Sometimes I wonder what kind of person I am. I feel awake at the weirdest times. Between 5 and 7 in the morning, between 5 and 7 in the evening, around lunchtime and after 10 in the evening. I wish I could make those hours collide so I could work at a better stretch. It’s also not very practical for scheduling my days really. And unfortunately there’s no place to take a short 30-minute nap at work.

Anyway, life was weird lately. Two master students graduated. I'[m very happy for both of them, although with one it’s more happiness that they finally finished enough to be able to graduate. It’s a bit of melancholy time as well, especially since I just my first email saying: hey, you’re leaving Company soon! Here’s a list of things you should make sure you’ve done. There’s still a talk with my manager scheduled in a week and a half, where we need to discuss an extension. Which I could really use, if only for the facilities (I mean, come on, giving up my laptop now?!), but also for the money. Because about two weeks ago Mr FAW and I decided to get married soon in a couple of months. This means regular freak-outs about money and random yelling of ‘Oh My God, We’re Getting Married’! By both of us, I might add. It’s given us a whole new topic to talk about, but there’s a system. We have a date, and witnesses, and a checklist. Checklists are very very important at this stage on my PhD, and if I don’t get a checklist I get very unhappy and uncoordinated. Somehow, checklists manage to make me work. The things one learns about oneself when doing a PhD…

There was also no vacation involved, except for the part where I got sick for about a week. Nothing major but it took a while to get back on my feet. However, there was one weekend where I got to use my live action role-playing sword and hit loads of people. It’s an awesome way to get rid of all that extra frustration and energy that had been storing up, and probably even better than stress-management coaching.

One of my master students is almost graduating. It took a while, with lots of tears, sweat and blood (on both sides, I believe). I spent yesterday and today a grand total of 5 hours, correcting the last version of their thesis.
Now, is it fair to not want to give this student a high grade because of everything they didn’t learn in the whole process? Or should I reward them for the bit they did manage to pick up in the whole process?
We tend to grade students on three different things: the process they went through, their final presentation and their final thesis. When it comes to the process I’m highly minded to give them barely a pass, the final presentation is still to come, and so is the final thesis. However, considering all the help we’ve given over the past 1,5 year, I would have expected a better penultimate version. Not one where I had to spend another 5 hours correcting. Although, granted, 3,5 hours were correcting on paper and 1,5 hours were making sure they came in a constructive form in Word.

Still, can I detract that effort from their final grade? Or should I let that depend on how well the final version of their thesis is? I find this a difficult position to be in, really. Although,  at least now I’ve been through it, so maybe I’ll be able to handle this better in the future.

Jeff Atwood’s post yesterday stroke a very sensitive chord. He claims that nobody hates software more than software developers, because they actually know what’s going on. This is probably not true for every industry, but certainly something that rings true. So who is going to protect us from incompetent software developers?

I’ve never met somebody who hasn’t had issues with software (even Mac users, yes :P).
As Scott Berkun so aptly states:

If you look deeper, you’ll find that when people say “this sucks” they mean one or more of the following:
* This doesn’t do what I need
* I can’t figure out how to do what I need
* This is unnecessarily frustrating and complex
* This breaks all the time
* It’s so ugly I want to vomit just so I have something prettier to look at
* It doesn’t map to my understanding of the universe
* I’m thinking about the tool, instead of my work

Unfortunately, people who create something are also very sensitive about it (well, yes, I did recently get my teaching evaluations, why do you ask?). This is the part where it’s sometimes more useful to let anybody but the creator do the user-testing. When testers can only express their frustration through “This sucks” and “I hate the way it works” it can be very helpful to have a translator at hand. So, contact your friendly user-experience expert and ask them to help you out here, because apparently the feedback is so bad that all you can do is become defensive.
While this isn’t really the reason I started in Human-Computer Interaction, I do have to say it’s one of the more challenging and satisfying aspects of the ‘job’.

