A Month Abroad: Tel Aviv

As some of you may know, I spent all of July living in Tel Aviv, Israel (location chosen because Eugene’s company has a dev office there). A month has passed since I returned, the dust has settled, and I am ready to reflect a bit on the experience from both personal and professional perspectives. Overall, there were almost no drawbacks to taking this trip and I would recommend a month abroad to anybody in a similar position. I certainly am already contemplating options for next summer!

Chatting about my work at Tel Aviv University. Photo courtesy of my wonderful host, Shuli Gilutz.

Chatting about my work at Tel Aviv University. Photo courtesy of my wonderful hostess, Shuli Gilutz.

There were some major research benefits to spending a month abroad. The obvious one, of course, is that I was able to give talks at international universities (in my case, Tel Aviv University and University of Haifa). The other benefits were more process-based. The trip was an easy way to temporarily put aside the minutia that get in the way of getting the big things done (meetings, continuing stream of email, random requests for my time, etc.). I think the 8-hour time difference was particularly helpful with managing email as I was actually able to check and answer email in one sitting instead of having it trickle in throughout the workday. Additionally, the time constraint of the month-long trip led me to plan explicitly which concrete goals I would accomplish: major revisions on a CSCW paper, re-write a journal paper, write and submit a Jacobs Foundation grant with a colleague, read Ways of Knowing in HCI, and take a course on Machine Learning to build some skills I need for a new project. To get those things done in a month, I knew that I would need a schedule that included daily writing and I would need to read one chapter and complete one course lecture set every workday. Finally, the time constraint introduced a great low-risk way for me to try out a new approach to work and really put it into practice. I was very productive in July and most of it was due to being able to change my focus by getting away for a bit.

The impact of my trip on advising was more of a mixed bag. In the summer, I was guiding two Ph.D. students and seven undergraduate students working in my lab in various capacities. Upon returning, I asked them to anonymously share about their view of my leave. While all the students thought I set clear expectations about being gone during July, four of them underestimated the impact of my trip and found themselves being less productive in their research. Students commented that my presence helped motivate them, get them through blocks, and get quicker feedback — this was harder to do while I was away. However, in terms of instrumental help, all but one students felt that they were still able to get through blocks: by getting help via email from me (5 students), by making a greater effort to solve the problem themselves (6 students), and by reaching out to lab mates for help (4 students). I see these as positives of the trip — my absence encouraged the students to be more independent and proactive in their research.

Seen across the street from a cafe where I did much of my writing. Note the napping cat on the roof.

Seen across the street from a cafe where I did much of my writing. Note the napping cat on the roof.

From a personal perspective, the trip was refreshing and restful despite being productive. It was great to be living with Eugene again, instead of being long distance (as we have been for the past year and will be until May). It was great to be able to work in coffee shops, go to the beach in afternoons, explore the country together on weekends. I find that living somewhere for a month is a different (and better, I think) way of traveling than visiting for a few days. It is more relaxed and more immersive and helped me really get a sense of what everyday life is like in Tel Aviv. I came back feeling as if I had been on vacation, even though I was working full time while there.

That being said, I know that the trip was a luxury that not everybody can afford. I don’t teach in the summer. I chose to only take two months of summer salary so that nobody could really object to me being away. For Eugene and me, the logistics were fairly uncomplicated — we don’t have kids (and I was able to talk a friend into watching my cat). My bottom line is that this was incredibly useful for me and I would love to do something like this again next summer. Maybe this is something that others would consider valuable as well — some sort of a more formal junior faculty exchange program would be really cool!

Reflecting on “Advice for New Faculty Members”

boiceI recently finished reading the book “Advice for New Faculty Members” by Robert Boice. It was recommended to me by Jeff Hancock during his visit to University of Minnesota and it was so helpful that I would be remiss if I didn’t pass along the advice to others. Some of you will be starting your faculty positions in the Fall (I wish I had read this book when I started), but I certainly found it helpful even though I’ve already been at this for a year.

