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End-of-semester reflections, Fall 2016

A few years ago, when the amazing Karla Erickson began her term as Associate Dean, she decided that part of her role would be improving our support for what she called "mid-career faculty", which she identified as faculty anywhere between tenure and Senior-Faculty Status. One of the things she does is hold regular end-of-semester reflection sessions in which she asks us to think about a variety of prompts and then to talk about related issues. Today's essay is an extended version of my responses to her prompts at today's session [1]. I've put my inadequate summary of her prompts in bold. I'd encourage you to think about doing a similar self assessment.

Oh, Karla had us start with three deep breaths and then ninety seconds of silence. I'd recommend that you do that first, too.

Make a list of at least three items of things of which you are proud this past year. It does not have to be something that won an award. It could be something as simple as a conversation.

  • My children. I am proud of the many wonderful things that my children do. They have always been awesome, and they are becoming even more awesome.
  • Enrollment preparedness. I knew that we would have over-enrollment in CSC 207 and CSC 208 this semester, and worked out a plan with the Dean and the Math department [2,3].
  • Tenure-track position. I took the lead in writing a successful proposal to add a tenure-track position in the department [4].
  • Student support. I've had a few students tell me that the advice and nudges I've given them have made a real difference in their lives. It's great to hear that, particularly since they are awesome people.
  • A quick comment. This past summer, a student asked me to post a sign that said something like "First-Gen Students: Stop in for Advice". I think I said "I'm not a first-gen student. I'm not even close to a first-gen student. Shouldn't this be outside the door of a faculty member who knows the experience first hand?" The student's reply? "You are neither black nor a woman, but I still come to you for advice." [5]
  • The CS Reunion. I would have liked to have more people there. I would have liked to have done better followup [6]. But what we had was excellent. And, most importantly, Henry Walker felt appropriately honored.
  • These Essays. I'm not quite sure why I'm proud of these essays, but having a daily somewhat substantive accomplishment feels good. I also enjoy knowing that some of these have a positive influence on other people.

I do note that I did not write any particularly awesome code this past semester, and I usually have some code I'm proud of. There were a few quick hacks for the essays [7]. There were a few fun Processing programs. But I like to code more.

Make a list of three or so people you have supported in meaningful ways.

  • Michelle, my amazing wife. We support each other in many different ways. I've tried support her through a number of decisions and plans. However, I know it's been a stressful year, and I could have done better.
  • Selected students, who will remain anonymous. A few students really needed me as a sounding board. I'm glad that I've been able to support them.
  • Some departmental colleagues, for whom I advocated with the College.
  • Ursula, who tells me that I gave her direction and confidence this past year, and have helped her find a new direction.

Make a list of three or so people who have supported you in meaningful ways.

  • Michelle, my amazing wife. She's helped me deal with some significant burnout this year. And she's done all of the normal stuff, too. I don't know how she puts up with the same issues from me year after year (too much work, too much mess, too much weight), but she does.
  • Karla Erickson, one of our amazing associate deans. Karla has helped me think through many career issues this year.
  • PM and Charlie, my junior colleagues. They've reminded me why it's important that I do what I do. They've also worried about me as much as I worry about them, and have put up with my jokes [8]. We hired amazingly well [9].
  • Mike Latham, my Dean [10]. Mike has been incredibly supportive of our department, particularly with resources. And, although he is insanely busy, even by my standards, he always seems willing to chat about my concerns.

You have approximately 38 days (starting today) between now and the start of the next semester. What will you do to recover from this semester and prepare for next semester? Try to be creative, and think of things that you wouldn't normally do but you know other people do.

