Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sabbatical Proposal, Part I

It is a practice in many University Communities that faculty members may take a sabbatical every seven years.  In the preface to my most recent book, but one, Paradise Poisoned: Learning About Conflict, Terrorism and Development from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars, I wrote this:  

Over the project’s life, additional time for writing was provided by three Sabbatical Leaves.  Academic professionals accept this time off - one year out of every seven - as a right, but such an entitlement is unknown, of course, in most professions.  I consider this tradition a great privilege and am grateful that the Trustees of American University continue to sustain it.

Not only are sabbaticals unknown in most professions, they are often viewed with a mixture of envy and resentment.  I am presently in the process of requesting a sabbatical, after eight years as Director of American University’s Center for Teaching Excellence. The process is elaborate and bureaucratic, as, indeed, it should be. At its heart is the ‘Sabbatical Proposal.’  I thought it might help throw light on the practice of sabbaticals if I shared my proposal.  Since the proposal is long, I will post it in three parts of which this is the first. Whether or not it dispels any feelings of envy and resentment will be for those holding such feelings within themselves to judge.  The first proposal excerpt follows.

Reinvigorating my System Dynamics modeling proficiency

Much of my professional work has used System Dynamics modeling as a point of departure. System Dynamics, developed by MIT’s Professor Jay W. Forrester, is both a theory that describes the behavior of complex dynamic systems and a modeling methodology. Nonlinear differential equations and control theory provide the mathematical foundations for the approach.  My contributions to urban systems analysis, my coauthored first model of eutrophication in a large fresh water ecosystem (Lake Erie), which became the basis of a major government study, and my global modeling work, under the auspices of the Club of Rome, were all based on System Dynamics theory and modeling methodologies.  During my 1983-1984 sabbatical year, I worked with Jay W. Forrester at MIT as a staff member of his US National Economic Model project and was chosen by Professor Forrester to make a major presentation of model results to the project’s corporate sponsors group. 

In 1984, with the publication of Ending Hunger: An Idea Whose Time has Come completed I began work on a new research path, focusing on dynamic linkages between conflict and development.  Completion and empirical testing of the model required nearly three years of intense work (I was between marriages for most of this period).  Model results, with applications to dynamic linkages between conflict and development in Argentina and Mexico were described in a seminal 1987 Futures article, ‘Violence and Repression: Unexamined Factors in Development Planning.’  This modeling work provided the theoretical basis for numerous other publications, including my most recent book, Paradise Poisoned: Learning about Conflict, Development and Terrorism from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars (2005) and the Sinhala and Tamil abridgments, Lessons from the War: Consequences and Failures (2008).

Sustaining proficiency in a modeling methodology is like sustaining proficiency playing a musical instrument.  It requires regular practice.  Staying proficient at the cutting edge requires not only regular practice but disciplined engagement with an evolving literature.  During my tenure as CTE Director, I continued to teach System Dynamics Modeling to a small but enthusiastic clientele, but have not sustained my proficiency.  During my sabbatical year, I intend to change this by devoting a significant number of hours each week to daily practice.  

But practice without a specific project to practice on is less motivating.  Fortunately, I have such a project.  Some years ago, Professor Jay W. Forrester became briefly interested in international development issues.  He produced a prototypical generic model of development dynamics similar to his models of Urban Dynamics and World Dynamics.  I have Professor Forrester’s notes on this model, which exist as an unpublished MIT System Dynamics Group D-memo.  These notes will be used as the basis for a generic development model, focusing on the dynamics of sustainable poverty alleviation at the national level.  The model will also draw upon my own model of conflict and development and on the path-breaking dissertation research of my doctoral student, Mark Hamilton, on the role played by youth militant movements in the Global South.  This generic model will then be applied to a country-level, policy oriented case study focusing on the dynamics of sustainable poverty alleviation in Singapore.  

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