A defense of sabbatical

This is my last day of sabbatical. I should be preparing for class next week, drafting the sections of that grant I’m helping on, writing meta reviews for that conference, and finding an instructor for that masters program I chair. But the only thing really on my mind is how wonderfully pivotal the last 6 months of paid professional leave have been to my role as a researcher and a teacher.

Sabbatical in academia has a long and turbulent history. It’s not really in great shape right now. Many private universities still guarantee a full year of sabbatical to tenure track faculty, but others have abandoned it entirely, or have eroded it so heavily that it’s given out sparingly. My university is somewhere in the middle: I can get 2/3rd’s of my salary for 9 months every 7 years if I’m in good standing. That’s pretty solid, and our university is committed to keeping it that way.

But is it really worth it? Isn’t sabbatical just a year of paid vacation? Why should a university, especially a public university, release professors from teaching and service, only to have them sit on a beach for 9 months pretending to think hard about research? What does the world get for this investment?

There might be a few beach sabbaticals, but most of my colleagues don’t do that. Mine certainly wasn’t like that. Instead, mine was open time to chart the course of the next 7 years of my professional life in research, teaching, and even service. This is a huge privilege — who in industry gets to do that? — but I also think it’s essential to the job.

Here’s why. As a scholar, my job is to think about the coming decades of human civilization. My discoveries should stand the test of time. Some of them might not even be relevant for a couple of decades. And the discoveries that I teach students should be robust to change as well, preparing students not just for today, but for the next two to three decades of their careers. Even service, which is about running the university and the global research enterprise, can be about the future, investing in new academic programs, improvements to peer review, the efficiency of federal funding, and the political forces that cause it to rise and fall. Every single one of these jobs has a time horizon of at least 1 year out, if not 5, 10, or even 100 years out.

Most of faculty life leaves no room for this type of thinking. Getting that grant, publishing that paper, advising that doctoral student, teaching that class: there is so much detail in each of these, the long view on discovery and learning is a mere backdrop to the daily work. Sabbatical is a time to deal directly with these longer term concerns, framing and structuring a professor’s next 6 years of work.

When I started my sabbatical this past January, that’s how I set out to use it. My highest level goal was to figure out what my mission would be for the next six years and how I would accomplish it. My lower level goals involved choosing the work I’d do this year to help me prepare me to accomplish my mission. I took 6 months of leave at 75% salary, plus I had my three months of summer. I funded the rest of my salary at out NSF grants.

The mission I chose was this: advance and mature what we know about computing education to prepare the world to understand the disruptive changes coming from computing. I wrote about this on this blog, so I won’t go into detail about it here. Instead, I want to share the results of my sabbatical year, to give you a sense of how I spent all of this tuition and taxpayer subsidy. Here we go:

  • I wrote a retrospective on my three years as a startup CTO and cofounder (in review soon!). This is has transformed how I understand the software industry, how I teach about it, and how I see my efforts in computing education relating to industry.
  • I wrote an NSF proposal, framing my lab’s work on how to teach programming problem solving. Even though it was rejected, it’s helped us map fundamental questions about the nature of problem solving in programming and how to teach it.
  • I attended a week long Dagstuhl workshop on computing education research, deepening my relationships with researchers in this growing field. That week was pivotal in connecting me to the small world of computing education researchers, which has empowered me to become an advocate for the field in other areas of HCI, software engineering, and policy making.
  • I started several new student projects ranging from evaluations of coding tutorials, programming language tutors, problem solving tutors, investigations into coding bootcamps, and studies of equity in computing education. I think we’re doing some really exciting, powerful work, and can’t wait to share it with the world in the coming years.
  • I recruited new Ph.D. students to my lab from computer science, information science and education, developing a new pipeline.
  • I wrote a now widely trafficked FAQ on computing education research, which has been important in helping not only students see a participating in research, but has also helped my colleagues in HCI, Software Engineering, and Programming Languages understand it’s importance.
  • I recruited three undergraduate researchers to my lab to support the new projects, mentoring them on graduate school, research, and software engineering careers.
  • I redesigned my faculty website to better convey my focus, contributions, and impact in research for the next seven years.
  • I developed new collaborations with our new iSchool faculty Jason Yip, Katie Davis, and Negin Dahya, learning about new research areas of learning science, identity, and education. This has stretched my expertise, teaching me not only about new foundations of learning and education, but it has made me a more effective and inclusive teacher.
  • I partnered with a large group of computing education researchers to plan big NSF project on advanced learning technologies for computing education. Here’s to hoping we get the funding to fuel those disruptive innovations I mentioned above.
  • I started working with Richard Ladner’s AccessComputing project to further equity in access to computing education amongst people with diverse physical and cognitive abilities. This connected me to yet another research community of accessibility researchers, and led to some exciting work by my student Amanda Swearngin on web accessibility that has the power to bring the web to everyone regardless of physical ability.
  • I read and wrote a lot about privilege, searching for the underlying privileges in my own life that allowed me to succeed academically. This has been emotionally draining, but empowering, helping me to see my role as a teacher from a more structural, systems view, and making me more excited about the leadership roles I’ll inevitably take on as senior faculty.
  • I attended CHI 2016 in San Jose, reconnecting with the research community after two years of startup life, reminding me of how wonderfully diverse and interdisciplinary our community is.
  • I taught my first high school computer science course to understand more about the challenges of teaching CS electives in schools, and made 11 mentoring relationships with South Seattle teens that I hope will reshape their paths toward college.
  • I went to the Snowbird conference to advocate for computing education research, connecting with hundreds of chairs and deans. This connected me to dozens of leaders at universities around North America, but also gave me a larger view of the barriers that computing education research will face in maturing.
  • I went to ICER 2016 and strengthened my ties with the growing computing education research community, finding partners in my long-term mission.
  • I connected with code.org, Microsoft, and Google efforts in computing education, disseminating my research and others’ to their product design and policy efforts.
  • I redesigned my design thinking course, INFO 360, to incorporate everything I learned about learning this year. It’ll be a better class, while taking less time to teach. It will also be a solid foundation for the other sections of the course, and perhaps HCI courses around the world.
  • I got married, went on a beautiful honeymoon to Croatia and Slovenia, and bought a house in Seattle’s crazy housing market. Don’t worry, no public dollars in any of those.

What’s the ROI of my six months of 2/3rd’s salary to the university and the public? Was all of the above worth ~$80K in salary, benefits and guest faculty in my absence? I think so. In the short term, I mentored and taught dozens of students and made important discoveries that have already impacted efforts at code.org, Microsoft, and Google. And like I claimed above, this is a long term investment. Because I had this sabbatical, in 10 years, you’ll start to see more effective and inclusive teaching of computer science, which means a more computing literate humanity and a more effective workforce of software engineers. I hope this will mean a better, safer world that creates a computing infrastructures and institutions that reflect all of us, rather than just the privileged few. I predict that the $80,000 the university spent on my time will easily return at least 10x in economic productivity over the next decade.

Yes, not every sabbatical is like this. There are some faculty that have extended vacations and get paid a small portion of their salary to do so. Sometimes, rest is what busy professors need to be great researchers and teachers. That said, I think that every sabbatical has the potential to be extremely valuable to society, and it’s a professor’s responsibility to make it so.

Disagree? I want to here from you!

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