Glencora Borradaile

         Assistant Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Oregon State University

September 26, 2015

Graduate Teaching on Diversity: Week 0

The graduate school at OSU is considering adding a new learning outcome for all graduate students as a mechanism for reducing an observed rise in discrimination in our graduate program (based on surveys).  The desired learning outcome is based on the Difference, Power and Discrimination (DPD) program that has all our our undergraduates take a course that has a DPD designation.  The proposed graduate learning outcome (LO) is:

Recognize difference, power and discrimination within social systems and their influence on people of diverse backgrounds both inside and outside their discipline.

There are a dozen pilot programs across campus this year to experiment with methods of delivering a DPD curriculum to our graduate students.  I volunteered to pilot one in EECS and am doing so by way of a 1-credit (1 hr/wk) class devoted to this LO along with a “responsible conduct of research” LO (that is currently required by our graduate school).  I have around 40 students (~1/3 of our incoming MS, MEng, and PhD graduate students) and had my first class yesterday.  You can see the course webpage here (which is subject to change).

I was more nervous going into this class than most classes.  This is my first time teaching non-technical material and there are a lot of unknowns.  At what level should I try to engage the students?  Will our largely international group of students have a harder time with a discussion-based class?  Will the students want to engage in thinking about these questions?

To motivate the LO, I started with a short history of computer science with a few motivating questions.  I started with the black points (right) and talked a bit about the discrimination that Turing experienced due to his sexual orientation and asked: What advances would Turing have made if not for discrimination and his ultimate suicide?.  I pointed out that the history (in black) is stunted both by colonialism and patriarchy.  I added in the blue points, pointing out that computation devices existed before we had computers (abaci) and that positional number systems are requisite for computation.  We see that these contributions are non-Western and we can ask the question: What advances would Mayan mathematics have made had their civilization not been decimated by colonialism?.  Finally I added the red points acknowledging some contributions by women to computer science and asked: What research and development would we be pursuing if women were equally represented among computer scientists?

Thankfully, there were a few good questions after this introduction, which helped to make me less worried about teaching this class.  This intro was definitely CS biased; I hope to make it more inclusive to ECE for the future, since both CS and ECE students are in the class, but I will need some help with that.

I then did a ice-breaker of sorts (since these are incoming graduate students).  I asked the students to write down what they were afraid of as they start their new graduate program.  I collected the (anonymous) sheets of paper and shuffled them and handed them back out for each student to read one out aloud.  I was worried that folks would hesitate to be honest here, but very quickly, there were tears welling in my eyes as fears of being forgotten by their loved ones back home, loneliness, being able to express oneself in English, adjusting to US culture were voiced.  There was a lot of overlap between fears and I hope that hearing their peers’ fears will help the students feel less alone.

So that was week 0.  I hope to update as the quarter progresses and am happy for constructive feedback.  If you do so anonymously, please indicate if you are a student in the class or an outside observer.


August 13, 2015

Climate change and research choices

written on July 3, 2014 and saved for publication until tenure

A friend who is making a career change asked me “If you could do anything else, what would would it be?”  That was two weeks ago.  I still haven’t responded.  It led to quite long conversations with my partner though, particularly with the idea of being able to make a radical change in my research life with impending, unprecedented job security.  Or an even bigger change in a different way if the tenure decision doesn’t go my way.  Or does!

As with most conversations these days, our conversation turned to climate change.  My partner brought up their dislike (but applicability to our current question) of the “going to war” metaphor.  For those clueless out there, people who actually think about climate change and actually worry about it and actually want to make changes to prevent (sigh, mitigate) it, accept climate change as an existential threat.  As existential as the threat of Hitler’s reign on Europe.  And they point hopefully to the fact that under that threat our factories and research laboratories switched full force, seemingly overnight, to building bombs and planes and tanks and developing ciphers and deciphers and new bombs and new planes and new tanks.  Yay!  That’s the part of the metaphor that turns off a pacifist.

But my partner’s point was:  if the world really did start acting like climate change is the existential threat that it is and people like you and I were recruited to join the war effort, what would you be recruited to do?  The follow up question was:  since you care about it, why don’t you start doing that now?

It’ll be interesting to see what I’m thinking about a year from now when I post this.

July 20, 2015

Work is work and it shouldn’t be expected on the weekends

written on December 27, 2013 and saved for publication until tenure

A month or so ago, the STOC’14 PC chair took an informal poll of when we wanted the PC meeting: Friday & Saturday, Saturday & Sunday, Sunday & Monday. What the hell?  Why not any two day combinations that don’t include a weekend day?  So it doesn’t get in the way of work?  What on Earth do you think a PC meeting is if not work?  So it doesn’t get in the way of teaching?  I am pretty sure all our department heads want us to go to conferences and take part in program committees and will happily accommodate a cancelled class or two or a sub by a graduate student or colleague.

