Working with students in a transition summer

When I hired students back in March to work with me this summer, we were unsure of what summer would look like. Would students be allowed or required to live on campus? How many? Would we require vaccinations? Masks? Could students opt to live in Northfield and/or otherwise off-campus? Would labs have capacity limits? Because of this uncertainty, I erred on the side of maximum flexibility. I offered students the option of fully on-campus, fully remote, and (if circumstances allowed) a hybrid option where they could be mostly remote but in-person sometimes, and vice-versa.

Interestingly, I ended up with three students choosing three different options. I have one fully in person student, one fully remote student, and one student in person for the first half of the summer and remote for the second half. (Technically, the hybrid student will only be working remotely for me for one week, since they are taking a break to TA a virtual summer program.)

I thought the logistics of this would be more challenging, but after a few days of hiccups we figured out systems that work for us. I’ve used Slack with my research group for ages, so we are already in the habit of communicating with each other that way. (My students set up a private channel so that other students who are not working with me this summer don’t have to mute the entire workspace.) We’re using GitHub’s built-in wiki regularly to record our weekly team goals and check in to see how we’re progressing towards those. Students keep notes and papers in a shared Google Drive. We have a daily check-in meeting with a Zoom option. I thought we’d use one of the conference rooms in our computational research suite (which we share with chemists, physicists, astronomers, and biologists) for these daily check-ins, since they have projectors and fancy whiteboards. We tried this the first day and realized that the technology and layout of the room hindered our ability to get things done! We now meet in our research space, firing up Zoom on my laptop and gathering around it. (We do use an external microphone because it makes it easier for the remote person / people to hear everyone in the room.) We move the laptop closer to the whiteboard if someone wants to sketch something out. If we’re looking at code or a website, we make sure to tell anyone on Zoom specifically what file / document we’re looking at, and we’re (mostly) in the habit of referring to line numbers in code.

We’ll have another logistical change next week, moving the fully in-person student into a space with other CS research students from a different group, so that they are not all by themselves. I need to figure out if we’ll still do check-in meetings in the room my students currently occupy or if we’ll move these to my office. I suspect we’ll try both.

We’re in Week 4 of 8, and the project’s progressing about as I expected. Lots of false starts and dead ends, mixed in with some promising directions. My students are playing around with natural language processing libraries to determine if we can use natural language processing techniques on our tech support dataset to extract indicators of expertise (and, somewhat relatedly, confidence). They’ve spent most of their time figuring out how to slice and dice the dataset various ways: filtering out “noisy” tickets, attempting to separate out various constituencies (clients from IT workers, e.g.), identifying “superusers”, and so on. We decided yesterday that we will likely have enough data and analysis to put together at least a poster / extended abstract this fall, so that’s exciting!

One unexpected thing: the return of spontaneous tangents and rabbit holes during our meetings! Now, granted, we do and have gone off on tangents on Zoom meetings (last summer, with my fully remote students, and during the spring when we were all meeting remotely). But Zoom can’t capture that certain energy in the room that happens when you go down a rabbit hole or explore a peripheral path. And I didn’t realize (a) that I was missing that energy in the first place and (b) how much I missed that energy until the first time we went off on a tangent during a check-in meeting. As a result, our tangents feel more productive, and definitely more enjoyable. Yesterday, for instance, a student question about conferences (earlier this summer I mentioned that I wanted to try and take them all to an in-person conference once those are a thing again) led us to look up where various conferences in our field would be held in 2022, which led to parallel conversations about travel and about academic publishing. Another tangent last week helped me connect the dots between one of my Comps projects this past year and a particular avenue one student is exploring. Of course, not all tangents are productive, nor should they be. At the very least, they help me get to know my students better — and that’s something I also missed last summer, because again, Zoom conversations can only get you so far down that road.

While I’m a bit panicked that we’re already halfway through the summer of research (how did that happen?!), and while we have and will continue to experience hiccups, I’m very much enjoying this summer of research. I’m proud of my students’ progress and growth and proud of the work we’re co-creating. I’m enjoying getting to know my students, and interacting with “3-D people” again. And I’m excited to see where the second half of the summer takes us.

Summer plans

One of the first things I do, or at least try to do, in the transition from Spring Term to summer is sit down and make a concrete work plan for the summer. Doing so prevents me from falling into the trap of “It’s summer and I am now going to Do All The Things!” and then hating myself at the end of the summer for doing None Of The Things, or Only A Small Portion Of The Things. I still tend to overestimate what I can do, because that’s my nature, but over the years I do think I am getting better at being realistic.

(As a semi-related aside: Those of you familiar with Sarah Hart-Unger — blogger, host of the Best Laid Plans podcast and co-host of the Best of Both Worlds podcast — know that she plans in quintiles instead of quarters. I just realized that I, too, have a de-facto quintile planning system! Three of the quintiles match up with our 3 academic terms (Winter, Spring, Fall), and the other 2 are summer, and winter break, our 5-week break between Fall and Winter Terms.)

