An academic summer, part 1: Research

June is here. Spring term is (finally, mercifully) over. And, if the questions I’m getting are any indication, the thoughts of the friends, neighbors, and acquaintances of faculty turn to one thing:

“So, do you have the summer off?”

I’ve been getting so many variations of this question lately that I decided I should write a post, describing what this academic is doing this summer. (Hint: It definitely does NOT involve having the summer off!) But as I thought about what I wanted to include in such a post, I realized that I had a potentially rather long post on my hands.

So, over the next couple of weeks I’ll be posting what my academic summer, this year, looks like. In this post, I’ll tackle what I and my students are doing research-wise. In subsequent posts, I’ll talk about what I’m doing for fun, rethinking how I perform mentoring and allyship, curricular projects, and, finally, what I’m specifically choosing not to do this summer.

Research

Faithful readers of this blog may recall that my current project, Self-Healing Home Computer Networks, has two pieces to it: part mathematical, part social science.

The social science piece: where are the participants? and a new experiment

My main focus this summer is on the social science part of the project. The goal of this piece of the project is to deduce the language/terminology and troubleshooting strategies that non-technical people use when reasoning about, identifying problems with, and attempting to fix the computer networks within their homes. I’m working with two undergraduates, both brand new to research, on this project.

My original plan was to conduct more interviews (possibly with my students’ help), and to work with my students to code and analyze this data, so that we could start framing out a larger survey to conduct later this year or early next year with a larger participant base. We’ve been doing the latter — my students are learning how to work with qualitative data, and have been instrumental in drilling down deeper into a few of the sub-themes we observed on a first cursory pass through the transcripts.

However, the former is proving to be more challenging than I anticipated — I am struggling to recruit participants! I’ve done mostly offline and email blast friends and neighbors recruiting, and some flyering, with little success. I’m trying to revamp my recruiting protocol and seeing what’s possible in terms of online recruiting. While this is frustrating, it’s actually been a good learning experience for me and my students, showcasing the difficulty of conducting qualitative research.

(Shameless plug: if you are reading this and happen to either be in the south metro area of the Twin Cities, or know someone who is, and either would like to participate or knows someone who might like to participate, please contact me! I appreciate any help or leads I can get!)

My students started working with me during spring term, reading the relevant background literature and learning how to do qualitative research. Toward the end of spring term, we kicked around the idea of conducting a related experiment, simultaneously with the interview study: a card sort, using the terminology we’ve collected so far in the interviews. This has become the students’ main focus this summer. The students came up with other sources from which to extract potential terminology, and we have the framework of the experiment set up. We’re now refining the experiment as well as our IRB protocol, and trying to figure out our potential subject pool. Hopefully we’ll get to launch our experiment in a couple of weeks!

The mathematical piece: Where does this fit?

After the resounding and unfairly mean rejection of my workshop paper, I largely put that part of the project aside, partly to cool my anger and partly to concentrate on the other half of the project. My ego has (mostly) recovered, and so I’m spending some of my research brain cycles figuring out where to send this work out next.

I’ve framed this paper as a quality of experience management paper, with little success. So I am now trying to figure out how to reframe it. My instincts tell me that IoT (Internet of Things) management might be a better fit, so that’s where I’m concentrating my energies right now. I’m less familiar with the IoT conference/workshop space, and IoT is a pretty broad subfield, so identifying appropriate venues has proved challenging thus far. I think I need to figure out who in my professional network is working in the IoT space, and pick their brains for advice.

Mentoring students

Today I realized that I have not worked with students over the summer since the summer of 2014! For me, that’s an extraordinarily long hiatus. I worried that my research mentoring skills would be a bit rusty. Luckily, the two students that I hired make my job easy-peasy. They may be brand new to research, but they are SHARP and pick things up quickly. I’m actually having trouble keeping up with the pace they’re setting! They are eager to learn, and keep asking me what they should be reading. They have great ideas and keen insights.

As expected, they are not quite yet completely comfortable with failure or the uncertainty involved in doing academic research, but we’ve had some good conversations already about how to live with that discomfort.

One logistical piece I worried about before the start of the summer: my students’ lab is in a building all the way across campus from my office. Granted, my campus is small, and “all the way across campus” = a 10 minute walk. Still, it poses a challenge. In previous summers, my office was down the hall from the lab. Students could run down the hall to ask questions, and I could run down to the lab to help them troubleshoot/debug a problem, sketch out a design, etc. How do you replicate this kind of atmosphere with the physical distance? The solution we’ve found, which is working so far: longer lab meetings (usually an hour) mid-morning, and Slack for questions/discussions between meetings. While this hasn’t happened yet, if a question/discussion indicates that this would be better hashed out face-to-face, I’ll either run over to the lab or have the students come to my office.


We’re only in Week 2 of the summer, but I’m already excited about the direction my research is taking. I know that the work my students and I do this summer will set up a strong foundation for me (and maybe them and other students) to continue during the academic year — and that excites me, too.

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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.