Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Lessons I learned while teaching this year

1. The less I teach, the more my students learn. I'm slowly learning not to worry about "getting through" all of the material I've planned to do, to embrace the occasional tangent, and to not cover everything in lecture--to let the students learn some stuff on their own. Strangely, covering less material seems to make my students better learners. (I now realize why, but it took me a while to learn and embrace this concept.)

2. My students tend to be very uncomfortable with "unconventional" teaching styles--which to them is anything beyond lecture. But if I'm patient, and if I construct good classroom activities, even computer science majors will eventually embrace them--even the "dreaded" discussion format.

3. If I am being observed, I will do at least one boneheaded thing during the class, such as claim that 20/2 = 18.

4. I should always, always have a backup plan. Particularly if my primary plan depends on the students having done the reading. (Corollary: Making up a lecture on the fly is hard.)

5. I really need to get in the habit of writing all of my assignments before the start of a course (as opposed to determining the topic of each assignment before the course starts, but deferring the actual writing of the assignment to the day before I assign it). I think that doing so will make my classes flow much better.

Taking back my life

Apparently I took an unexpected week-long hiatus from blogging. It was not intentional at all. No, the reason behind my lack of blogging is simple: I feel like my life is spinning out of control, in a sense. Not in a horrible, tragic way, just in a work-is-controlling-too-much-of-my-life-and-I'm-still-not-getting-anything-done way. My email has exploded, I have way too many people making too many demands on my time, and even though I'm trying really hard to set boundaries and say no, there are still people who persist and who don't get the hint. Ack!

I find myself walking a fine line between self-preservation and what others might call "bitchy" behavior. I know that the way I'm working right now is not sustainable and not healthy, that something's got to give. But the culture here doesn't appear to reward that--on the contrary, it appears to reward the all-sacrificing person, the "team player", the one who has time to drop everything and respond to someone else's needs. So, for instance, senior faculty will say "protect your time! choose your service tasks wisely!", and then will imply that no, you really can't give up that task, and not that task either, and by the way can you just get X done by tomorrow, please, because if you don't then it won't get done? It's enough to make one want to pull one's hair out, strand by strand. Combine that with the fact that I don't exactly have a lot of warm, fuzzy feelings for my department lately, and you've got a recipe for resentment.

My goal for the summer is to take back my life, both at work and at home. I do pretty well at carving out time for research during the academic year and the summers, but the past few weeks have demonstrated that I need a better way of dealing with email, with other people's demands, with saying no and extricating myself from time-sucking and unfruitful commitments. And I'd really like to make time on a more regular basis for pursuing my other interests--I feel like I spend too many evenings working and not enough rejuvenating myself. This is summer, for crying out loud, and it should be a time for doing less work and spending some time enjoying the supposedly "lighter" schedule. I tend to forget this during the summer, and not take time off, and then start off the year burned out and miserable. This year, I've deliberately NOT scheduled the second half of my summer, so that I will take some time off and/or at the very least reduce the hours I work.

My hope is that I can form enough good habits during the summer to sustain me during the year as well. I'm not sure if it's possible, but what I do know is that if I continue on like this, I will burn out completely, and that's not good or healthy.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Guilty pleasures meme

Courtesy of Lisa over at The Paper Chase: time to 'fess up to your guilty pleasures!

(Hopefully you will not lose all respect for me after I admit to all of this.)

Four Guilty Pleasures in Books/Reading:
1. Tom Clancy
2. Mary Higgins Clark
3. Lucky magazine
4. Self magazine

Four Guilty Pleasures in Movies:
1. Austin Powers
2. Dragnet
3. Sleepless in Seattle
4. The Naked Gun

Four Guilty Pleasures in Food:
1. Frosting out of the can
2. Hot fudge sauce, refrigerated and eaten out of the jar with a spoon.
3. Cadbury Creme Eggs
4. Pizza dipped in blue cheese dressing

Four Guilty Pleasures in Music:
1. Billy Joel
2. Madonna
3. LL Cool J
4. Neil Diamond

Four Guilty Pleasures in TV:
1. What Not to Wear
2. The Look for Less
3. Sex and the City
4. Honey, We're Killing the Kids!

