Sunday, September 30, 2007

Where Rhode signs used to be

Ask a Rhode Islander for directions, and the response will likely include the phrase "where X used to be". In my 7 years living here, I've been told to make turns at landmarks like "where Joe's barber shop used to be" and "where the little place with the really good fried clams used to be". One day, Shriram and I came across a sign on a major street reading "former bus stop" and figured it was there to help people who had been given directions by locals (especially as there was no indication of the current bus stop location).

This weekend, I was reading on the front porch when a trio of women on bicycles pulled up and asked

"Excuse me, can you tell me where the John Howland school used to be?"

Our condo sits on the former site of the school. They were trying to find an old house of personal interest and the school was one landmark they recalled from visiting the area years ago. It was the first time I'd heard anyone turn the phrase back around to be what one sought. But it struck me, if you can get directions to where the place used to be, what difference does it make whether you ever actually knew the original place? All you need is one Rhode Islander to give directions, and another to resolve the level of indirection. Computer science exploits indirection all the time, so surely I can make good use of this. Besides, who knows what interesting place now sits where the place with the really good fried clams used to be ...

Saturday, September 29, 2007

What I've Meant by Mentoring

One day in grad school (early 1990s), several of us were talking about the lack of women on the dept faculty. When a male student asked why this was important, one woman remarked that she "wanted someone who looks like me" as a mentor. I pondered that remark for years, not concurring with it but lacking a compelling alternative. Mid-postdoc, I wanted a mentor who talked like me: someone for whom gadgets weren't the ultimate conversation topic and who might admit to frustrations or challenges as a researcher and person. Now as faculty, I seek "someone who relates like me", in relationships with research, colleagues, and career overall.

I blogged earlier about professional friendships, which fall largely under the "talk like me" view. Here, I'm after something more substantial. I've learned that the environment of research matters as much (if not more) to me than the topic of research. I'd gladly choose a research problem based on the people I would get to work with on it, rather than first picking the problem. I'm not sure how to structure a career around this metric though; the search for compatible research colleagues is time and energy consuming for all involved, certainly more so than just picking a problem. As a mentoree, I'm still looking for role models on structuring a career this way.

Reflecting on my role as a mentor (to both students and junior faculty), I think of the standard advice we give to young researchers: "find something you are truly passionate about and work on that". Gosh knows I've said it to others. And after 15 years of trying, I can honestly say that this advice simply hasn't worked for me, because my passion flies within groups working together on problems, not from the problems in and of themselves. I've almost talked myself out of computer science many times on the grounds that lacking passion for any particular problem must mean I'm in the wrong career. And then I turn back because I get short-term consumed by a modeling or programming problem and realize that I do love this work. I just need a different model for structuring those fragments of work into a satisfying long-term career.

Where does this leave me as a mentor, though? Do I pass along the "get passionate about a problem" advice, since it clearly works for many in the self-selected group who become researchers? What advice would I give if I _didn't_ say that? Perhaps mentoring isn't about "giving advice", but about being a sounding board, sharing experiences and asking questions as someone tries to form their own career path. The mentor in me likes that view: it frees me from the responsibility of having the answers. But as a mentoree, I want someone who can give advice, who does have "the answers" and is willing to share them.

I remind myself that the questions I wanted answers to as a student and new professor are different from the ones I'm facing now, and I can suggest views into those earlier questions. Maybe someone who "looked like me" was all I really wanted earlier in my career. But there's this ever-nagging sense that I could make someone else's career path easier if only I could guide them now on the issues that will confront them later, even though I know they may not even see those issues yet. And if they do, I'm just not the right mentor for them. Mentoring is about a fit between people, not an exam for the mentor. Remind me of that next time my mentoree asks a question for which I fail to have an answer.

[Side note: I'm thinking about these questions a lot in the context of reading Christina Robb's recent book "This Changes Everything: The Relational Revolution in Psychology", an account of the relational psychology work by Carol Gilligan, Jean Baker Miller, Judith Lewis Herman, and others, from the late 70s onward. Opens a lot of questions about relationships between people and between people and their work, both of which bear on questions concerning mentoring.]

[This post written for the on mentoring.]

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Disorganization Lesson 1: know your to-do list

Last weekend, I had an incredibly productive burst of disorganization (so much so that it took a week to get organized enough to post about it). Quite simply, I ignored my two courses and played with a new research idea all weekend. It was simultaneously invigorating and frustrating. Frustrating in that even after two days, I couldn't point to any "solved" piece of the puzzle (the "cross it off the list" mentality), but invigorating because the repeated failures to tie up the loose ends illustrated the subtleties that will make this project interesting and worth doing. I couldn't have asked for a better outcome from a "get disorganized" moment.

This weekend, in contrast, has been solidly organized. The difference lay in the to-do list. While my "get disorganized" crusade is about not being a slave to the list, abolishing the list isn't the right approach. Last weekend, all the list items were about getting ahead for the following week (so I'd have more unstructured creative time). This weekend, the list items reflect hard deadlines for stuff due on Monday. My victory from last week was deciding to grab the creative time at the moment, rather than to work off the list so I could (hopefully) avail of the moment later. That seems a learnable behavior.

In the end, it's about prioritizing unstructured time relative to hard deadlines. If my todo list is about tracking and making priorities, perhaps the unstructured activity should go on the list, especially since I sometimes struggle to "remember" to make that unstructured time. But part of the point of the list is to be able to scratch things off, so that doesn't work so well for an ongoing effort. I do know that ditching the list entirely isn't the answer (as noted in a comment on my original post on this effort). It's about keeping the list in perspective while getting on with the things that are too big to warrant being written down.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Getting unorganized

Every new academic year brings a "new year's resolution" from many faculty: the intent to get "more organized". Even highly prolific colleagues have been quoted as wishing they were more organized, and one of the career mentoring programs I've been to had a nice session centered around the topic. Blogs and books abound to the extent that you could guarantee you got nothing done just by trying to read them all. Who wouldn't benefit from being more organized in our fast-paced world?

Me, for one. I am resolved to get unorganized this year.

Sabbatical felt very productive, but I always sensed that it was for reasons beyond having more time and fewer distractions from not teaching. Now that I am back in the throes of (two) classes and barely afloat, I'm realizing that my being organized is a problem. I have an insanely good memory for to-do lists (including the shopping list, household errand list, course prep list, and the list of lists). Every evening, I write down the tasks that have to get done the next day; every morning, I spent lots of time "getting things done" before realizing that several weren't even on the paper lists. By the list measure, I'm quite productive.

Unfortunately, the victim here is the spontaneous creativity that fosters research. When an idea pops into my head and needs a little cultivating through thought or code experiments, my organized mind immediately relegates it to a position on a carefully prioritized list. By the time I get to it, the snuffed ember that remains doesn't have enough traction to go anywhere. I'd be better off if I could ditch organization and chase the sparks without my internal task management system always reminding me of those blasted lists. In other words, I have to get unorganized.

Clearly, the trick is to find the right balance between organization and disorganization: some organization is essential to run an effective course or career. Most of the writing out there is aimed at those with too little organization though. I haven't yet found a blog aimed at those of us with too much. There are lots of little related pieces of advice: the standard 80/20 rule veteran faculty give to newbies (students rarely notice that last 20% of effort that takes you at least 80% of the time), articles on improving creativity, living a meaningful life, etc. These dance around the real issue: if you are very organized, you have to work hard at overriding that if you want to let yourself do the work that needs less structure. What are the best practices for introducing more chaos into your life? Yes, I know, that's another list ...