Squeezing in some summer fun

Most years, I try to preserve time in August for relaxation and rejuvenation. I opt to start working with students right after Spring Term ends so that we’re wrapping up by the last week of July or first week of August. We don’t sign the kids up for camps or other activities. We take our family vacation. I spend time with the kids. We go to the State Fair (although not this year, with the lack of masking / vaccination requirements). I often end up doing some work, but I try to limit this to a few hours a day if I can.

As the kids get older, this prolonged August break gets harder to pull off. The Resident 9th Grader plays a fall sport, and we learned that practices start early-to-mid-August for these. (School starts after Labor Day in our district.) The Resident 5th Grader had 2 weeks of “band camp” this year to prepare for 5th grade band with a new-to-him instrument. School orientations and assessments dominate the latter half of August. Next summer, the Resident 9th Grader will likely be working. Squeezing in a vacation amidst all these moving parts starts to resemble a Tetris game.

"Welcome Parents Class of 2025" slide projected on an auditorium screen.
Not quite sure I’m ready for this.

I also waffle as to whether I’m better off front-loading my prolonged break in June and working into August, which seems to better match the reality of our schedules. On the one hand, I like having a break heading into the new academic year. On the other hand, if I’m already burned out at the end of Spring Term, summer feels like a slog.

Regardless, this summer we stuck with the August Break schedule, even though it meant the Resident 9th Grader missed some sports practices. And despite the pandemic, I managed to take two short, fun trips.

Trip #1 was a family vacation to a mountain biking mecca in our state, a transformed former mining area. My partner is a HUGE cyclist, and has never met a bike he didn’t like. A few years ago, he got me a mountain bike. I’d done some mountain biking since then but never felt really comfortable on the bike or the trails. This summer, I saw an ad for a local women’s mountain biking class and signed up. BEST DECISION EVER. I learned so much and, more importantly, gained a ton of confidence in my abilities. So I was excited to try out my new skills on our trip.

We rented an acquaintance’s airbnb. Our kids were not really into the biking aspect of the trip, so my partner and I rode in the mornings, and we all swam in various local lakes in the afternoons. (Some of which are former quarries, so they are deep, clear, and cool.) We played lots of board and card games, read a lot, and sampled the local coffee and ice cream.

The classes made a HUGE difference in my mountain biking. I felt braver. I embraced speed rather than panic braking. I took more calculated risks and embraced failure (and also succeeded more times than I expected). Biking was a lot more fun! And, much to my surprise, I am now seriously considering getting a fat bike so that I can continue riding the trails in the winter.

Red dirt mountain bike trail in the woods.

Trip #2 came straight off my 21 for 2021 list. The Resident 9th Grader and I escaped to Chicago for a few days. We planned this trip before the pandemic took a turn for the worse, so we were both a bit wary about the plane trip in particular, even though we are both fully vaccinated. But I’d accumulated enough miles to put us both in first class on both flights, and we also double-masked on the plane and in the airport. So it was a bit unnerving, but mostly ok. Chicago has a city-wide mask mandate in place, which made us feel safe-ish when we visited museums and stores. We did mostly takeout, with some outdoor dining. And we spent a lot of time outdoors, even though it was hot and humid for much of the trip.

I lived in the Chicago area in grad school, so it was hard not to Do All The Things!, but I kept our plans mostly in check: one scheduled adventure per day to leave time for relaxation and spontaneity. We visited the Art Institute and the Field Museum. We took an architecture boat tour. We visited some of my old grad school haunts and the Northwestern campus. We went thrifting. We rode the ferris wheel at Navy Pier. We swam in Lake Michigan. We rode the L and walked for miles. And we saw a really cool art installation.

View of Chicago Skyline from the mouth of the Chicago River.
I’ve missed this skyline.

Mostly, though, we just enjoyed spending together. Middle school is rough in the best of times, and, as it turns out, particularly rough during a pandemic, and high school brings a host of new challenges and adventures. So it was nice to have the time and space to hang out in silence together, to share experiences, and to talk without interruption about the mundane and the important.

August was mostly frenetic and involved a surprising amount of driving people around, but these two short getaways provided a much-needed reset going into what is sure to be another challenging year. While I didn’t take as many day adventures as I’d like, I’m grateful for the time off I managed.

Did you take some time off this summer? Do you front load, back load, or spread out your breaks? I’d love to hear how you think about taking time off in the summer.

What I’m reading: A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload, by Cal Newport.

What I’m listening to: Back in the day (way back in the day), when I was finding my way as a new mom, I discovered the Manic Mommies podcast. They retired in 2014, but un-retired during the pandemic. I discovered the reboot just before they re-retired, and I’m now working my way through the pandemic episodes. Listening to the unfolding pandemic through the episodes and re-living the last year and a half through their eyes is an interesting and sometimes surreal experience, but always laugh-out-loud funny.