Four Guilty Pleasures in Booze:
1. Smirnoff Ice
2. Peach Schnapps
3. ok, I'll admit to Zima too
4. Mike's Hard Lemonade (the Cranberry stuff)

I tag....everyone! :)

Teaching without tests: post-game analysis

A while back, I blogged about my experiment of nixing tests and giving all quizzes instead in my intro-level course. I have to say that the experiment was largely a success. I will definitely do this again; I'm happier with it and most importantly the students are much happier with it (well, most of them anyway).

Lots of things went well with the quiz model. First, I was able to assess where the class was in terms of learning and comprehending the material much more easily than in the past. I saw their progress every single week, and I could tell instantly what concepts were covered well and what were not. If I taught a concept poorly, I found that the students all made similar conceptual mistakes. If I taught a concept well, most students nailed it on the quiz.

Second, I found that I was able to be *more* creative with quiz questions than with exam questions. Because I had to fit in all the important concepts I wanted to test into a 10-15 minute timeframe, I had to think very carefully about what I wanted the students to demonstrate on the quiz and how I wanted them to show this. I wrote much better questions as a result.

Third, the grades dramatically improved, in that the quiz average is much higher than the test averages normally are. Students learned and retained the concepts much more thoroughly than in the past---I base this on the sophistication and thoughtfulness not just of the quiz answers, but of the questions the students raised in class too.

Finally, the students were much less stressed out about being evaluated. Students can really get worked up over CS tests, but somehow when the evaluation was presented as a quiz, there was no widespread panic. Perhaps because the stakes on a weekly basis are so much lower than they are with the 2-3 test model, at least perceptually.

There were very few negatives in this experiment. One hope I had was that I'd be able to identify struggling students earlier and get them the help they need earlier (tutoring, etc.). Well, identifying them is one thing, but getting them to actually come see you to discuss it is quite another. The struggling students, even once I identified them, avoided me like the plague, not unlike previous years. Not much I can do about that one, but still. Second, I had a nontrivial portion of the class who completely flaked out on the quizzes week after week--as in not showing up for them, even though they all knew about the "no makeups except in dire circumstances" policy. Why anyone would throw away 30+% of the final course grade is beyond me.

The one thing I feared the most--increased time commitment of making up the quizzes and grading them--never materialized. The workload was completely manageable, and there was only one time where I did not get the quizzes back in the next class period.

One final note: There was one (only one) particularly bad quiz, in which all of the students made the same conceptual mistake on one problem. They all got the syntax right, but the problem asked them to do something they hadn't done before, and rather than reason it out they all panicked. I could tell when the students handed in the quiz that they were completely demoralized and disappointed. I was actually able to turn this into a "teaching moment": emphasizing the importance of algorithm development when writing programs. Which is something I talk about all the time, of course, but the quiz experience really drove this home to the students in a much more effective way. A fortuitous moment!

I've now tried this in two different classes with great results. I can't say that I'll do this in every class, but I will be more willing to experiment with the quiz model in future classes.


Sunday, May 21, 2006

Snippets from my weekend

* The hands-down coolest moment of the weekend: when the homeowner of the house we were rehabbing on Saturday came out to see our handiwork, and burst into tears, overwhelmed with joy. It was all we could do to keep from bursting into tears along with her.

* I really need to hang out more often with ServiceProjectFriends. They are interesting and fun people.

* 10 hours of manual labor on Saturday + 5 hours of gardening today = one really sore back. But totally worth it.

* Hard limit of 2 hours of school-related work yields the same amount of results as an unstructured "working" weekend afternoon. Lesson learned.

