the word under the picture so that she could learn what the word looked like. (I found a piece of paper and wrote out the word — “squirrel” — and we talked about the word’s structure and patterns she saw in other similar words.) It’s a fun kind of challenge: figuring out when to let a kid struggle with a word and when to step in and help out; coming up with appropriate questions to see how much they understand what they just read; and keeping the wiggly ones focused on the task at hand. And of course my son thinks I’m a rock star for coming to his class each week.

I haven’t had many opportunities to volunteer in my daughter’s classroom, but I did get to go on the class field trip — snow tubing at a nearby ski hill. I am, however, still co-leading her Girl Scout troop. There are a bunch of new faces in the troop this year, and some long-time members decided not to continue, so it’s almost like leading a new troop. In addition to the normal Scout-y things like camping, leadership, and community service, we’ve spent some time casually talking about peer groups, “popular” kids, and self-esteem. One of my goals as a Girl Scout leader is to help the girls acquire and practice the skills they’ll need to successfully navigate the social aspects of middle school and high school while being true to themselves, and I feel like this year is a crucial year for setting the foundations for that.

Of course, volunteering is not something I only do when on sabbatical, but having the time and space to concentrate on volunteering is one of the aspects I enjoy about sabbatical. As I start to think about returning from sabbatical next year, I hope to find ways to continue to engage with my kids’ education and activities, even as my schedule fills up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Thoughts on my son’s first day of school

Dear son,

By the time this is posted, you’ll have boarded the school bus, arrived at school, been welcomed by your new teacher, and settled in to the new daily routine. Today you start a new adventure, one you’ve been waiting for and anticipating all summer long.

Today, you start kindergarten.

Kiddo eating pudding with chopsticksI know that you are more than ready for this. You’ve come so far since you joined our family when you were 18 months old, leaving behind your country and culture and language and everything you’d ever known to join our crazy family. You love to read (and can probably read more words that you’re letting on!). You love to learn. You’re crazy passionate for anything science or engineering related. You keep asking when you’ll get to do math in kindergarten. You love art and you have such a creative mind.

You’re the most inquisitive kid I know. Why, why why? you ask. Me, your teachers, the neighbors, any adult within earshot is fair game for your questions. Your teachers and daycare providers up until now have been so patient and welcoming with your questions, so open to your curiosity, so eager to help you learn. I fervently hope you find the same patience and openness in your new school.

Pre-K graduationI’m less of a wreck nervous now than when your older sister started school. We know the school, know the teachers, know the routine. You already know some kids on your class and on your bus, and you’ll know some kids in your after-school program, too. You’ve been to school already countless times, for your sister’s stuff, over the years. That might make the transition easier for me, tomorrow, knowing that you’re in somewhat familiar territory, and that you’ve got lots of older kids (neighbors, sister, sister’s entire girl scout troop) looking out for you. (Might.)

My wishes for you this year: that you continue to ask lots of questions, that you make new friends, that you continue to share your kindness and joy with those around you, that you open your heart and your mind to all of the new experiences that school brings, and that you hone your passions and find new ones.

Your dad and I are so very, very proud of you, and we can’t wait to see what this year brings you.

Love,

Mom

And so begins a new chapter

Today is a day for celebration around these parts.

My three year term as chair is finally over. My sabbatical has officially begun. And last night, I handed in my materials for promotion to full professor. (If memory serves, I’ll find out whether my bid was successful next spring.)

I feel like I’ve been working so long without a break, running from one thing to the next, putting out metaphorical fires everywhere. Other than one last report I’ll need to submit in the next couple of weeks (which shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to complete), my work time for the next year and change is pretty much my own. It’s been a very, very long time since I could say that.

I have some posts brewing about a few things that I’ll try to get out over the next month. Lessons learned as chair, lessons learned from doing 3 tenure track hires in a row, and so on. I am looking forward to having time to blog again.

I am looking forward to having time to BREATHE again.

I’m also eager to start my sabbatical. I realized a couple of weeks ago that I do have something publishable, or very, very close to being publishable. I am pretty sure I can get this out by October. So that’s my near-term goal. In general, I’m just eager to spend lots of quality time thinking about, and actually working on, my research — something that’s been in very short supply lately.

But to be honest, the next week is all about celebration and relaxation. Today I’m taking the day off and spending some quality time with my son at his favorite place — the science museum. Tonight I’ll celebrate all three work milestones with my family. This weekend I’ll hopefully spend some quality time on my kayak. On the 4th, I’ll run our local 5 mile race and eat way too much (vegetarian) barbecue, as I normally do. I did not sign my kids up for any camps next week, so my kids and I will have a staycation of sorts. I plan to spend as much time with them outdoors as humanly possible to take full advantage of our gorgeous summer here.

