Conceiving sabbatical

TracksAs I embark on my sabbatical year, I’ve encountered some misconceptions about the practice–some of them my own. Fortunately there’s no shortage of research on the subject: the DOE’s ERIC database offers over 600 articles, both enthusiastic and critical. A few quotes I found helpful are excerpted after the break.

Many of you are better versed in this area, so please let me know what I’ve missed. For those familiar with the theory, but curious about our specific plans (as they stand)–jump to the end of this post.


Origins  The etymology–if not the details–of sabbatical derives from the tradition in Mosaic Law of leaving fields fallow a full year following six years’ planting (Kimball, 1978). Max Page describes the connection poetically: …this was to be a year of dedication to honoring God, as was the weekly Sabbath. It was also established for practical ones: fields and animals worked endlessly will become progressively less productive and eventually die…What sabbatical meant was that the land–your productive capacity, your brain, your heart–should not be used or exercised in exactly the same way it had been for the previous six years. It needs to be refertilized. It will be more productive and life giving (and refereed journal article producing) if it is allowed a rest from its usual activities (Page, 2010).

History  In the US, Harvard adopted paid research leave for faculty in 1880, and by 1920 it was common to at least 50 institutions (Kimball). Writing in The Guardian, Tamson Pietsch traces the practice as early as 1860s Australia, and explains in economic terms: …a bit like fishing for trout, fishing for ideas takes time. Until the end of the 19th century time was something that only the independently wealthy could afford to devote to research…The institution of regular, paid sabbatical leave at the end of the century changed all this. It enabled those who were talented, as well as those who were rich, to pursue scholarly and scientific research. Part of the long process of the professionalisation of academia, it was crucial to the development of the nexus between teaching and research that characterises the modern university (Pietsch, 2011).

Academia & Beyond  Sabbatical leave is most established for professors, presumably because (if tenured) they still benefit from unusual job security relative to most professionals. Still, Hillary Chura in the New York Times finds it embraced by the government and the private sector, including companies as varied as McDonald’s, Nike, Boston Consulting, Goldman Sachs and Silicon Graphics as well as law and accounting firms (Chura, 2006). Entrepreneurs like Vipin Goyal tout its value (though his post-sabbatical startup, SideTour, was recently acquired and then shut down by Groupon), and coaching groups like yoursabbatical promise to partner with businesses to implement customized sabbatical programs that attract, retain, and accelerate top talent through personal and professional enrichment. I’ll continue to focus here on academia, but presume some themes can be widely applied.

Value  I wouldn’t work at an undergraduate liberal arts college if I found teaching a burden. But stepping away from coursework to inhabit my scholarship for a year feels vital. As reviewed by Kang and Miller, research has shown that after teaching for several consecutive years, faculty have demonstrated lower levels of satisfaction and increased feelings of burnout…the sabbatical leave has been argued to play a significant role in enhancing teaching effectiveness, enlarging scholarly productivity, strengthening academic programs, and developing a faculty’s sense of commitment and loyalty to their employing institutions (Kang & Miller, 1999). (I’ll disregard for now the contemporary myth of the cushy professor gig, and refer skeptics to the 2013 Forbes debacle). A 2010 study conceptualized sabbatical as a special case of respite within conservation-of-resources theory: 129 sabbatees matched with non-leave professors of equivalent rank, sex, and discipline in Israel, New Zealand, and the US showed significant resource and well-being gains–particularly among faculty with higher respite self-efficacy (e.g. confidence in overcoming challenges, adjusting to a different environment), and who (among other things) took the opportunity to travel (Davidson et al., 2010).

Logistics  Practices vary, but most faculty are eligible to apply for sabbatical after six years’ continuous service. (Technically my institution considers me on pre-tenure research leave, as I’m only in my fourth year). Typical of US colleges, Skidmore tenure-track faculty may request either a semester or full-year (at half-pay) leave every seven years, beginning the fourth or fifth year of service. In a 2013 survey, most institutions also required at least a year of service following sabbatical leave, or equivalent reimbursement (Hanover Research, 2013); payback requirements emphasize the point that whatever the compensation, it is not to be considered as delayed salary for services already rendered, but as an investment in the future of the institution granting it (Eells, 1962).

