Reflections on my fall sabbatical trip

A week ago, I returned from a six-week trip abroad. In this post, I’ll reflect on my goals for the trip and how they were (or were not) accomplished. In my next post, I’ll discuss  the transition from traveling on sabbatical to being on sabbatical at home.

From mid-August until the end of September, I traveled abroad with my husband and daughter. While I wrote the trip into my sabbatical plan, my real goals were non-academic.

First, I wanted to be away from campus for the start of the fall semester:

  • to accustom students and colleagues to my absence and make it clear I am really on sabbatical;
  • to avoid getting sucked into campus events, faculty meetings, service obligations, or independent studies; and
  • to let John establish himself as department chair for the year.

Second, since my husband has followed me around my entire career, we have talked about when he will get a turn to lead. This trip let me follow Brooks to where his work is based, Cambridge University, for about a month. While I’ve often joined him for two-week trips in summer, this was by far our longest trip together. The longer trip helped us think through what it might be like to spend an entire year there during my next sabbatical.

Third, I wanted to take some time off from work. My daughter and I tagged along to Lillehammer where my husband was presenting at EuroBSDCon. I’ve also been to this conference before. In the past I’ve met many of Brooks’s FreeBSD colleagues and even joined in some conference sessions. This time I didn’t get to do that due to managing a toddler’s schedule, but Lillehammer was beautiful. My daughter and I both enjoyed visiting Maihaugen, a large open-air museum with a  great playground.

How did I do on those top three non-academic goals? Mostly, I met them. It was the third that I struggled with. I found it difficult to take whole days off. Why? Since Brooks was “at work” while we were in Cambridge, his work took precedence. I had hoped to have child care for a solid 3.5 weeks. I was delighted to re-hire Emma, who babysat for us a few days while we were in Cambridge last summer. But she turned out to have more schedule conflicts than I realized, so I had no child care at all the week before we left for Norway. I was in the middle of a project at the time, so I continued to work during her naps and in the evenings after bedtime. The good: that week I worked 32 hours, a four-day week, without working a single regular 9-5 day, and I finished my project. (Now I get how other working moms do this!) The bad: I didn’t spend much time with Brooks that week. The ugly: this got me in the habit of working through Gwendolyn’s naps, so I didn’t take full days off in Norway like I planned to. And after we returned to Cambridge,  when we had planned to take a few days of vacation together as a family, nap times were consumed with urgent departmental business and packing to go home.

I also had several goals for my scholarly work, some of which were written into my sabbatical plan and some of which emerged later.

First, I wanted to meet colleagues in Cambridge and London. This was something I could do while traveling and not at home! But it was not as easy as I thought it would be.

  • First, the one success: I had lunch as planned with Anne Alexander, Director of the Learning Program for Cambridge Digital Humanities. Alan Blackwell of the Computer Laboratory had introduced me to her during my visit last summer. (He had also offered to host my visit to Cambridge, but he’s traveling on sabbatical himself this year!) While we didn’t talk much my offering a CDH workshop, which was where we had left things at the conclusion of our last conversation, I learned a lot about Anne’s current project and left with a much clearer sense of her goals for such workshops. I am starting to see how leading a CDH workshop might fit into a year-long sabbatical in Cambridge.
  • I also had lunch with David Liben-Nowell, a Carleton CS colleague who was organizing and teaching a study-abroad program in Cambridge. It was fun to hear about his experiences, as this is something I’ve thought I might like to do someday, and get to know him better. (This was not related to my scholarly work, but part of my general goal of meeting colleagues.)
  • I had written into my sabbatical plan that I would work with a colleague who focuses on gender issues in human-computer interaction and computing education. This didn’t happen at all — partly because my changing travel plans meant it no longer made sense for me to work at her lab, but mostly because we lost touch before the trip. From our last correspondence, I suspect she has not been well. I need to reach out to her again, both because it would be kind and because I would still like to establish a professional relationship with her.
  • Early in the summer, my research assistant Buyaki and I discovered a key reference written by two social scientists based in London. I asked Buyaki if I should try to meet with them during my trip, and she said yes! Because I was visiting Cambridge during the summer holidays, they were only available to meet during our last full week in Cambridge. We left our plans tentative until they returned from their vacations — and then it became clear I would not have child care, so I canceled. C’est la vie. Perhaps another time.
  • I had hoped to catch up with Computer Laboratory colleagues who I knew from my brief previous life as a networking researcher. (Damon Wischik I met last summer and learned about his transition to data science research; Tim Griffin‘s work I recognized in the hallway as he has continued his work on Internet instability.) But: I had limited child care, and summer holidays meant they were probably not even around. The Computer Lab was very quiet during our visit.
  • I did not even try to contact anyone else from Cambridge or at Microsoft Research.