Today begins a new chapter. I look forward to seeing what this chapter brings.

Self-care

chain

My “self-care chain”

I’ve been reading a number of posts lately, and thinking in general, about self-care. Two of my favorite recent ones have been this one, on Scary Mommy, about the burdens moms carry, and this one, on Tenure She Wrote, about self-care for academics (and caregiving roles more generally).

I’ve been thinking about self-care a lot because I’m going through a rough term. Too much work, too much stress, too many responsibilities. I do what I can with the time I have, but it’s never enough to make more than a tiny dent in my to-do list. I feel overwhelmed and exhausted most of the time.

The final straw came this weekend. I’d barely slept all week due to insomnia, went to bed early on Saturday night to try to chip into the sleep deficit—and woke up 4 hours later. Nothing worked in terms of getting back to sleep. In my overtired state, my brain went on overdrive, and I had an ugly, full-on freak out session about my life, which is exactly what one wants to do at 4:30am on a Sunday.

A long run and a nap later that day helped me regain some perspective on the situation. I realized that I couldn’t do much about my workload, but I could take steps to better manage my stress, and those steps needed to involve some regular/daily commitment to self-care. And also, that this extreme workload situation was temporary—once winter term is over, things will get MUCH better and about five orders of magnitude more manageable. Basically, I just need to get through the next 44 days of craziness.

My son and I made a “kindness chain” for the holidays in December, both as a way to count down the days until Christmas and as a way to infuse the season with meaning: each link listed either a fun thing to do as a family or a way to give back to the community (random acts of kindness, expressing appreciation, donating to charity, etc). I decided to borrow the idea and make a “self-care” chain. Each link in the chain represents a day (weekends included) between now and the last day of winter term classes. Each link in the chain contains a small thing I’ll do that day to take care of myself.

Each day, I remove a link and do whatever’s listed on the link, whether that’s “color for 10 minutes” (yesterday’s link) or “drink tea before bed” or “buy a trashy magazine”. I also have some gratitude things in there, like performing random acts of kindness, and some future-planning things, like listing 3 books I’ll read for fun this spring. The things are small and easily doable, and they are all things that bring me joy, so that I can (and will be inclined to) fit them in on even the craziest of crazy days.

The length of the chain reminds me that this crazy time has a finite duration, as well as to take one day at a time. It’s a visual reminder to not let myself get overwhelmed by my situation. Just the simple act of putting it together helped me feel like I had more control over things. And my kids are pretty fired up about it too—they grew impatient yesterday morning waiting to see what was on today’s link, and my daughter joined me for my coloring session last night before bed. I like that I’m modeling healthy behavior for them, because I don’t always model handling stress well (and that’s something I definitely want to change).

I’m excited to see how this experiment goes, and how effective it is in helping me manage my stress. And hopefully this experiment will train me to take care of myself every day, even without needing an external prompt to do so.

Gearing up for the start of a new academic year

Monday marks the start of a new academic year at Carleton—it’s the first day of classes for fall term. As I write this, it’s the Friday before classes start, and I’m in my usual Friday-before-classes-start full-fledged panic about the start of the term.

office

I don’t look very panicked in this picture, though. (H/t to my colleague Dave for taking this photo.)

I’m actually in pretty good shape compared to previous years in terms of preparation. I’ve got the first week’s worth of readings and daily assignments posted on Moodle for both of my classes. I have a vague sense of what I’m doing on the first (and second, and third) days of each class, although I still have to find/tweak my handouts for the first day (and print out my photo rosters!). I revamped the problematic rubric for the first major project in my Computer Networks class. I’m in conversation with all three of my Comps (senior capstone) groups to nail down specific meeting times (two of the groups are sharing a class time slot so we need to subdivide the slot, and we won’t need the full time slot for the third group).

I also locked in specific times for research on my calendar and filled in my known meetings/obligations, too.

So why am I so panicked?

Some of it is just general teaching nerves. I’m meeting a whole bunch of new-to-me students on Monday. Surprisingly, I only know about half of the students in my Computer Networks elective (a side effect of having so many majors is that I no longer know all of our majors). I’ve taught a few of the students in my Data Structures course before, but most of them are strangers to me right now. I know that in a couple of weeks, the students will be familiar to me and I’ll have a good sense of the dynamics of the class and of individual personalities, but meeting new people is stressful.