My response to the PC chair was: “I would greatly prefer Fri-Sat or Sun-Mon so it doesn’t take the whole weekend away from me.”  In the background, my partner works in Portland during the week, and so we live apart during the week, and the weekend is the only time we have together.  Also, committing to work a Saturday/Sunday combination means 12 straight full days of work (on top of the cross country flight the program committee means) since taking a weekday off to compensate for the weekend is very difficult to arrange — guilt kicks in and I would inevitably work.  On a very serious note, down time is key to “work life balance” also known as one’s mental health.  We shouldn’t be defaulting to working on the weekend.  Our conferences shouldn’t be on a weekend either.  They should be on weekdays.  Weekends are for rest and weekdays are for working.  Anyone read about the labor movement?  In speaking to friends with kids, particularly dual-career couples, travelling over the weekend is not cool.

You know who doesn’t expect you to work on the weekend?  NSF.  Panels are on WEEKDAYS.  You know who else?  Europeans.  Dagstuhls are run Monday to Friday.  ESA is Monday to Wednesday.  ICALP is Monday to Friday.

So you know what?  If you want to retain more people in our field, and you want to seriously push work-life balance, you shouldn’t plan work events on weekends.  Keep them to weekdays.


Oh, the STOC PC meeting was Saturday/Sunday.  THANKS.

continued January 18, 2014:

Continued annoyance in regards to the STOC PC.  We have been asked, late on a Friday afternoon to pick 2 papers out of a stack of 40 to provide extra reviews.  By Sunday at 3PM.  Seriously?  I know we are all expected to work ALL THE TIME and are supposed to LIKE THAT.  But you know what?  I don’t.  I am tired of this expectation and I would like to protect some time to be free of work commitments.  Choosing papers for STOC is not so important that some task needs to be completed in a 2 day span over a weekend.

continued February 6, 2014:

There has been another emergency “feedback needed within 48 hours” emailed out on a Friday evening.  This is timely.

June 30, 2015

A question you shouldn’t ask

written on June 26, 2012 and saved for publication until tenure

I’m thinking about this on the heels of the Women in Theory workshop, but it’s something that has been irking me since the start of grad school.

Grad school.  And suddenly there’s this thing we’re supposed to chase.  No, not the next FOCS deadline.  The work-life balance.  I hadn’t heard this term before grad school.  The next thing I head is that “work-life balance” is apparently synonymous with “how to have babies and a career at the same time”.  Now, when I started grad school, I was 21.  Given that the average female Ph.D. doesn’t have kids until much older than the average, it shouldn’t be any surprise that I was not thinking about this.

At Brown, we would occasionally have these “faculty grad lunches”.  One prof, a bunch of grad students, brown bagged lunches and a preset topic.  I remember a few of these:  one on how to give a good talk immediately (with the prof having had just come from the dentist), one on how to get a good job (with the rather depressing message that the only direction is down), one on achieving work-life balance.  Now, this last one.  The invite for this last one was only sent out to the female grad students.

I can’t tell you how much that pissed me off.  Not only do men, apparently, not have to worry about work-life balance, but women, apparently, have to spend time talking about it.

I boycotted.

The Women in Theory conference held a panel on work-life balance [1].  The day before, I chatted with the other speakers about how I found it aggravating that “work-life balance” so often solely focuses on child-rearing and that there are other aspects of work-life balance.  (Before all the parents out there jump down my throat, maybe talk for a while with your child-free friends.  And if you don’t have any child-free friends, maybe you should branch out a bit.)  I related my frustrations with this equation when I was a grad student (which wasn’t very long ago, and less long ago than any of the other panelists).

The panel lasted about an hour and a half and was largely driven by audience questions.  And one question about kids did come up (fair enough).  The answers chewed up a good 20 minutes.  And several attendees approached me after with their frustrations with this.

Now, I don’t bring this up to be critical of this particular panel (which very helpfully ended up spending most of the time on general advice – when and how to switch problems or advisors, how to balance our natural personalities with the aggression that we are told to hone, etc – advice that I was happier to hear than give!).  I bring this up because it keeps happening.

I just watched Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk and one line (her response to a young, single women talking about making choices in order to make room for children later in life) really hit this home for me: “You’re thinking about this way too early”.

So, my advice: let junior researchers lead the discussion.  They will ask if they want advice on that point.  If they aren’t thinking about it, don’t force the issue.

Oh, right.  A question you should never ask.  Unless you are very close with someone.  VERY CLOSE.  Don’t ask them if they are going to have kids, let alone when.  Particularly in a professional setting.  Try the “am I being sexist” test for this one.

[1] Note: the attendees of the Women in Theory workshop are Ph.D. students, largely in their first few years of graduate school.  I would put the average age in their early 20s.  The panelists and speakers were all (relatively) established researchers (professors, etc.).

