Sunday, October 29, 2006

Frustration defined

There is nothing worse than thinking that you can spend about 20 minutes editing an assignment you're handing out tomorrow that you *know* you've written already, then going to edit the assignment and not being able to find it, anywhere.

So much for that relaxing Sunday night I had planned!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Small victories

I am so proud of myself. Three hours this morning of research! All writing! Totally focused! And moving forward, a concrete plan for what to do with the smaller research time blocks between now and my next large research block, so that I can continue to make progress.

It almost makes me feel good about spending the afternoon on class prep and the dreaded grading.

Scattered thoughts on mentoring

Although I can't find the post now (I really need to start tagging these things), you may remember that last year I was contemplating "firing" one of my mentors---for lack of interest and for generally not being very helpful at a time when I really needed his input and advice. I decided at the time to wait and see what happened, to give him another chance, and to maybe start exploring other mentoring relationships. (Jeez, this sounds a lot like dating talk, doesn't it?)

A couple of weeks ago, I had another meeting with this mentor, and it went extremely well. I had two potentially thorny areas to discuss with him, one of which was the dreaded Departmental Culture Issue, and the discussion could not have gone any better. He was sympathetic, and helpful, and encouraging. He identified things that he could do (and is now doing, to his credit). He also, on a third topic I brought up (as a pie-in-the-sky idea I'd been thinking about for a while), gave me a list of people to go talk to and encouraged me to "take this idea, run with it, and make yourself visible on this! you should be the driving force behind this!" It was an excellent meeting, and left me feeling all warm and fuzzy afterwards.

So that was good, obviously.

This of course was tempered by a not-quite-as-positive mentoring experience (same person). I was going through notes I had written to myself at the beginning of the year, and found a set of notes from a meeting with the same mentor. On this list were a set of specific things that this mentor said he would do this year to help get me on the right track towards tenure. This mentor has done a grand total of one of those things. Now, granted, the majority of the blame should fall on me here for not reminding him of what he promised to do, and I take full responsibility. But there is a part of me that's annoyed that if I hadn't noticed this, it would have just fallen by the wayside. So I guess what I'm struggling with is how much responsibility should you take for your own mentoring, and also how much "checking in" should you expect from your mentors? Clearly there's an appropriate middle ground between "mentee takes all the responsibility" and "mentor takes all the responsibility", and this middle ground should skew way more towards the mentee's end than the mentor's end. But I kind of feel like with this particular relationship, it's too far skewed in my direction, and I don't know if that's normal or not.

Finally, on a partially-related note, I've decided that I need a research mentor. Or a research buddy. I have not found an appropriate research mentor within my department, unfortunately, and so I need to look elsewhere. Partly to help keep me on track with my research (no more setbacks!!), and partly with more practical stuff (is this conference appropriate, why does this paper keep getting rejected, how do I get on this program committee). I think I need to recultivate some of my former contacts---I was good for a while keeping in touch with my research network, but to be honest the stress of last year made me want to hole up and not talk to anyone. So that's my new task for the month.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Signs that I might be burned out

The other day, I actually counted the hours I have left in the classroom until my sabbatical starts (I'm on leave for the rest of the school year).

Think I might be looking forward, just a bit, to my time off from teaching??

I guess that's why they call it research

So as I alluded in my last post, research is once again commencing. Slowly, but surely. One thing I've gotten really good at is jotting down notes to myself of "things to do later", and there was one of these items in particular that was an easy experiment to run and, if successful, would yield very useful results for yet another paper. So that's where I started.

I fell into the trap of envisioning the finished paper, with the results I was so sure I would get forming the centerpiece. If it's possible to salivate over anticipated research results, I was definitely salivating. All I had to do was set up and run the experiments, write the paper, and life would be good.

You can see where this is going, right?

Of course, I got different results. Worse, they weren't even totally different results---they were different enough from what I was expecting, but with some unexpected surprises in there too. In a sense, the experiments didn't prove my theory, but didn't completely disprove it either. These results have me thoroughly and completely baffled. (And yes, I've verified several times over that there was no error in the experiments---these results are definitely the correct ones.)

These moments, of course, are the ones that we scientists hope for---the ones that challenge our assumptions and may lead us to new discoveries. (They might also just lead to dead ends, but let's not dwell on the negative just yet.) And on one level, I'm really, really intrigued by what may come of this. But right now, I'm in that completely uncomfortable stage: the only thing I know is that it didn't work, but I have no idea why or what this data is telling me. And I'm not even sure where to begin looking for the answer.