A lot of it is a sense of dread over my workload. We failed to hire all of the visiting professors that we need to staff our courses this year. This means that we are still looking to hire people to teach Intro in Spring term (and maybe Winter, too), and that we had to cancel a bunch of classes, but it also means that I am teaching an overload so that we did not have to cancel one of our core courses for majors in the fall. Also, due to some bizarre scheduling constraints, all of my courses are loaded into just two terms (Fall and Winter). So, originally I was scheduled to teach 4 courses this year (1.5 in the fall, 2.5 in the winter, 0 in the spring). Now, I’m teaching 5 courses, with 2.5 each in fall and winter.* Luckily, they are all repeats for me (and I teach one of the courses twice this year), but that’s still a considerable load.

Adding to the workload, too, are my chair duties, which on top of the usual chair shenanigans include running another tenure-track search (our third in three years, which means I’ll have run a search in each of my 3 years as chair). Plus two of my junior colleagues are being observed in the classroom this year, leading up to a tenure review and a third-year review next year. (Which, thankfully, I won’t have to chair!) So there are meetings and all sorts of other things related to preparing my colleagues for their respective reviews too.

On top of everything, there are other changes, which adds to the general stress even though the changes are positive. I’m loving my new office and my new neighbors, but still getting used to being 2 floors separated from my colleagues. (I can tell I’ll be running up and down the stairs a lot this year, which should at least keep me in shape!) We have a brand new faculty member who’s awesome and wonderful and has lots of questions about how things work here—which reminds me of how much mentoring/protecting of junior faculty the senior members of our department are doing and will need to continue doing over the next few years. My family’s all still getting used to the new schedules at home, since school started for my kiddos this week.

Finally, next year I’ll be submitting my materials for promotion to full professor. While I’m confident about my case (I have tremendous support from my department and have a solid case), nothing is guaranteed, so there’s a general background stress around “have I done enough? should I have done things differently? what do I need to do this year to shore up my case?”.

All of this has led to some sleepless nights recently and a general sense of dread about the academic year ahead. I like to go into the academic year on a positive note, but at this point I’ll take “semi-well rested” and “prepared enough to muddle through”.

I sometimes start new academic years by picking a theme or resolution for the year. If I had to pick one for this year, it would be “self-preservation”. I know things will be tough until the spring, so I’m going to focus on ways to do my job while not burning out. I’m going to focus on survival and not reinventing the wheel (i.e. revamping things in my classes just for the sake of revamping them if I have something that works well enough already). I’m going to (and have already started to) say “no” with abandon (or, “I’d be happy to participate, but not until after mid-March.”). I’m going to stop at “good enough”.

But I know I’ll also do what I do every academic year: have the privilege of meeting, teaching, and learning from an incredible group of students. And that’s what keeps me coming back year after year after year—even the years I know will be challenging.

* The half course in fall and winter is for advising Comps—we get one course credit spread over 2 terms for every 3 groups we advise.

Transitions

moving boxesThis year is shaping up to be the year of transitions, for me and for my family.

After 12 years in the same office, I’m moving (temporarily, maybe?) to a different office, in the same building but separated from most of my departmental colleagues by 2 floors. Our newest hire is moving into my current office, close to pretty much the entire department, so that she can benefit from all the informal mentoring that proximity to more seasoned colleagues brings. While I’m sad to leave the only office I’ve known at my institution, the move does bring some good opportunities—my new hallway is filled with colleagues from another department, one we should have closer ties with, but don’t. I’m looking forward to making new connections, and to not having to climb 2 flights of stairs every morning!

(I discovered that the entire contents of my office fit into 10 boxes. Of course this is after a lot of purging, but still…after 12 years, I expected to have to pack more stuff.)

My son is starting a new preschool in the fall. Like many US parents of boys with summer birthdays, we’ve decided to wait one more year before sending him to kindergarten. For a variety of reasons we thought it would also be useful for him to have a change of scenery and routine to better prepare him for school. This is a huge change for him, as he’s been in the same daycare with the same provider and preschool teacher since we brought him home.

We’re also leaving the daycare that we’ve been at forever (since my third grader was 20 months old), and moving our kids to after-school care programs that work better with our new schedules. So we’ll have 2 kids at 2 different schools and in 2 different after-school care programs. Luckily the schools are just down the street from each other, and the schedules are mostly the same, but I can sense some tricky logistics days in our future. We have a really good daycare situation going right now, so it will be hard for us to say goodbye to that at the end of this month.

