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A draft sabbatical report (#1100)

Topics/tags: Overcommitment, Academia, Things I had to write

Note: I started this musing (and the letter within) before the end of June. My life is such that I was not able to finish it until now. I hope our Acting Dean is sympathetic.

My sabbatical is over. I’m not quite sure when it ended, either officially or unofficially. In mid-March, I started taking on a variety of additional administrative responsibilities. And the whole pandemic thing made me a much less productive worker [1]. So we could call spring break the unofficial end. Sabbaticals are for the academic year [2], so we might say that it ended somewhere between the middle and the end of May, when our academic year ends. It was certainly done by the time I started with my MAP students, about a week before the end of May.

Although the sabbatical is over, the tasks associated with the sabbatical are not yet finished. In particular, my sabbatical report was due in the Dean’s office on July 1, along with my annual Faculty Activities Report [3].

My sabbatical was less successful than I had planned. Various issues contributed to that status. In part, I was much more burned out than I realized; I needed much of the fall to recover [4]. Fortunately, fall was not officially part of my sabbatical; I had a one-semester sabbatical and then time-off that was paid for by a course overload I had taken previously [5]. I started the spring semester with a medical issue that occupied too much of my attention. And then the second half of spring semester was, well, the pandemic. Throughout the year, I did less well at staying away from campus issues than I should have; I attended department meetings [6], division meetings [7], and faculty meetings [8]. I participated in discussions and attended campus events. But I’m also at a point in my career in which I think I serve the College better by participating in such discussions than, say, by making additional progress on my research projects.

I feel bad that I achieved too little of what I intended in my sabbatical. But there’s value in being open. After all, that’s one of the many reasons I muse regularly. So I’m using this musing to be open about the (lack of) achievement, and I’ll be open about what I did and did not do in my report [9]. When I started this musing, I wrote, The report is due tomorrow. I guess I should draft it today. I didn’t. But I did have a draft of my original proposal available for reference. It’s hard to believe that I wrote it ten months ago.

In any case, it seems to be time to draft the letter to my new Dean [10]. Here goes.

Dear Dean X,

This letter serves as my report for my 2019-2020 sabbatical. Since I did not receive any guidance for the report, I’ve done my best to summarize what I had planned and what I accomplished, as well as some contextual information. I apologize for the delay in getting my sabbatical report to you; a few unexpected complexities came up over the last few weeks. I even tried to follow your advice to take the long weekend as a real break.

Officially, my sabbatical was for one semester of the 2019-2020 academic year. I cashed in accumulated course releases and took a pay cut to account for the other semester. The stresses of being chair for a department that nearly quadrupled in size during my term and of teaching overloads during that time made a quiet fall a necessity.

My original plan had been to work on four projects: (1) Revisiting the structure of the digital humanities version of CSC 151, our introductory course; (2) revisiting the structure of the media computation version of CSC 151; (3) completing my research project on the effects of middle-school code camps on student interest and self-efficacy in computing, and (4) bringing my old Mathematical Image Synthesis Toolkit research project back online after a five-year gap.

Some unexpected opportunities and issues led me to take different directions.

After submitting my sabbatical proposal, I realized that we were nearing the 50th Anniversary of the Open Curriculum and the Tutorial, which will happen in Fall 2021 (or Spring 2020, depending on how you choose your starting point). I tried to serve as a spark to get planning initiated, was asked to pass the work on to the Executive Council, and then served as a nudger to try to move things forward a bit more. The events of the spring have put this on the back burner, but I will continue to push on this issue. I ended up doing side work on these kinds of issues after deciding that my Fall 2020 Tutorial would be on The Open Curriculum, Tutorial, and Liberal Education.

In March of 2019, the Chair of the ACM (Association of Computing Machinery) Special Interest Group on Computers and Society (SIGCAS) needed to step back in the amount of work they did for the group, which meant that I needed to step up a bit because I serve as Vice Chair. I ended up serving as the primary contact attending meetings of ACM SIG chairs, writing our annual reports, and doing other support for the group during my sabbatical year. I had hoped to move SIGCAS forward in new ways but mostly kept us in a holding pattern until the new board came on in summer 2020.

Two opportunities to take courses arose in spring 2020. I took Ralph Savarese’s The Craft of Creative Nonfiction and participated in half a semester of Justin Thomas’ Digital Media Design (up until spring break). Justin’s course has helped me think about other uses of technology in the arts, which relates to both my scholarship and my introductory courses. Ralph’s course has had a significant impact not only on my writing but also on the ways that I will teach writing in Tutorial and elsewhere. Ralph also says that he considers my final piece publishable; he and I will work on polishing it and finding an appropriate venues some time this academic year.

While I avoided some departmental and service responsibilities, others were unavoidable. I was an active participant in our tenure-track search, regularly attended department, division, and faculty meetings, and, once the pandemic hit, helped Jerod with the increase in chair duties.