As stated, the PhDs from VCR sent an email to HR to inquire about certain monetairy aspects of our lives. We finally got an appointment (to which I didn’t go, since there are 6 people on the committee, and all 6 of us might have been too much) but we tried not to expect too much.

That was a good idea, since we didn’t get much either. HR emphasized that this un-increase in gross salary was a one-off (but no promises for later either, or whether it would be made up since that will depend on the economic crisis). HR also mentioned that they wouldn’t tell people in the future to expect such a pay-raise (although how they want to keep it equal with the university is unclear). Furthermore there are apparently new contracts which should address this, but we’ve been unable to see them. We’ll just have to ask the next PhD student to come in whether we can see their contract, I guess. Actually, the HR people seemed somewhat pissed off that we dared to ask for our promised increase because while we got half, they didn’t get anything. Of course, they probably are on a higher pay-scale than we are anyway, so an increase might not make such a big difference for them.

HR also felt disinclined to discuss guidlines for managers, so we’ll have to see how we’re going to approach this and whether we need a different set for managers and for supervisors. The problem is that the only people we can be consistently certain of that new PhD students will see are the HR people. So we would need their cooperation to distribute these kind of papers. Maybe it’s time to find out who the real diplomats amongst us are.

After reading Prof. Chaos part on the lost generation, it seems fair to assume that a couple of those have ended up in my class as well.
All the necessary information is in the syllabus, which is on the website and you can even get a paper copy from me if and when you manage to find my office. We have classes on monday and discussions on wednesday or thursday, according to what was scheduled by the administration’s office (don’t blame me for having to be there at 8:45, I wasn’t consulted either). Deadlines for essays and such are all on wednesdays and no, you cannot get an assignment before the rest of the people just because you’re going on vacation and didn’t notice discussion are on thursdays for a change.

Also, to the students who were giving comments on my comments: if you insist on doing this in the hallway while my door is open, don’t be surprised that I’m prepared for annoyed faces. Also, don’t tell me that asking for clarifications and definitions has nothing to do with the content of the essay and that there were no comments about the content of the essay itself. They did catch me unprepared for that, since I’m not sure how to explain that if you don’t tell me what a term means (according to you), then I can’t assess whether or not you’ve understood the literature. Also, if a couple of those terms are essential for your argument, why would it not be a good idea to define them?

I understand it’s not that easy to write a clear, concise (i.e. limit of 500 words) essay sometimes, but that’s partially what you’re here to learn for. If you’re not prepared to listen to my comments, don’t ask for feedback (although that might not stop me giving feedback) and only look at your grade. Now, if you’re interested to learn ask how you can improve and we’ll continue to have a constructive discussion. Up until that time, maybe you might stew a little longer and feel like you’ve been treated unfairly. Next time, be prepared to be tested on whether you got breast milk or formula as a baby! Or whether you were dropped on the head…

In the interest of full disclosure: when I was about 3, I managed to fall and drop myself on the head.

A couple of days ago saw me quaking in my shoes somewhat because I had a meeting with UniversitySupervisor but didn’t feel particularly prepared. However, she was very enthousiastic about the results obtained, and managed to cheer me up  completely.

It’s lovely when UniversitySupervisor does this to me, since it gives me some much-needed confidence again that my research is worthwhile and useful. While on average I think so too, sometimes it feels like I should do research that is maybe more life-saving.

Also, the current students are so much better to work with. S2 lately felt himself drowning in the theory, but hopefully after our conversation he’s feeling better and more able to support his head to breath while swimming the literature/theory river.

s1, who was off to a different continent for three months, has shown up again. Because of other bullshit he pulled in the past, I insisted that UniversitySupervisor also be present. We had a nice, brief (mercifully!) conversation, in which we cleared up that he should look at the data of his experiment, get them clear in his head and then come to us and talk about them. We’ll see whether he manages to do. Right now, my hopes aren’t very high though, so it shouldn’t be that difficult to surpass them.