Working with students in a transition summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fridays off

Even though it’s already summer — spring term is done, graduation happened, grades are in, and my research students started this week — I’m still digging out of my spring term hole. Which means I haven’t had a chance to set my summer goals, figure out my summer schedule, and do my normal summer / Q3 planning. (I should be able to do all of that this weekend, fingers crossed!) That said, there is one key part of summer that’s already penciled in:

Fridays off.

I’ve been taking, or at least trying to take, summer Fridays off for quite some time now, as I explain in this post. I do it to stave off burnout and to nurture the non-academic parts of my life. I do it to spend time with my kids — or, at times when the kids are in some kind of camp program, to spend solo time doing whatever I want. I do it so that I can spend time outdoors, where I’m happiest.

This summer, Fridays off seem more necessary than ever. I did not get much of a break last summer, or really since the pandemic started. The end of spring term was very difficult for me, for various reasons (some family, some professional). And an already full summer plate became even fuller when the person I work most closely with in my STEM Director role, the STEM Program Manager, left at the end of last week, leaving that position vacant for the foreseeable future. I need this type of a regular break more than ever, if I don’t want to start the next academic year depleted.

There will be a couple of Fridays that I won’t be able to take completely off, but outside of those I will do my best to keep those days completely free. Both kiddos are (mostly) unscheduled on Fridays too, so there will likely be lots of adventures with them. We bought a season pass for a nearby amusement park towards the end of summer 2019 for summer 2020, which is now good this year, so I’m sure we’ll spend at least a few of our Fridays there. We have a state parks pass and will likely explore some old favorites and some new-to-us places. I can usually convince one kiddo to go on bike rides and the other kiddo to go to the beach. And this might just be the summer we make a bucket list of ice cream places to try….

Of course, now that my kids are in the teen and tween years, they (shockingly!) don’t want to spend every waking moment with me. So I’ll likely have some time for solo fun, too. I’m looking forward to revisiting my favorite local lakes on my kayak, and maybe exploring a new-to-me lake, too. I plan on spending plenty of quality time curled up with a book on our back deck in the heat of the afternoon.

Do you take time off in the summer? How do you spend that time?

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.

A late start to summer

When your institution’s on the quarter or trimester system, summers have a different rhythm than for most of the rest of academia. By the time graduation and the due date for final grades rolls around in mid-June for us, the semester schools are nearly halfway through their summers. And while most of the rest of academia frantically preps through the month of August, we enjoy a full month of summer, knowing that we’ll have a couple of weeks in September as an extra buffer before our fall starts.

Most years, I structure my summers to take an extended break in August, opting to “front-load” my summer meetings, large tasks, and research student mentoring so that I can use August mainly for relaxation and restoration. We typically vacation as a family in August (and I fully disconnect during that time, something I look forward to doing all year!), and we give our kids a break from structured camps and activities the last 2 weeks of August before they return to school.

This summer, we tried something different, opting to vacation in June right after spring term and the kids’ school years ended. Due to some complicated scheduling, we ended up returning from vacation just in time to turn around and head back out on the road for my brother’s wedding, which meant we were on the road for 3 weeks all together. Since our trip involved camping and national parks, we wanted to see if the parks and campgrounds would be less busy (and, in the desert areas, less hot) in June than in the height of tourist season in August. (Answer: Yes, but we traded crowds for snow — no joke!) And since I knew I would not be working with research students this summer so that I could concentrate on my job transition, I had some freedom in terms of scheduling my own summer.

So, how did it go?

The pros

  • A natural break between school and summer means less burnout off the bat. The march from January through mid-June with only a short break between winter and spring terms is mentally brutal and exhausting. I often start my summers depleted as a result. It felt lovely to make a clean break after turning in my spring term grades and to give my brain a rest. By the time we got back, I was ready and eager to dive back in to work.
  • Fewer things are scheduled in June vs. August. Back to school events (screenings, tests, meet the teachers, etc) start up in mid-August in my kiddos’ district, so we often find ourselves playing the “can we miss this or do we need to schedule the vacation around this?” game, particularly if we want to vacation later in August. This is less of a problem in June for the kiddos. I did have to skip out on a few end of year things at my institution to make the vacation/wedding combo work out, and I missed out on meeting up with alums back for reunion, but I generally also find there’s less going on in June than in mid- to late-August, work-wise.
  • Fewer crowds. There were still plenty of people at the parks, but definitely fewer than we’ve encountered on our August trips. We could do all of the tours we wanted, when we wanted, at Mesa Verde, and navigated Rocky Mountain NP easily (the 2 parks we were most worried about).
  • More realistic about my summer plans and goals. One trap I routinely fall into coming out of spring term is seeing the summer stretch out ahead of me and thinking that I’ll develop some superpower that will allow me to complete about 6 months worth of work in 8 weeks. It hasn’t happened yet. Starting my “work summer” in July has given me a more realistic view of how much time and energy I have available this summer. When I finally sat down to plan out my summer on Monday, I found that I was more pragmatic about the time and energy I have available and could better map out how much time I could spend on various projects. For the first time, I have a realistic set of goals and priorities!