There are other changes, too. Our department continues to grow—we’re hiring tenure-track AGAIN this year. We’re no longer a small department, an identity we’ve worn proudly since we amicably separated (consciously uncoupled?) from the Math department 10 years ago. We’ve worked really well together as a small department, but now we need to figure out how to work well together as a medium-sized department. What does that even entail? I’m not sure, but I feel like I’ve made a few missteps lately as chair, and that I haven’t done a great job of making people feel heard and in the loop, so clearly some things have to change.

I’m also in my last year as chair, which means I’ll be starting to think about transitioning over the chair to the next colleague in line. (Complicating things is that this colleague is on sabbatical all this year, and I will be on sabbatical the following academic year. So much for easy transitions…) I’ll relish all of the “lasts” that will happen this year (last department retreat to plan! last department annual report to write!), but I’m sure I’ll also spend a fair amount of time thinking about what I still want to accomplish this year as chair.

Even our girl scout troop is changing! We’ve pretty much had the same core group of girls in our troop since kindergarten. Three, possibly 4, girls are leaving the troop, and it looks like we’ll have at least one new girl (possibly more, since we’re doing a bit of recruiting this year). It will be interesting to see how the social dynamics of the troop change, both as the girls grow up and as a different mix of personalities comes in.

I’ve always dealt pretty well with transitions. I tend to like new opportunities and new adventures; thinking about new possibilities excites me. So I’m approaching this year mostly with anticipation, with just a bit of anxiety thrown in. My kids are also pretty easy-going about change, so I’m sure they’ll do fine. I worry a teeny bit about my son, but that’s because we’re asking him to make the biggest changes, and so I’m sure he’ll have some rough days while he gets used to the “new normal”. (Knowing him, though, it will mostly be fine. He’s a pretty amazing kid.)

So here’s to heartfelt goodbyes and new beginnings, and lots of new adventures in the year to come!

Leading in the midst of tragedy

On Saturday, the Saturday at the end of 8th week of winter term, our computer science seniors gathered to present their Comps (group capstone projects, for those readers outside of Carleton). The day typically has a celebratory feel: this is the culmination of 2 terms of hard work on their part, and this is their chance to present their work to their friends, family, and classmates. The morning started, as it usually does, with a welcome from the CS faculty, which this year I gave.

Except instead of welcoming the students, friends, and family like I normally would, I stood in front of all those gathered, with the rest of the CS faculty at my side, and tried to speak words that would make some sense at all of the tragic events of the day before: the loss of three students, including one of our junior majors, and the serious injuries to two other students.

Someone asked me later what I said. To be honest, I have no idea. The shock and grief were too much. I remember going to the front of the room and picking up a microphone (and then handing it off to one of our seniors when I couldn’t figure out how to turn it on). I remember talking, but not the actual words. I remember asking for a moment of silence. I remember thanking everyone. And the next thing I remember, I was sobbing in the ladies’ room.

Our students carried on admirably, given the circumstances. I think it helped that we were all together that day, as a department, and that we had something else to concentrate on for a while. It helped that we rearranged the schedule so that we could attend the memorial service in the middle of the day. But I’ll admit I was splitting my time between listening to the presentations and figuring out what we, as a department, should do: for our grieving students, for the family of Paxton, for each other.

There is nothing in the chair’s handbook that walks you through what to do as a department when a student passes away. There is nothing in the faculty handbook that indicates what you should do the first class meeting after a tragic event plunges a campus into grief, or how to counsel students who are struggling to make sense of something that makes no sense at all, who are grief-stricken and in shock and maybe feeling even more alone than before. There is nothing in my years of on-the-job experience that remotely prepares me for what I, as a faculty member and as a department chair, am dealing with now.

So I’m figuring things out as I go along. I didn’t plan any special remarks for class—I went with what I was thinking at the moment, and I honestly told my students that I wasn’t sure how to proceed, either, but that I would just try. That we’d be flexible and figure things out together and see where that left us. That it was important to reach out and to keep talking and to use the available campus resources. That I am also a resource that they can lean on, even if I don’t exactly know what I’m doing. That the next days and weeks and months would be sad and hard, but that we are a strong community and that ultimately that will get us through.

This afternoon and this evening, we will gather as a department to remember Paxton especially, but also James and Michael, and send healing thoughts to Will and Connor. It won’t be enough. It won’t be nearly enough. But it’s something, and we’ll figure out the rest as we go along.