I was a tad late with the planning session this year, because it didn’t happen until the end of my first week with my summer research students. But hey, better late than never!

What does this process look like for me?

Step 1: Capture. I always start with a brain dump of everything in progress, everything I meant to get to but didn’t, every “hey, it would be nice if I could do X when I have a bit more breathing room”. I do a pretty good job of keeping track of things that fit into this category, although they’re not all in one place. I go back to meeting notes, look through my notebooks (paper and Evernote), look at my research Trello boards, review emails I’ve flagged, and glance at my yearly goals list. This year, I’d already done a bit of this processing before sitting down to plan. One of the productivity tools I was using to keep track of projects and tasks no longer worked well for me for that purpose, so I’d already transferred all of that information into a paper notebook while I figured out a new system. And, as I transferred info, I did some organizing and re-evaluating and triaging of tasks and projects.

Step 2: Summarize. Once I have this all on paper — writing things down helps me process them — I look for larger themes. Do distinct projects emerge? What concrete things are due, and when? I make a list of things that are due, projects in progress, workshops or conferences I’m attending, and so on.

List of things that are due and projects in progress
Second step: organize the brain dump.

Step 3: Confront the calendar. I didn’t have my trusty big-ass desk calendar handy during my session, so I printed out regular-sized blank calendar pages for June-September. Referencing my Google calendars, I wrote down all of the big stuff happening this summer: kids’ camps, trips, conferences, due dates, and so on. It might seem a bit ridiculous to write things down that are already on a calendar, but again, writing helps me process, and having things on paper that I can then spread out on my desk helps me see the bigger picture of the summer more clearly.

Step 4: Schedule in the projects and triage. To the whiteboard! Armed with a list of projects and the reality of schedules, my next move is to assign projects to weeks. Doing so forces me to be realistic about what can get done in a summer by looking at how many weeks I have and thinking about what I can reasonably accomplish in any given week. I try to do this in order of priority, starting with the project(s) I deem most important to do now. If I run out of space before I run out of projects, I might re-prioritize, but whatever’s left over at the end gets moved to the fall (or even further in the future). I also try to have a mix of projects each week so that I’m not spending weeks “bingeing” on a particular project. (Gradual progress for the win!)

Since making this chart, I realized that textbook orders are due a week earlier than I thought. Whoops.

Step 6: Transfer. My final step is to make sure my project grid is somewhere accessible to both work and home. Evernote is my organizational tool of choice right now, so I repurposed a yearly goal-tracking template to store my summer project grid.

Grid in Evernote of my high-level tasks for the first few weeks of the summer.
Final step: transfer to Evernote so I have access at work and at home

Of course, the most important step is the step that follows all of this: actually doing the work! So far, the grid has kept me on track this week, and while I might not fully complete everything, I’ll have made really good progress on each of the focus areas for this week. The act of putting this grid together also helped me get out of a really bad headspace and restored a sense of (at least a bit of) control over my work to-dos. And finally, the act of putting the grid together helped me solidify my summer goals. For instance, what exactly do I mean by “finish Card Sort 2.0 draft”? (Answer: Finalize the results and analysis and write enough of the supporting sections to form a coherent story, so that I can start figuring out which venue(s) we should target first.) How about “plan A&I seminar”? (Answer: Finalize the learning outcomes, the central course question, and the major assignments / due dates, before September.)

How do you keep track of your summer projects, or projects during less-structured times in general?

Emerging

Spring Term wound down this week in its usual haze of academic year exhaustion and frenzied race to the finish. Amidst all the usual chaos — the grading, the last-minute meetings, the grading, the discussions with students and the Dean of Students office about extensions, and did I mention the grading? — there were glimpses of a return to some sort of, well, normal.

Carleton modified some rules around gathering sizes outdoors, which allowed us to have a casual outdoor gathering for our senior majors who are on campus, in and around one of the classroom tents. I didn’t expect the extent to which seeing people “in 3-D” would be a source of joy and relief. I talked and laughed and ate with faculty I haven’t seen since last March! (Some of whom have not been back on campus since then, or have only been back once or twice to pack/unpack last summer when we moved into our new space.) I marveled at how tall students I hadn’t previously met in person are in real life. I caught up with students who used to stop by my office semi-regularly and, again, marveled at how tall they were in real life. (Zoom has really messed with our perceptions of height!) I talked with one of our early graduates from one of my Comps groups who returned for graduation. I realized how much I missed the flow of conversations in a group, a flow that is quite different than on Zoom. It was a bit bittersweet, too, as I realized what we’d missed this year with our classes and interactions with students being completely virtual (save for a few Comps groups who met in “mixed mode” in the fall and winter).