* Caffeine-free for 3 days now! (and no decaf coffee yesterday, even.) I think I've kicked the habit for good.

* Doing stuff outdoors in the yard means neighbors will stop over to say hi and chat. It never fails. My neighborhood is cool like that.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Two unrelated things in the same post

1. Caffeine. So the wean-myself-off-of-caffeine-completely task has been going rather well. I've taken the "gradual reduction" approach, and I'm happy to report that today is the first day that I'm drinking 100% decaffeinated coffee. I was really worried that the caffeine withdrawal would trigger massive migraines, but so far, so good. We'll see how today goes.

2. Motivation. I have none. Zero. It's mainly because of the review, and all of the demoralizing feelings that go along with that. There is so much that makes me sad about what happened, and angry too. It's paralyzing me, even though I'm trying really hard not to let it. I have so much that I have to think about and decide, plus a to-do list that's a mile long with things that must must must be done, yet all I really want to do is crawl back into bed and never set foot on this campus again. (ok, that last part's not true, but I do have 30-second spurts of feeling that way from time to time). It's taking all my energy just to function on a bare minimum level, but I need to be functioning at a much higher level, and I just can't. I clearly need a full weekend off; I hope that will help with some of this.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Jane the advice columnist

In the comments to my recent post about the third-year review gone awry, both skookumchick and PhD Mom asked if I had any advice for new faculty and/or faculty going into mid-tenure review. Knowing what I know now, what would I have done differently?

Well, first, I probably wouldn't have taken the job if I had known what I was in for...but that gets more into questions of "what questions should I ask on an interview, and of whom", which is an entirely different post. But let's remove that possibility, and assume that I would have taken this job anyway, known warts and all. In that case, here's what I've found to be most valuable, and/or realize now was infinitely valuable, in no particular order.

* Forming a network of women, both senior and junior, outside my department. The junior women are vital because some of them have become very close girlfriends, and because it's been such a sanity check knowing that the crazy things that happen to me are also happening to my female junior colleagues in other disciplines. The senior women are vital because *they can be advocates*. They can lean on people and get things done and help you get perspective in a way your male colleagues can't or won't give you.

* Identifying at least one trusted colleague in your department who can and will be straight with you. This person will help you navigate the tricky politics. S/he will, ideally, also let you know early on if you are screwing up. This is one thing I thought I had that I clearly didn't, and it definitely hurt me.

* Be persistent about obtaining mentoring and feedback from colleagues. Again, this was something that I was actively doing that didn't end up helping me, but I still maintain that this is the best thing you can do for yourself. If you are seen as someone who is eager to learn and to improve and can take criticism, that is valuable.

* Find and use available resources. If your school is big on teaching, make friends with the learning and teaching center people, utilize classroom observation programs, etc. Even if you think your teaching is just fine, do it anyway. If your school is big on research, make friends with the grants people, and/or a really prolific researcher in your field or in a related field. Figure out how your school can help you do your job. Because often, the resources are there.

* Document, document, document. Make sure your chair knows what you're up to. Make sure your colleagues know when you've published something, or when you're serving on an interesting and important committee. Meet with your chair once a year. Keep a folder of every little thing you've done that might count for tenure.

Those are the main ones. I would love to hear suggestions from others in the comments! Anything you would add that I've left out? Anything here you disagree with?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

For those of you who may have missed it...

...the 9th (9th! how time flies) Teaching Carnival is up at Adventures in Ethics and Science. Lots of good stuff, as always.

Am I a techno-Luddite?

True confession time: I am not a gadget junkie.

I think new gadgets are cool, sure, and I appreciate the design, features, and functionality of gadgets. But I am not one of those people who will go out and buy the latest and greatest gadget just for the sake of having one. I only buy a gadget if I've decided that I need it, and I tend to use it until it falls apart or becomes obsolete.

(should I just turn in my Geek Badge now??)

