Saturday, April 7, 2012

First week at the VBC, eleven weeks later

Going into the VBC, I hoped to write blog posts about once a week about the experience. The truth is that we work like crazy while we're there, and by the end of the day or the weekend, I find that a good mental rest is in order. Point in case, I was just looking over a few draft posts on my blog—articles I started but never published. Here's one I started in January, in its entirety:
The best explanation I have come up with for my fellowship with the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry is that it's like a sabbatical except that I get to bring students with me. Just over a week ago, I wrote about my anticipation for the start of the semester; now I'd like to share how things actually went.
So much for that.

The inquisitive reader may wonder, "What is it that you do for nine hours a day if it was only yesterday that you were programming?" Here's a glimpse, in no particular order.

We do stand-up meetings every morning at 8:15. Each person reports on what they did since the previous meeting, what they have planned for the day, and what impediments prevent progress. I listen especially for the impediments, though often the ones I hear are not exactly what the students say. I then do whatever is necessary to remove the impediment. This may involve calling meetings, consultations, finding appropriate readings and tutorials, checking the budget, shopping for supplies, and other administrative or managerial tasks.

The team is divided into two bins which we call "The CS Group" and "The Arts & Humanities Group." Each group meets fortnightly to discuss readings, the CS group favoring common readings and the Humanities group individual ones. I sit in on both groups and follow the common reading with the CS students.

I read several blogs and feeds related to the project, and I share the highlights with the team. Some of the sources I've found most helpful are Raph Koster's blog, Daniel Cook's Google+ stream, and Dinofarm Games blog.

I coordinate Thursday Team Lunches. Each Thursday, we all eat lunch together in the dining room and have a topic for conversation, frequently featuring an outside speaker. This is the kind of task that someone who loves event planning could do quickly and easily, but I probably spend too much time agonizing over catering decisions and hoping everyone is happy.

Our Scrum board has four columns: Not Yet Started, In Progress, Requires Validation, and Done. I am frequently used for task validation. For source code, this involves a formal code review. Validation of other tasks is contextual but essentially the same: it is an opportunity for me to look at what the students have done and offer feedback and suggestions.

I try to be available to the team during the day for informal evaluations. Sometimes this is motivated by overhearing conversations from my office, which has no door connecting it to our largest work room. Informal evaluation is done more effectively, however, when I wander through the work areas to see what the team is doing. Quite often, students will pull me in to the discussion to explain something to me or seek my assistance. As with formal validations, I try to use these moments to share what I know as well as help steer the team towards fruitful collaboration.

Occasionally, I directly intervene in game design and interface design issues. Both of these are extremely difficult crafts in which the students are engaged, and it's good for them to have the opportunity to iterate on designs. Because of my own experiences in these areas (read: because I have failed at them and learned from these failures already) I will sometimes see trouble on the horizon and force the students to put on the brakes and re-evaluate.

As Scrum Master, I run the Sprint Planning, Sprint Review, and Sprint Retrospective meetings that happen every other week. I also serve as Product Owner, organizing and prioritizing the Product Backlog—the list of user stories that guide the team towards successful project completion.

Several of my VBC students are searching for jobs and internships, as are some of my best students who I could not bring with me. I've written letters of recommendation and provided references for many of them, and I'm glad to say that the effort has been mostly fruitful. I hope those who are still looking for employment and internships get some good news soon!

Since we've been building digital prototypes, I help with quality assurance. I run the game and try to break it or look for usability flaws. There is a defect board in the main work room on which we record such issues, and the team is pretty quick to fix them.

I make the coffee almost every morning. Earlier in the semester, I noticed a disturbing trend wherein people would arrive very close to 8:15—the time of our daily stand-up meeting—but still try to make coffee before coming to the meeting. They would end up coming into the stand-up late, though happily carrying a fresh cup. I realized that I could circumvent this problem by showing up a bit earlier myself and starting the coffee, even though I bring my own from home. This is a nice example of proactive removal of unarticulated impediments.

My non-VBC responsibilities still exist too, of course. I have had a paper accepted at FDG 2012, and I had to spend some time revising it for publication. I consult with my advisees over email or by appointment. The Mira Award nomination that Ronald Morris and I recently earned was the result of writing thousands of words on the Morgan's Raid project as well as a formal presentation. I talk to my department chair a bit over email about important issues such as curriculum and assessment. I also served on a search committee for the first time this year, and I'm excited to have a new colleague joining the department in the Fall. Early in the semester, I continued to serve on the Strategic Planning Committee.

So there you have it: a quick sketch of what has occupied almost all my waking hours since January. It has been an incredible experience. Since the very beginning, I have had a deep sense that, professionally, it is where I belong. I try not to think about the fact that I'll be going back to the regular grind of higher education in a few weeks, but that's the topic of another post.

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