Criteria  I was lucky: sabbatical applications are often denied, particularly given financial belt-tightening on most campuses today. Beyond academia, sabbaticals may be on their way out altogether: the 2012 National Study of Employers found companies allowing (at least some) employees to take sabbaticals fell from 49% to 29% in seven years (Matos & Galinsky, 2012). Pietsch objects to these trends as short-term thinking: if academics’ mouths are not to run away from their voices – if they are to do more than merely shout into the echo chamber of opinion – time must be invested in the slow and often lonely business of scholarship. For research to remain something that can be undertaken by the talented as well as the leisured an entitlement to regular, paid leave remains essential (Pietsch).

Evolution  The nature of sabbatical may also be changing. In an interview this year with Times Higher Education, Thomas Docherty argues it no longer exists in its true form, as an increasing number of universities…now refer to it as study leave, which in practice does not give people the time and freedom to rest, relax and re-engage with their discipline…far from being periods of reflection, sabbaticals or study leave can become quite stressful as promises need to be fulfilled in a specified time and there is no possibility of surprise (Else, 2015).

Goals  Page responds to similar perceived changes with a plea…to be true to the origins of the word. Don’t do nothing–but don’t focus on your usual activities either. Do not till the same soil; dare to do things differently for a year. You will be doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing–honoring your profession and the confidence placed in you–when you explore new areas, pursue projects that might fail, expand your mind with art or music or great literature, and generally upset your routine…You will be doing what you were hired to do, renewing your capacity for thinking, teaching, researching, serving the public good (Page).


BikesPlans  I hope to build some of Page’s advice into my research leave. For ten weeks I’ll be visiting my collaborator Erik Lindholm in Stockholm, working to integrate more computational methods (his area of expertise) into my lab’s projects on alcohol binding to model brain proteins. Along with the techniques I hope to learn from Erik’s group, I look forward to gaining new perspective on research and teaching among my Swedish and Sweden-based colleagues. As an alcohol researcher, the opportunity to reflect on another culture’s experience of the most universal of poisons is always exciting, from the lab to the bar (both great places for science). And I think Oliver and I are both thrilled to be living in one of the world’s great cities, however briefly. As beautiful a home as Saratoga Springs has been for us the past three years, Stockholm for me echoes the vitality of San Francisco when we first met. So far, it’s easy to feel inspired there.

Following Stockholm, we’ll travel the opposite direction to Austin, where we lived for four years before Saratoga. I look forward to absorbing the range of perspectives and expertise of the Waggoner Center, one of the world’s few interdisciplinary institutes for alcohol research, and where I received my training in the field. We are both also eager to return to our Austin community, and to the unique environment of Texas’ Weird City.

I also hope to build new and ongoing connections this year at conferences in Valencia/Chicago/Los Angeles–and our plans will certainly evolve. Staying flexible and working without a (permanent) address feels right for now; we’ll try to track new developments here. Many thanks to all of you making our travels possible, especially Skidmore, the Schofield/Ouderkirks (our Saratoga base camp), and the Howards (home in Chicago with our Boys). It’s one of the best parts of this adventure to know we will be back home (one place or another) soon.

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2 thoughts on “Conceiving sabbatical”

  1. I genuinely appreciated your attention to detail regarding the history of the phenomenon, its current trajectory in our profession, and you (andOli’s) ability to navigate said path with grace, unity, creativity, fruity mixers, and grande potential for staying relevant in your field. may the seeds of your loin be fruitful in the belly of academia, and may you publish widely. And know that those of us who have yet to receive this freedom and cannot yet partake in this
    luxury/enhanced responsibility, look upon y’all with covetous glare. Good luck, you guys deserve every moment away from groundhog day! Until your much awaited return to the spa..que la vaya bien! Pura vida! skål

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    1. I look forward to joining you on ollibatical in Austin! You were my first intro to that city so seems fitting. Crawfish! Happy and safe travels my friends. Love you much!

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