I could have really used an easy, quick, and painless result at this point, given how much I've struggled with research motivation lately. Finding the patience to deal with this uncertainty now is tough. I just have to keep reminding myself that the potential payoff is high, and that I just have to keep plugging away until the answer becomes obvious to me--because it will, eventually.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Random Thursday Morning Snippets

* Apparently "doing just enough to get by" has found its way into my blogging habits, too. Oops. I do have a lot to say (I still go around mentally composing blog posts in my head), but this week the last thing I've felt like doing in the evenings at home is turning on my computer (and the late nights at school aren't helping, either). I'll be back to regularly-scheduled blogging soon, I promise.

* The research impasse has been overcome---I am once again regularly doing research. It is going painfully slowly, since I'm in a phase where I'm (a) debugging code and (b) trying to figure out my students' code and (c) I'm limited to half-hour or hour-long blocks, but research is happening again. Happy happy joy joy!

* Yesterday I did a Bad Thing. I skipped out on a lunch with a visiting bigwig. I should have gone, really. But it was clear across campus and sandwiched (hee!) into my really short break between my two classes, and the last thing I felt like doing after my first class was schlepping myself over there and then running back for class #2. So I skipped. And I felt relieved, strangely, about letting that commitment go.

* However, the universe punished me for my actions, since no lunch meeting = no lunch = time to hit our evil overpriced gross snack bar. 6 bucks for a veggie burger and Sun Chips, no drink. (I think they double-charged me for the cheese.) Highway robbery. And the food made me sick, too, for the rest of the afternoon. This is why I always pack my lunch.

* A tale of two classes: My first class yesterday went spectacularly well. My second class yesterday fell spectacularly flat. Sometimes I think there is an inverse relationship between time spent prepping a class and how well the class goes.

* After resolving this student problem (well, it actually resolved itself, which was nice---I've had no problems with those students since), I now have a new set of problem students. This one's a group of 3, and they apparently are big into the note-passing. How they think I don't notice them doing this is a mystery to me. Sigh. I have a plan for dealing with these students, though, so I think I'll be able to nip this in the bud rather easily. But I hate having to waste time and energy dealing with junior-high level behavior. This is college, people; grow up already!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Doing just enough to get by

I am really disgusted with my lack of work ethic lately.

The best way to characterize the way I'm operating is "doing just enough to get by" (hence, the title of this post). It seems like I only have energy and time to do what's minimally necessary to not get fired from my job. Ok, that's a bit of an exaggeration---what I mean is that I am just doing what's absolutely necessary at this point for me to get by in the classroom without sucking, doing whatever admin stuff is absolutely necessary, and chucking the rest out the window. (On the flip side, I'm getting enough sleep for the first time in my life. That feels good.)

Unfortunately, this includes my research. And that's what really bothers me.

I have never struggled to get research done before. Research is something I strongly believe in, love to do, and more importantly have always made time (and set aside energy) to do. I started off the year ok, and having a paper deadline helped a bit. But ever since that paper was submitted, I've done nothing. Diddly squat. Not even so much as crack my research notebook open.

Could it be burnout? Maybe, but I've had tough deadlines before, met them, and carried on. Could it be the conference last week disrupting my schedule? Maybe, but I'd hate to use that as an excuse. Could it be that subconsciously, I'm thinking it doesn't matter because I'm on leave the rest of the school year? That could be part of it. Regardless of the reason, I need to and want to get back into the research habit.

I've struggled this entire school year with my workload balance in general, so much so that I even made myself a schedule for every day, with research (and exercise, and class prep) time scheduled in every day. But what I find myself doing is totally blowing off my schedule. I find other things that "need" to be done during my class prep time, or my research time, and do those instead of what I should be doing.

My goal for the rest of the week is to figure out what's blocking me right now, why time management seems to elude me, and what specific steps I can take to solve the problem. (Maybe I need to dig up my copy of The Now Habit and re-read it; that's helped me before.) And, of course, to go back to my schedule, take one of those hours set aside for research, and just do it.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Conference blogging, day 3: final thoughts

Well, I'm not sure how qualified I am to blog about today's part of the conference, since I only went to the keynote and then skipped out on the rest of the sessions to pack, check out, and then, um, head to the mall across the street. I guess I was just all conferenced out. (But I did enjoy the mall, and got a present for Mr. Jane, so it's not all bad.)