  • Restart daily exercise [11]. I really need to work on my health and my weight. If I can find time to write essays, I can find time to do some simple exercise.
  • Finish grading. Yeah, that's always a fun one. I'm way behind. Fortunately, grades are due by Christmas, so I'll be finishing those next week.
  • Clean home office. My home office is even worse than my work office, if such a thing is possible. I think we have folks staying in it over the holidays. I need to do something about it.
  • Clean office and lab. I probably won't get to this. But I should make arrangements to start thinking about this, perhaps hiring students to work with me once per week. I know of three who have told me that they'd really like to help.
  • Write code for fun. I find programming a way to express myself creatively. I'll probably be a bit more focused in my coding. I'll probably work on learning Ruby and Rails better. I may even do the less fun activity of trying to polish the CSC 322 projects.
  • Write "Don't Embarrass Me, Don't Embarrass Yourself", my "textbook" for CSC 282 [12].
  • Read; read a lot. I love reading. I don't read enough. I should. Break is a great time to read. I should also challenge myself to write an essay about each book I read [14].
  • Find time to make art. Michelle says I've rarely been as happy as when I was in Jeremy Chen's sculpture course. I should find time to make more physical art.
  • Write a Computer Science Peer Educators Handbook. We have a scattered bunch of documents. I have some thoughts about our peer educator program based on the interviews I've been doing this week. I should put everything together in one place. I'll probably start this as a series of essays, too.
  • Plan my schedule for next semester. This task isn't overly complex. But I have a lot of moving parts, so I should plan ahead.
  • Design a board game or games. I keep telling myself that I'm going to design a game. It's another creative outlet. I probably won't get to it this year, either, but it's worth a try.
  • Participate in ACM Institute on College Futures. That's the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, not the real ACM. Here's the description: "ICF Online provides an opportunity for faculty and campus leaders to collaboratively engage around issues related to the economics of higher education, specifically in the residential liberal arts context." Yeah, if I'm going to rant about finance-related things, I should know more.
  • Write the end-of-year report on my innovation fund project. This task is on the "have to do" list, not the "want to do" list. But that's how things go.
  • Finish reports on GHC and Tapia. Another set of "have to do", rather than "want to do". But these reports help me get funding.
  • Spend time with friends. I don't make enough time for people other than my family. I should. Maybe we can finally teach the Brownells how to play Canasta.

Can I do all of that during break? Probably not. But I'll get as much done as I can, and I'll try to make sure that I include some of the things that are relaxing, and not just work. Of course, if I don't do enough work during break, then next semester gets hard, so ....

Make a list of the projects you hope to or have to accomplish during the next semester or calendar year.

  • Leftovers from the previous list. Almost everything above is something I probably have to do. (Well, there are some creative things that I don't have to do, but that I should do.)
  • Support Michelle. This item was actually the first thing that I wrote down. Michelle is bravely adding a degree program to her already busy schedule, and will need many kinds of support, particularly with me taking more responsibility around the house.
  • Lose weight. I was so proud when I lost weight three years ago. I've gained way too much of it back. I don't like how I look. I don't like how I feel. I really need to make losing weight a project.
  • Find ways to work less on weekends. Rumor says that it's possible. We'll see.
  • Have more coffee chats with friends and colleagues. I work with amazing people. I should enjoy time with them [15].
  • Continue the essay of the day project. I have a list of essays to write. I'm proud of the essays I write (or perhaps I'm proud that I write essays; I'm never clear on that). They actually make me feel better, even when I rant. They are therefore a very important project. I will try to vary the kinds of essays I write, though. I've mentioned that I should do book reviews of the books I read. I may try writing a NaNoWriMo novel in November, using the now-somewhat-tired model of memos from a curmudgeonly faculty member [16].
  • Work on department infrastructure. With my wonderful colleagues, I need to continue to plan for the future and how we support the ever-growing number of awesome CS majors.
  • Work on the future of MathLAN. It's changing. We still don't know how. But it's a project for which I have some responsibility.
  • Revise CSC 151. It's time for a new version of CSC 151. I've promised to create it. I'll make sure to hire some students to work on this project with me.
  • Design another new 2-credit course. There are a variety of topics that haven't been in our curriculum in recent years. Depending on who we hire, I may want to design a course to add. (Some folks would naturally have good courses to teach from the get-go.)
  • Start writing NSF grant proposals. I planned two this year. I wrote neither. Maybe if I start earlier, I'll succeed.
  • Revise and run code camps. With Narren's departure, there's no way that I'm running residential code camps. But I can still run day camps, and I should do so to continue momentum. This year, I'll also have Sarah Dahlby Albright as a collaborator. I think that will work well. Plus, students really seem to like building and running the camps.
  • SIGCAS Executive Committee. No, I really don't need another professional responsibility. But I've been encouraged to run for the SIGCAS [17] Executive Committee by people I respect [18]. And SIGCAS is an important organization that closely ties to my personal interests. Plus, I'd get to work with more really awesome people. Of course, I'm only running. I may not get elected.

