What do professors do all day?

I get this question a lot from students, friends, and family, but I’m never quite sure how to answer it. Research? Teaching? Service? Those don’t really capture what the job is really like. So I decided to write everything down in a big long list at the end of today, capturing every single goal accomplished, every single e-mail I sent, and every single conversation I had. See if you can find the  research!

  • 6:30-6:31 Woke up at 6:30 am still feeling under the weather and with another recurring corneal abrasion in my right eye. Applied eye-drops.
  • 6:32-6:40 Read e-mail in bed for a few minutes.
  • 7:00-7:15 Read more e-mail while eating breakfast, set meeting with tech transfer department for next week.
  • 7:15-7:30 Loaded CHI PC chairing site and assigned a few 2ACs
  • 7:35-7:50 Left for work and arrived in the central garage
  • 7:50-8:00 Got coffee from Mary Gates cafe and briefly said hi to Karen Fisher and Joe Tennis in the hallway.
  • 8:00-8:02 Sent e-mail about paper conflicts for CHI PC for assigning 2ACs.
  • 8:00-8:05 Scheduled doctor’s appointment about eye.
  • 8:05-8:35 Spent 30 minutes assigning 2ACs to 25 papers
  • 8:35-9:10 Spent 35 minutes crafting epic e-mail to junior Ph.D. student who is worried about his Ph.D. topic and unsure about next steps.
  • 9:10:9:30 Revised slides for lecture for 18 minutes, improving clarity over last year’s version.
  • 9:30-9:32 Responded to followup e-mail from director of corporate relations about corporate connections I made at last week’s research fair.
  • 9:32-9:35 Responded to e-mail about affiliate status renewal for affiliate faculty
  • 9:35-9:45 Spent 10 more minutes assigning 2AC reviewers for CHI papers
  • 9:45-10:10 Spent more time improving slides for lecture
  • 10:20-11:00 Left for class and lectured for 30 minutes about limitations and assumptions in designs
  • 11:00-11:20 Led activity using simulated impairments on mobile devices to elicit assumptions
  • 11:20-12:15 Led activity in which teams brainstormed assumptions in their own design projects
  • 12:15-12:25 Finished class at 12:15 and spend 10 minutes eating lunch
  • 12:25-12:30 Responded to e-mail about planning dub retreat
  • 12:30-12:35 Responded to e-mail about when 2ACs need to finish their reviews by
  • 12:35-12:40 Responded to e-mail about corporatizing universities
  • 12:40-12:45 Spoke briefly with Scott Barker about how many in-class hours the new capstone should include
  • 12:45-12:50 E-mails to student who wants into INFO 461 next quarter
  • 12:45-1:15 Drove to Kirkland to work at library to avoid traffic from 1
  • 1:15-1:18 Responded to e-mail approving new member to EUSES consortium
  • 1:18-3:18 Copied proposal draft to hard drive for writing and worked on diagrams for Cyberlearning proposal draft.
  • 3:18-3:23 Driving to car line
  • 3:23-3:30 Waiting in car line
  • 3:30-4:20 Getting snacks for Elle before swim practice
  • 4:20-4:35 Writing e-mail to colleagues about frustration around methodological rifts among faculty
  • 4:35-4:45 Taking Elle into swim practice
  • 4:45-4:58 Writing student services staff about Spring capstone event
  • 4:58-5:00 Replying to student about spring capstone team
  • 5:00-5:08 Replying to request about all school meeting participation conflicting with my final exam schedule
  • 5:08-5:15 Writing co-PI about updated figures in proposal draft
  • 5:15-5:25 Writing this list
  • 5:25-5:30 Call with ex about Thanksgiving plans
  • 5:35-5:41 Finishing this list
  • 5:41-5:48 Editing this list and pressing the publish post button.

future me gets all the attention

According to my OmniFocus database, I have 1,272 active to do items spanning 197 projects and 93 zip files. Their due dates range from tomorrow to retirement. Every day, I open OmniFocus and it tells me what to do today, so I don’t have to worry about tomorrow. And yet, I have this nagging feeling of dissociation from the present. I think past me planning for future me has left present me with nothing to do.

Case in point: last Friday was a miscellaneous day, where I take all of those to dos that I pushed off from the past couple of weeks and got them done. I had a nice tidy list of 17 of of them, each with carefully chosen deadlines and terse, but effective notes reminding me what I was doing when I last worked on it, why it was important, and what was left to finish. I spent the day firing off e-mails, editing stale paragraphs in paper submissions, submitting travel forms, planning grant spending, setting up Trac for my class in the fall. Yet by the end of the day, I wasn’t really sure what I’d accomplished. When the girlfriend asked me about the highlights of my day, I was at a complete loss. What had I done? Was any of it fun? Was it frustrating? Were there any memorable moments at all? At least to my conscious self, it felt like I’d really only done one thing that day: clear my to do list. The rest was a blur. Past me had present me so prepared to mechanistically work through those 17 items, I hadn’t even formed memories of the work I’d done or the emotions I felt. I was a to do bot whose sole mission was placing checkmarks on a virtual list, all in service of future me’s ever growing workload.

