Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The care and feeding of research students

Every summer, I hire 1-2 undergraduates to work in my lab. As I've mentioned countless times before, I really do enjoy working with undergrads. And since I owe my current career path to a stint as an undergraduate researcher in someone's lab, I look at it as my way of giving back to the field by training potential future grad students, who may one day go on to become professors, industrial researchers, or entrepeneurs.

This summer, I have 2 undergrad researchers. They are doing great work. They are smart, they pick things up extraordinarily quickly, and they are very hard workers. However, there is one problem: they are not at all self-motivated. I have to guide them through EVERYTHING. They are great when I tell them exactly what to do, but they are totally incapable of figuring out what to do on their own after they finish the task at hand. And they are not all that great in dealing with technical snafus or ambiguity.

Perhaps I've been really lucky in previous summers, but my previous students were much more self-motivated and much better equipped to deal with the ambiguities of research. The trade-off is that I tended to leave them alone much more than I should have, which meant that I didn't always have the clearest picture of what they were doing until after the fact. With this crew, I at least have a very clear picture of what they are doing--but that's because I am intimately involved in their work every step of the way.

As a professor and a PI, I know it is my job to help these students become more intellectually mature and to teach them what it means to "do" research. I'm sure I was not all that different from them when I started out. But doing this takes so much energy and time, and sometimes it's hard to remember (especially on days like today, when I didn't even sit down to do my own work until 4PM!) that the eventual payoff will be worth it--for me and, more importantly, for them. In the meantime, I will just keep pushing them to become more intellectually independent and to take on more responsibility in their projects.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A day of (metaphorical) housecleaning

One of the things I always do to kick off the summer is to sit down and figure out what my goals are. This serves a few purposes. First, it forces me to sit down and prioritize what I *really* want to accomplish, because otherwise I'll start thinking too big and then get frustrated when I only get a fraction of the work done. Second, it keeps me from getting overwhelmed and bogged down in the details. And last (and most importantly), it prevents me from frittering away the summer in an unfocused haze. Not that there's anything wrong with that....

It's kind of telling that I only got around to doing this task *today*. Sigh. The ideas have been swirling around in my head for a while, so it was mostly a matter of putting everything down in writing. Something new that I'm trying this year is writing a weekly to-do list to make sure that I'm on track. I worked really hard to make sure the to-do lists were manageable, building in time for slack/crises/playing hooky. I wrote weekly lists through the beginning of August. We'll see how that goes.

In the spirit of accountability, I've posted my goals on the sidebar--along w/ some "fun" projects I'm currently working on. Those are mostly a reminder to myself that I should take some time for my own interests this summer, too!

And in the further spirit of organizing/housecleaning, I've updated my blogroll, which was way overdue. If you're not familiar with some of the names on the list, do go and check them out--there's a lot of great writing and thinking going on out there!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

My body is sometimes smarter than my brain

Ever since school (finally) ended, I have been running myself ragged. Dealing with way too many responsibilities, some of them not mine. Taking on way too much. Not sleeping. Not taking care of myself. In essence, forgetting that it's summer and that this is supposed to be my "down time", or at the very least my less hectic time.

Last week apparently was too much. I came home on Friday, went for a walk (just for an hour, at what was for me a very leisurely pace), and got completely wiped out, just from the walk. I spent Friday night parked on the couch, too exhausted to move, think, or cook. And on Saturday, I woke up sick as a dog, and again spent the entire day on the couch.*

Why is it that I don't cut myself any slack until I'm forced to do so? If I had listened to my body earlier--if I had paid attention to the mental and physical exhaustion that had become so pervasive--I know that I would have avoided getting sick.

Lesson learned, hopefully.

* luckily, the day of rest helped; I woke up feeling just fine today.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Mental exhaustion

This week, I am participating in something that is very much unlike what I normally do. Without going into great detail, it's one of those things that requires me to be "on", mentally sharp, and interacting with people continuously for 7 hours a day. Now, I am an extrovert and normally I become energized from being around people, but right now I am mentally and physically exhausted. I hit the wall on Thursday morning and since then it's been an epic struggle just to keep my energy level and mental faculties at a high enough level to function in this environment.

When mental exhaustion sets in, here's how I react:

* I start to fantasize about totally out of character things. Right now, for instance, I want nothing more than to spend an entire day (and I mean an ENTIRE) day plopped in front of the TV, not really caring what I'm watching but most importantly not having to THINK for an entire day.

* The thought of conversing with anyone makes me want to cry. It takes too much energy to think of things to talk about.

* I get snippy over completely stupid and irrelevant things.

* I can't sleep.

* I can't concentrate.

* I get the urge to throttle the nearest person, even if s/he hasn't done anything specific to annoy me.

* My eyes hurt.

* My brain actually hurts. Really. It feels full.

Only 2/3 of a day more of this and then I can relax! Must....persevere.....