My family developed a “Takeout Tuesday” tradition during the pandemic, a tradition we plan on continuing, where we get takeout from a local restaurant and everyone takes turns selecting the restaurant. Due to unusually busy evening schedules, this week I ended up taking the kids to a Real Live Actual Restaurant Where We Ate Indoors on Wednesday, in lieu of our takeout day. The last time I’d been in a Real Live Actual Restaurant Where You Eat Indoors was March 13, 2020 with the resident 4th grader. Our plan was actually to eat outdoors, but with an hour+ wait the kids decided that indoors was ok, even though one is unvaccinated and the other is halfway vaccinated. It was…fine! A bit weird at first, but fine. Our family rule is that we wear masks when we’re out together since the 4th grader can’t get vaccinated yet, and so we all wore masks when we weren’t eating and drinking. We were the only ones in the restaurant with masks on, but we didn’t get any dirty or strange looks that I could tell. I very much miss eating in restaurants, and the kids do, too, so on many fronts this was a really nice way to dip our toes back into “normal”.

Finally, I got to see the research spaces my group will be using this summer, a surprisingly emotional experience.

To be honest, I’m still a bit giddy thinking about filling the whiteboards with sketches and ideas in a space that’s entirely ours, and remembering how just being in the same room together facilitates the flow of ideas.

What ways have you found yourself emerging out of the pandemic and back to some sense of normalcy?

Midterm … ish … update

We’re currently in Week 7 of 10 of Spring Term, and the only good thing I can say about this state of affairs is THANK GOD the administration moved fall term registration, and advising, to the summer, because if I had to meet with all of my advisees on top of everything else going on this week, I would probably run away to join the circus.

No one is ever at their best at this point in our academic year. Every other institution in the universe (it seems) is out for summer, and we’re all sick of each other and exhausted and cursing our calendar. This year those feelings are amplified. I poll my class every Wednesday (anonymously and when I remember) to see how they’re doing, and this week over half the class responded with some level of “not great”. A good number of my students are dealing with some pretty serious stuff. The other day one of my colleagues said “I wish we could just give everyone an A and send them home at this point.” Which, to be honest, sounds like an excellent strategy.

I have to say that I’ve mostly struggled through the term, too. Work continues to be a firehose, and I continue to work more hours on weekends than I’d like. There are difficult growing pains connected to my leadership role. My course grader went MIA for a good chunk of the term. Both kiddos are really struggling. I’m dealing with a level of exhaustion I haven’t experienced since I-don’t-know-when.

And yet.

I’m fully vaccinated, as is my partner, as are many of my close friends here. I’ve hugged people I don’t live with, for the first time in over a year! And one of my kids is now vaccine-eligible, and is hounding us to schedule their appointment ASAP.

I’ll be hosting students IN MY RESEARCH LAB, PHYSICALLY in a few short weeks.

My Software Design students are awesome and a lot of fun to teach. I am having a blast.

I submitted an article to a journal earlier this month! Something I’d been thinking about writing for a while and then struggling to complete for months. I convinced one of my favorite staff people to coauthor, and writing with her was one of the high points of this academic year. And I’m currently working on another paper, on work I did with students a couple of years ago, which I hope to get out for review by mid-summer.

I was elected to the college’s tenure-and-promotion committee, a 3-year stint. This is super important (and hard!) work, particularly as we figure out what faculty reviews and evaluation look like post-COVID. I’m humbled that my colleagues trust me to be a thoughtful voice in these discussions and deliberations.

Most importantly, despite everything else going on, I feel a rare sense of … calm. A sense that all of the important stuff will get done, maybe not quite on the timeline I’d like, but still, done. That the stuff that doesn’t get done wasn’t really important in the first place. That the current state of affairs, no matter how frustrating or difficult, is temporary. This is a rare state for me in normal circumstances, but especially during the spring, where my depression and anxiety are typically at their worst. Perhaps all that hard work in therapy is starting to pay off.

I hope this week, despite whatever else is on your plate, that you are able to find some small bit of calm among the chaos.

Looking forward

This week marks the end of Winter Term at Carleton. The day this posts is the last day of classes; finals end on the 15th. It’s been a long, tough term, every bit the slog we expected (and then some), and not that there’s much of a break before the start of Spring Term classes on the 29th, but it’s a break nonetheless that we all sorely need.

There’s a lot to be anxious about, to be sure — we’re not out of the woods with COVID just yet, and there’s the fear we’ll ease up too early on restrictions before enough of us can get vaccinated. One kid is back in school full time (and has already had a 2-week all-school shutdown because of COVID spread in the school) and the other goes back in just over a week. The continued violence against Asian-Americans worries me, both as a decent human being and as the mom of an Asian son. The trial of Derek Chauvin looms large over everything around here, too, making an already difficult week even more so for many members of our campus community.

