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.

Week 6: Engagement

We’re firmly in the second half of our abbreviated Spring Term now, and everyone is….looking ahead, anxiously. Looking ahead to the end of the term, yes, but also, increasingly, looking ahead to the summer and to next year.

I’ve spend much of my time this week getting a handle on the research funding situation for the student grants programs I oversee. Who’s still doing research? Who lost their opportunity? Who’s eligible to defer funding to next year? What might that process look like? And who, without that experience, finds themselves in a precarious financial situation, now that the summer income they banked on no longer exists?

In a similar vein, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking through how to train and mentor new undergraduate researchers in the art and science of research….remotely. So much of that first research experience (and beyond, too!) relies on ready access to your research mentor — popping down the hall to ask questions, working side-by-side in the lab, impromptu whiteboard sketching sessions. How do I replicate that when we’re all just boxes on a screen? How do I encourage students to “bug” me with their questions? How do I mimic the side-by-side work sessions in a way that feels natural? In short, how do I make sure students don’t fall through the cracks?

This last bit was one of the main points of discussion earlier this week in a meeting of the research cohort program I direct. I asked the students, “who feels comfortable going to a professor’s office hours to ask for help?” (they all were), then pointed out that seeking help from your research mentor is largely the same thing, except it’s like your research mentor has office hours all day long, just for you. Hopefully that sticks in their minds.

I’m thinking about engagement in my course, too — how to reach those who are not engaging with the material/their classmates, and how to incentivize engagement generally. I spent some time earlier this week creating Moodle badges, which seems like a small gesture but one that I’m willing to try. I have a badge each week that’s automatically awarded if they check off all of that week’s activities by Sunday night (of the following week). I have a badge for “attendance” (awarded to those who show up to EVERYTHING), badges for asking good questions and making astute observations, a teamwork badge, and a “helper” badge for anyone who helps out a classmate on Slack. These roughly correspond to the engagement I’d like to see in the class. We’ll see if that moves the needle at all.

Of course, the big question on everyone’s mind is “what happens in the fall?” (And beyond, because to think we’ll be back to any sort of “normal” anytime soon is…wishful thinking.) To that end, I’m already thinking ahead to what the elective I’m teaching, Computer Networks, should look like. How do I replicate the hands-on, exploration-heavy nature of that course if we’re partially or completely online? How do I best engage students in such a complex subject under still-unfamiliar-to-us learning conditions? I’ve already decided to forgo my usual tried-and-true textbook in favor of a freely-available, open-sourced, online textbook, which, because of the way it’s organized, forces me to radically redesign the course. I’ll have to think hard about what’s really fundamental content, and be comfortable with scrapping the rest. And I’m excited to try out a set of assignments that I first heard about at SIGCSE a few years back, which never quite fit into the way I taught the course — but is a much better fit with this other textbook.

As the term winds down, and as we head exhaustedly into summer, I’ll continue to look for ways to keep engagement — of those around me and of myself — alive and sustained. I’ll continue to encourage self-care to those around me — and to remind myself to do so, too. And I’ll do whatever I can to end this term on as much of a high note as possible.

What my PhD Taught Me

This past December, I quietly marked a milestone: my 20th anniversary of earning my PhD.

Earning my PhD was one of the most challenging exercises I’ve ever undertaken. It was intellectually difficult, of course, but it was also difficult in other, unexpected ways: navigating the tenure denial, reinstatement, and then departure of my thesis advisor; negotiating a change in advisor and research topics between the MS and the PhD; coping with undiagnosed anxiety and depression; dealing with sexism and harassment.

I’ve spent some time recently reflecting on the past 20 years, post-PhD, and specifically what key lessons I’ve taken with me from the experience. Here, I’ll share the top 3 lessons from that time, and how they’ve served me in my career.

Lesson 1: Earning my PhD taught me as much about how to “learn” a subfield as it did about the process and history of inquiry in my specific thesis subfield.

