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Advance planning (#1137)

Topics/tags: Academia, rambly, end-notable

The other day, I was talking to my therapist about plans for the fall. He said something like, Sam, it’s a bit early to plan for the fall. I knew what he meant; I’m still recovering from my heart attack, and it’s not yet clear what I will and won’t be able to do. But it was also strange to fail to plan things in advance; after all, much of academia requires advance planning [1].

What do I mean by that? I mean that our work includes not just focus on the present (e.g., What am I teaching today? or When is that project due?) and the near term (e.g., When will I prepare next week’s exam? or What do I have to do before that upcoming meeting?) but often a year or years in advance.

Our students just registered for their fall classes, which don’t start for about four months. We had to turn in the schedules for 2021–2022 in February, between six and eleven months before the classes will start [2]. Our book orders for the fall classes were due a few weeks ago, although that’s due to an act of Congress [3].

Of course, I’ll admit that I usually start prep on my fall classes some time in early summer, at least on those occasions in which I’m using new software. Things tend to work out better if I’m familiar with the software packages and programming languages my students will be using. The lead time has now gotten a bit longer; I now need institutional permission for any software I adopt [9], and I shouldn’t spend time trying to master a package that I won’t be permitted to use [10].

In any case, academics regularly engage in advance planning for six months to a year.

For department chairs, one year might even feel like a relatively short time frame. Chairs need to look ahead to leaves, make predictions about enrollments and their potential effects on staffing needs [20], consider potential retirements and replacements, and so on and so forth.

Of course, faculty also need to plan for those leaves, and planning for a leave may also take multiple years. After identifying when you’re taking the leave, which might involve some negotiation with the department and the Dean/Provost [22], you need to start considering where to take that leave and, in many cases, arranging for a host institution.

Faculty also apply for competitive grants, many of which have longer time scales. In recent years, most of the proposals I’ve reviewed for the National Science Foundation have had a three-year time frame. Some shorter opportunities also have long advance windows, even local opportunities. I believe Grinnell in London has an application process that starts about two years before one goes to London.

I’m thinking mostly about planning for administration and for teaching, since that’s most of the planning I was doing this year. Research planning is another ball game altogether and still often requires multi-year plans. Good research doesn’t get done in a year or two. You need to plan for resources (see the note on competitive grants), for time, for collaborations, and more.

When we fail to plan, we may experience negative consequences. For example, about five years ago, I realized that we would have significantly more students to advise than faculty who could reasonably advise them. Although I raised the issue with the Dean’s office in the fall, no one was able to come up with a solution other than Give everyone twenty-plus advisees, which did not seem fair to my early-career colleagues who were in their second year. I ended up taking most of the newly declared majors that year and far exceeded the prior record for the number of advisees [23,24].

If I were Chair right now [25], I’d already be trying to make plans for next spring, estimating how many students would declare, considering upcoming leaves in our department [27], discussing reasonable capacities, and such. It may not be a problem, but I’d want to have the data together [28].

Of course, we can’t plan for all eventualities. This year serves as an excellent example of that. We didn’t know we’d be moving online or to terms. Even close to the start of Fall Term One, we didn’t know how many students would take a year’s leave or defer admission. I may not have been paying attention, but I don’t think we’ve heard about the expectations for the size of the incoming class this fall, or the effects of the leaves and deferments. I’m sure the Office of Admissions has some informed estimates, but those are likely to be less accurate than in past years, not only because of the pandemic but also because of the new policies on colleges being permitted to make follow-up offers even after students have committed to a school [29]. Planning is hard. Planning in times of uncertainty is even harder.

Where were we? Oh, that’s right. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t plan for Fall 2021. That’s so strange. Part of me is already trying to plan for Fall 2022 (What courses will I teach and what do I need to do in the next year to prepare to teach them?), Fall 2023 (I have to use my MAP credits by 2023–24), and even Fall 2024 (Would I want to try a rotation at the NSF?).

Oh well. While planning offers some anticipatory joys, it can also create stress. I find Chair planning particularly stressful. I’m glad that I’ve been able to set it aside for now. Strike that; I need to set it aside for now. Thanks again to the interim Chair(s)!

When can I start planning again? I don’t know; planning to plan is still planning, and, at present, I’m not supposed to plan.

Postscript: I’m not sure why my muse insisted that I write about this topic. You can probably tell as it rambles even more than normal [31]. But I trust my muse. Maybe I just needed to get some things out of my head in preparation for a better musing. Stay tuned! [32]

[1] Grammarly tells me that Advance Planning is redundant. I suppose that’s true. I still like the term.

[2] Yes, we can still make some changes. But the closer we get to the start of classes, the greater the impact of those changes.

[3] Yes, Congress thinks it’s important that students know what books they will use in each course before they register. I used to know the name of the bill that enforced that policy [4]. I just wish that the software we used embraced the spirit of the policy rather than just the letter of the policy. I want to be able to tell my students that some of the books I’ve suggested are available for free online [6] or at a reasonable price through an ACM Student Membership [7]. But the software doesn’t allow that. Since such access affects the cost of the books, students should be able to know these issues in advance, and they should be in a centralized location.