Now that I reflect on this, I think what’s going on is that I’ve separated all of the thinking and deciding about what I should be doing now from the now itself. At least at work, I rarely find a moment where deciding what to do and actually doing it co-occur in any meaningful way. This is never clearer than on the weekends, where I try to let present me make the decisions, instead of past me. Past me had nothing to say about brunch this morning, he didn’t give me a list of chores. It was present me who got to play with my 16 waking hours and decide how to break them down, how to fill them, and when the day was done. And being so involved in deciding about today has led to so many wonderful memories: the arugula hollandaise risotto benedict, the peach dutch baby pancakes, writing this blog post at Uptown Espresso in the Belltown sunshine with my girlfriend. Aren’t these the kind of memories and experiences that life is about?

I suppose it’s a tradeoff, like anything else. What’s more important at work, getting things done or remembering getting things done? I like my job, or at least I like the idea of it, but lately my obsession with efficiency is transforming work that used to be so satisfying into a hazy blur of typing and talking. To combat this, maybe I’ll try inserting little moments of reflection into my day, where I sit and reflect for 5 minutes and maybe write a bit, just to crystallize the concrete in my mind. In fact, I’ll add it to my to do list right now!

dealing with teacher guilt

I shouldn’t be writing this. I should be doing my research. In fact, I want to do my research, even right now.

But there’s some thing else nagging me, something I can’t seem to get out of my head this quarter. I have this overriding sense of guilt that despite all of the efforts I make to be a passionate, engaged, and thoughtful teacher, it’s not enough. I see signs of this every day when my students express confusion, frustration, and anxiety about the things I say, the assignments I give, and the deadlines I set. I’m doing this to them. I’m the one causing their pain and suffering, their sleepless nights. Did they really consent to this? What gives me the right?

Of course, these thoughts are mostly silly. Of course they consented to this: they know what school is. I might see glimpses of confusion and frustration, but I also see classrooms full of nodding, laughter, understanding and excitement. I see them struggling, overcoming, and ultimately learning as they jump through the hoops I design. I may be causing them acute sleep depravation, but I’m helping them convert exhaustion into invaluable knowledge and skills. Right?

I think so. But watching my students go through such turbulent emotional states is still such a visceral experience for me, it’s felt much more critical and immediate in the past six months than the research goals I have for this year. Summer quarter will be a nice reprieve, a three month from hiatus from the constant tradeoff between excellent teaching and excellent research.

Actually, make that two months and three weeks. I have a new course to design for the fall and I don’t know how to half-ass it!

teaching and presenting with the iPad is broken

I was hoping, desperately hoping that Keynote for the iPad would become my dedicated presentation and teaching device. Imagine it: highlighting, circling, presenter notes, and all of the media I could want in a seamless experience, all pumped out of the video out cable to a project.

Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near that experience yet. It turns out that video out is handled in very app specific ways. Keynote, for example, projects the slides onto the secondary display and simply shows which slide number your on. That’s right: you can’t see your slides while your present. If you want to see what you’re presenting, you’ll need to look behind you.

But it’s worse than that. Let’s say I want to show a YouTube video; when I leave Keynote, the display stops signaling altogether. So rather than an elegant black screen, or mirroring the iPad display, you get your projector’s big ugly blue no signal screen. The experience is quite broken. Any app that doesn’t explicitly support video out simply doesn’t provide a signal. I can’t project anything on the web, for example, or sketch in front of students.

Luckily, most of these are software limitations. I hope that the lack of mirroring isn’t a hardware limitation. Does Apple know these things? Is it rectifying these issues? Who knows. They’re not known for their transparency. Maybe I’ll find out that everything is fixed with iPhone OS 4.0…

managing time management

I’m no fan of time. It is a relentless, immovable force, destroying plans, inducing stress, and bringing unpredictable change to our delicate expectations of consistency. But I’m slowly realizing that of all of my scholarly responsibilities, time is the one constant, the ever present subject. Teaching is designing pace and order of content. Research is predicting and inventing the future based on all that has passed. And doing both of these well requires me to carefully sequence my thought and actions to best leverage what little time I have. To manage my time.

I don’t feel like an expert at this. But people often comment on my ability to manage time well, and I’m always struck at people’s inability to understand where their time goes. What am I seeing that others can’t? What am I doing to control time?

