Skip to main content

This year’s sabbatical

Topics/tags: Overcommitment, academia, long, rambly

I’m on sabbatical this year. When people hear about the sabbatical, they tend to ask two questions: Weren’t you on sabbatical last fall? and What do you plan to do on sabbatical? [1]. The answer to the first question is a bit more straightforward: I had a fellowship in Fall 2018 and fellowships are separate from sabbatical [2]. I feel privileged to have had the fellowship and I plan to continue the project from that fellowship during my sabbatical.

The answer to the second question is a bit more complex. A year ago, when I needed to plan for the sabbatical, I wrote an extended set of notes on my plans. For those who don’t want to read the whole thing, here’s the most important paragraph.

I’m planning four projects: I should put the new CSC 151 materials in a generally-usable form. I should wrap-up the code-camp work, whatever that means. I should rework the mediascheme materials to work only in DrRacket. And I should reboot the MIST project. […] I also may be working on the SIGCSE volunteer system, but that’s probably not worth mentioning in the application. [3]

But, well, things change. Among other things, new opportunities [4] arise and some dry up. There’s also more to sabbatical than the primary projects. As I sit down to begin my sabbatical, it seems worthwhile to revisit my plans.

The first answer I give to most people is to pat my belly and say My health is my top priority. And it needs to be. I’m out of shape. And my shape is too round. So exercise and weight loss are essential parts of this sabbatical. I’m hoping that the reduced stress of sabbatical [5] will make it easier to find the time to focus on those issues and that they will remain a focus once I return to work.

When I wrote about planning to write more about the code camps, I had not yet submitted the latest set of papers on the code camps for review. I was surprised to find that both were accepted [6]. Given the messiness of our data [8], I don’t think that there’s much more I can write for my professional community about those camps. However, given the impact that the camps had on our community and the number of requests I’ve been getting to offer camps again, it’s worth considering how we can continue to offer them now that the grant has expired [9].

In terms of new opportunities [11], the most significant is that I have been asked to take a more active role in the ACM Special Interest Group on Computers and Society. SIGCAS is an important organization but is struggling with identity issues and a lack of volunteers. I’ve agreed to help try to address these challenges. But working with ACM is, well, a challenge of its own [12]. I’m also a bit uncomfortable with this much responsibility. This sabbatical activity, more than my others, invokes some anxiety.

As long as we’re on the subject of projects not in the sabbatical plan, I should mention at least one internal project. Fall 2021 will mark the 50th anniversary of the individually advised curriculum [14]. A symposium on The liberal arts in the 21st century and the open curriculum, or some such, seems like a good thing. When I asked about it recently, it sounded like no one else was thinking about such a possibility. It may be that I’m more passionate about the option than others and may therefore end up taking some role in moving us forward [16].

I hope to be able to teach Tutorial in Fall 2020. I should spend some of my sabbatical time planning the topic and readings for that Tutorial. Expect me to muse on those issues in the near future.

A variety of smaller opportunities are also cropping up. I’m now scheduled to do two external reviews and one set of grant reviews. I expect more such opportunities are on their way.

Perhaps it’s better to think about what I won’t do. I’ve resigned from all of my on-campus committees. I’ve indicated that I won’t help out with some major department projects. I’m debating which meetings to attend and to miss. I probably need to attend department meetings. I probably don’t need to attend division meetings. What about faculty meetings? I probably shouldn’t attend. However, important things are discussed at faculty meetings and I may feel blindsided by changes when I return if I do not attend. We shall see.

What else? I should clean my lab. Michelle has suggested two hours per day until it’s in a sensible state. I’ll see if that will work. I also have to clean up my home office, the basement, and the various other places I hoard things. I’d also like to make some book crates to better organize the books that are scattered in those various places. And, as I move the books into crates, I should catalog them. If a book’s not worth cataloging, I should get rid of it.

One of my colleagues tells me that they read an article or a book chapter each day of their sabbatical. That seems like a worthwhile goal. I might add long Web page to the list of kinds of readings. In any case, I have a much too large reading list, and I should work on it. I’ll also try to read for pleasure each day. I may muse on some of these kinds of readings.

I hope to continue musing each day. Musing makes me happy, even when my musing is mostly ranting. There’s something positive about writing.

The Innovation Fund deadline is soon. I need to decide whether I want to ask for funding for my two long-standing projects related to Grinnell: A more humanistic approach to assessing the quality of a students’ liberal arts education [20] and a return of Scholars Convocation to a weekly event. This year seems like the one in which to propose such things, even if they won’t go into effect until the following year. I wonder what departments I can get to buy into the curriculum defense model. I wonder whether I can get my own department to buy into it. I should draft the porposal soon.

What about the primary projects? I haven’t looked at MIST in four years. If I recall correctly, we had a few large open questions, particularly how we would deal with user-defined functions. The software infrastructure that we relied on has also changed significantly in the past four years. It may be necessary to do a complete rewrite.

My first step in working on the three versions of CSC 151 is to build a better system for generating documentation pages. We lost all of the carefully written documentation when we switched from the old DocBook site to the more modern Jekyll. Since most of the documentation exists in source code files, I should write a program to automatically extract and format it.

