Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Sabbatical, Sweet Sabbatical

Posted 04 Jun 2015 / 0

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It is early June and I am just beginning to settle in to what will be my longest period of unstructured work time since I left graduate school. In the Spring of 2014 I received tenure and in the Fall of 2014 I applied for my first sabbatical. In the coming semester — Fall 2015 — I am relieved of all teaching and academic service duties.

This sabbatical could not come at a better time. As amazing as it is to become a tenured faculty member, it is also — at least for me — a time of intense reflection. I have tenure, which means that I can stay forever at my current institution. That is a huge privilege, especially in today’s academic labor market, but also a huge commitment. With every passing year I become more ‘married’ to my institution, which means that I need to make sure that I can thrive in my relationship with that institution.

Achieving tenure also means that I can reconsider the direction of my scholarship. Up until I was awarded tenure, my research and other scholarly activities had to meet the standards of others. My adviser, my dissertation committee, and finally my academic colleagues all exerted an influence on what research I decided to pursue. This influence was not by any means stifling, and in several instances pointed me in directions that really benefited my career. But having to answer to all these folks with power over me definitely prevented me from fully pursuing the career that I am interested in having. I was in some sense pleasing the machine rather than pleasing myself.

With tenure, I can pursue whatever scholarship I wish to pursue. That is exciting, liberating… and scary. Whereas in the past I could tell myself that I was working on a particular project in order to receive my degree, get an academic job, and ultimately get tenure, now I mostly have myself to answer to when I decide what to focus on. What sort of academic career do I want to have from here on in? That feels like a daunting question.

I am going to use my sabbatical to try to answer that question. So far I feel that I am off to a good start, although I am heading off into uncharted territory, which is a bit off-putting if not entirely frightening. The projects that I have chosen to focus on provide a good indication of the kinds of spaces that I am seeking to explore. Nothing that I will focus on over the next eight months can be described as primary research. My scientific fields — and scientific fields in general — are so obsessed with primary research that it is very difficult to step away from that kind of work. But I need to. As hard as it will be, the next time that I attend a conference or meet by chance another academic in my field, I have to be able to answer the ubiquitous question “So what do you study?” by saying “I study other people’s research”. That is to say, I do not have all that much interest in doing the very work that defines a scientist in most people’s (especially scientists’!) minds: testing hypotheses using empirical and theoretical methods. Throughout my career I have hinted at my interest in forgoing primary science for more ‘secondary’ pursuits, and have been uniformly rebuffed. One of my graduate school professors went so far as to tell me that it was arrogant of me to think that I could sew together the patchwork of primary science without first producing a large swath of its patches; his comment was one of many that compelled me to hide and suppress my true motivations.

It has taken me a long time to understand my own interests, although to an outside observer I think that those interests might have been pretty obvious pretty early on. I have always been more interested in explaining the findings of science than in producing the findings of science. Take a look at my (somewhat meager) publication record and you can see it pretty clearly: most of my work consists of review papers, reviewing the work of others. I have a deep respect for primary research, but I am not driven to produce it. Over my past fourteen years in higher education, I have really struggled to focus on a particular narrow area of inquiry, and it is this narrow focus for which most scientists are rewarded. I cannot say that I am completely giving up on primary research, but I am releasing myself from the pressure to produce primary knowledge so that I can better develop my career. Stepping away from primary research may be a form of career suicide, as the vast majority of professorial positions — even at institutions that afford no support for primary research — require an accomplished primary publication record. Luckily for me, a combination of tenure and a position at a teaching institution afford me the space to make this difficult career decision.

So if not primary research, what am I planning to spend my sabbatical working on? I have two projects that I am planning to focus on, each of which feels more reflective of my interests than anything that I have published in the past. My primary focus will be writing a book with the working title Drones versus Breeders (this title has a fatal flaw that I need to fix, so it will change… I just have to figure out how). The book will be an exploration of the tension in modern human societies between cultural and biological reproduction. I hope to use a very thorough investigation of what we know scientifically about both human baby-making and human culture-making to better understand the roles that culture and biology play in shaping our species. I also suspect that I am going to uncover a lot of areas in which further inquiry would deepen our understanding of the culture-biology tension, which would allow me to (perhaps arrogantly?) suggest where primary research efforts should be directed. I am excited and scared to get going on my first book.

The second project I will be working on is an ongoing video project called The WmD Project. I received funding to develop this work a little over a year ago, and I am making steady progress towards getting it out there ‘on the web’. It is a very weird project, one that I have no trouble explaining to myself but struggle at times to explain to others. I play a fictional character, inhabiting the real world (this facet of the project is inspired by the work of Sacha Baron Cohen), who re-discovers the major explanatory theories of ecology and evolution. Presented in a somewhat-amateur video blog format, the series seeks to be an alternative means by which members of the general public might come to better understand the major tenets of ecology and evolution. At its core this project is near and dear to what I feel I know best — how to deliver conceptual understanding of ecology and evolution — but it has required me to employ skills (scripting, acting, filming, and editing) that are a stretch for me. I head full speed into the project knowing full well that it could go nowhere, but somehow the risk of producing an educational video series that no one ever watches seems a bit more palatable to me than the risk associated with publishing another primary scientific research paper that no one ever reads.