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Keeping a teaching journal

A couple of weeks ago, I met with one of my mentors to deconstruct some of the teaching-related things in my third year review letter. I'll admit that I was dreading the conversation, but I have to say it went very, very well. This mentor seems really fired up about helping me address the teaching weaknesses that came up at review time so that I can get tenure here. And, he had a lot of really great suggestions for *both* of us to work on together.

One of the suggestions that intrigued me the most and that I'm most interested in trying out is keeping a teaching journal. Has anyone out there tried this? If so, what format did you use, and how useful did you find it? I'm really curious to hear about others' experiences with it.



...our plans for this evening went, in rapid succession, from "let's play tennis!" to "let's take a walk after dinner!" to "let's bake double chocolate chip cookies!"

Baking cookies was definitely the right decision.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Computer science and creativity

One of the themes I hear over and over again is that computer science is at odds with the more creative-type endeavors. Computer science is not equal to art; there is no art in programming a computer. I hear this from students, from colleagues, and recently, from high-school teachers. "We are losing students from our AP/programming-intensive courses. They all want to take the more creative courses, the computer application courses."

As someone who was attracted to this field *because* it is such a creative endeavor, this really disheartens me. There is a great amount of artistry involved in programming a computer, from the intense amount of creativity required to find good solutions to problems to the poetry involved in constructing algorithms and code to be efficient, elegant, and self-documenting. Not to mention the more obvious ties between art and technology--the music, and pictures, and movies, and user interfaces that we create using computer technology and computer programs.

But most people think of computers, and programming, as sterile and boring. Is it PR--the image of the lone computer nerd trying to hack into the computers of corporate America? Probably. But could it also be the way we're teaching it--that we're taking all the joy and artistry and elegance out of programming by focusing on the wrong things? I suspect so.

I'm thinking about this lately because I'm doing a presentation for some high school teachers very soon, many of whom have repeated the "computer science is not creative" lament to me. I want to help them see that creativity *does* and *should* have a place in their classrooms. I plan on showing them some assignments that I use in my own classes (and how I fit them into the overall fabric of the classes--related in-class activities and such) that are both pedagogically strong but also allow for a fair amount of creativity on the part of the students. The ideas for these assignments have come from other people who also are thinking very deeply about creativity and its (central) place in the CS major. I'm not sure how effective this presentation will be, but if it gets some of these teachers fired up again, then that's a start.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Summer routines, or lack thereof

I have had the hardest time finding and keeping a routine this summer. (Which partly explains my absence from the blog over the past week, too.) I've been waiting for my schedule to settle down a bit so that I can figure out the ebbs and flows of my summer work day and schedule things accordingly. The problem is that my schedule hasn't settled down yet!

First, there was the school year that would not end. The end of the year stuff drags on way too long around here. Even after my teaching responsibilities end, there are other responsibilities that need to be fulfilled before summer "officially" starts--grades to submit, reports to file, way too many events to attend (graduation-related, departmental, you name it).

Second, there is the whole getting the research students up to speed thing. I'm working with undergrads again this summer, which I love, but I always forget how much time and energy it takes to get them started on a project.

Third, there are a few obligations coming up that I agreed to take on months ago that I really should have passed up. As strange as this sounds, knowing that these obligations are coming up and that they will disrupt my schedule for a week or so has been a mental block of sorts to me setting up a schedule--why set up a schedule if it's going to be thrown away in a week, my brain asks.

And last but not least, my social life has really exploded lately. I have some close friends who are leaving within the next couple of weeks--some for greener pastures, some for other visiting jobs and postdocs, some because the two-body problem never got resolved and they decided that they didn't want to do the distance marriage thing anymore. So, lots of goodbyes to say and lots of hanging-out to do. This will calm down soon enough (and sadly enough), but it does also lend to the whole schedule-up-in-the-air thing.

I really do need to figure out a schedule and start sticking to it. So, dear readers, I ask you: what tricks and strategies do you use to figure out your summer schedule and stick to it?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


There were two items in my school mailbox the other day:

The final, "official" copy of my third-year review letter, and

A brochure for mental health services.


Thursday, June 01, 2006

The education of senior faculty

A few days ago, I was talking to a senior colleague from a related program. Part of the conversation went like this:

Sr Colleague: So, do you ever take time for yourself--non-work time?

Jane: Well, I do take one weekend day completely off from work.

SC: [looks at me incredulously]

SC: Well, you should really take 2 weekend days off completely, ideally.

J: I know. I wish I could. The thing is, most junior faculty don't even take a day off on the weekends on a regular basis.

SC: Wow. I had no idea.

I am continually amazed by how little senior faculty know about the lives of junior faculty. Most of them don't realize how much being a faculty member has changed since they were junior faculty. I think some of them think we junior faculty bring all this stress on ourselves--they have no idea of the external and internal pressures we face on a daily basis, of the changing nature of the tenure process, of the increased expectations around research. (Or, if they understand this on a meta-level, they have no idea of the magnitude of it or how it plays out on a daily basis.)

Conversations like this are frustrating, but if ultimately it means that there's one more faculty member that "gets" what it's like to be a junior faculty member these days, then these conversations are worth having, and worth having often.