The cons

  • “That’s it?” I didn’t realize just how much I enjoy anticipating our late summer trips until we returned from this early summer trip. I feel deep and profound sadness that there’s no trip in August to look forward to.
  • “Now what?” It felt weird and a bit disconcerting to me to be almost a month in to my summer and not have any summer goals/plans set for work. It’s July and I don’t have a summer routine yet. This lack of routine is also problematic for the kiddos, and I find we’re working harder than we usually do to help the kids navigate their summer routines and rhythms.
  • Less end of year slack. I didn’t realize how much I, and those around me, rely on the first couple of weeks of summer to wrap up the academic year, until I was forced to wrap up everything in time to pack up the car and head out of town. For me, this meant more meetings during Reading Days that I would have typically scheduled for the week after graduation, and some meetings that I’ve had to push off until August. The Reading Days meetings felt frantic, and the August meetings run the danger of us forgetting valuable items in the interim.

Would we do this again, taking a break right off the bat? I think so, although I am curious to see how I’ll feel in August and how this changes the end of the summer rhythms, both family-wise and work-wise. I am not sure I could pull this off in summers where I have student collaborators, but that might depend on the collaborators and how long we’ve been working together. I do know that I feel more refreshed, more centered, and more confident going into my “work summer” than I’ve felt in forever, and I’m looking forward to seeing if I can sustain that through August.

Summer plans

Well, it had to happen eventually — my year-long sabbatical is now over, and I’m officially into summer. Which means it’s time for summer plans and setting summer goals.

Since I’m a visual person, this year I decided to make a big ol’ summer calendar and write/draw out all of my responsibilities, goals, etc. on it. I found this exercise immensely helpful — and as a bonus, it helped me figure out which weeks the kids have various camps. With 2 kids in 2 different age groups (for camp program purposes), you can imagine how complicated this becomes. In fact, there are only 4 weeks this summer where both kids are in the same camp/location at the same time.

Summer calendar

Summer calendar, in progress last week. It is much more filled in now!

We also decided this summer to purposely not schedule the kids for the entire summer. So there are weeks or partial weeks where the kids are hanging out at home with me. After a disastrous day last week where I spent more time dealing with kid shenanigans (my own and the neighbors) than on the work I needed to complete, I came up with a daily task list for the kids to complete on the days they are home with me. So far it’s worked really well.

Summer to-do list for kids.

Thank you, Pinterest, for inspiring the entries on this list.

What’s also worked is setting a strict time limit on my own work for the day, letting the kids know how much time I will spend working and when I plan to be done. And reminding them that every interruption moves that time back. And scheduling fun things to do together after I finish working, like going to the pool or playing games. (I’m not sure who looks forward to that time more, my kids or me!)

We have a couple of shorter trips planned, plus like last year I blocked off the entire last week of August for Mom’s End Of Summer Fun Camp, which was a big hit with the kids. And I am back to teaching in our high school summer program, after a year off from that. Having those sketched out on the mega-calendar helped me visualize the time I have available to work on other projects.

I have a few projects that I’m working on this summer:

  • I received an internal curricular grant to get things up and running for my HFOSS Comps project. I’m going to spend that time getting involved in the developer community and making connections; figuring out how to contribute to the project, and how my students can contribute; and creating/modifying learning activities for and from the foss2serve community.
  • Starting to conduct interviews for my interview project. I’m a couple of months behind on this because some other projects consumed my time this spring, but I hope to get at least 5 interviews completed this summer. I’m hoping to load these up in the weeks that the kids are in camp/summer programs.
  • Continuing my state diagram/model project. The paper continues to evolve, the modeling language is mostly complete, and now I need to get the event/transition part of the model working in simulation.  I don’t expect to finish this over the summer, but I hope to get the bulk of the design done so I can finish coding it up in the fall.
  • Prep for fall term. There are some minor changes I want to make to Software Design, which I’m teaching this fall and winter. I’ll need to touch base with my community/campus partners for the other 2 Comps projects I’m supervising. I need to update my website. I’m also taking over as mentor/director of the Summer Science Fellows program at Carleton, so I need to figure out what happens when with that program and figure out what to do in the fall seminar I’m leading for this summer’s fellows, along with some other logistical things.

My main goal this summer, though, is to not stress about the things that don’t get done. There are only a few things that need to be completed this summer, but for the rest, the world will not end if I fall a bit behind. I need to make sure I am relaxed, refreshed, and ready to tackle the academic year, and that is really my number one priority this summer.