Last week, four out of the seven days I spent being sick and hanging around in my home. Being sick of course doesn’t prevent one from reading or writing email, although friday was a rather low point and the laptop was turned off as much as possible. However, students still emailed.

Wednesday was the introduction to the course I’m coordinating this semester, and not everything went as smooth as I hoped. First, a student emailed that she couldn’t find the literature in the handouts. Well, no, since the literature was hosted elsewhere on the internet. Location: specified in the syllabus, obviously. (Acutally, there were more emails in that vein, but an announcement on the intranet took care of that.)

Second, we recently received an email from our students (and it’s still unclear to me whether these are the bachelor or the master students) concerning mandatory attendance, grading exams and level of the lectures. All of it rather positive actually, since they mentioned they would like the staff to keep track of attendance, return grades within the specified time (in my alma mater, if grades weren’t returned on time everybody got a pass, period), and make sure lectures were tailored to the appropriate level. Well, huray, rejoiced I! Students care about education and show they care!

So I mentioned the letter in the introduction, but unfortunately several students took this to mean that the mandatory attendance in our course was because of this letter. Uhm, yeah… so not, giving that letter way too much credit. Of course, this has to be rectified, since it’s rather unfair for the student who sent of the letter to get this  kind of blame from collegea student.

These appear to be some of the side effects of me opening up my mouth in lectures without thinking through beforehand what I will or won’t say. Obviously, there’s still much to learn in that corner. But at least it didn’t deter me in showing up, or feeling quite good about being able to coordinate a course for the first time.

Learning point: carefully think through notions and consider consequences before opening mouth to say something to students!

One of my co-workers recently inquired into the planning of my PhD and actually gasped when I answered no the question inquiring whether I was writing already.

FSP style, this conversation went something along the lines of:

CW: So when does your contract end?

FAW: End of october, why?

CW: So you’re already writing, yes?

FAW: Well, that depends on what you mean. If you mean the actual thesis, then no.

CW: GASP. But then when do you plan to defend? Not in october, no?

FAW: Well, no. Besides I already have 8 publications and I’m busy with a journal paper.

CW: So who are your supervisors?

FAW: CompanySupervisor2 and UniversitySupervisor.

CW: You don’t mind me asking, do you?

FAW: Well, today is really not a good day to discuss this, no.

He seems to have gotten the idea that the PhD students in our group can use some of his advice and time, but frankly most of the time all he does is waste my time because he likes to phrase things in very roundabout ways and “provocative comments”. The conversation was quite ludicrous, but alarmed me enough to warn CompanySupervisor2 of its occurrence – forewarned is forearmed, right?

When CS2 suggested that maybe I did prefer CW, I threatened to withhold the chocolate I bought for her birthday. I think that conveyed my sentiments most appropriately.

Last monday I attended a tutorial on research methods. Tutorials really work best when there’s an atmosphere of trust, when you can ask those questions that have sat in the back of your brain for a while and you would like somebody else to come and play too. One of my questions was answered without me realizing that it had been a question. For a while I’ve been reading a book about making ideas stick, but I didn’t make it very far in.

Now, one of the tutorial givers was quoting from the book and sort of reviewing at the same time, which was rather interesting! Considering everything he said, it will definitely spur my reading the entire book, to keep the ideas fresh in my mind. Actually, the most interesting part for me wasn’t so much the research methods in themselves, but how you write about them. One of the most important things mentioned was: nibble away at your writing. If you don’t write every day, how do you expect to become a good writer? Becoming good is about making mistakes, about writing bent sentences and reviewing and critiquing your writing. This reflected very much my reasons for starting up this blog in the first place, except that I only publish something every friday.

That doesn’t mean that I only write on friday, merely that I like to edit and re-edit and think twice before commiting myself to publish here. Ironically, attending conferences tends to compel me to write and think so hard that it can get difficult to write something coherent. Some more ideas and impression will find their way to the forefront, including lessons learned on organizing poster sessions for symposia.