By the numbers

As chair, I spend quite a bit of time with numbers of various sorts. There are budget numbers and enrollment numbers. There’s the number of sections of courses per term and per year. Relatedly, there are FTE numbers, or how many warm bodies do we have to teach courses and how many courses are they teaching at any given time….you get the idea.

At this time of year, when sophomores declare their majors, I hyper-focus on numbers related to the sophomores. This includes the number of students who’ve declared as computer science majors, the difference between the size of this year’s class and the previous few years’ classes, the percentage of women and underrepresented minorities, and the “yield” from certain courses, among others. Looking at these numbers gives me the opportunity to assess the state of the department on a mini-scale: a quick way to determine if we’re where we want to be and heading in the right direction.

In many respects, our numbers are excellent. My quick and possibly inaccurate sampling of the usual suspects indicates that we are now the largest department on campus in terms of majors in the sophomore, junior, and senior classes (tied with Biology), and that we have the largest number of majors in the sophomore class (followed by Biology and Economics, who if memory serves are tied). At the time of this writing, we have 50 majors, which is right in line with the past 2 classes (55 in the current junior class and 54 in the current senior class). I suspect we will stabilize in the mid-50s once the double majors declare—there are some omissions from our current list that I’ve already talked with about double-majoring, so I am just waiting for them to come to me with forms in hand at some point over the next few weeks.

There is one number of which I am insanely proud: I taught a first-year seminar in the fall of 2013 on Human-Centered Computing, and 7 of the 16 students in that course (who are now sophomores) declared as computer science majors. I was hoping for a good yield from that course, but frankly I was stunned at just how high the yield was! What an argument for the importance of teaching courses outside the major sequence. (Note to self: remember this when putting together the 2016-17 schedule!)

There are some numbers that concern me. Our major population is diversifying, but we could definitely be doing much better in this regard. Also troubling: after 2 years of 30-35% women majors, our sophomore class is just 20% women. Again, these numbers might creep up a bit once the double majors declare, but the percentage is not going to change significantly.

The decrease in the percentage of women has me pondering the possible reasons. Has there been a culture shift in the department? Are we doing something differently in Intro or in our “first-tier” required courses (data structures, math of CS, organization and architecture) that we weren’t doing 3-4 years ago? Are the larger class sizes off-putting more to women than to men? Are there things that we’re neglecting to do, now that we’re swamped with students, that we used to do, to foster community? (For instance, I used to send short, personal emails to Intro and Data Structures students encouraging them to take more CS courses, but I don’t always remember to do that to the same degree as I did in the past. What effects does this have on retention in the major?) In short, what’s changed?

Another factor I pondered on my walk across campus to class today: what effect does having senior faculty teach some of those “key” courses have on recruitment and retention? Now, we have a vibrant cohort of assistant professors and visitors who are doing a fabulous job, and many of them are teaching those key courses. But I think it’s important, for many reasons, to have us old fogies the senior, tenured folks at these entry points, too. And that’s the problem: we are so busy and so over-committed as a senior group that we’re teaching many fewer courses. For instance: There are 4 tenured professors in my department (2 full, 2 associate). The normal teaching load per tenure-track professor is 5 courses a year (2-2-1 or some variation). So among us, we should be teaching 20 courses. Next year? We are teaching 11. One person is on sabbatical all year, one is essentially teaching half-time because he was elected faculty president, and two of us have a course release (me for being chair, another colleague for chairing a large campus committee). And two of us are leading senior capstone groups as one of our “courses”, which means that we’re teaching 2 fewer “classic” courses. And because of scheduling and expertise constraints, with maybe 1-2 exceptions we’re teaching all upper-level courses.

So what are my take-away points, after this navel-gazing romp through the numbers?