I haven’t done a single bit of research on my thesis topic (other than getting articles out from the diss) since defending. I transitioned to other research projects in related areas in my postdoc, continuing one of those when I arrived at Carleton, and have continued to branch out to other areas since. I’m in the process of learning an entire subfield in which I was not trained (HCI), and for the moment, primarily publishing in that space.

It’s true that I learned enough to make me the “world expert” on my thesis topic at the time. But those skills are useful for picking up any subarea in any subfield. Skills like knowing how to do a literature search and review. How to learn, develop, and practice the common research methodologies in an area. How to learn the predominant writing style, and develop and tweak it to your own writing style. How to review and critique your own ideas and the ideas of others. How to figure out how the questions that inspire you, fit into the discourse of the field/subfield. How to frame an argument. How to discuss and contextualize results.

And, as it turns out, a number of those skills translate well to learning new topics and areas enough to teach them — a skill that’s vital when you teach at a small liberal arts school, where more often than not you’re teaching “outside your area”.

Lesson 2: Perseverance and consistency are underrated keys to success.

Inspiration gets way more credit than it should in terms of conditions for success. We like to think the most successful researchers are the ones with the best ideas. And that’s true, to a point. But the best ideas often start out as messy ideas — “quarter baked, not even half-baked” ideas as one of my post-doc colleagues called them. You need time and patience to wade through the muck of an idea or question to find the core nugget. And you need to be willing to play the long game, because sometimes you have to wade through A LOT of muck to get anything useful, and sometimes you wade through a lot of muck only to realize that it’s all muck, and you need to start over. Or, you think you’ve found the nugget, but those reviewing your work disagree and think it’s still muck.

Research is deeply unsexy, when you think about it.

My PhD trained me to show up and put in the time every day, whether I felt like it or not, whether I got some workable results or found a bug that meant I had to throw out all the code I wrote over the last month. It taught me to deal with the inevitable rejections of conference and journal papers and grant proposals, to dust myself off, identify the key points of valid criticism, and try again. It helped me grow a thicker skin. (Which, as it turns out, is also helpful when you work with undergrads at a teaching-focused institution and teaching evaluations play a large role in your tenure case.) At the same time, it helped me develop confidence in my ideas and in my work, which has also helped me persist when a line of research seems to be heading nowhere.

I’ve since used this perseverance to good purpose in my personal life, from training for marathons to earning my black belt to recovering from injuries to navigating the world of international adoption. Consistency and perseverence yields results.

Lesson 3: Your network is your lifeline.

Grad school was not a shiny happy experience for me, as I alluded to above. It was hard. As one of the few women in the program, it was isolating. It could have been lonely — if I hadn’t found my people.

The connections I made with the women in my department were my lifeline. My roommate, a fellow EE major from my undergrad institution, with whom I navigated those early years and classes. The woman who started in my lab at the same time, who took almost every class with me, studied for months with me for the quals, suffered through our respective dissertations together, and became a close friend. The women in other labs, both older and younger, who became friends and allies and fellow advocates for change. The (painfully few) women professors, who modeled how to deal with everyday sexism with grace and strength and modeled how to change the system from within the system — and that leaving a toxic situation instead of attempting to change it is sometimes the best choice.

I also learned how to identify male allies, and how to cultivate those connections, with both peers and professors. I’m grateful to the male professors who helped me figure out ways I could foster change in the department, and who willingly went to bat for me. I still use those lessons to this day. And to my peers, who helped provide pockets of acceptance and safety in an environment that often felt unwelcoming.

At the time I was in grad school, the idea of a “mentor network” was not in vogue — but that’s exactly what I was developing. I’ve continued to do this post-PhD. My network was vital to my earning tenure, and navigating my department as the only woman professor. It continues to be vital as I explore moving into administration full time in the next phase of my career. And it continues to grow.

And of course, as a senior woman in my field and department (and academia generally), I work to improve my mentoring skills, so that I can be a valuable resource, sounding board, and advocate for those coming up behind me.


I wish, in retrospect, I’d written down my reflections at my other PhD anniversaries. How did I view the PhD 5 years, 10 years, 15 years out? How did my recollections, and what I deemed important, change over time? Hopefully, when the 25th anniversary rolls around, I’ll remember to jot down my thoughts.