The keynote this morning was pretty interesting. I had no idea that iRobot (makers of the Roomba) (a) had so many products and (b) was also in the military market. Helen Greiner's talk was interesting and funny, but she got one question at the end about ethics that I wish she had answered more effectively. (basically, the question was her opinion on people using their technology for evil rather than good.) Plus, we got coupons! Free stuff is always good.

Overall, I think I got more out of this conference than I did out of the last one. I think this is because I felt I networked much more effectively at this conference. Maybe because I've been in my present position longer and feel more comfortable/established? Maybe because the further I get in my career, the more fearless I get about approaching people I don't know, and in general feel more comfortable in my own skin? Maybe a bit of both. But I feel like I made more lasting connections at this conference than I did at the last.

The undergrads I brought did wonderfully here---I overheard them talking to a recruiter today and they were asking excellent, articulate questions; and they've been telling me stories all during the conference about talking to people in industry about their jobs, etc. They definitely had a great experience, and I'm hoping I can harness their newfound energies once we all get back to campus.

I'm also hoping that I can harness some of the energy I've gotten from this conference as well---to continue what I'm doing on my own campus, even when it's not supported; to continue to perservere to make things better, even when it seems rather bleak. I've seen the future here, and I want that future to be everywhere.

And now, back to our regularly-scheduled lives.

Conference blogging, day 2

Greetings from day 2 of the conference! It was a fabulous, yet exhausting, day today. The day started at 8-ish and we left the sponsor parties at 10-ish, and I never did get to sneak back to my room to nap at all. So again, I'll just give some highlights from the day, from my perspective.

* Sally Ride was today's keynote speaker. I've seen her speak before (and it was mainly the same talk again), but she is amazing. Truly amazing. She got a standing ovation, the only keynote speaker so far that's gotten that sort of reception. (and totally well-deserved, not just for her talk but for all she's done and continues to do for women in science.)

* I ended up skipping more sessions today than I intended because I got into long conversations that overlapped sessions. But hey, meeting people is the really important part of this conference, anyway.

* I did go to a very interesting talk this morning on what I can best describe as a unique service learning project going on at (where else?) Carnegie Mellon. In a nutshell, students consult on projects in developing countries. Very inspirational, and definitely something we as a field should do more of.

* I also saw a really interesting talk in one of the PhD forums on Alice---this student made some modifications to Alice to make it easier/more natural for middle school students to construct and create stories. The best news is that these modifications will be released in a few weeks, as an extension I think to the original software.

* It felt like faculty day! There was a faculty lunch, at which I met a ton of really cool people, and also a confidential advice session for junior faculty. It was so refreshing to network with other female faculty members, and I feel like I learned a lot from the people I talked to. I may have found a few mentors and a few junior faculty with whom to network remotely, so that's definitely a good thing too.

* The conference has just been so well done. (Well, except for the wireless access, which was flaky today.) There's been a lot of attention to detail, tonight's sponsor parties were very well done, and everything just seems to flow smoothly. It's been a great experience.

Tomorrow is the last day, and only a half-day. I will probably just go to the keynote (Helen Greiner, the founder of iRobot---cool!), and then relax for the rest of the morning. But never fear, I'll give my final report tomorrow.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Conference blogging, day 1

Greetings from the conference! It's been a long, full day and I'm exhausted, but I couldn't let the day pass without at least commenting a bit on the conference. I'm feeling a bit too scattered right now to do anything too detailed or thoughtful about specific talks and such, so instead I'll do an impressions/bullet points/random snippets of interest from today's festivities.

First, though, one of the things I appreciate most about this conference, and one of the things I forget until I get here, is just how incredibly empowering and fulfilling this conference is. It may sound trite, but to be in a place with 1300 other cool, interesting, smart, technical women; to go to talks where women rule the microphone and the audience is 98% women, and no one is afraid to look stupid by asking a question; to meet so many interesting women from all over academia, industry, and the world; is truly the best experience in the world. This conference energizes me like nothing else does, and makes me hopeful for the future. It also makes me fervently wish that CS could *always* look like this, or at least closer to this. It is amazing!

OK, now for my thoughts and highlights and such:
* The big news, announced at tonight's banquet, is that the conference is going to every year instead of every other year. Hooray! The next one will be in Orlando and will be later in October (of 2007). I expected that this would happen eventually; it's nice to see it happen now.

* Lots of talk this morning in the intro and keynote about numbers, about how CS is the only STEM field that's *lost* women since the 80's, about making work more family-friendly. Shirley Tilghman's keynote touched on a lot of these themes, too.