And yet.

I find myself more hopeful lately, more willing to look ahead to what we might be able to do in the future. I’m looking forward to more things, with fewer qualifiers — more “when”, less “if”. More outright planning, less contingency planning.

Here are some specific things that I’m particularly looking forward to, in no particular order.

  • In person research with students. While we’ll still have restrictions and a community covenant in place, we received word yesterday giving the go-ahead to host students in our lab spaces this summer! I plan on giving my students the choice of in-person or virtual research this summer so that I can be as flexible as possible — and honestly, I’ll likely give that option to students from now on, pandemic or no. I am positively giddy that I will be able to work side-by-side with students this summer, scribbling on whiteboards together and talking face to face. We’ll finally get to use our brand new research spaces, too!
  • My Spring Term course. I’m teaching Software Design to what looks to be a big group (40 students, plus or minus a few). I adore teaching Software Design. I’ll still be teaching fully online. I taught this course online last spring, and it went fine. But I’ve learned so much since then, and I’m super eager to pour what I’ve learned into redesigning the course for the upcoming term. Luckily, we’re talking tweaks and not wholesale changes, but I suspect they’ll make a huge difference into the class flow.
  • Getting vaccinated! Unlike some states, higher ed faculty and staff in MN are not classified as “essential workers” for the sake of vaccination priority, and because of my age and my relatively good health status, I’ll be in the last priority group for vaccination. That said, I am signed up several places for “please call me if you have open vaccine that you need to get in someone’s arm by the end of the day”. And by all accounts, MN’s vaccination rate is accelerating. I’m on track for a summer vaccination, but with any luck, I might even be vaccinated before my research students start their work this summer. Fingers crossed!
  • Summer gatherings. To be honest, I think it will be a long time before I’m comfortable in someone else’s indoor space mask-free. But the improving weather opens up more opportunities to gather, carefully, outside, with a wider swath of people. I’m excited to see friends “in 3-D” that I’ve only seen on Zoom for months. And maybe this summer we’ll actually be able to use the season passes to a nearby amusement park that I bought in late summer 2019…

As spring arrives and as more possibilities open up, what brings you hope? What things are you looking forward to doing?

Winter…break?

Carleton’s Fall Term ended, mercifully, over 2 weeks ago (end of classes, finals, grades submitted, the whole enchilada). Because of the way our calendar works, nothing changed from the way Fall Term usually works — we’re always fully done by Thanksgiving, with grades due the following week. Of course, that was really the only thing that remained “the same” about Fall Term. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the term (and tie up a few loose ends), and once I do I’ll have a post about that wild adventure.

But for now, it’s Winter Break, that glorious 6 week stretch between Fall and Winter Terms. This aspect of our calendar is definitely a huge perk of this particular job. (We pay for it, dearly, later in the year, with a very short turnaround between Winter and Spring Terms and a Spring Term that lasts into June.)

And every Winter Break brings the urge to…schedule the hell out of the time available. Believe that I will, in fact, complete approximately 20 projects during that time, write for uninterrupted hours each day, and finally catch up on All The Things! Why yes, I will attend that pedagogical workshop! And review that article! And completely overhaul my professional web page!*

This year, I allowed myself an hour of Fantasy Winter Break Planning, where I listed out all of the glorious things I would do. I made myself write this out on a very large piece of paper. I filled up that whole piece of paper.

And then I told myself to pick 3 things. Not 3 categories of things. 3 things.

After I stopped bargaining with myself (“how about 4? 4 is close to 3. ok, well, what if the category is small?”), I picked 3 things, and except for one (which I haven’t started yet because these first 2 weeks have been more meeting-heavy than I anticipated and something had to give), I’ve been making consistent progress. And not stressing (too much) about all of the things I’m not doing. And, most importantly, not working every night and every weekend. (Weekends off! It’s been a while.)

So, what 3 things that are my priorities for Winter Break?

  1. Complete a draft of an article about civic engagement in computer science. This is actually an item on my #20for2020 list that was going to be my main focus during my lighter Spring Term last year. (Thanks, global pandemic.) I’ve chipped away at it here and there, and I’d like to get it, if not out for review by the end of the month, then at least in good shape to submit somewhere in early January.
  2. Clean up the dataset we’re analyzing in our current project. There’s some information in the dataset that really shouldn’t be in there (it wasn’t cleaned as thoroughly as we expected), and we’ve been removing it piecemeal, but now we’re left with the things that are trickier to remove. Normally I wouldn’t put a task like this as a major priority, but cleaning this properly is going to take some sustained time and attention — and I think the techniques will come in handy with some other research tasks down the road.
  3. Mid- and long-term STEM planning. I did some of this in the fall, but honestly I mostly operated in triage mode. My goal is to move the STEM Board from “mostly reactive” to “mostly proactive” and from “here are the tasks we do” to “here’s how we plan for the future”. I also may need to finish up some reporting from, um, the previous year….

