My Year Away. And Back.

The Joys of Getting Back into Academic Life after a Year-Long Sabbatical.


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I Just Got a Big Dose of Administration—and I Was Ready to Run Pell-Mell Back Home to Curl up with my Statistics Book!

Although my yearlong sabbatical is all about reinvigorating my scholarly life, periodically I have a few administrative duties that call, forcing me out of my flip-flops and reluctantly into a business suit. One of those duties is going on schools of journalism site accreditation visits. I sit on the national ACEJMC Accreditation Council, the group of academics and professionals who oversee accreditation for our J-Schools so I didn’t think it was right for me to bow out of visits this year.

Normally, I love going on these visits. They usually come at a time in the semester when I’m ready for a break from my own university. It’s always fun to see a different school. I usually come back with at least one great idea to think about—and even more thankful for my own university.

Going on these visits while on sabbatical is a different beast altogether. It’s a bit jarring. First, you receive a ginormous box of reading material that the unit sends to convince the accrediting team that it’s at the top of its game. Then you have to get on a plane and travel to the school for three days of intense inspection and report writing. For some reason, I always seem to get the cold schools so I leave the comforts of the south and head into weather. Always.

This visit was no different. I arrived at Kent State University just in time for a snowstorm. My husband thought it would be helpful to text me a picture of the weather report while I was gone. A balmy 70 degrees at the beach.

Part of the beautiful (but snowy) Kent State University

Part of the beautiful (but snowy) Kent State University

I was the only non-administrator on the recent visit. All the other team members know me as a fellow administrator so I had to remind them a few times that that wasn’t my life any longer. My fellow teammates had to have conference calls back at their universities, had to keep up with emails, had to check in with their administrative assistants. They were giving close attention to our task at hand—but they had to keep one eye on things at home.

I did not. In fact, I hardly even know what’s happening at my own university these days. It’s taken me a number of months to unplug from (most of) the academic gossip, but I am deep, deep, deep into life now as a sabbatican (I think I’ve made up that word; don’t you think it should be accepted into the lexicon?). As I’ve written before, one of the frustrating things for me as an administrator was the amount of space it took up in my brain. But now, as a regular professor, I can think long, deep thoughts without interruption.

Currently, what I’m thinking about is how to run a MANOVA with two independent variables and three dependent variables while trying to show the interaction between each level of each independent variable simultaneously. My stats ability remains rusty, but I have spent considerable amount of time this year trying to master statistics. I’ve taken MOOCs, I’ve read books, I’ve run everything there is to run on SPSS, I’ve read what other scholars have done in similar situations. In short, I’m thinking deep and hard about statistics.

On the plane out to Ohio, I sat with the accreditation self study, reviewing the report again making sure I would be ready to hit the ground running when I got there (of course, there was no real running since I had to do everything I could to stay upright on the slippery sidewalks).

On the plane out of Ohio, I sat hunkered over, huddled with my most recently purchased stats book. I was determined to get to the end of this multivariate conundrum.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.” Who knows if that is true, but I’d like to think it is. I’ll tell you. I nearly cried when I finally got the model to run and watched all those beautiful statistical significant results scroll down my computer. Hey, I’m a numbers nerd. And that makes me happy.


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For Something Fun in the New Year, Take a MOOC

We professors tend to yap our fool heads off about any number of things.  Everyone’s an expert!  In journalism education circles, this seems particularly true when it comes to technology.

In higher education, there is a lot of buzz about the pros and cons of massively open online courses.  Everyone seems to have an opinion—even if they have absolutely no idea how MOOCs work.  (I just read an article published in an alumni magazine, for example, that argued a MOOC is bad because it isn’t as good as a 16-student seminar.)  So, as I’ve been planning My Year Away, I decided I will need to experience a MOOC for myself.  But, turns out that I got too curious and didn’t want to wait until my sabbatical began.

I’m pleased to report that I just completed my first MOOC (successfully, no less!), a statistics class from Professor Andy Conway at Princeton University.  My analysis? I loved it!  It was challenging, fun, and a lot of work (I typically put in 10 hours/week on it.)

But here’s what surprised me most of all.  It felt like a real class.  Even though 100,000 students from around the world were my classmates (I have no idea how many dropped it, but according to the research, probably about 95,000), it felt like a real class.  I stressed out over the assignments, I had to ask fellow students for help, I got behind at times.  And perhaps what surprised me most of all was how intimate the whole experience felt.

I walked away from the class with a completely different attitude about distributed education models.  I was skeptical—and now I’m intrigued.

Recently, a number of people have written about the disappointing realization that over 80% of the people who sign up for MOOCs already have a college degree.  Apparently, many people have decided that MOOCs should be for the financially disadvantaged only—as a way to get a college education that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to achieve. (I’m not sure where Bill Gates falls into this since he is a college drop out, but clearly brilliant; Gates says that he has taken several MOOCs.)  Some argue that because most MOOC students have a college degree already, MOOCs are a bust.

In my statistics class (if the comments on the forum were representative) then this class, too, was filled with college graduates—many with multiple graduate degrees.  But, I don’t think this makes the grand MOOC experiment a failure.  What this class has done for me (besides helping me brush up on my statistics) includes giving me:

1.     A greater appreciation for distributed education models.  I used to think face-to-face was always the best way to share knowledge.  Now I’m thinking that variety provides an additional layer of acquiring knowledge.  I’m also looking outward from my campus more.  I’m thinking about ways we can make more of our classes available to more students in South Carolina (and maybe outside the state, too).

2.     Improved knowledge, which I have to believe, will make me a better teacher and scholar.  Ultimately, that should also benefit  my students.  I know more now than I did 12 weeks ago.  And I realize that I can do more to increase my knowledge–within in my own field, but also outside my typical scholarly boundaries.

3.     Compassion for those who struggle with minimal technical access.  My forum stats colleagues inspired me as I read about some of their struggles—and determination to succeed even though they lived in locations with sporadic internet connections and only had access to computers that were generations older than mine.

I love the idea that MOOCs could help students earn an undergraduate degree.  But until a demand grows for more MOOC courses like English 101, Algebra, Introductory to Rhetoric, etc. rather than the seriously cool courses that are currently available, it’s not going to happen.   But, to me, that doesn’t mean that the MOOC experiment is a colossal failure.

Sure, we have a long way to go before MOOCs can solve any kind of world-wide education gap between high-resourced people and those with minimal resources.   But rather than pooh-pooh the whole shebang, why not get into the middle of it and see what all the scuttlebutt is about.

Take a class.  It’s stressful, but a blast.  I’m already signed up for another statistics class that starts in February, this time from a professor at Duke.  I can already tell that my brain is gearing up for a successful Year Away.  I have no idea how many students have signed up for the class that starts in February (about 160 days before My Year Away starts), but I’m sure there is room for one more.  Anybody want to join me?