[4] My earlier musing on the topic [5] suggests that it’s the Higher Education Act of 2008.

[5] Strangely enough, I recall sitting in the Omaha airport, drafting that musing. I think I wrote it when Youngest Son and I were heading out on a College tour.

[6] Legally.

[7] I believe ACM Student Memberships carry access to O’Reilly Learning [8]. At least that’s what the Benefits Page suggests.

[8] Formerly known as Safari.

[9] Don’t worry, Grinnell isn’t singling me out. All faculty and staff need prior approval before using any new software.

[10] On that note, I should figure out what software I’ll need this fall. What am I teaching? I’m on the docket for CSC-151, Functional Problem Solving, and CSC-301, Analysis of Algorithms. We’re using DrRacket in CSC-151, and DrRacket is approved. Yay! Will I use anything special in CSC-301? I haven’t in the past. But I know my colleagues have used Piazza [11] and HackerRank [16]. I don’t recall what I used for student questions last time, but I’ll probably just go with Teams; it’s worked pretty well in other classes. And using HackerRank feels a bit wrong to me, even if I can set up my own questions there. I’ll probably use Gradescope, which is approved. I think I’m set.

Oh, I have used Git and GitHub. What’s the status of those? I know we’ve discussed them. But I don’t see them on the list of approved software site. Git is part of the standard Linux install these days, and that’s approved, so I don’t need to worry about that. But we need a server to host the repos, and I like using GitHub [17]. GitHub appears to on the under review page [18], as does BitBucket. However, we were told we could continue using them during the review, not least because they are core to some of our courses. I hope the committee tasked with dealing with them reaches a conclusion soon. Perhaps the answer is obvious [19],

GitHub is a Microsoft product. We’ve given blanket approval to Microsoft products. So GitHub is implicitly approved.

[11] It appears that Piazza is approved with the limitation that Piazza cannot be used at all by anyone in the European Economic Area.. Fascinating. It also appears that ITS does not support this software. Hmmm. I recall CTLA [12] recommending it. Perhaps CTLA or the DLAB [14] support it.

[12] Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment.

[14] Digital Liberal Arts laBoratory [15].

[15] Don’t blame me for the acronym.

[16] HackerRank is neither on the approved list nor on the under consideration list.

[17] Not least because we have some awesome alums working at GitHub education.

[18] Strangely enough, GitHub is listed as Audio Recording and Editing software. However, IntelliJ IDEA is listed as Animation, so I’m not sure where the categories actually come from. The don’t appear on the Software Request Form.

[19] Thank you to Youngest Son for the suggestion.

[20] Ideally, the institution would help us with enrollment predictions, but those are admittedly hard. We do get information on leaves, although that information is not as complete as it may be [21].

[21] For example, although Grinnell lets faculty take full-year sabbaticals after six years of service, or half-year sabbaticals after three years, the information for the Chair only lists the potential full-year sabbaticals.

[22] Some departments try to spread out leaves so that large numbers of faculty are not on leave in the same year. That may involve one faculty member taking a leave early.

[23] I’m not sure why, but the Dean’s office distributed the number of advisees per faculty member that year.

[24] I believe that John Garrison then exceeded my record. I’m still not sure why he made that choice; there are a lot of great faculty advisors in our English department and John didn’t need to take on that many advisees.

[25] I was supposed to be Chair right now. See that earlier note about my health for why I am not. I appreciate the interim Chair(s) for stepping in [26].

[26] Or is that stepping up? I can never get it straight.

[27] A faculty member on a full-year leave in 2022–23 probably should not take on new advisees in Spring 2022. It’s not even clear whether a faculty member on a full-year leave in 2023–24 should take on new advisees in Spring 2022, since they will not be available for their advisees’ senior year. Our department will also need to determine what to do about the faculty eligible for three-course leaves in 2022–23. Oh, and what about the faculty who just took on advisees who will be on leave in 2022–23? Will they need to pass along their advisees when they go on leave?

[28] See the prior endnote for why I’m glad that I don’t have to worry about such things right now. Even these vague considerations feel like they are raising my blood pressure.

[29] Wow, that was phrased badly. In short, about two years ago, National Association for College Admission Counseling changed policies in response to outside criticism that the standard policy of We will not make followup offers to students who have accepted admission to another school was unfair to students. So now, schools that find that they have not enrolled a full class can, say, call some of the students who already committed to another school and say We’re upping your scholarship by $2K, which will likely have some cascading effects.

If you want something clearer, Forbes has a short article about the matter.

I expect the change in policy will save families money, at least in the short run, but will create confusion for institutions. Of course, it may also be that institutions end up offering less aid in an attempt to set some aside for when they need to come up with extra to attract students. And I’m not sure that the cascading will have a significant effect on top institutions [30].

[30] Although I think of Grinnell as a top institution—and, in many ways, it is—Grinnell suffers from its location; some students may be attracted away from Grinnell by offers from less-highly-rated institutions.

[31] Yes, my sons, it is possible for me to ramble even more than normal.

[32] But remember: I’m not making any plans for particular musings!

Version 1.0 of 2021-04-28 .