In summary: While it was a pleasant time to be in Cambridge, it was not the right time to meet people and I did not have firm enough child care plans. Perhaps I would have had more success if I had tried to schedule more meetings in advance — or perhaps not. All factors to consider for my next trip.

Second, I planned to collaborate remotely with students. This happened, but not how I planned.

Before I left for the UK, Buyaki left for three back-to-back trips of her own. We had agreed that she would continue writing for a few solid days between her return and the start of the fall semester, and then for a few hours each week after classes started. What actually happened was she was needed to work a solid week for her other job at Harper Joy Theater, and I was traveling to Norway and we didn’t really sync up. She and I need to get back together now that I have returned.

However, I had also left open an invitation for Ian Hawkins to join my other project. Ian took me up on that offer as they finished a summer internship. So getting Ian started was a second project during that child-care-less week in Cambridge. Ian reviewed the code base, resolved a couple of small issues, and is nearly finished with a fairly large enhancement. Ian has also been using the extension and found several bugs in code I wrote. Even if this was the last thing Ian had time to do this fall, I would count our collaboration as a big win.

Third, I wanted to prepare and practice a talk on Value Sensitive Design for an upcoming workshop at which I will be an invited speaker. I count this a partial success. When I had planned to be at the Computer Lab for longer, I also planned to give my practice talk in the Computer Lab seminar series. But, with the shorter trip over the summer holidays, this no longer made sense. Since I wasn’t giving the talk, I didn’t prepare it either. I did think through the focus of my talk, do some preparatory reading, and submit the abstract almost on time. This will be a project for the three weeks between now and when I leave for the workshop. (I am not planning to write the talk while I’m traveling as I’ve sometimes done in the past, because it’s an international trip from Walla Walla, and I am expecting to be wrecked.)

Finally, I had one important work-related but non-scholarly goal: proposing two searches for new tenure-track faculty. While John has taken on the routine department chair responsibilities for the duration of my sabbatical, I agreed to take the lead on position proposals and chair any searches we might undertake.

First, my colleague Andy Exley is returning home to Minneapolis at the end of this academic year. He told us in May and made an announcement to students at the start of this semester. While I’m sad to lose him, we’ve been talking about this possibility off and on since he was hired, so it wasn’t a surprise.

While Andy is irreplaceable, the Trustees have approved a search to fill his position effective August 2020. During the trip, I worked with John to draft a pre-proposal (which become moot when we learned the Trustees had already approved the search), a job ad, a search timeline, and recruiting procedures. John and I also proposed external members for the search committee — important when the department comprises only two continuing faculty! Last Friday we met with Helen Kim in her new role as Associate Dean for Faculty Development to discuss the draft ad and timeline and other search procedures. If all goes well, the job ad will appear later this month.

Second, we are continuing our campaign for a fourth tenure line in computer science. With the growth in the computer science major, the argument for this expansion of the CS faculty is becoming much clearer. I drafted a pre-proposal to submit to the Committee of Division Chairs, and John rewrote a large part of the middle it to meet the word limit and clarify the narrative. If we are invited to submit a full proposal (fingers crossed!) I will publish the pre-proposal here.

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