  • We have a vibrant department. Our enrollments are healthy and strong, and this is translating into majors. And our majors are awesome—I’m very excited about our newest class!
  • We need to continue to prioritize “outreach” in terms of first-year seminars and similar courses. It’s definitely worth it, even it if means offering one fewer course for our majors per year.
  • We need to take a closer look at our culture. I’d like to informally talk to students to get a sense of what’s happening “on the ground”. In particular, I want to chat with the leaders of our 2 student groups, particularly our Women in Computing group, and our SDAs (student departmental advisors) and get their thoughts on what we’re doing well and what we might do differently.
  • Similarly, we need to individually look at what we’re doing as faculty to encourage our students to explore computer science, and make sure all those best practices we’ve honed over the years are still in play.
  • Frankly, I’m not sure what to do about the overcommitted senior faculty issue. I sense this issue is not going to go away anytime soon—to be honest, I’d be shocked if one of us old fogies is not tapped for an administrative post in the next 3-5 years. But are there ways we can work with the faculty affairs committee, for instance, to ensure that we can both serve the college *and* staff our courses appropriately? (For instance, could this committee check with departments before allowing a nomination for a major campus position to move forward, to make sure they are not inadvertently causing a staffing crisis for that department? In short, could opportunities be timed better for *all* parties involved?)

The CS department is a totally different place now than when I first arrived. We worked hard as faculty to grow what we hope is a welcoming, open, fun culture. I am confident that we can continue this moving forward, but just as it took lots of energy and commitment to get us here, so too will it take energy and commitment to keep us here. I hope we’re up to the task.

End of summer musings on (lack of) rejuvenation and (too much) service

Summer is supposed to be a season of rejuvenation for academics. While research and service obligations remain, we get a break from teaching. Theoretically, since teaching is the major part of my job, this should mean that my summer schedule is (a) more low key, (b) more relaxing, (c) less time consuming, and (d) less stressful.

This summer, my schedule was none of these.

In retrospect, it was a perfect storm. By the end of spring term, I was exhausted and completely burned out. However, I went right from spring term into finals grading frenzy and graduation, and from that right into working with my (amazing, wonderful, and extraordinarily productive, thank god!) undergraduate research students. (I finished my grades on a Friday, went to graduation on Saturday, and was in the lab with my students on Monday.) I had a couple of major service tasks that carried on into the summer, one of which took up about 3 orders of magnitude more time and 4 orders of magnitude more drama than I anticipated. I had the drama of submitting a paper at the last minute, finding out it was accepted at the last minute, and then having to create and ship a poster off overseas since I couldn’t travel to the conference (see: last minute notification). And I once again taught in our CS program for high school students (while juggling the paper drama, service drama, and supervising undergraduate research). Oh, and chairing a department, unfortunately, does not take a hiatus during the summer.

What this means is that I’m still burned out and exhausted, and I’m worried about being in this state of mind going into the new academic year. However, the good news is that we’re on trimesters, so we still have a few weeks before the fall term starts. (Whew!) Also, next week I finally, FINALLY, get to take a break (although, sadly, not from email, since we’re too close to the start of the year). While I know this won’t completely rejuvenate me, it’s a start.

One of the silver linings of the Summer of Craziness is that I’ve done some serious reflection on the ways in which I commit and overcommit myself. By the end of the last academic year, I was burned out in general, but mainly burned out on service. The service activities I did that used to bring me joy were now causing me stress, either because the workload was larger or different than I’d been led to believe, or because people weren’t sharing the load equally. I also took on too much, because I misestimated the lifecycles of various projects. I’ve since quit the activities that were no longer bringing me joy, and said no to a bunch of requests that have come in recently. (I’ve discovered a magic phrase: “I am overcommitted, but here’s the name and contact info of someone who might be able to help.”)

Jettisoning a lot of this service work has been very freeing. And it’s allowed me to jump on an opportunity that really excites me. For a while, I’ve been lamenting that I don’t have time to volunteer in my kids’ lives. Now I do, and so this year I’ll be co-leading my daughter’s Brownie Girl Scout troop! I should note that this is something that’s a bit out of my comfort zone, and there have been moments that my co-leader and I have said to each other “what did we get ourselves into?”, but I am super excited to do something totally different in the name of service, and be a role model to younger girls. My daughter is excited, too, and happy that we’re doing something we both share and believe in together. And who knows, maybe we can work some CS concepts into one of the badges or journeys or whatever!

