A different academic model

Zurich in the snow, from our apartment
Zurich in the snow, from our apartment

The next phase of our sabbatical is in Zürich, Switzerland, where we’ve been since the beginning of January. There hasn’t been much to post here because, I suppose, things feel so familiar. We have a “group” to be part of, thanks to our wonderful host, Friedemann Mattern, which makes a big difference in how integrated we are into the university community. The university setting itself is much more familiar somehow than in India, perhaps for the same reason: We had to work to ensure that our office was near that of other faculty, and actively pursue integration with the department in Hyderabad. Here, we still have to actively pursue potential collaborations, but this is facilitated by the support that Friedemann and his group have given us.

ETH is also familiar in the sense that it functions like most other universities I’ve been part of over the years, as a homing ground for students, an organizer of talks on a wide breadth of topics, a place to discuss and teach and learn. One thing that differs from american universities is the structure of the department. The model here is one person per area. For example, a friend at the University of Zürich is the only person in Human Computer Interaction in her department, and is expected to carry the entire field. Critical mass is built across all of computer science, not within sub-areas. Instead, one recruits a productive and diverse set of post docs, doctoral students, masters students, and so on who work together to make the area a success. This is the polar opposite of a place like Carnegie Mellon, where entire departments are formed around sub-fields.

One of the more interesting things about being on sabbatical is the opportunity to rethink and think through who I am as a researcher. I am frequently given the opportunity to speak about my work to a variety of audiences, and I have written a number of different talks over the year attempting to summarize my work in assistive technology, my work in sustainability, overarching themes for the technical aspects of my work, and deeper questions about the value of the projects that I have chosen to do. Along the way, I have studied machine learning (I will have to write about this, as I took the Stanford ml course last fall) and am now studying hardware in more depth, finally finished a paper on the value of futurism (or rather Futures Studies) in guiding research (an enormous stretch for me, as it is primarily what I would consider a design/thought paper) and an article for interactions questioning the focus of sustainable human computer interaction research, based on a recent blog post on the topic.

To me, the ability to see and think about new models for academia as a whole, my own research, and everything in between, is one of the most valuable things about this year away. It’s a chance to rethink, question, and consider what works, what should be done, and what will make a difference.