Next up will likely be starting to rebuild the MediaScheme course to use the built-in Racket libraries. I’ll miss GIMP [21], but the system will be much more stable without trying to do inter-process communication. After all of that, it will probably be time to combine the libraries for the three courses. And after that? I’m not sure. I’d like to do something better with regular expressions. I need to change my approach to hash tables and, perhaps, get them into all three courses. I should rethink structs and objects. There’s also the long-standing question of whether I should design a fourth version of the course, one focused on computing for social good. I keep wanting to do such a course, particularly because it strikes me as yet another way to help diversify our department. Nonetheless, I seem to lack the clarity of vision for a full-course design. Perhaps that’s a task for my next leave.

It may also be worth exploring other Lisp/Scheme variants for CSC 151. I see, for example, that ClojureScript allows one to compile Clojure to JavaScript, which would be cool for writing Web apps in CSC 151. I should probably spend at least a few days considering such issues and having the joy of learning a new language.

I’d also like to think a bit about CSC 207. I had a lot of fun teaching it last year and look forward to being able to teach it again. But with new Oracle licensing, and a much faster update cycle, Java is becoming less appropriate for the classroom. We’ve talked about switching to C# [22], Ruby, and even some modern Smalltalk dialect. We should also consider Rust and Kotlin. But the choice is not mine; that’s something we should discuss as a department.

What about the SIGCSE volunteer system? I’m not one of the Volunteer Coordinators for the next SIGCSE, so that’s not really in my wheelhouse any more. It also sounds like SIGCSE wants to move on to something a little more robust. I wish my successors luck in finding something with all the features of the current system.

Let’s see … where do things stand? Of the big projects, I’ve dropped two (overview of code camps and SIGCSE volunteers) and added at least one more (SIGCAS and perhaps working on the anniversary). There are the normal slew of smaller things. And more will probably come up. Oh well; I won’t count on completing everything.

What else? During my last sabbatical, I was happiest when I was making art. Building the book crates will help scratch some of that itch. Building MIST and the MediaScheme course may also help. But I might also need to carve out more time for something a bit more serious, particularly if I can find a way to get the Laser Cutter in my lab working. I may also work on one of the two performance art pieces I’ve been thinking about, one in the CS commons [24] and one in the loading zones on 8th Avenue [25]. And I keep thinking about designing a game or two. While it’s not art, it may still achieve the same goal of expressing my creative side. We shall see.

In the end, my health, both physical and mental, is the most important thing to work on. I wonder if the Dean will agree when I write my report at the end of the year.

Postscript: I really should print out cards with a short version of this musing. That way, when someone asks about my sabbatical plans, I can just hand them the card. Or I could just have a link to this musing. Oh well, that’s something for another day.

[1] Some also ask What’s happening to your advisees? I’m keeping them. However, since 30+ graduated in the spring, I’m down to a dozen or so.

[2] And, for the next few years, MAP credits are another thing altogether.

[3] Rebelsky, Samuel. 2018. A draft of my 2019-2020 sabbatical proposal SamR’s Assorted Musings and Rants. Found online at Dated 20 August 2018.

[4] Or expectations.

[5] Fingers crossed.

[6] It was not a typical year; I submitted more things than normal and had a higher percentage than normal accepted. In addition to two code-camp papers, I also had a paper with Janet on the software design course accepted [7] as well as a panel proposal in which I was a panelist.

[7] It even won an award: Second best paper in the experience reports track.

[8] Among other things, we had not planned for returning students (or the effects of having returning students) and we found that we had to modify the instrument midway through the project.

[9] I’ll likely muse about the issue in the future. For now, one idea is to offer only one camp each summer and make it part of the broader work of my research team [10].

[10] The odds are that MIST will again take its place as my primary research project. A craft of code camp might be a nice pairing to MIST.

[11] Or expectations.

[12] Amazingly, I hear the same thing from almost everyone who works with ACM.

[14] Also known as the individually mentored curriculum, the open curriculum, and the no-requirements curriculum [15].

[15] I’ve probably missed a few other names

[16] With some effort, I was able to find a time that all but one of the fifteen-plus people I’d been writing to could meet. We came up with some useful ideas. However, the anniversary of the open curriculum (and the Tutorial) coincides with the demisemiseptcentennial [17]. Looking back on the scope of the sesquicentennial and the model for how that was organized, the group decided to pass the responsibility on to Council to assign a task force. But there’s some likelihood that I’ll get put on that task force [19].

[17] An invented word [18] meaning 175th anniversary. It’s 1/2 of 1/2 of seven hundred years.

[18] Not by me.

[19] The Dean mentioned something about my involvement in the anniversary in her opening remarks.

[20] I mention the idea of a curriculum defense in one of my musings on course tags. I’d like to follow up on that.

[21] The GNU Image Manipulation Program.

[22] Microsoft pronounces that C sharp. Unfortunately, they neglect to note that the character that follows the C is a pound sign [23], #, not a sharp, ♯. It’s also not a Sharpe, but that’s a completely different matter.

[23] Also octothorpe, hash, mesh, and more.

[24] I’m pretty sure that everyone has heard that one.

[25] I’ve heard rumors that the city and the College are making changes so that 8th will be better. Perhaps the performance piece won’t be necessary.

Version 1.0 of 2019-08-30.