May 26, 2015

Recovering from depression with a 40-hour work week

written on May 8, 2012 and saved for publication until tenure

Sometime in the fall of 2011, it became apparent to me that I was depressed.  More than likely, I had been depressed for several years before, but that it had slowly become worse.  Fall of 2011 was difficult for me.  I was teaching two large classes, one a freshman class that I had not taught before.  It was the last quarter before I submitted my mid-tenure review.  By exam week, after weeks of just barely managing to keep up with my teaching duties, I knew that I needed help beyond that of my partner and close friends.

I was not teaching during the winter quarter of 2012.  So, I was able to devote a little more time to getting better, seeking council, and experimenting with various treatments.  But I felt behind.  Very behind.  I would feel energetic and would pour every ounce of that energy into finishing papers, travelling, giving talks, advising students in a hopes to make up for what I thought was four months of futility.  And I would tire myself out and I would crash.  I think the technical, and thankfully figurative, term is ‘lose my shit’.  Travelling was particularly stressful and, months and months before, I had planned for this teaching-free quarter to be a quarter of reconnecting with collaborators and establishing new ones.  I managed a few of those trips, but had to cancel others.  I was up and down on at least a fortnightly basis.

So when winter quarter finished, and with a positive mid-tenure review behind me, I faced adding teaching to what I felt was an unsustainable pattern, I knew something had to give.  I talked with my boss about taking a partial leave.  Cutting back on my hours.  She was very supportive and so I arranged to take one day a week off work.  In addition to weekends.  So, instead of working 6 days a week, I would work 4.  I did this officially, through human resources, applying for FMLA leave so that I could take my leave unpaid and ease my guilt.

So for the last 6 weeks, I have been working 40 hours a week, consistently, for the first time in a long while.  I know that many (perhaps most) salaried employees work more than the usual 40 hour work week, but still, I do find that it is strange that I went through the rigor of federally protected sick leave to allow myself to work what is intended to be a normal work-week. I know I could have gotten away with working 40 hours a week for a long while without taking leave.  But, I did this for myself.  First, I knew that if I didn’t need to write on a piece of paper that I didn’t work one week-day per week, I may make excuses and exceptions.  Second, I was worried that, if it took a while for me to feel mentally recovered, my productivity may have taken a dive and I may need an extra year to work towards tenure.  With leave, I would have no problems getting that extra year.

Nevertheless, it seems to be working.  I have had 6-7 weeks of keeping my shit together.  I feel productive.  I feel happy.  I feel healthy.

Maybe we’d all feel a little better if we worked a little less.

May 22, 2015

Raises during an economic downturn

written on March 1, 2012 and saved for publication until tenure

OSU lifted the freeze on pay raises after a 2+ year hiatus due to the economic downturn. Across the board, faculty received a 4% raise. Additionally, ‘equity’ raises were made to account for disparities in income between those with equivalent positions. On top of the 4% ‘cost of living’ raise, I received an additional 6% equity raise, for a 10%, unsolicited, raise.

My first reaction was anger. 10%. Say the average raise was 5%. Every college of engineering tenure-track (or tenured) faculty member has a salary in the 80th percentile or higher. There are roughly 130 such people. Those raises alone would be enough to hire 13 people at 50th percentile salaries.

May 21, 2015

With great privilege comes great responsibility

I received the official word this week that I have earned tenure (and promotion to associate professor).  As I learned not too long ago, the awarding of tenure doesn’t just happen unexpectedly with someone coming into your office with a fancy plaque, but rather is a year-long process from submission of application for tenure to departmental and college level decisions and so, by the time the official word comes from the Provost’s Office, you are fairly certain of the outcome … needless to say it is a bit anti-climactic.  And there isn’t even a plaque.

However, I do feel honored by the privilege that comes with such a level of job security and I have spent many hours thinking about how I can best use that privilege to better the world.  Here I commit to myself and the world to not simply continue doing what I know how to do and try to be strategic with my time and position.  Hopefully I will share more on that front later.

In the meantime, I will follow through on a commitment made to myself years ago.  I have 8 posts that I wrote and did not make public but promised myself that I would release them once I got tenure (or didn’t).  The reasons why I didn’t make these public vary and now seem a little silly.  I suppose I didn’t want to be branded as being thankless, critical or lazy, but perhaps the fact that I didn’t publish these thoughts speaks volumes itself.  So stay tuned as I roll those out over the coming weeks.  For lack of a plan, I will do so in the order I originally wrote them.

December 18, 2014

The negative impacts of random conference decisions

The NIPS experiment is making waves.  If you are unaware, for the last NIPS conference, the PC was broken into two independent halves A and B.  A random selection of the submissions were assigned to both committees.  The result: 57% of the papers that were accepted by committee A were rejected by committee B (and vice versa).