Case in point: my PDA. My PDA is ancient. Its operating system cannot be updated. It does not sync with most calendars. I cannot get it to sync with Evolution on Linux--I was able to sync with Linux for a while at first, but then something fundamental in the kernel changed and I never could get it to sync again. The only thing it syncs with is the original calendar software that came with it, which is now at least 6 years old and, at least once a day, freezes so that I have to force it to quit. The PDA itself has started to not recognize my graffiti, and its location recognition is going to hell--I'll tap somewhere on the screen, and the thing to the left of whatever I tapped will be selected instead. All of this has now gotten way past the annoying point, and I decided the other day that it was time to start shopping for a new PDA.

So, I sat down and started figuring out what I would use the PDA for, and what I want in my PDA. And I discovered...that honestly, I don't need a PDA. That I can (and do) duplicate most of the PDA's functions, like the address book and to-do list, elsewhere. That I really mostly use my PDA for playing games while I'm stuck waiting somewhere. That honestly, I could and probably should go back to a (gasp!) paper calendar. There's only one thing that I regularly rely on my PDA for--storing passwords safely--but I could either use gpg and a keychain drive to do the same thing, or find software for my cellphone that does what the PDA software does.

On the one hand, this knowledge is immensely freeing. Using my PDA never felt natural to me--perhaps because of all of the problems I had syncing it with my OS of choice. I've always felt like I was contorting myself to work with my PDA/system, rather than the other way around. (I've tried web-based and other computer-based calendars too, and have felt the same way about those.) Finally coming to terms with this is a relief. Yet, on some level, because I am a technologist, I feel like a failure and an impostor, because I was not able to make this system work for me. I preach on a daily basis the wonders of technology, the ability for it to transform our lives, etc., and yet here I am giving up on technology because, well, it doesn't work for me and my lifestyle. If I can't practice what I preach, how can I expect everyone else to?

So over the next few weeks, I will start moving the data from my PDA elsewhere. Some of it will find a home on my phone, others on one of my computers, still others on a keychain drive. And I will say goodbye once and for all to my trusty PDA, the one that came with such promise but that never quite lived up to the hype for me.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Thoughts on third year review

My boy-was-this-way-too-long third year review is finally and mercifully winding down. There is one final meeting with the dean and the chair and then we can put this one in the books. I have a home here for the next few years, but I'll also have to put in a lot of hard work if I want to be here after that. It's not the outcome I was hoping for, but I'm focusing on the positive and trying to figure out ways to improve and to get the help I need (ironically, it's the teaching that is dragging me down overall) so that I can be here---if I choose to do so---for many years to come.

Looking back on the process now, I can say that I was not prepared for how stressful and how difficult this process would be for me, and that the process was not at all like what it was presented to be by the senior faculty and administration. Going into this process, I felt very confident; coming out of it, I feel demoralized and with little of my self-confidence intact.

There are several reasons for this. First, I feel like the process was misrepresented from the start. It was sold to us as a checkpoint, a chance to gain valuable feedback from senior colleagues, a chance to reflect on the first couple of years on the tenure track and assess where you are and where you want to be and how you are getting there from here. The administration, the senior faculty, your students, everyone wants you to succeed, and will do whatever they can to help you do that.

That sounds wonderful! The reality, though, was quite different. Feedback only helps if your colleagues are willing to be honest with you about what's working and what isn't. The whole system, in fact, is predicated upon this. Yet I found that my colleagues would say one thing to me, and a totally different thing behind closed doors. It's hard to take advantage of feedback if it's not freely given, or not given at all. It's hard to correct weaknesses when the weaknesses are only spelled out to the tenure and promotion committee and not to the candidate herself.

Second, I have been extremely proactive about seeking out mentoring and advice from my senior colleagues. I have been burned in the past before by "falling through the cracks", and going into this job I was determined not to let the same thing happen. I have taken them to coffee, made a point of seeking them out after they observed my classes and asked for specific feedback, adopted one senior colleague as a formal mentor, and taken the time to learn who knows what and gone to them for advice on various things. All of this work has earned me....nothing. I have done everything that a junior faculty person should do, and I was still blindsided by the outcomes of my review. This should not have happened. But it did.

