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The fantasy and the reality of my Obermann Fellowship

Topics/tags: Autobiographical

As things start to wind down for my Digital Bridges Fellowship at the Obermann Center, I continue to find myself incredibly grateful to the time and the space the fellowship afforded me. Being able to try to focus primarily on the FunDHum materials is likely to provide many benefits, not only in terms of re-energizing my teaching and giving us an exciting new version of the 151, but also in helping me think more broadly about computing and my approach to my professional life [1].

Nonetheless, as I look back to my original plans for the fellowship, I find that there are some gaps between what I had hoped for the fellowship and what I accomplished. I thought it would be useful to record them so that I can make sure that I make more realistic plans in the future and so that I can do take advantage of the opportunities I do have.

I will be able to separate myself from Grinnell.

Too many things came up. Some required me to be on campus. Some just interfered with my thought processes. The ones that interfered interfered way too much [2]. Supporting my forty-plus advisees also took more time than I anticipated.

I will travel to the Obermann Center four days per week.

In part because of the things I mentioned above, I ended up at Grinnell more often than I’d planned. Hence, most weeks ended up involving only three days at the Center, and a few had only two.

I will appreciate the time traveling back and forth.

I like driving with NPR. But not a good fall to listen to the radio [3]. Books on tape (Michael Perry) helped somewhat, but not enough.

I will go to talks, movies, and book events in the evening.

Especially since I was leaving home before 7 a.m. to get to Obermann, the thought of staying late did not seem as attractive as I thought it would. And, on many nights in which there was something particularly attractive in Iowa City, I had more important family obligations [4]. On a few such nights, I was just too tired. I had also hoped to attend the talks in the CS department. However, those are generally on Fridays; I wanted to be home by 5:30 p.m. on Fridays.

In spite of those challenges, I did make it to some good and useful talks.

I will explore the restaurants of Iowa City.

I have gone to a few places. But my time in Iowa City seems so precious that I’d rather hang out the Center and work than walk downtown and eat. Being here less often doesn’t help. Getting out would probably have been a better approach.

I do appreciate that I got to have lunch with a few Grinnellians who call Iowa City home. It was nice to spend time with colleagues and alums. And I have one more lunch scheduled.

I will appreciate being able to stop at Costco, Stuff [5], the Outlet mall, and other shopping places.

By the time I leave, I just want to get home. Darker days have also not helped. I also don’t need to shop.

I will be able to write the code, reading, a lab for each day of class in one or two days.

Historical evidence suggested that I could write all of that in about 2/3 of a full day. But that did not hold this time. In part, I find that I’m thinking more deeply about many issues. In part, I struggled with Scribble, the formatting language I decided to use. In part, enough things seemed to interfere with my focus that I was less productive. In part, it may be that I’m taking a new enough approach that it feels less natural. And then there was the extra time devoted to thinking about how to address the suggestion that I start each reading with an appropriate story [6].

I will read an article or a book chapter each day.

I got this great idea from a colleague who was also on leave this fall. I hope they were able to do so. I was not. I’m not quite sure why. I probably didn’t prioritize reading enough. Or maybe I’m just too distractible. Some of the time I planned to read, I wanted to read light fiction, often to recover from thinking too much. Nonetheless, it was a good idea, and I do plan to revisit this approach during my sabbatical.

I will spend time reading in the library, yard, or sun porch at the Obermann Center.

Once I was in my office, it was hard to get myself out. I like my office’s view of the sun and trees. But moving spaces would have been good.

I will meet with people at UIowa.

It felt like I needed to have more done to talk to people in depth. So it didn’t feel like I made enough progress to feel that conversations would be useful. They’ll be more useful in six months, but I won’t be there anymore. Bleh.

I will visit the Iowa Center for the Book regularly.

Once again, time was so precious that being in the office seemed to be the best use of my time.

More seriously, here are some lessons for the future. I’ve phrased them in the second person, but I intend them as commands for myself.

  • Don’t say I will continue my service. Don’t plan to continue service.
  • Limit your number of advisees. Consider dropping all your advisees [7].
  • Even if you are in Grinnell, limit your time on campus [8].
  • Things build (or cascade) (or both). Each compromise in one area is likely to affect other areas. Be careful when you compromise.
  • Expect the unexpected [9].
  • Travel time is not free.
  • You only have so much mental energy each day. Use it wisely.
  • Don’t sit in one space for more than an hour or two at a time.

Can I have a do-over? [10]

Postscript: As I try to remind myself, the three SIGCSE papers were a significant achievement for the semester. They represent over 15,000 words of technical writing along with some serious editing. So, while I did not achieve everything that pertains to the primary goal, I achieved some related ones.

Postscript: There are also a large number of musings that I sketched that pertain to the Obermann Center. I see that I started this one on 2 November 2018. If I can find the rest, I’ll try to finish and post them over the next week or so [12].

[1] The try is intentional. I had enough responsibilities in Grinnell as well as a lot of work on the three SIGCSE papers that I could not focus exclusively on FunDHum.

[2] Grammarly does not like that sentence. First, it complained that I used interfered twice in a row. Then it called it an incomplete sentence. But I’m at least 90% sure that it’s a complete sentence. The subject is The ones that interfered. The intransitive verb is interfered. There’s an associated adverbial phrase: way too much. After I convinced it that I was comfortable with those two issues, it told me that I should use hindered instead of the second interfered. But I like the repetition. Should I rewrite the sentence? Nah.

[3] I’m pretty sure that it was a frustrating fall for everyone, no matter what their political bent. I lean left, so I found many situations particularly problematic.

[4] I consider it a positive step that I now prioritize things like cross country meets over academic talks.

[5] Yes, there’s really a store called Stuff or at least Stuff, Etc.. It’s a big consignment shop. Or at least that’s what I recall.

[6] I didn’t do so. But the mental effort of thinking about it took energy from other things.

[7] I’ve promised both my department and my advisees in the classes of 2020 and 2021 that I will keep them. But I’ve been very selective in who I’ve accepted from those classes, focusing primarily on my research students.

[8] I’m still trying to figure out where I’ll work most efficiently. It can’t be my work office, which is too crammed with distractions and too likely to be a place that people find me. I’ll soon muse about places to work.

[9] Wow, that’s trite. But it’s true.

[10] Amazingly, the answer is We allow faculty from other schools to apply to be Obermann Fellows. I won’t apply for my 2019-20 sabbatical [11], but it might be nice for a subsequent leave.

[11] It’s probably too late, in any case.

[12] That may not be the best way to use a bit of the remainder of my time at the Center, but I’ll feel bad if I don’t finish some of those musings while I’m at the Center.

Version 1.0 released 2018-12-12.

Version 1.1 of 2018-12-16.