After thinking about it a bit, I think it boils down to three basic skills. First, I’ve always been able to prioritize. That might sound simple, but it’s an astounding act to take the thousands of things one cares about and rank them. This is because there’s nothing inherently ordered about the things one cares about. The laundry isn’t inherently less important than writing a lecture if all my clothes are soiled. Knowing how to prioritize and constantly reprioritize as situations change needs to be a conscious, explicit act, if one hopes to influence the future. Otherwise, the forward thrust of time will always dominate and dictate what’s important.

But knowing what’s important isn’t enough. Being able to articulate what’s important, and define what that means, is important as well. For instance, my allergies have been bothering me a lot lately and I’ve wanted them to bother me less. But there are a lot of ways to articulate that goal, some more useful and actionable than others. For example, when I say, “bother me less,” I have to be very careful to know what I mean by “bother” and “less.” Do I want to get off allergy pills? Do I want to buy less facial tissue? Do I want fewer sinus headaches? These are all different goals and I might do different things to accomplish each. They also might improve my life in different ways. It’s not until I start giving meaning to verbs and adjectives in my goals that I can start to evaluate what’s really important to me.

Finally, a clearly articulated goal isn’t enough to accomplish it. A third skill is being able to take a well articulated goal and carefully break it down into smaller goals. For example, if I decide I want fewer sinus headaches, I need to find out what causes sinus headaches and see what causes I have control over in my life. This might lead to several new activities and goals, such as drinking more fluids. How can I drink more fluids? Maybe I need a water bottle. What’s a good water bottle? And so on. Without breaking down the future into manageable parts, it would be quite difficult to find a moment where progress seems actionable. Big goals only lead us to imagine big, unwieldy futures. A good small goal is something you can imagine getting done in an hour.

So how does one get good at these things? Practice is probably the best approach. Having accomplished a goal before makes it a lot easier to know how to break down the goal into smaller goals, with confidence. It also gives one practice at articulating goals. Another trick I like to use is to write to do items about to do items, such as “break down the goal of reducing sinus headaches”. That way, the first and most important step of accomplish the goal becomes a legitimate step in a process, and something that I can accomplish in 20 minutes.

Tools can help with all of this, but most are just glorified lists. Most of the important parts of managing time come with discipline.

what’s surprising?

A common complaint of research is that it’s not “surprising.” For example, a reviewer might say, “The study was well done, but the results weren’t really that surprising.”, or, “I found the results a bit predictable.”

But what do these statements really mean? Do they mean, “Had you asked me the research question, I could have guessed the results with some degree of confidence.”? Or, “If you asked your research question of 100 experts, 95 of their guesses would have been right.”?

Maybe we might intend for them to mean that, but they don’t actually capture what happens when a reviewer reads a paper. What usually happens is the reviewer reads the research question and thinks, “Hm, I could guess, but I’m not sure.” Then, upon reading the results, the reviewer thinks, “Well of course, that’s not surprising at all.” The test executed here is not whether an expert can confidently predict the answer to a research question, but whether in hindsight it seems plausible that an expert could have guessed the result.

In this sense, what makes a result “surprising” has less to do with what we know as scientists and more to do with what we think we know about what other researchers know.

This social fabric that apparently underlies our judgements of what is known has other interesting effects on what is accepted as advancing knowledge. For example, that some finding has not been published, is rarely a satisfactory argument for why something should be published. What underlies this belief it that it is not our goal as scientists to document everything that we know. Instead, it is our job to document the subset of what we know that is interesting, important, and surprising.

But aren’t most judgements of what is interesting and important are grounded in the present? How are we to know what is interesting or important in the future? Who are we to judge that the future of humanity will find no interest in the uninteresting, unimportant results of today? Take, for example, a recent review I wrote on a paper about using multitouch, tabletop displays for engineering design. I argued that it was unclear what problem was being solved. But what if it solves a problem that doesn’t exist yet? Or what if it solves it in such a way that another problem I hadn’t even thought of becomes trivial? On what basis could I really judge whether the work would have future worth?

All of this makes me think I don’t give papers a fair shake. Maybe I’ll adopt a new reviewing protocol: instead of reading the paper straight through and recording my thoughts, I’ll look at the authors’ research question and try to answer it myself for five minutes. Then, I’ll read the paper and if they came up with a different solution or answer that mine (that is of course reliable, sound, etc.), whether or not I’m surprised, the authors get credit for discovering or inventing something that I didn’t know. Of course, If I guessed their results or solution in a mere five minutes, what could they possibly have contributed?

halfway home

I’m back in Seoul, with a lot to say, but I won’t say much.