Third, after this whole experience I feel less sure of my department's desire to see me succeed here. I trust my senior colleagues much less than I did going into this year. I feel as though they have let me down, by not respecting me enough to be honest with me. I will need their help in order to get to where I need to be, but to be honest I'm not sure if I trust them at this point to help me do that. And that's a really icky feeling to have--that those who should be looking out for you, aren't.

So as not to be totally negative, I do think that I learned a lot from this experience. I got a better idea of which students I'm reaching best with my teaching style and which are not receiving it as effectively. I've had some personal insights about the persona I project, and how I unwittingly project totally different personas even within the same class. The things I have to change about my teaching, now that I understand what they are, should not be that hard to tackle, and in fact I already have some great ideas on addressing a few of them (that should yield the biggest payoff, too). And I finally have some clarity about "how much research", which is a big relief.

The next few years should be interesting. While the review was disappointing (and somewhat infuriating) overall, I am determined to prove to myself and to my school that I can do better. I am excited to get back into the classroom and try out some of the insights and ideas I now have, and to figure out how to better structure my classes. I'm less excited about dealing with my department, and I suspect that I will have to seek out advice from outside the department in how to deal with them and how to make sure that I get the feedback and mentoring that I need.

The million dollar question, of course, is do I want to stay around long enough for that?

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

My day is a microcosm of my life

* My email has exploded lately. I know it's the end of the year and all that, but for some reason I've really had a hard time keeping up with it lately. Students have actually started coming up to me and saying "did you get my email?" That never used to happen.

* The sad part is, I just sent out a bunch of emails (catching up on emails from the past week--yikes), and I just got a bunch of replies back. Apparently I am not the only person catching up on email at this late hour.

* Why is it on the day when you *really need* students to leave you alone so you can get work done, the students are in your office all day long?? Whereas when you *want* them to come and see you, they disappear off the face of the earth.

* I am really burned out. So burned out that I had to force myself to sit down at my computer tonight--two pressing deadlines tomorrow means I have no choice but to work. The work is done, but I'm still way behind on other things. I might have to hide out somewhere tomorrow just so I can get out from under this huge pile of stuff!

* All I want to do is sleep. Is that so wrong??

I think all of this means that I need to start prioritizing things. I have way too much on my plate right now, and trying to do everything is just not working. Boundaries! I need boundaries!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Weekends go by way too fast

But this one was a pretty good one:

* Impromptu drinks Friday night with friends. It was nice to get out of the office and just laugh and laugh and laugh.

* A date with Mr. Jane on Saturday night. We've both been so busy lately (and will be for the next month), so it was nice to reconnect for a few hours.

* New running shoes. I was way overdue to replace mine. I finally went to a "real" running store to get these, the first time I've ever done so. What a difference a good shoe makes!

* Some work today, but for a change of pace I decided to walk to the local coffee shop (about a mile from my house) and work there. I didn't get everything done that I wanted to, but I was very productive. I might make this a habit.

* Started thinking about summer plans. For the first time since I've started this job, I am actually taking part of the summer off. It was nice to think about what I wanted to do with that time--a road trip might be in the works! We shall see.

* Decided it would be a good idea to paint my toenails orange. (Well, more like a pinky-orange, but more orange than pink.) The jury's still out as to whether that was a good call or not.

One thing that I didn't do, stupidly, was stop working once it became clear that my productivity had dipped to zero. Lately, I have become very good at not working when the motivation is just not there, but today I tried to ignore my inner voice. And of course, what happened? Yeah, I kind of stared at my computer for a while (with the file I was supposed to be working on, open) and read blog posts. Ack.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The scientific method in CS

The other day, when I had the mini-research breakthrough on the problem that's vexed my student and me for weeks now, I was sitting in front of the computer with this student. We were painstakingly tracing through data generated by some of our code, line by line.