Of course things are not all smooth sailing, because another opportunity just came to my attention that I think is worth making room for. The good news is that if I do decide to do this, it will be off my plate by next Friday and I may be able to get most of it done in a 3-4 hour block. The bad news is that I’d probably need to give up one of my weekend afternoons to make this happen. Not ideal, but I think the payoff will be worth it if it’s accepted.**

On balance, I feel less frantic than I usually do. I’m not trying to do All The Things, and I’m (mostly) comfortable with that. I know that I have room in January for some of those things, and that the world won’t end if some things happen in January instead of December. I also know that I don’t have to completely finish every single aspect of those 3 things for my Winter Break to be successful. Good, solid, consistent progress is plenty, especially for a year like 2020. And, one could argue, should be plenty for any year, even years that are not complete dumpster fires.


* this item legitimately makes it onto my December to-do list every single year. Have I actually done this? No, I have not.

**so, I guess my bargaining with myself did work, because I did manage to sneak a 4th thing into the mix!

My checklist for wrapping up summer research with students

This week marks the end of my summer research collaboration with my students. I usually wrap up research by the end of July/first week of August so that I can spend some quality time with my family and particularly the kiddos before school starts back up. Granted, this is more of a perk when we haven’t been cooped up together for months….

I digress.

The last research week is always hectic. No matter how on track we’ve been all summer, there’s always a lot to do to wrap things up. Finish the analyses. Make sure all the code is in the repo. Make sure all of the code is commented. Get a rough draft of the eventual conference paper to some stage of “completion”. And so on. A million little details, some of which inevitably slip through the cracks.

Every summer I tell myself I will make a checklist of what needs to be done. Every summer I fail to do so. Maybe it’s because I see my students every day, or almost every day, so part of me assumes that it will come up during a meeting, or that I’ll pop into the lab and remind them to do whatever just popped into my head.

But this summer, we’re all online, in 3 different cities in 2 different time zones. I’ve gotten in the habit of putting more things in writing, more formally. More lists, more systems in place. More structure.

Turns out, this put me in the perfect mindset to finally write that checklist.

Here’s my checklist for this summer. I suspect that in the future, particular details might change based on the nature of the project, but that the overall categories and most of the items will largely stay the same, or at least very similar.

I. Complete project writeup. (I always have students write something up about the project, no matter where we ended up. I think it’s important for students to get some practice writing for a technical audience.)

  •  Write up the methodology for each of the analyses you completed.
  •  Write up the results for each of the analyses you completed. Include graphs/tables.
  •  Write up the takeaway points for each of the analyses you completed. What did you learn? What do you think the results indicate? What are the next steps that should be done?

II. Check in and clean up all code. (I’ve learned the hard way over the years that students need to be reminded of this, and also of specifically what I mean by “clean up”.)

  •  Make sure all code is commented. Think of You, Six Months From Now. What does You, Six Months From Now need to know/remember about what’s in this code?
  •  Write a TODO list for each of the (major) scripts you wrote. (You can put this at the top of the file, in the comments.) What’s not working that needs to be fixed? What’s working imperfectly that needs to be fixed? What are the things you hoped to get to, but ran out of time?
  •  Write up how to execute each script. (You can put this at the top of the file, in the comments.) What data files does this operate on? Where are they specified in the code? Are there command line arguments? Any other assumptions that you made that others should know when running the script?

III. Write up onboarding docs and next steps for next set of students. (This is still a work in progress. Students, understandably, find it difficult to anticipate what others will struggle with, and invariably forget what they struggled with early on in the project.)

  •  Make sure all README files are up to date.
  •  Write up a “Start Here” document that describes what students starting on the project should know about the project, the code, and the data. (I ended up outlining this document for them, because they were really struggling with what to include.)
  •  Make sure all metadata documents (on all datasets) are updated, correct, and easy to find.

IV. Write up a short reflection for me about your experience. (You can defer this until next week if you’re overwhelmed!) Email is fine for this. (I don’t always remember to ask for this, and I always regret when I forget! I learn so much from these reflections.)

  •  What were you hoping to get out of this experience?
  •  How much of that do you feel you accomplished this summer?
  •  What, if anything, surprised you about your experience?
  •  What were you hoping to accomplish/get out of this experience that you did not?
  •  What work are you most proud of, and why?
  •  When/if I write letters of recommendation for you, what parts of your contributions to this project would you like me to emphasize?
  •  What advice would you give to future students on this project?
  •  What advice would you give to me to help me better mentor future students on this project?

V. Celebrate a job well done! (Admittedly, this is trickier to do in the time of Covid. Usually I take them out for lunch, but that doesn’t work when we’re all in different locales. I will likely send my students a little gift of appreciation and a note, but I’m still trying to figure out what to send.)