Look back on that list and pick a few that seem particularly "bright and shiny" to you. Then think about what will help you accomplish those projects. What do you need to do to build momentum for those projects? Do you need to set up some accountability structures?

  • Address my weight. I really need to start to exercise again. How will I make sure that I do so? I need to revisit what time of day I exercise and how I fit it into my schedule. I need to treat it like these essays, something I know that I will do every day, and that I always find time to do. I should also remember that I've succeeded before, and I can succeed again. I also need to address some of the issues that lead to weight gain, particularly stress. Working on meditation might be good. I should probably go back and add that to the list of things to do during break.
  • Organization. My disorganized office and life add stress. I should have a schedule that includes one hour of straightening each week. If I hire students to work with me during that hour, I'll have some accountability.
  • Essays and other writings. I seem to be on top of these essays. Writing some more software to help manage the essays could be fun. I'm also looking forward to writing the peer educator's handbook.

I wonder if I could also use these essays as a source of accountability. Certainly, for writing projects, I can incorporate some of the writing in the essays. But I can also write about the tasks that I have to do and, by mentioning them in public, better encourage myself to complete those tasks [19].

Apply the original set of responses to these projects. What are you proud of? Who helps or doesn't help?

  • I will be proud of myself when I lose weight and better organize myself. Being healthier and being better organized will also help me support Michelle better.
  • I note that writing appears everywhere in these lists. My writing sometimes helps others, as long as I write the right essays. My writing helps me. And I'm proud of accomplishing something [20].

If you find another hour to work, how should you use it?

  • I could sleep for another hour. I'm behind on sleep, and catching up would be good.
  • I could exercise. I should exercise. It will help with other things.
  • I could spend more time with my family.

Anyway, those are my reflections for the end of this semester. I probably need to find things to cut out. I definitely need to think more about my health. And, whatever I do, I'm pretty sure that I'm going to keep writing.


[1] I'm not sure that this is really an essay, but it's what I'm choosing to do.

[2] Yes, I know that I've written about this issue before. It's still something that I think I did very well as chair.

[3] I'm trying to stay on top of enrollment issues for next year and the year after.

[4] This is really a department accomplishment, but I'm proud of my department for the accomplishment.

[5] I'm not so much proud of my comment, or even the student's comment, but that I had developed a relationship with the student that they felt that way.

[6] That followup is still forthcoming ...

[7] Okay, while the code isn't spectacular, and wasn't even that much fun to write, I am really happy that I could write the program that adds the endnote links. They make the essays much more fun for me to read, and I hope that that make it more fun for others. I'm also enjoying another quick hack that helps me renumber these endnotes.

[8] Such as they are.

[9] Am I allowed to say that in public? We did make amazing hires, so it seems reasonable to say so. I'm pretty sure that each page has a disclaimer that these are my opinions alone.

[10] At Grinnell, the Dean is the chief academic officer. Many schools would call this person the Provost. Mike is responsible for overall budget, for various kinds of departmental support, and more.

[11] In my original notes, I had about a dozen exclamation points after "restart daily exercise".

[12] I'm planning to write that "book" as a series of daily essays. I'll explain the title when I start those essays.

[14] Yeah, that's another kind of writing I don't do very well.

[15] This awesome idea comes at the suggestion of Karla Erickson, during one of our previous conversations.

[16] My goal is humor. I hope that people will be able to tell the fictional memos apart from my normal essays. I'll probably need a disclaimer. And yes, I know, much too much crappy fiction gets written in NaNoWriMo. But I don't think my memo-fiction will be all that much worse than my essays, and maybe it will even be funny.

[17] Special Interest Group on Computers And Society.

[18] One of those people wrote the following description about themselves in a recent note to me: "I still have a junior faculty member's mindset. I am always honored that I get asked to do something and believe I should say yes." Unfortunately, I think I follow in that model. I'm getting better, though.

[19] I think, subconsciously, that's one of the things I'm doing in writing this essay.

[20] Amazingly, when I said that the essays have proven particularly positive, Karla responded with a comment of the form "You added the essays to an already high workload. Isn't it interesting that something additional can make life better?" I think I replied "Yeah, but this additional thing means that I'm not getting grading done." [21]

[21] Yes, I know, I've never gotten grading done. It still feels worse than before.


Version 1.0 of 2016-12-15.