This book is different from other sources of advice in that the insight comes not from Robert Boice’s own experiences, but rather from a series of empirical investigations of “quick starter” new faculty members. While there are several places you can find reviews of the book and summaries of some of its lessons, I wanted to focus on three pieces of advice in this book that I’ve found most surprising and most helpful (so far) in integrating into my own work practices:

  • The power of 15-minutes daily. As a new faculty member, many people gave me the advice to make time for writing. I did my best, trying to squirrel away entire afternoons or days for writing. However, I always found that other things came up, eating away at that time. When planning for a whole afternoon but ending up with only thirty minutes, I felt dejected and that it wasn’t worth attempting to get any serious writing done in that period of time. Instead, this book recommends planning to spend 15-30 minutes on pre-writing (e.g., outlining, brainstorming) and writing practices daily. This also mirrors great advice on making use of workable “bits” that I had previously read from Nick Feamster’s research practices blog. I was dubious as to whether this would work for me (“Isn’t there a cost in switching contexts in writing?” I thought), but trying it for a month, I found myself producing more consistently (in July: co-writing a 12-page grant, rewriting a journal paper that needed major revisions, and co-writing significant revisions for a CSCW paper) and less painfully.
  • Asking for feedback early and often. Boice recommends this practice for teaching, research, and service. I had already heard this advice for teaching during my orientation at U of M. Indeed, asking students and visiting faculty for feedback early and often led me to change my class to be more useful to students. Coincidentally, the advice counseled me to limit the amount of material covered each class, which also meant less time that I spent preparing for each session (which is a practice this book encourages for new faculty). However, in research, I have had a harder time asking for early feedback on in-progress papers and research ideas. This coming year, I am committed to finding at least two people to serve as a sounding board on each of my major projects. I suppose this piece of advice is not actually that surprising, but for some reason I never thought about extending the value that I got from getting frequent teaching feedback to the potential value I could get from getting frequent research feedback.
  • Stopping or pausing as a way of increasing productivity. This seemed really counterintuitive to me — how could stopping when I’m “on a roll” lead to more productivity? Previously, when I wrote and I got going, I’d try to really get as much as I could, squeezing every last word out of the moment. However, I failed to realize that this would inevitably lead to not wanting to write the next day and having a hard time starting next time I write. Of course, I didn’t want to start again: I was rewarding each start with a grueling 12-hour workday and I was ending when I was completely out of momentum! This lesson also mirrors Al Franken‘s advice to writers to “Park on the down-slope,” to make it easy to start again. During the past month, I’ve made an effort of stopping each writing session after 30 minutes, even if I am in the middle of a sentence, this has really helped me maintain the practice of daily writing and led to overall increases in the amount of writing I have done.

I’m sure others may find the bits I pulled out obvious but find value in other aspects of the book. Regardless, I definitely recommend this book to others (if you’re at U of M, I have a copy to borrow) and would love it if you could share the bits that you found to be most surprising, interesting, or useful to your work practices.

Sketching with Computer Science Students

Last semester, as part of my Design Methods class (more here, if you want any of the materials), I attempted to teach Computer Science students how to sketch. Each student had to practice sketching and submit at least one of their own sketches as part of the project milestone. While initially, this prospect caused some anxiety for the students, most were able to find a style and an approach to creating visual content that worked for them.

We relied heavily on Sketching User Experiences: The Workbook (Saul Greenberg, Sheelagh Carpendale, Nicolai Marquardt, and Bill Buxton), which does a great job explaining the benefits of sketching to the overall design process and providing some strategies for those who are less artistically inclined. Particularly, the books tutorials on storyboarding, simplified figures (e.g., stick figures), and photo tracing were used by the students with great results.

Students successfully used storyboarding, simplified figures, and photo tracing in sketching their design ideas.

Students successfully used storyboarding, simplified figures, and photo tracing in sketching their design ideas.

We added another skill to our sketching repertoire that was not covered in the workbook, namely constructing two-point perspectives. I chose to add this to the curriculum because I’ve found the rule-based approach of this method is generally well-received by engineers and is particularly useful in sketching and considering physical computing prototypes.

Many students were very successful in constructing two-point perspective sketches, even if they were resistant to less structured sketching approaches.

Many students were very successful in constructing two-point perspective sketches, even if they were resistant to less structured sketching approaches.

I found that the process of sketching out ideas helped students think divergently. For the last milestone, the students were asked to develop two prototypes that they found to be most promising, with a special focus on diversity of modalities and ideas in the final prototypes they chose to pursue. I was very impressed with the results!


Some of the physical prototypes students developed from their sketches for the final class milestone.

In final student evaluations of course content, sketching was the component that worried me most. This is so different from a standard Computer Science skill or activity that I had to wonder whether students would find it valuable in retrospect. Indeed, in their final ranking of the thirteen components and skills covered in the class, sketching came in at #4! It was one of the most valued components of the class, despite (or maybe because of?) any initial trepidation students expressed about their drawing skills. I’ll definitely continue including this unit in the course in the future!

(Note: Images are used with permission from each project group, asked and received after the submission of final grades.)