Do you use a checklist with your research students to keep track of end-of-the-project todos, or at other stages of your research project? I’d love to hear your experiences.

Kicking off a virtual research summer

Before everything in the world changed, I hired two amazing student researchers for the summer. Both rising juniors, both amazingly talented, both with skill sets and interests perfectly fit to my summer project. Both completely new to research.

I fantasized about poring over new datasets together, teasing insights out of troubleshooting comments. Sketching out schema and models on a shared whiteboard in the lab. Daily check-in meetings and random coffee/cookie breaks. Puzzling over what research questions we could feasibly start to answer in 7 weeks. Watching my student collaborators learn and grow and become independent problem solvers. In short, all of the reasons I so very much enjoy mentoring students in research.

Instead, we have Virtual Summer Research, with the three of us in different cities spread across 2 time zones. Much like the spring, all of us confined to small Zoom boxes, Slack messages, and git commits.

We’re now in Week 2 of the Great Virtual Summer Research Experiment, and things are….going. Actually, that’s not at all fair. They are going quite well, all things considered. My students are learning just how much they don’t know about programming in Python. As am I. 🙂 They’re playing with BigData queries and figuring out more complex SQL than they used in Software Design with me this year. We’re all learning how to write web scrapers and use NLTK. I think we’re pretty close to settling on a specific set of research questions.

So, how do you mentor brand new research students, students who’ve never done research before and were hoping to learn what computer science research is, when you’re all online?

Well, honestly, I’m still trying to figure that out. But here’s what I’ve done so far.

  1. Drastically modify my expectations. I’m usually pretty laid back about setting super specific deliverables, because there are so many unknowns when pursuing a research question and I find that following my students’ lead usually yields excellent results. We’re all exhausted after spring term and unsure about fall and beyond. Because of that, my goal for my students this summer is: let’s play with some datasets and new-to-us tools and learn something we didn’t know at the start of the summer. Any progress is forward progress.
  2. Daily short morning check-in meetings via Zoom. Daily morning meetings are the norm in my research lab in any year, in-person or virtual. Everyone reports out on what they’ve been working on, where they’re stuck, and what they want to work on that day. With our CDT/PDT split, meetings happen a bit later (11 am) than in an in-person summer (usually 9 or 10 am). On the plus side, this gives me plenty of time to get some of my own work done, run/workout, and wrangle/feed my night owl kiddos before the daily check-in.
  3. Building community. I make sure to start our daily check-ins by checking in with everyone — how are you feeling, what fun things are you up to, etc. Yesterday I found a site of 200 getting-to-know-you questions, and you can bet that I will abuse the heck out of those questions this summer.
  4. Asynchronous updates over Slack. We use Slack throughout the day as a low-key way to keep each other updated. We all post questions or issues we’ve run into. So far it’s just me answering the questions, but I suspect as the students become more comfortable with each other and with the research, they will chime in.
  5. Modeling question asking and help seeking. Based on lessons learned teaching online in the spring, I’ve tried to be more explicit than normal in modeling question asking and help seeking. I share my own mistakes throughout the day. I walk students through how I found bugs in my code/queries and through how I’m debugging the code/queries. When I learn something new, I post that, too. I want students to know that it’s ok to mess up and ok to ask for help — and that in fact messing up is par for the course when doing research.
  6. More specific how-tos. I didn’t realize just how much time I spend physically showing students how to do something (install a script, use a module, debug code) until now. When students struggle, I can’t just sit down with them in pair programming mode, with them driving and me directing (or vice versa), as I normally do. So I’m writing a lot more sample scripts than usual, and creating very specific step-by-step documentation. (I probably could create some videos, too, but I haven’t done that yet.) As a bonus, I’ll definitely use this documentation in the future to orient new students to the research.

In a normal summer, we build community among our students within Computer Science and within the broader STEM at Carleton community. Students work side-by-side in the same lab as the other CS research students. STEM professors talk about their research at weekly Tea Talks. This virtual summer features a weekly virtual professional development seminar for STEM students, run by our STEM Program Manager, with topics such as how to read a scientific paper, how to use library resources effectively, STEM careers/grad school, and how to build a relationship with your research mentor. In CS, we’re working on ways to re-create Cookie Hour, and we have a (so far lightly utilized) Slack workspace for everyone doing summer research as a way to try and re-create “computer lab culture”. Only about half of our summer students in CS have started, so we’ll see if traffic picks up when more people are researching.

