Non-academic pursuits during sabbatical, part 2: Reading

In Part 1 of this series on “what I’m doing on sabbatical other than work”, I talked about a couple of ways I’m volunteering in my kids’ pursuits. In this part, I’ll talk about some of the reading I’ve been doing. (In the next part, I’ll talk more about my physical pursuits.)

I have always loved to read, and when I have the opportunity, I’m a voracious reader. I read every night before bed, although many nights in the past few years I’ve only been able to read for 5-10 minutes before nodding off. One of my non-work sabbatical goals was to read more, particularly to whittle down the piles (virtual and physical) of books I’ve accumulated. Of course complicating matters is that I continue to acquire books, which means the pile never really shrinks. But this is a good problem to have.


Part of the ever-growing pile of books.

Over the past few years I’ve mostly read on my Kindle, but this year I find myself reading more physical books. My daughter’s swim practices are just down the street from the local public library, so sometimes my son and I head there while my daughter swims. I can never, ever leave empty-handed, even if I already have a too-large pile of books at home. Again, this is a good problem to have.

I don’t want to include an exhaustive list of what I’ve read, mainly because I can’t remember a lot of what I’ve read for fun off-hand, but I’ll highlight some of the more interesting things I’ve read this year, so far, and some of the things that are still in my pile.

Computer science/research stuff

My reading in this category has been dominated by catching up on my backlog of technical papers and skimming back issues of CACM and IX. I’m 2 issues away from being caught up with IX, considerably further behind with CACM.

I’ve also done a bunch of reading about conducting interview- and survey-based research. I’m currently working my way through Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences, by Kristin Luker, which was recommended to me by a fellow POSSE participant. I’ve read through Learning from Strangers, by Robert S. Weiss,  and A Practical Introduction to In-Depth Interviewing, by Alan Morris, twice now and have found them tremendously useful.

Next on my list: The Internet of Women: Accelerating Culture Change by Nada Anid, Laruie Cantileno, Monique J. Morrow, and Rahilia Zafar; and Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, by Andrew Blum.


I’m fascinated by the science of learning and using science to hone what I do in the classroom to help my students learn more effectively. I really enjoyed Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter C. Brown. I do daily quizzes/reading questions in my courses, but this book has given me a lot to think about in terms of perfecting what questions I ask students and how I ask these questions. It’s also helped me think about how I can help my students study more effectively. I’m currently reading Small Teaching, by James M. Lang, which along with science/theory of learning provides practical strategies for professors to implement in their classrooms. Lots of great ideas so far, and I’m only a few chapters in!

I also read and enjoyed The Discussion Book: 50 Great Ways to Get People Talking, by Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill. Each chapter describes a different technique for fostering engagement. Not all of them are applicable to my situation, of course, but again, I gleaned lots of great ideas from this book.


I was eager to read Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber, because of all the buzz. But frankly, I found this book disappointing and depressing. And a bit obvious. Yeah, it would be really nice to have more time to think! My sabbatical proves that slowing down and reflecting leads to more creative, fulfilling work. But I didn’t think the “advice” was very practical. You know what would help? More recognition by our institutions that the level of work we are doing, particularly the hidden, unrecognized work like mentoring and service, is staggering and unsustainable. And then actually having our institutions put in the work of lightening our loads. I’m not going to hold my breath on this one, though.

More generally, I’ve been working my way through Gretchen Rubin’s books. I read The Happiness Project last year, just finished Happier at Home, and am now reading Better Than BeforeI appreciate Rubin’s books because she is honest about what works and doesn’t work for her (and about the ways she may annoy those around her while on her happiness crusades).

I read Chris Bailey’s blog A Life of Productivity fairly regularly, so this year I read The Productivity Project, the book about his year researching and implementing different productivity techniques. Like Rubin, I appreciate Bailey’s honesty about what worked for him and what didn’t, and his critical look at conventional productivity wisdom (not to mention his willingness to try some really bizarro things for the project, like living in isolation for something like a week).

Just for fun

I’ll just mention a couple of fun reads to close this post out…

I adore Jenny Lawson, a.k.a. The Bloggess, and if you’re not reading her blog you should definitely add it to your feed. She blogs and writes candidly about mental illness, chronic illness, and owning your weirdness. Let’s Pretend this Never Happened is laugh-out-loud-until-you’re-crying hilarious, and this year I read her second book Furiously Happy, which is no less hilarious. (She has a brand new book out, too!)

I like reading historical/adventure books, and I just finished reading The Tunnels: Escape Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill, by Greg Mitchell. It was interesting to read this book at this time in our own history, with attempted muzzling of the press and talk of building a wall; as well as to hear the stories of those who risked their lives to help their fellow citizens to freedom.

What have you been reading lately that you’d recommend? Have you read any of the books here?

Non-academic pursuits during sabbatical, part 1: Volunteering

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


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

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

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

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

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

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










Sabbatical report: Context switching

I’m now about 6 months in to my year-long sabbatical. Currently, I’m working on two very different sub-projects. Each sub-project is related to my larger research project on self-healing home networks, and each one approaches the larger project from the lens of the two subfields I straddle.

The first sub-project is more mathematical/theoretical. I’m attempting to create a mathematical model of a home network, based on my own measurement work and the measurement studies of others. I submitted a paper in December, which was rejected but got really helpful reviews. Even the infamous Reviewer 3 had constructive and kind things to say. (Thanks, anonymous reviewers!) So now I’m working to make the model more mathematically rigorous. This project approaches the problem of self-healing home networks from the computer networks perspective, and also harkens back to my electrical engineering days, when it seems like every graduate class I took had “processes” in the title (Stochastic Processes, Random Processes, etc.).