So this year, after my much-needed and much-deserved break, I’ll return to whip my syllabus into shape, help our new faculty member settle in, advise our newest students, and figure out realistically what the attention span is of the second grade set. And that is a challenge I’m really looking forward to.

Reflections on my first year as department chair

Yesterday marked my one year anniversary of becoming department chair. (I celebrated by driving my kids around to various appointments all afternoon and making about 1,000 rainbow loom bracelets with my daughter. Ah, the exciting life of a working mom.) While the first year went quickly, I won’t lie: there were times when I wasn’t sure I was going to survive the year, or not come into work sleep deprived yet again. As with everything in life, there have been good parts and bad parts, and I thought it would be useful to reflect and summarize how my first year went.

The good

Being in this position has reminded me that I work at a truly terrific institution, with thoughtful and creative colleagues and a supportive administration. We’ve dealt with some tricky issues as a department this year, and the conversations around them have been thoughtful and considerate. We listen to each other even when we disagree with each other. I’m so grateful to work in such a highly functioning environment with colleagues that I both like and respect, and in many ways they have made my job so much easier this year.

While there is a lot of truth to the observation that being in charge of faculty in any capacity is like herding cats, I have actually been able to “be the change I want to see” in my department. For a long time, I’ve had a vision for the department’s environment, the way we present ourselves, and the way we carry out our business, and I’ve been able to start implementing parts of that vision this year, with some early successes. I’m grateful that my colleagues are on board, but it’s also thrilling to know that I can actually cause change in our department and that I can influence our environment and policies.

On a related note, I enjoy that I’m in a position that allows me to think more long-term about the success of the department, and to direct how we have those long-term conversations. Being chair allows me to set the priorities of the department—in consultation with my colleagues, of course!—and to direct our collective attention. Every time I craft a department meeting agenda, I get to engage in this type of thinking: how do we balance the things that need immediate attention with the things we need to discuss for the long-term health of the department? It’s a different type of creativity.

Finally, I’m a problem solver at heart, and this job involves a lot of problem solving. Sometimes I have to think quickly on my feet, and sometimes I get the luxury of taking a step back and weighing the different options. I enjoy the challenge of both types of problem solving, and the satisfaction of finding a solution that, if not everyone is happy with, at least everyone can live with.

The bad

Workload. Workload workload workload. There’s only so much I can delegate, and even with judicious delegating, the workload still felt oppressive at times. There’s always some paperwork that needs my attention, or some task that needs to be done, or a budget item that needs to be reviewed, or a question/issue from a student or colleague. It. Never. Ends.

My time is no longer my own. In an ideal world, I’d start my day with my office door closed, working on research or doing some last-minute class prep, for an hour or so, before even opening my email. In the real world, I check my email first thing because there’s usually something I have to deal with Right Now (or more commonly, 5 Minutes Ago).  My research in particular has taken a huge hit as a result, but there were some days that I’d go into class less prepared than I’m comfortable with because something came up at the last minute.

Relatedly, running a search is a major time suck. Everyone in the department is busy during hiring season, especially in a small department like ours where all tenure-track faculty and all staff participate in the process. But traditionally in our department, department chair = search chair, and the search chair’s load is at least 5x everyone else’s load (save for the admin). And calling perfectly wonderful people to let them know they are no longer under consideration for our position? Well that sucks about as much as you can imagine. (That said, making the call to invite someone to campus or offer them the position, and getting to meet our short list via Skype interviews? That stuff is fun!)

The learning curve? Steep. Very steep. I’m hoping some stuff that seemed to take me forever this year will take me less time next year, since I’ll have done it already, but there’s so much I don’t know that I spend a lot of time learning, and looking things up, and hunting things down, and calling people when all else fails.