Here are a couple of other things I’d like to try:

  • Co-working time. My dismal office hours failure this spring has me thinking about ways to encourage office hours attendance. One idea: rebrand some number of office hours as “drop-in co-work time”. Open up Zoom or Google Hangouts, and work “side-by-side” as we’d do in my office or in the computer lab. This mode of working would be especially ideal as we dive into new datasets — staring at the same data and thinking aloud as we’d do in an in-person summer.
  • Presenting results virtually. We do a lot of informal show-and-tell at daily check-ins during in-person summers. We haven’t done this yet, virtually. I want to get into the habit of frequent, low-stakes presentations, as a way to share work in progress. Bonus: this will help hone our Zoom skills, preparing us all for another term or year of at least partial online learning (which seems likely at this point).

If you’re working virtually with research students this summer, I’d love to hear how it’s gone for you. How are you building community? What’s worked and what’s failed? What tools have you found most and least useful? Comment here, and/or tweet and @ me (@drcsiz). Let’s continue the conversation.

Week 8: The hard stuff

We’re heading swiftly toward the end of the term: next Wednesday is the last day of classes, and June 8 is the last day of finals. While at many times this term seemed like a colossal slog, now that we’re finishing up it seems to be moving at warp speed.

At this point in a normal term, I tend to ease up a bit. I know my students are stressed and tired (heck, I’m stressed and tired), so I refrain from assigning new, heavy things. The key focus now in Software Design is on finishing their term-long website projects, which keeps them plenty busy anyway. Integration is hard, so I want to give them the space and time to grapple with those tricky integration issues and annoying well-this-worked-before-why-is-it-crashing-now? bugs.

I’ve eased up this term, too, and perhaps it’s even more important now, as we’re all worn down by the fatigue of uncertainty, the struggles of learning in community online, and too much Zoom.

There are two course activities I typically do in the last couple of weeks in the term: a code review, and project presentations. Both, it turns out, are challenging to rework in a fully virtual environment. I still haven’t figured out how to pull off the project presentation piece, to be honest, although I really need to figure out something ASAP! But I did find a way to pull off the code review, and I’m eager to see how it goes.

Code review should be easy to pull off if you do it the way it’s normally done — as a way to review/test/try to break code for which you’ve submitted a pull request. This assumes access to a common repository and that you’re all working on the same codebase, which is not true here. My version of code review in Software Design resembles peer writing workshops. I divide students into “feedback groups” (usually two development teams per group), have them exchange code (usually a specific class and any helper classes necessary to understand that class), and have them review code more like you’d review writing. Groups project code onto one of the many monitors in the classroom and gather around tables to discuss it.

I considered several different ways to do this virtually and asynchronously, and weighed using various tools. In the end, I decided the costs of throwing yet another unfamiliar tool at my students outweighed any small benefits they’d derive from learning that tool. So students will use Google Docs, copying and pasting the relevant code into a Google Doc, and optionally applying syntax highlighting with one of the myriad tools out there. (I suggested Code Blocks, and I just found an online highlighter that actually connects to a website, unlike the others I tried.) Students will use the commenting feature to highlight and provide feedback on specific aspects of the code, and set up Slack channels in our course workspace for longer discussions about the code under review. This way, I can dip in and monitor the level, type, and content of feedback that teams exchange with each other. Which is actually a net benefit, because I’ll get much more information on how students review each others’ code than I do normally when I’m flitting around the room trying to listen in on each group’s feedback! (And I can provide a better post-mortem after the fact, using specific comments and examples.) In our synchronous class meeting today, before they start code review in earnest, I’ll have them work in teams to review a short snippet of code, so that they can practice the workflow and get feedback from me on how they’re reviewing code. I’m really eager to see how this goes.

The hard stuff, as I alluded to in the title of this post, leveled up this week, not just in my course, but in pretty much every aspect of my job:

  • I received unexpectedly bad news about my planned research project with students for the summer, and scrambled to work up a replacement project (after panicking, swearing, and throwing things, of course).
  • In a similar vein, I’m working with others on how to create a community of student researchers when they are all isolated from each other and remote. It’s not impossible, but it’s new to us and tricky to do well.
  • Students who struggled all term continue to struggle, meaning I’ve had some difficult conversations about what it will take to pass the course (even with our version of pass-fail grading, which is basically “pass with a C- or above”, “pass with a D”, and “fail”).
  • Discussions about next year continue, maybe not as fruitfully as I’d like and maybe with fewer answer and many more questions/unknowns than I’d like. It leads me to question whether the right conversations are not happening at all behind closed doors, or whether the right conversations are happening behind closed doors and the failure is in communicating this information to faculty and staff. Regardless, the end result is the same — more angst, more uncertainty, more anxiety about the future.
  • I have some big tasks on my plate — make sure research students get paid this summer (no small feat when it seems like everyone’s projects keep changing), assigning Comps (capstone) groups for next year, conducting oral exams for this year’s Comps students — that take plenty of time and mental/emotional energy, both of which are in short supply lately.