First, let me address the elephant in the room. Hello third world visit epiphany cliche-aphant. How are you today? Yes, I’ve returned from India and I’ve seen a lot of disturbing things. I saw the Muslim slums of Mumbai, naked children running through the streets, tweens selling day old newspapers for a rupee and homeless mothers begging for money with their sick and sleeping children dangling from their arms. People were dirty, water wasn’t potable, wild dogs slept in the street, ignorant and apathetic about the armada of auto-rickshaws swerving around them.

But, I also witnessed human experience of every other kind. I watched Rolex-laden businessmen step over old women laying on the sidewalk in the heat. I saw families of five clinging to a motorcycle and to each other, smiling, laughing, and close in a way I’ve never seen western families. In all of the squalor and dirt and poverty, I saw the exact same kind of joy that those of us in post-industrialized countries seem to struggle to find. I saw nothing about human experience in India that was substantially different from the rest of the world I’ve seen, other than the clothing that people wore and range of their reach into the rest of the world.

Would those children in the slums be any better off with a pair of Nikes and a sterile heated two bedroom condo? Would they laugh any more than I saw them laugh, play any more than I saw them play? There certainly are some absolute improvements that everyone deserves, food, health, shelter, but beyond these Maslows, its difficult for me to think of a legitimate reason why my US lifestyle would bring any more happiness or joy.

Yet as much as I won’t judge the quality of life and the reach of India’s people into the global community, I can’t be impartial. I just spent a week engaging with the academic computer science community in India, forming relationships and watching unfold an incredible attempt at recreating a US style scholarly community. I’m part of this dialogue between India and the western world, helping to propagate my scholarly culture. Whether I pass high-minded judgement on India’s quality of life or not, I’ve now actively engaged in helping India’s academic community mimic and mirror that of other nations, with conferences, posters, panels, and papers, and all their inherent limitations and western bias.

In some ways, I wish India would find its own way of being scholarly. I wish it would establish its own research communities, rather than focusing solely on engaging with those in the US and Europe. I want it to find something compatible with its people and then communicate these ways to the western world. By trying to mimic the rest of the global community’s scholarly practices, it ghettoizes its own efforts. If India invented its own practices around scholarly pursuits, it would be about apples and oranges instead of Honeycrisp and Fuji. For example, instead of trying to have poster sessions (and failing because of the lack of high quality poster printers), what if they drew their posters on whiteboards, chalkboards, or paper? They could find innovative ways of communicating their work, and even find better ways than the western world. If I were India and its academic leaders, I would look at this as an opportunity to innovate and reinvent academic practices, rather than mimic them.

Time to board.

why do researchers choose the disciplines they do?

I been giving some thought lately to my peers’ career choices. Why do faculty choose the disciplines they do? There are the obvious reasons, like self-efficacy. For example, a physics professor probably pursued a Ph.D. in physics because she found herself good at it. An English professor may have been honored for his writing.

But I think there’s something else underlying these choices. Consider some of the extremes, such as mathematics and philosophy, or social work and education. Is there something about the determinism of mathematics that makes it attractive to certain personalities? Are there certain types of people who enjoy reveling in logic and abstraction? Do these characteristics of these areas of thought make people feel safe somehow? And the more humanitarian fields: is it driven by a strong desire to exercise values and morality? Scientists are also interesting: does the search for truth make them feel noble, or is their something trilling about the hunt for explanations?

I suppose we all have in common the desire to fill our lives with as much thought as possible. Is it insatiable curiosity or just a particularly low threshold for amusement? By that I mean we can engage ourselves in the smallest of details in the natural and artificial worlds, where as others, who could care less about research, require a much greater magnitude of novelty to be engaged.

grading rant

I ranted about grading to my class today (that’s not my class above, that’s Joonhwan Lee’s thesis defense!). My basic argument was that before grading, approximately 150 years ago, we gave detailed, concrete, faceted feedback to students because there was no other way. We didn’t feel compelled to convert all of a student’s skills and knowledge into a single number or a letter grade. And, not only were there wonderful benefits to this form of feedback, but that form of assessment was devoid of all of the problems of a numerical assessment. Students cannot “game” a verbal assessment, but they can game a test. Teachers could spend the time they would normally spend grading paying closer attention to their students’ progress.

The worst part about modern grading is that most employers don’t care. They might use grades as a low-pass filter, to ignore applicants with less than a 2.5, but what they really care about is what a person can do. They want examples of writing, of thinking, of decision making. They don’t want numerical proxies for these, they want to see the results of these skills.

So who cares about grades? Students, faculty, and universities. That’s good news for me, since I’m universities are run by faculty and faculty guide students. Now its just up to me to convince a few thousand colleagues over the next 50 years that I am right.