However, one thing was true then, is true now, and will be true in the future, I’m sure of it: I will not mark the anniversary by re-reading my dissertation. No. Thank. You.

Preparing to conference

In a little over a week, I’ll be heading to Glasgow for CHI, one of the big conferences on human-computer interaction.

This is my first ever CHI, and I am excited for all sorts of reasons. I’m excited to present the troubleshooting language work my students and I have been working on, in the late breaking work track. I’m eager to get feedback on how we can make our next experiment (slated for this spring, eek!) even better and more informative. (The reviewer feedback on our submission has already been super helpful in that regard.) I can’t wait to see how our poster looks printed on fabric, and to wear my poster as a scarf when I’m not presenting it. And I’m looking forward to attending talks that touch every aspect of human-computer interaction just for the sake of learning something new. It’s like HCI Disneyland!

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a new-to-me conference. When you go to the same conferences year after year, you get into its rhythms and into your own conference habits. You’re familiar with the culture of that conference (and every conference has its own unique culture), so you don’t have to spend so much energy navigating the social aspects and “flow” of the conference. You get kind of lazy with attending talks and spend more time in the “hallway” track, catching up with colleagues new and old. You can look at the schedule and make a good guess as to which talks/tracks will be worth attending and which are skippable or are likely to be train wrecks.

This familiarity is comforting to an introvert like me. I love conferences, but they are energy vampires, and I have to be careful to not overdo it so that I can maintain my energy over the length of the conference. The more familiar I am with a conference, the easier it is to make decisions about when to engage and when to remove myself from the fray to recharge. But I still do a lot of advance prep work to plan out my conferences: which sessions are can’t-miss ones for me? what are my obligations and where do those fall in the schedule? is there anyone that I want to make sure to connect with while I’m there? I prioritize and schedule these in so that I know I’ll have the energy for them. For everything else, I have a loose plan (sessions that look interesting, etc) that I can jettison if I feel my energy reserves rapidly depleting. I also study maps of the area around the conference venue, so that if I need to take a break to recharge, I have some idea of walkable routes that get me outside by myself.

With a new conference, I don’t have as good information to vet the “must sees” from the “could skips”, and there are so! many! more! new! people! to! meet! For the latter, I signed up for as many conference lunches as I could, to remove the taxing mental calculus of deciding who to meet up with for lunch (and where to eat in an unfamiliar city) and to make it easier to meet new people. For the former, I’m going to have to spend some quality time with the conference schedule to get a sense of what happens when (and when exactly my poster session is!), and then pick out a small handful of things I really want to see and get those on my calendar. I also have to figure out an efficient way to skim the author list, to see if I may know anyone that’s presenting and make plans to meet up with them.

Photo of my 7 week old daughter and me in Glasgow, 2007.
Photo proof that I was actually in Scotland in 2007. With the benevolent dictator that ruled our trip.

This is actually not my first time in Glasgow, so theoretically I should already be a bit familiar with the city. I was last in Glasgow for ICC in 2007…with a 7 week old infant. I was overwhelmed with the whole new parent thing, and already sleep deprived from parenting a newborn and then jet-lagged on top of that. Needless to say, I remember very little from that conference. The things I do remember: realizing when I got dressed the day of my talk that the only halfway decent pants that fit my post-partum body at that point, that I’d packed to wear to look somewhat professional, were too short, making me a fashion don’t; trying desperately to carry on normal adult conversations about research through the sleep deprivation fog; the newborn developing a fear of bagpipes that persists to this day. (I did nail my talk, though!) This time, I won’t have a newborn (or any kids) in tow, so I look forward to exploring the city for real this time around.

If you’re reading this and are going to CHI, or have been to CHI, I’d love to hear your tips. What should I make sure to do? What’s a must-see? If you’re reading this and have tips for what I should see and do in Glasgow (I have one full day to explore before the conference starts), I’d love to hear that too. And if you’re going to CHI and want to meet up, I’ll be sure to reserve some of my introvert energy for you!

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).