The best I can do is to do my best in managing my time and my energy levels, doing what I can when I can, and taking the time for self-care so that I can be present, mentally and emotionally, for all of the hard stuff on my plate. And to remember that now, especially, good enough is good enough. This will let me get to the end of the term in one piece, and leave me with enough emotional and mental space once the term concludes to reflect on the term and apply what I’ve learned to….whatever fall term and beyond look like.

Week 7: Research….?

The end of the term rapidly approaches, and while I’m way far behind in grading and checking in on student engagement (I just cannot spend another minute staring at Moodle logs, ugh!), I’m actually slightly ahead in course prep. This is good, because the other parts of my job demand my attention this week (let’s just say there are some deadlines I’m coming right up against, a bit uncomfortably). This also means I have a bit more time to think about…

…research.

On the one hand, it seems completely ludicrous to worry about scholarship at a time like this. With all the uncertainty, the death, the sickness, the despair — the very real, troubling issues and impossible decisions facing us — pursuing scholarship seems downright frivolous some days. For those of us dealing with anxiety and depression, there are simply some days where doing anything beyond the bare minimum is nigh impossible, too. Apply sustained focus to messy problems? No thank you.

But for me, research is a regulating force, a welcome intellectual escape of sorts. I get my best teaching ideas when I’m steeped in my research, as odd as that sounds. I’ve found a community of writers in the NCFDD forums that I enjoy engaging with. I’m working on several diverse projects that excite me, that I really want to move forward. I’m currently writing up one, with a goal to publish it by the end of the calendar year. Bolstered by my NaNoWriMo experience last fall, I’m also working towards publishing (for some definition of “publishing”) my work for non-academic audiences.

And, of course, I committed to working with students this spring and summer…so I need to keep up with them!

In short, I had some good momentum going before the world fell apart in March. And while some days I just can’t muster the energy to do just. one. more. thing., most days I find myself making time for scholarship.

Now, granted, this is scholarship with a lighter touch. I know I don’t have the energy or attention span to tackle the toughest research problems on my plate. When the pandemic hit in March, I actually took writing up that project I mentioned above off my plate temporarily, because I knew sustained writing was not happening. Instead, I did some lower stakes work, playing around with BigQuery on Kaggle and exploring alternate datasets for our summer project. I did a lot of reading, a lot of list-making, and a lot of free-writing. I explored the proceedings of new-to-me conferences and the table of contents of new-to-me journals, to identify possible publishing venues. Only within the past few weeks have I felt energized enough to go back and tackle the writeup.

My goals are smaller, my expectations lower. And that’s ok. I may be moving forward more slowly, but I’m moving forward. That’s more than enough for now.

My perspective of the reach and scope of my research morphed in the past few months. I recognize that my academic civic engagement work with our capstone is, actually, part of my scholarship now. With that realization, I now treat my work in that space as serious academic work, worthy of my research time and attention. I also recognize that my other work also has a public scholarship angle that I should and can pursue. Recognizing this opens up more paths and possibilities — and an opportunity for my capital-R-Research to cross paths with my curricular civic engagement work in the fall. In addition to clarifying my priorities in life more generally, I guess the pandemic clarified my priorities in my work life.

I’m dealing with some more practical aspects of my research, too. The dataset I counted on for this summer’s project might not be ready and available for us by the summer. I have ideas, outlines, and drafts of IRB proposal documents for two studies I could conduct — but I hesitate to commit to either, struggling with the ethics of asking people to devote time to my research when they’re already stretched thin in so many other areas. I need to resolve these ASAP, since summer’s fast approaching (my students start on June 15, officially!), but answering these questions is…not easy.

Research-wise, though, I’m fortunate in many aspects. My work does not require physical lab space or specialized equipment and materials. I can work anywhere, as can my students. I did not have to cancel my students’ research experience, because I can mentor them remotely. I have tenure, so I don’t have to worry about productivity hits or hiccups.

(I spend a lot of time thinking/worrying about our junior faculty: how best to support them and mentor them, and more importantly how best to advocate for them when they go up for tenure. This is one place I can use my power and my position to be a strong voice for fairness and compassion in the tenure process, and maybe make a real difference in the tenure experience for my junior colleagues.)

It will be interesting to see what a summer of remote research looks like. Schedules, I think, will be more important than ever, to provide some sense of normalcy and certainty. Schedules for me, of course, but also for my students — how can I help them figure out what works for them? This is a hard skill to master, so how do I facilitate this skill-building remotely? All but one of my kids’ camps have been canceled for the summer, so what does a summer without child care look like? And how will I juggle my research work and childcare responsibilities with what’s likely to be heavier time commitments to course prep (and possibly moving an entire elective online)? Without a chunk of vacation in August, how will I give myself time to truly unplug, something that’s necessary for me to thrive and survive the academic year?

I guess we’ll see how it goes.