* Shirley Tilghman also commented on the moral obligation we have to diversify the field. That really resonated with me. (Also, it was either her or Jan Cuny that quoted a statistic that 70% of the population was women, minority, or disabled---also making the case for diversifying the field. Kind of a no-brainer when you put it that way! although I had never heard that number before---anyone have more insight about that?)

* The undergrads I brought with me are having a blast. I know this because they started blowing me off at breakfast this morning (in a positive way, of course). I take this as a sign that they are meeting people, which is exactly what I want them to do.

* Every session I went to today was very good, but the one that stands out the most was about ethics in computing, a talk given by Deborah Johnson from UVA. Very thought-provoking! Her point was that technology and computers are not inherently neutral, as we like to believe, but that they are sociotechnical constructs. Good stuff.

* I also went to a lively BOF session on whether "female-friendly science" is a good thing or whether it's just a euphemism for "watering down" science. Lots of interesting comments in that session---and to some extent, the dissent fell along age lines, which was really interesting. (a bit of the whole "young women don't feel they need feminism anymore" phenomenon, perhaps.)

* I brought the fabulous new bag with me, and I've already received a compliment on it. Woo hoo!

That's all I got---watch for another installment tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

News flash: Gender bias is alive and well

I wish I could blog about what happened to me today, but I fear the details would be too revealing. Suffice it to say that I attended a meeting today in which it was demonstrated that gender bias is not only alive, but kicking and thriving, in my department. (Think of every stupid, uninformed, biased comment you've ever heard uttered about women in CS, and it probably came up in today's meeting. And every single one of my colleagues was complicit in this. Every last one.)

I am so frustrated right now that I could cry. Sadly, I expected that the discussion would go exactly this way, and I was 100% correct. The most frustrating thing? No one in my department recognizes or acknowledges that hey, they might be part of the problem. How can you point out to people that they are being unreasonable when they refuse to acknowledge or even consider the possibility? Or when they accuse you of overreacting or being overly sensitive, and thus don't feel like they have to take you or your (perfectly legitimate) concerns seriously?

This is all so ironic, given that this happened on the eve of Grace Hopper. We have a looooooong way to go, people. And I'm quickly learning that, at least where I am, this might be a losing battle I'm fighting.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Working with undergraduate researchers: Giving difficult feedback

This afternoon, I had to give some constructive, yet difficult, feedback to my undergrad research students. They are presenting their work in a few weeks and wanted me to read over what they had so far. What they had so far was not so good.

It's tricky to figure out how to give this kind of feedback to students. On the one hand, I want this presentation to represent their own work in their own words. This is their presentation, after all, and part of the learning experience of "how to do research" is "how to present your results to various audiences". On the other hand, my name is on this work too, and because of that part of me feels this need for "quality control" over the final product. If the presentation of the work is not good, this reflects poorly on me, too.

Where do you draw the line between feedback and control in these situations?

I've had students present work like this before, and maybe I've been lucky, but they did a pretty decent job on their own with minimal input from me. (Sure, there were things I would have done differently, but nothing truly cringe-worthy made it into the final presentation.) But those students also needed less hand-holding in general throughout their projects. These students are different---they required quite a bit of hand-holding during their project. I think on some level they do understand what they did, but maybe not as deeply as the other students did, and they are doing a really poor job of presenting that information. But it's hard to tell students, essentially, "nice try, but you've completely missed the point." And figuring out how to give them the feedback I feel is necessary for them to do a good job on this, in a way that is not soul-crushing, is really, really tough.

What I did was point out the strengths of the presentation so far---there were just a few, but there were some, and that's a good start. And then I gave them a somewhat detailed description of what was missing, with concrete suggestions for how to fix some of the more glaring flaws. I tried to phrase this in terms of "you're pitching this to the wrong audience", and gave them some specific questions to answer among themselves that will hopefully get them thinking about the research in a broader context and get them thinking critically about the details they should and should not include in their presentation. It was longer than I intended---I acknowledged that, and put all the important stuff into bullet points at the end labeled "Concrete Stuff to Do".

I tried to use encouraging and positive language as much as possible, but the fact still remains that there was a lot of criticism of their work in there. So I worry a bit about how the students will take this. Ideally, they take it to heart and come up with a much better next version of this. Worst case, they become demoralized.

This is just another reminder, I guess, of how difficult it is sometimes to teach students how to "do" research, in any field. And more importantly, how difficult it is to both give criticism and teach students how to deal with criticism. It's a valuable lesson for them to learn, but one that I did not enjoy teaching them at all.