This is terrible for many reasons.  Some reasons that I have heard are the careerist issues (our jobs and promotion depend on accepted papers at top conferences) and the negative impacts on the Rate of Progression of Science.  I’d like to discuss two more reasons:

The random rejection model makes needless work

If the average number of times a paper is submitted to a conference before it is accepted is 2-3, then we as a community are doing 2-3 times more work when it comes to writing & publishing: formatting papers to the will of the conference, reviewing papers, serving on PCs, reassuring students, consoling ourselves over beer. Should we be spending our limited time & resources on this? I do understand that papers can improve between different submissions, but with higher quality, constructive reviews, resubmitting once would be much less a burden. And perhaps if people felt like the system wasn’t so random, we wouldn’t try rolling the dice so early and often.  And perhaps we would have time to do a more thorough job as reviewers.

The random rejection model likely negatively impacts underrepresented groups more

“Just resubmit your papers.”  I worry that this non-solution disproportionately and negatively impacts those in
underrepresented groups. It is known that those in underrepresented groups tend to suffer from more impostor syndrome; and it is known that those suffering from impostor syndrome tend to take rejections on face value (our work isn’t good enough) whereas those in dominant groups tend to blame the rejectors (they don’t know good work when they see it). We also (should) know that small things can have big effects.  One freshly minted professor emailed me:

I have personally experienced this during graduate school and I’m sure I and my students will experience this in future. A second or third year student puts in about one year worth of work with the hope that he/she will have his/her first top-tier (FOCS or ICML) conference paper soon. The rejections and bad reviews can essentially kill the confidence of that student. To some extent, this can also happen to the junior faculty.

One colleague worried about students dropping out of science altogether as a result of this.  On a personal note, I have definitely changed my publishing behavior to favor journals where, although the time lag can be great, comes with a discussion between author and reviewer via the editor. I have only had one ‘bad’ experience with trying to get something published in a journal. I would say that I’ve had a ‘bad’ experience with at least half of my conference submissions.  I have taken to rolling the dice once, if at all.

Add this together with our lack of double-blind reviews in TCS, we may be doubly hitting underrepresented populations, whose work is more likely to be dismissed by a dominant-group reviewer.

We should fix our conference system.  Or just trash it altogether.  I’d like to point out that the latter option would be better for the planet.

June 10, 2014

Wonderful instructor for hire

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 10:26 pm

Theresa Migler-VonDollen, my recent Ph.D. graduate, is looking for a position for one year. She is set to join Maryknoll in summer 2015 to serve as an educator in low-to-middle-income countries, when her 11-month-old son is old enough to be more manageable in an uncertain setting. For the next year, she is looking for a teaching position, preferably at a university. She can capably teach most all undergraduate mathematics courses, lower-level CS courses and upper-level theory CS courses and has over 8 years of teaching experience at the university level. And I can tell you, it shows. Theresa is a wonderful educator and we would be keeping her here at OSU in a heartbeat if she weren’t looking for a change for this next “free” year.

Since teaching positions are not universally advertised, I thought I would announce her availability here to reach the tens of people who read this. If your department is in need of an excellent instructor or you know somewhere that is, please let me know or email Theresa directly.  I unabashedly recommend Theresa to you.

May 29, 2014

Presenting Dr. Theresa Migler-VonDollen

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 6:50 pm

photo1Yesterday, Wednesday May 28, my first Ph.D. student defended her thesis:  Theresa Migler-VonDollen.  Although you can’t tell from the picture, attendance at this was the highest any of us had seen — 15 to 20 graduate students were lined up along the wall of the seminar room.  It’s a testament to how loved Theresa has been — ever helpful, being the unofficial math and algorithms tutor for all the graduate students in the department — and almost always with a big smile on her face.

Theresa’s dissertation is on observations of the hierarchy of density of real networks, such as (but not limited to) social networks.  The hierarchy came out of an early proof of correctness of finding a lexicographically minimum orientation of undirected graphs (finding an orientation of the graph that minimizes the indegree sequence lexicographically).  You can read a sampling of her work in our first manuscript on this where we show that the density hierarchy is very similar in shape to the degree distribution, but that this property isn’t observed in existing random graph models.  We additionally present methods to generate random graphs having density hierarchies similar to real networks.  I will link to her thesis when it is finalized where this is covered in much more depth.

Theresa is looking forward to a future of teaching in institutes at higher education in countries of low-to-middle income.  She’s an excellent teacher — far better than myself (though that may not be saying much) — and her future students will be lucky to learn from her.

Even though Theresa is delightful on an average day, I don’t think I’ve seen a smile as big as the one when she finished.  Congratulations Dr. Migler-VonDollen!


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