I owe you all a sabbatical

On July 1st I stepped down as chair of the Psychology Department at Laurier and started a sabbatical. As most people know, a sabbatical for academics is a period, typically one year or a half year, during which many of our normal responsibilities are put aside. We are given a period free of teaching and administrative responsibilities, so that we can undertake significant tasks difficult to fit in between our everyday responsibilities.

One way faculty use a sabbatical is to revisit their teaching in a substantial way and make major modifications that reflect new knowledge or the integration of new teaching tools into their classrooms. Other times professors take the time to focus on their research and to perhaps change the direction of their research or learn new techniques. People on sabbatical also use the time to write and prepare manuscripts for publication in either peer-reviewed journals or books. Most faculty do some combination of all the above during their sabbaticals.

For the past six years, you, as Canadian taxpayers, have funded my research. My students and I have been active in carrying out experiments and advancing our research agenda. Some of our results are very interesting and need to be published. As a chair of a large department for the last six years, I have not found the larger blocks of time needed to think about, prepare, carry out and write up our research findings.

Like CC columns, administrative issues have hard deadlines. Things need to happen at specified times; otherwise there may be no instructor in front of a class, or projects may not be completed on time. Research, in contrast, has soft deadlines. If a project does not get finished by a specific date, it generally has few immediate consequences.

When we do research, it is not always clear what will happen, and results are sometimes (often) not what was expected, leading to the need for further work. Thus research is always a risk and may not be immediately publishable, but research results that are not ultimately published and made available to the larger community are wasted. When the scientific community does not find out about a particular set of findings, the work needs to be repeated and does not lead to a better understanding of God’s creation. To this point, the research funds you have provided me have at some level been wasted.

A permanent record

Not completely wasted, however, because research funding is also used to train students; in grant-writing jargon it is called training of Highly Qualified Personnel, or HQP. But training of HQP also assumes one teaches them how to take research to its end point: publications for one’s peers, allowing one’s findings to be critiqued and extended by others. The graduate and undergraduate students I have mentored have hopefully learned about psychology and its research processes but not really about publication. Research findings are also presented to fellow scientists at scientific meetings. My students and I have participated in such presentations, but they are like live musical performances: unless the materials are recorded, they are lost forever. My students and I need to record our results in publications. We owe it to you.

Thus this sabbatical year my plan is to take the data, graphs and posters we have prepared for meetings and turn these into journal manuscripts. For me and for most writers, this task is daunting. Most authors talk about the terror of the blank page, and I know from experience that what is clear in my mind may be surprisingly hard to translate into understandable text on the page. Scientific writing has its conventions, but it is still necessary to craft clear text for publication.

We give our university faculty tremendous freedom, in terms of both their teaching and their research endeavours. Faculty can determine the topic of their research and, when they are awarded tenure, have remarkable job security. The tenure system has proved beneficial for society as it gives faculty the opportunity to explore what might initially be unpopular ideas, some of which later become the conventional wisdom. The sabbatical is part of that freedom. But with that freedom comes increased responsibility. My writing over this sabbatical is part of that responsibility.


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