Finally, having to hold people accountable is difficult. I’m a pretty dependable person, and I tend to naively assume that everyone else generally behaves that way too. Not so. I spend more time than I’d care to admit chasing people down for things, many of whom should know better by now. Sometimes I also have to hold people accountable for their less-than-stellar behavior—thankfully, this is fairly uncommon, but let’s just say that sometimes people don’t think of the larger consequences (to the department, to their colleagues or students) before acting, and sometimes I have to be the one to clean up the ensuing mess.

The ugly

Oh come on, you didn’t think I’d actually be able to share the train wrecks, did you? Thankfully, there wasn’t much in the Ugly category, but the stuff there is definitely unbloggable. I will say this: the ugly stuff always came without warning and typically forced me to drop everything and deal with it immediately, and was usually people-related. If there’s a silver lining, this year’s Ugly stuff did highlight some “blind spots” in the way we operate, all of which are fixable, and all of which will be fixed. I’m not so naive to think that this will preclude any more Ugly stuff from happening, but I’m hoping it will lessen the probability of this year’s flavor of Ugly stuff from happening.

***

So there you have it. I survived, I learned a ton…and I need to figure out a way to clone myself. I’m looking forward to the challenges of my second year as chair and hoping that some of it comes easier, or at least is more expected, than this year.

Random bullets of 7th week spring term

  • We’ve now officially reached the point in the term/school year where there is no schedule—there is just running from one crisis to another. I am too tired for planning anything beyond the next half hour.
  • Signs your job might be adversely affecting your family life: You joke about quitting  and your spouse says “can you? really? please?”. Uh-oh….
  • Everyone (neighbors, day care parents, random people on the streets) keeps asking me when my summer starts. This is the problem with the term system: we have 3 more weeks of classes. Heck, I just finished grading midterms! This is the tradeoff with terms: August is awesome, May stinks.
  • 2/3 of the readings in my Software Design class have been, well, let’s say not your typical textbook readings.* The tone is easy and conversational and a bit irreverent, but the content is still pretty hefty. Which is why I chose these readings—they get all the important points across in an engaging but nontrivial way. What I’m finding interesting, though, is how the students are reacting to these readings. A few off-hand comments and questions from a few students indicate that the tone obscures the fact that there’s quite a bit of substance there. This is especially true of the web usability reading. Next time I teach this course, I will make a more conscious effort to point out the theory behind the readings, but it’s been an interesting lesson.
  • We are not quite there yet, but someday (someday!) I will not find it remarkable that I have an all-female final project group.
  • Officially I don’t become department chair until July 1, but it’s kind of already started for me. Students have started coming to me asking all sorts of complicated questions about graduation and major requirements and special cases. I have a hiring meeting w/ some deans later this week. I’m already getting all manner of chair-related emails (particularly about budgets). I’ve started thinking about all sorts of processes and agendas and such. I’m glad for this transition time, but at the same time part of me is like IT’S TOO SOON! AAAARRRRGGHH!
  • One particular chair-related issue that’s keeping me up at night: We have 57 newly-declared CS majors. Yes, you read that number right. I’ll wait for you to pick yourself off the floor…. So, we need to put all these majors in project teams for Comps in 2014-15. How do we do this without completely overwhelming our faculty resources? Great question. Let me know if you figure it out.
  • Next week I’ll be at the NCWIT summit in Tucson. I look forward to the Summit every year (look for live tweets again!)—I always learn a whole bunch of new things, and it’s a great excuse to see the people I see at Grace Hopper and/or SIGCSE again (there is a lot of overlap in those crowds). This year I’ll be running a session in the Academic Alliance meeting along w/ my other team leaders. I’m excited—we have a great plan and great panelists lined up—but also nervous because part of our session involves a software demo. Trying not to panic about the many things that could and might go wrong there…yikes!

* Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think! and Freeman/Freeman/Sierra/Bates’ Head First Design Patterns