As you know, I continued my regular writing about life as a Grinnell professor. I’m still not sure all the roles SamR’s Assorted Rants and Musings serve in the Grinnell community, but I have heard from early-career faculty that they help provide context to some things on campus, from current students and alumni that they help them gain a faculty perspective on issues, and from prospective students that they add detail to their understanding of Grinnell. I also know that some of the musings may have a negative impact on some members of our community. Still, I think they serve as a net positive and a different kind of public scholarship. (Note that I would not suggest that they should count as scholarship for a review; just that they are part of what I consider my important work as a faculty member.)

I also continued much of my regular service to the discipline. I’ve served as one of the Scholarship Chairs for both the 2019 and 2020 ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conferences. I served as an Associate Program Chair for the SIGCSE 2020 Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education. I continue to serve as one of two moderators for the ACM Special Interest Group in Computer Science Education’s mailing list, a moderately active list. I served as an external reviewer for computer science departments at two peer institutions. I also participated in my typical amount of reviewing, including a few conference papers and a dozen or two scholarship applications for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Diversity in Computing.

In terms of the original plans, I did not make much progress on the 151 materials. I did, however, spend a lot of time in spring (and summer) considering issues of moving the course online and working with my department and ITS to consider appropriate platforms for pair programming. (I think we’ve tried six.)

After I looked at the data from the code camps, it was clear to me that I could not write much that would add to the two refereed (30% acceptance rate) conference papers that my students and I had accepted for presentation and publication for the 2019 SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education. We had already started with relatively small numbers, and our analysis of the data was confounded by the presence of returning campers, a presence that not only affected their pre/post-test results, but also the experiences and therefore the results of other campers.

Rebooting the Mathematical Image Synthesis Toolkit (MIST) was more successful. I reviewed our prior work and the changes to the broader technical ecosystem. I set up frameworks and plans for moving forward. And my summer students have been doing well at reworking the project for modern Web frameworks and further steering us forward. I look forward to continuing MIST as my primary research project over the next few years.

I very much appreciate the support from the College that permits leaves like this.

Please let me know if you need further details about any of these activities.


Samuel A. Rebelsky, Professor and Chair

Perhaps I accomplished more than I thought. Although I did not accomplish my primary plans for 151, I did move forward. Taking The Craft of Creative Nonfiction and Digital Media Design will affect many aspects of my teaching and scholarship; in some ways, that’s more important than what I would have done otherwise. I would have liked to have finished the work on 151, particularly in terms of the media computation of 151 and improving the treatment of regular expressions, but you can’t do everything. And the other kinds of work I did were valuable to my communities. It’s nice to feel like I have the time to do these things without worrying about how they impact my day-to-day work.

Of course, sabbaticals are for more than professional work. Other aspects of my sabbatical plan were personal, rather than institutional. I wanted to work on my weight. I made some forward progress, but fell apart in terms of exercise and eating due to the stress of the pandemic. I wanted to organize my books. That didn’t happen, although I did come up with a book box design and made a dozen or so [10]. I wanted to clean my lab. That didn’t happen, in part because I couldn’t visit my lab for the spring. I wanted to work on my health. My mental health was better. However, as I noted earlier, the crush of the pandemic and Grinnell’s fall planning have negative impacts.

But I’ve done some organization, both of my physical world and my electronic world; it may just be hard for others to tell. I’ve had more time for things I enjoy. I had time to start gardening this summer. I’ve been able to muse [11]. So, while it could have been better, it was worthwhile. And I think it’s set me up well for my next leave.

It may be hard to tell, but I think I’ve also become more positive in my dealings with others, particularly my email dealing with others. I can still be unpleasant [14]. But it happens less often. I try to express my thanks [15] and to acknowledge the difficulties others face. I try to stay away from things that probably aren’t my domain. I hope others feel that I’m doing better. And if that’s the only outcome of this sabbatical [16], I think it’s a valuable one.

As always, I feel privileged to be able to take sabbaticals. Although I am once again faced with my too-long and too-stressful days, I feel better able to handle them. I hope we can eventually find a way for everyone to get a regular sabbatical or sabbatical equivalent.

Postscript: I had planned to write a one-page note. Now that I’ve formatted it in my approximation of the Grinnell standard, I see that it’s a little over two-and-a-half pages, including a short paragraph that I did not include in the public version. It seems to have the right content. I’m leaving it as it is.

[1] Not that I was all that productive to begin with.

[2] Arguably, mine was for one semester.

[3] Whoops.

[4] While I feel like I recovered, I worry how much the combination of the pandemic and Grinnell’s pandemic-associated complexities will wear me down.

[5] One of the many contributors to my burnout.

[6] Fewer than I would have if I wasn’t on sabbatical.

[7] Fewer than I would have if I wasn’t on sabbatical.

[8] Fewer than I would have if I wasn’t on sabbatical.

[9] I’m a tenured full professor who is also serving as Department Chair of one of the most popular majors. I would not recommend this approach for everyone.

[10] I have parts for a few dozen more.

[11] Acting Dean.

[12] I mentioned that in the report, didn’t I?

[14] The technology rants over the past two days almost certainly reveal that. I believe they are much less extreme than those I would have posted a year or two ago.

[15] Even when I’m frustrated with others, I’m thankful for the hard work that they do.

[16] It’s not.

Version 1.0 released 2020-07-19 .

Version 1.2 of 2020-07-19.