Bits and Behavior
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Bits and Behavior

A blue sky with clouds.
Clouds give me hope. I guess that’s the Pacific Northwestern in me?

Sabbatical #2

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a professor, or anything really. My vision of my future was a truncated one: I imagined that I’d finish high school, maybe college, and then seek out what I wanted most — independence from family and an escape from near poverty. This seemed possible, but perhaps only by selling myself to capitalism. I imagined doing this while disappearing into a tiny dark apartment, never to be seen again, emitting disembodied bits from a cable modem, hiding my beast within.

Stumbling upon academia in my first year of college showed me a different path: one in which I might not only have financial security, but job security, and even high degree of autonomy. What better way to hide from the world, in an ivory tower, with money, ideas, and no boss? These seemed like the greatest of privileges, and well worth six years more of living in near poverty. And so I embarked on a journey of discovery, to see if it might lead to refuge.

It did, and more. Through academia, I found curiosity, friendship, travel, leadership, and a voice. It taught me how to create and pursue visions, how to juggle twenty five things at once, how to inspire and captivate, and how to learn with vigor and rigor. It gave me far more than I expected and so I gave far more than it asked, committing and overcommitting myself to discovery, teaching, service, administration, and public good. It felt like the least I could do for a profession that I didn’t feel I deserved.

In the last few years, however, that commitment has waned. But not for some change in academia itself, but changes in me and changes in the world. Coming out as trans, as empowering and life saving as it has been, has been completely and totally exhausting. For more than five years now, my life has been almost completely consumed by financial, emotional, logistical, physical, and structural trauma, stressing nearly every dimension of my life, regularly to the point of breaking. Doing this transition, while being expected to maintain not only the same level of productivity, but also take on more responsibility, has been unsustainable.

The global pandemic has not helped. While I struggled in my own life to find a stable emotional foundation on which to rebuild my life, the world brought lockdowns, isolation, fear, stress, division, crisis, and more. In the past two years, I’ve spent evenings talking undergraduates down from roofs, I’ve planned memorials, I’ve counseled countless students through sexual harassment and assault, I’ve supported trans faculty in their fights against transphobic tenure committees, I’ve given a dozen talks about CS and oppression, I’ve struggled to manage conflict and power struggles in my community, and I’ve spent entire weekends crying about all of it. I don’t know if it’s the pandemic, the transition, or the job or all three, but I do know that I’m beyond burned out.

The only thing that kept me motivated through all of this was the promise of sabbatical, in which academia says “It’s been six years and you seem tired, cynical, and stuck. How about you go away, heal, and rekindle that fire?” This perk has always seemed far too good to be true — what other profession offers one of every seven years to recover passion, curiosity, and commitment? This is the ultimate in privileges.

And so this summer, I begin my sabbatical. My second, actually — my first was a short 6 month sabbatical immediately following three years co-founding and growing a software startup, in which I did a sharp research pivot to computing education research. That short break from responsibility was a powerful catalyst in reshaping my research, teaching, and service. But in so many ways, it feels like my first sabbatical. Six months was not nearly enough time to recharge, especially after the epic exhaustion of founding a company. And so this sabbatical, 7 years later, really feels like my first real retreat from the responsibilities that come from the industrialized parts of academia, in which I can overcome burnout and rediscover why I fell in love with research, teaching, and service in the first place.

So what will I be doing? Here are my goals:

Slow communication. I’m a responsive communicator; I generally reply to emails within 24 hours, to direct messages in less, and always strive for inbox zero. These are largely due to two things: a tidiness compulsion, but also an unhealthy conscientiousness in which I often place other people’s needs over mine. I’ve also been quite active on social media over the past decade, writing a lot on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium. For this sabbatical, however, I want to try slowing things down to prioritize my own needs for a while. I’ve already announced that I’m mostly stepping back from Twitter; I’m also going to be slowing my email pace to responding on Fridays only (and scanning for messages requiring a more urgent reply). I want to see what life is like starting my morning with reading, writing, and making instead of coordination and crisis.

Rebuild community. Being closeted for decades meant I was mostly aloof, and rarely formed any genuine connections. Being a full professor in a leadership position has aggravated that, meaning I’ve had less time been even more isolated, something that many other senior faculty also report as they gain seniority. And the pandemic has made this even worse, deferring all of my nascent post-transition efforts and friend making. I have to change this: I need connection more than I need anything right now. I will spent time growing my local community, especially amongst trans folks, and I will travel to reconnect professionally.

Quietly make. I’ve spent much of the past 7 years since my last sabbatical trying to understand the world, publishing study after study, and trying to change the world through argumentation. But I miss making, especially with code, and I have a backlog of so many ideas that I think could lower barriers to critical and creative expression with code. To scratch this itch, I’ll be spending the majority of my time over sabbatical building a new creative coding platform that is accessible (in the disability sense), global (in the language sense), playful (in the creativity sense), functional (in the programming language sense), and visible (in the user interface sense), all aimed at celebrating the beauty of language and typography. These are values and ideas I want to see more prominently in the world of K-12 CS education, and creative coding in general. But also, I just find programming therapeutic: I think making this as a kind of art therapy, something that will heal me while also embodying my values.

On top of these, I will maintain some of my current activities, including advising PhD students, postdocs, and undergraduates on research, serving as Editor-in-Chief of ACM Transactions on Computing Education, and continuing my many forms of equity and justice advocacy in K-12 CS education. This includes growing pathways for justice-centered secondary CS teacher education, at the University of Washington and beyond. Some of these are promises I’ve made that I’m not willing to break, some of them sustain my soul, and some are both.

I don’t know where I’ll be in 15 months when I resume full faculty life. I hope I’ll be past burnout. I hope I’ll have some new habits of communication. I hope I’ll have some new friends. And I hope I’ll have an exciting new creative tool to share with everyone. But if those things don’t happen, I hope that I’ll at least find hope again: in discovery, in society, and in life. Thank you taxpayers of Washington state for still believing in the power of hope, and the essential role of academia and professors in sustaining it. And thank you to the faculty and staff at the UW iSchool for carrying my load while I try to find it again.

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Amy J. Ko

Amy J. Ko

6.6K Followers

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.