The other really necessary aspect of my ‘tenure break’ is a break from teaching. As much as I love teaching, I need some time and space to reflect on my current teaching. Unfortunately, this need goes beyond the usual summer need to step away from the classroom to charge the proverbial pedagogical batteries: I am in a minor crisis about my teaching. When I first came to Pratt, my experience of teaching was very positive overall. I had a few students who felt entitled to not work at all and still get an “A”, but these students were in the minority. It took me awhile to get used to the fact that my class was very low on the priority list of even my most dedicated students, but now I am at complete peace with my role in my students’ general (rather than major) education. But my classes were successful, a success that I could gauge both based on my course evaluations and on the daily enthusiasm that students brought to my class. Unfortunately, my classroom has begun to change.

For whatever reason, I do not feel as positive about my teaching. In large part my ‘reduced positivity’ is a reflection of what I perceive as reduced enthusiasm from my students. It feels as though my students are less engaged, less interested in, and less capable of understanding what I bring to each of my lessons. This is not a uniform experience and in many of my classes I experience really robust discussions of the kind I am looking to foster, but the frequency of these ‘positive moments’ is going down. My course evaluation scores have also experienced a small but marked decrease. As a result, I feel a lot less enthusiastic about teaching, which is very unlike me. I have been teaching for more than twenty years and although it has never been easy, it also has never felt as unsettled as it now feels.

What I need to figure out over the next eight months is why has my experience of my classroom changed? A number of factors could be responsible:

  • The way I teach has changed, and that may be causing a change in the tone of my classroom. Recently I have been increasing some aspects of the rigor of my courses. When I first came to Pratt, my course assessments consisted of low-stakes quizzes that basically were designed to ensure that students do the required readings, in-class participation and assignments, and two major projects (a written paper and a creative project, in total comprising at least 50% of students’ grades). Of late I have shifted to a more traditional approach to teaching, with out-of-class homework before and after each lesson and a low-stakes Midterm Exam (10%) and relatively-high-stakes (30%) Final Exam. I made this shift for a couple of reasons, both related to rigor. By asking students to complete homework assignments that assess their understanding going into and coming out of each lesson and provide them with feedback, I can expect more of them on exams. And just by having all these assessments, I can be more rigorous with myself, as I have plenty of data to analyze to determine what is and is not working in my lessons. Ironically, I also changed up the assessments in my class to reduce the rigor of my courses, as students often complained about having to complete major projects outside of class, projects that competed for time with their very-time-intensive major projects. It is possible that this reconfiguration of my class is causing lowered student enthusiasm for my course. I could put things back the way they were… but I do not know if that would improve how my students — or I — perceive my courses.
  • My students may have changed, and I have failed to adjust to these changes. I am about the last person in the world who is going suggest that “they don’t make ’em like they used to” when it comes to students, but I do think that subtle generational shifts occur over longer periods of time. Eight years into my Pratt career, it is reasonable to assume that the upbringing and values of my current students may not be exactly the same as the upbringing and values of my past students. Some changes in the way I teach, such as my use of an open information environment, reflect an attempt on my part to create a classroom that is in touch with the sensibilities and expectations of today’s student. But perhaps there are other ways in which my classroom has failed to keep in step with my students. Ironically, the so-called “digital natives” of today’s classroom seem less adept than past students at dealing with a course administered through a Learning Management System. What is hard about attempting to customize my course to the needs of my contemporary students is that trial-and-error is about the only method I have to figure out what will reach them.
  • My reaction to what goes on in my classroom may have changed, and most of what I am experiencing is in my head. The decrease in my course evaluation scores kind of negates the possibility that my reaction to my classroom is completely in my head, but my perception could be a big part of the story. Interestingly, it is possible that I am simply raising my standards without realizing that I am doing so; in other words, my students are as strong and weak as they ever were, but I am now expecting more of them than I used to. I accept this as a possibility, but it is hard to tell if I have changed in this regard. The other related possibility is that I have become more emotionally reactive to things that do not go well in my classroom, that while my standards have not changed my reaction to my classroom outcomes sinking below those standards has changed. Again, it is very difficult to know what has changed in my head, but my hope is that by taking a frank look at what has and has not worked in the past semesters I can establish more realistic standards — and reactions to falling short of those standards — in my future classrooms.

I plan to spend a good part of my sabbatical trying to figure out how to like my classroom a lot more when I return to it in the Spring of 2016. It is time to really look at those course evaluations and to talk to my colleagues about best practices.

A lot of folks think that we academics have the easy life, and sabbatical would be on the top of most lists chronicling the cushy conditions under which we work. But from my vantage point, sabbatical looks like an indispensable opportunity for reflection and growth. I plan to make good on this opportunity.

A Major Post, Breeders, Propagators, & Creators, Cultural Evolution, Higher Education, Pratt Institute, Teaching, The WmD Project

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