Student: When I ran the program last night, the data was the same up until iteration X. After that, it was different.

Me: OK, let's look at the data from iteration X-1.

[scrolling, scrolling, ... staring at screen]

Me: Well, it looks like the data at iteration X-1 is also different.

Student: Huh.

Me: Let's go look at iteration X-2....Yep, that's different too.

[this goes on for a few more rounds]

Student: Huh. It all looked ok last night. Of course I only looked at some of the output, not all of the output. I never thought of tracing backwards through all of the steps.

I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident. But it seems like many of the students that I work with, and most of the students that I teach, have no idea how to approach a problem like this. Debug a program? Try randomly changing lines of code and hope that something works, eventually. Verify that the data a program is generating is correct? Just look at 1 or 2 values; that should suffice.

It is easy for me, at this point in my career, to throw up my hands and say "Kids these days! Don't they teach them the scientific method anymore? Don't they know how to conduct an experiment?" Because I view tasks like this--debugging, data checking--as scientific experiments. You have a problem, you form a hypothesis, and then you construct thorough tests to prove or disprove that hypothesis. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But then I got to thinking: How did I learn to think about CS problems this way? Was it because I took years and years of science classes and logged countless hours in the lab? Well, that probably didn't hurt, but I don't think that's the complete answer. I do think that I learned more from experience: from being burned by problems like this before, sure, but also from watching and learning. I learned by observing what my mentors did, what my advisors did, what the smartest students did.

When I think about it this way, I don't feel so frustrated by scenes like the one I described above. Instead, I think of them as opportunities to model good research behavior to the next generation of researchers, to help my students learn how to research by showing them what good researchers do to solve problems.

Did my student learn anything from our interchange? I suspect he did. I also suspect that he'll make similar mistakes many, many times in the future. But I'm hoping this will at least cause him to start thinking a little more carefully about how he's approaching research problems in the future.

Teaching by example is hard! :)

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

It must be May, since I have no time to breathe

Or put together a coherent blog post, for that matter. Lots has been going on over the past few days. Lots of fodder for blog posts that I don't have time to write right now. So in the interim, random snippets:

* Minor stuff has been happening with the phone call incident. I met with several people last week--two mentors, to help me strategize about what I should be asking for; and some of the involved administrators, about what to do next. In short, I stood my ground, and I'm cautiously optimistic. Stay tuned for (hopefully happy) updates!

* The third year review letter should be sent out any day now. I'm expecting that it will contain good news, but I'm also expecting that the letter will say that there are some nontrivial weaknesses in my case. I have some work to do here before tenure. I'll need my department's help. I hope they're willing to help me. In any case, I won't be able to fully relax until I get the damn letter! Again, a longer post is forthcoming on this topic.

* I was so completely burned out that I took the entire weekend off. I got myself uber-organized at the end of last week (and this week) so that I could actually pull this off. And I'm so glad that I did. I didn't do anything particularly exciting, but I was able to get a ton of stuff done--errands, cleaning, little stuff that had piled up, a haircut (it had been four months! man, was I shaggy), cooking, even some crafting. It was completely and utterly relaxing. I need to do this more often.

* A student and I had a minor research breakthrough today, on a problem that's vexed us for weeks. We still have to run some more tests to verify it, but so far the results are what we expected. The turning point: We found uninterrupted time to sit down and stare at the code and data for a while, just tracing through line by line. It's true; two pairs of eyes are better than one.

* Meetings are the bane of my existence lately. It wouldn't be so bad if we actually got something DONE at one of these, but no. Let's just talk the topic to death instead. Yeeeeeeeeesh.

The last word...

...of my dissertation, following the meme that's going around everywhere:


(Certainly not what I would have predicted, but very fitting nonetheless.)