The second sub-project could not be more different from the first. It’s a qualitative, interview based study on how people reason about the networks within their homes. This project approaches the problem of self-healing home networks from the human-computer interaction (HCI) side. The research methods I’m utilizing are completely new to me, so the learning curve has been large. While I’ve done some math for this project (mainly freshening up my knowledge of statistics), the bulk of the work resembles work that a social scientist would normally do.

The disparity in approaches of the two sub-projects has made for some interesting work weeks. I spent a few days recently cozying up with my old Stochastic Processes textbook trying to remember the details of Markov chains vs. autoregressive models, drawing lots and lots of diagrams, and calculating transition probability matrices. I haven’t thought in such a mathematically rigorous way in a while, so while my skills are definitely rusty, it felt good to return to that mode of thinking. Interspersed with this work are days where I’m reviewing techniques for asking effective interview questions, testing out my recording equipment, strategizing about how to recruit participants, and refining my interview guide. This is an entirely new way of thinking and working for me, so I alternate between feeling like a fish completely out of water and invigorated by the intellectual challenge.

There was probably a time early in my career when I couldn’t fathom working in two such disparate areas. But now, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like that I’ve found my research passions in two very different subfields. I love that each field engages a different part of my brain. I appreciate that I’ve identified research problems that straddle both fields. I love the opportunity to do and write about math-y things AND design/people-y things. I love that I can use different tools and skill sets to construct models about the world.

I embrace and enjoy the context-switching that my research life entails.

Structuring a sabbatical

We’re now three weeks into September and I’m still trying to figure this whole sabbatical thing out.

In a post a few months back, I acknowledged that a big challenge for me while on sabbatical would be structuring my unstructured time. So I knew I’d have to think carefully about setting manageable goals and milestones for my projects, as well as working with the ebbs and flows of my energy levels, to keep my motivation going and my progress moving forward. I spent a lot of time this summer thinking about how best to accomplish that.

I looked forward to using the first few weeks of September to get back into a schedule of sorts after a less-intense summer and after taking most of August completely off. Unfortunately, the first couple of weeks “back” were anything but typical — my husband was out of town for over a week on a business trip overseas, and about 24 hours after he returned I flew off to a conference. That first week, I juggled settling in to a work routine with handling the first week of school for the kiddos (including the return to sports and such), single parenting, and having to squeeze my marathon training (including a 20 mile run!) in while the kids were at school. Oh, and a full day of retreat/meetings for me, too.

Now things are settling back to somewhat normal: no one’s out of town, I only have one meeting this week, and I’ve started my marathon taper so I’m running less, and less intensely. (Although I am still hungry all. the. damn. time.) And so I finally get to settle in to a working routine.

I decided that at any given time during my sabbatical, I will work on three main “projects”. This gives me some variety in what I’m working on from day to day, but is manageable enough that I don’t feel like I have too many pots on the stove.

Every month, I’ll evaluate where I am with each of the projects. For each project, I’ll then set 1-3 goals for the month, along with week-by-week “deliverables”. That way (as long as I’m realistic about what I can accomplish in a week!), I’ll have specific and measurable tasks to tackle, and hopefully won’t spend as much time spinning my wheels. Once a project is completed, I’ll consider adding a new project to the mix.

For example, this month my projects (by code-name) are:

  1. Conference paper: this is the part of my research that’s furthest along, and for which my goal is to get a paper out by the end of the fall. My goals for this project this month are to finish the first iteration of the model on which the paper will be based, which entails going back to the literature as well as reviewing my own experimental results.
  2. Mental models: this is a brand-new project related to my current work, but with a more pure HCI focus. My goals for this project this month are to see what’s out there in the literature already and to read up on some qualitative research methods that I’m considering using.
  3. Fun exploration: This will be a standing project throughout my sabbatical, in which I learn things for the fun of it or because I’ve had “learn X” on my to-do list for forever. This month, my goal is to learn some Processing.

On a day-to-day basis, I make sure that my to-do list contains tasks related to at least 2 projects (see: avoiding boredom), as well as some other things related to other obligations (this week, it’s a number of things related to Grace Hopper next month, since I’m giving a talk and co-chairing the posters track).

So far this system is working out pretty well. I’m finding that I’m staying focused during the day, even (especially) during the periods of the day when my energy is typically lower and I’ve historically found it hard to stay on task. I’m making steady progress on each project and meeting most of my weekly targets. And I haven’t gotten bored, yet.

The one thing I’m still trying to figure out is email. I want to only be checking it once a day, but I find myself checking more often than I probably should. I’m not sure if this is my attempt to feel connected, or if this is just an old habit that refuses to die. I need to figure out a better plan and stick to it. (Also, I think maybe once a day is actually unrealistic, and perhaps I should aim for twice a day.)

On a related note, I think I need to schedule some time where I spend time talking to other people during the day, so that I don’t feel so isolated. So far that’s not been an issue, but I could see it becoming an issue down the road.

It will be interesting to see how this experiment plays out. I’m confident that I’ve found something that seems workable, that allows for flexibility, and that reduces the chance I’ll beat myself up over not producing enough. We’ll see if that actually happens.