Sabbath, Sabbatical, and the Changing Seasons

By December 27, 2014

Solstice was this week (which is also my birthday), a day which to me always represents a fresh start, the year’s pivot point back towards the light. This dawning feels especially significant, as the start of an unfamiliar new phase: I’ve just begun a sabbatical.

When creation was finished, on the seventh day God rested “for a season.” So, likewise, the people of Israel were commanded to institute a sabbatical year every seventh year to rest their fields. At the end of seven sabbatical cycles, a jubilee. (I’m not holding out hope for 7 sabbatical cycles of my own, given I got such a late start in academia, by the way).

At my university, one is eligible to apply for a sabbatical post-tenure for a half year at full pay or a full year at half pay. I will be on leave for the spring semester + the summer, so I won’t be teaching until September 2015. During that time, I won’t do academic advising, thesis directing, committee work, or even have to respond to emails in a timely way. I also can’t participate in department meeting votes or in the program review process under way this year. I get to keep my office, though I cleaned it out pretty good before I left before Christmas, and it (like a well-tilled field) will rest for a season.

Sabbaticals are a vestigial throwback, a phantom limb of the means of production in an entirely different era. I think anyone who has the occasion to take one must be a little startled by the reality that they still exist at all, and that in certain fields — especially academia and the professional clergy — they’re somewhat expected. The notion of the sabbatical once every decade or so has even entered the corporate world, though some are paid and some unpaid. An administrative assistant at Intel told the New York Times, “In my mind, it is the best benefit, rivaled only by health care.”

But also like employer-based health care, sabbaticals represent an employer’s investment in their employees; there is very much a measure of self-interest in the employer’s granting a sabbatical leave. The title of a Patrick J. Murlow’s presidential address published in the 1989 Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine says it all: “Sabbatical Leave: An Important Mechanism for Revitalizing Faculty.” It’s touted as a cure for burnout, which itself implies some hazards of the job, I suppose. An HR guy from McDonald’s told the Times in that same article I cited earlier that “depending on what they do while they are gone, they come back even more skilled and talented than when they left.” Hmm.

So what’s it for? It’s not simply a vacation, though it begins with time off. It’s a rest, or it’s a change (which is as good as a rest, they say). It’s a chance to be productive and do the things teaching doesn’t leave time for, or to teach in a totally different setting; it’s an opportunity for renewal, to make progress on one’s own projects, perhaps for travel or (for historians) archival trips; it’s time for me and my priorities. BUT. I am not supposed to forget that this time is granted by the university and there is a concomitant expectation (whether tacit or explicit) that I will advance a scholarly agenda and come back ready to work harder and be a better teacher, scholar, etc. A sabbatical feels like it needs to be a period OF intense creativity and cultivation, not a rest from it.

If all that sounds ambiguous or conflicted, you nailed it. If the job of higher education weren’t so draining one presumably wouldn’t need extended time off. Or is this a “let them eat cake” fundamental misunderstanding by academics of what a tough job actually consists of? Is my job really harder than that of other kinds of educators, like public schoolteachers or day care workers, who generally don’t earn sabbatical? Is my sabbatical yet another cushy perk of the out-of-touch academic lifestyle, especially galling in this age of contract faculty when likely my courses will be replaced by contingent faculty offerings remunerated at a pittance, and when tenure-track jobs themselves have become an endangered species? Am I already feeling some survivor guilt? A sabbatical is designed to help me disconnect my authentic Self from my Job, but of course I know that the act of being permitted to disconnect in this way is integral to the kind of job I have and the kind of job security it brings. Sabbaticals are an elite luxury offered only within a closed circuit of organizations which can afford to replace their workers for a period of time.

So – during my sabbatical, I need to be me, but also different. No small task. I like the way Max Page put it:

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…

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. [1]

What am I planning and/or hoping? Firstly, a scholarly agenda: I’ll be helping to plan the 2015 MHA conference, doing background reading and archival trips and preliminary writing for a new book project, giving a scholarly invited lecture and a youth fireside, working on a few conference papers, updating my digital projects, blogging, and planning syllabi without impending deadline pressure. SBal15I’ll also be teeing up work I think I can do while teaching, hoping that the aphorism proves true that the year (or semester) after sabbatical is the productive one. Secondly, a personal agenda: the things I say I never have time for, which include: creative projects (dusting off the sewing machine, cookbooks and knitting needles), a daytime yoga class, concentrated time for temple service and callings, reading for pleasure, personal correspondence, and having more time at home. In all of these, I’m envisioning a perfectly balanced wheel.

But I am also perfectly aware that part of the joy reality of sabbatical is the unexpected: entirely new projects, ideas, or research directions. I think of a colleague of mine who stumbled onto a much better project while working on the one she originally intended during her recent sabbatical.

I do have some trepidation. I have said for so long that I can’t write effectively while teaching 4/4 because I don’t have the ability to sustain momentum, but now the chips will be down and I will have to see if I can write if I’m not teaching, or if I’ve just been using that as an excuse not to be as productive as I might have been. I worry about the lack of structure, what Lee Tobin McClain calls a “surfeit of solitude,” so it doesn’t become 6 months of catching up on neglected TV watching.

Concord-Ref-SMSome of my initial strategies will be those that served me so well during grad school: planning each day & week out ahead of time, working in short sustained bursts (aka the pomodoro technique), making my own accountability with writing pacts, finding a regular non-home place to get things done (my favorite nearby spot is the Concord Free Public Library’s Thoreau Room, pictured left), and alternating “hard days” and “easy days,” another suggestion from McClain. I would welcome advice on balance, momentum, and gigantic project management, especially from those of you who are closer to the dissertation-writing stage, which is my only (and now, increasingly distant in memory) comparable experience.

But I will say this: unlike the dissertation, which was largely structured by external expectations, the sabbatical is different. It feels like the first truly deliberate thing I’ve ever done in my academic career. Everything else was either jumping through someone else’s hoops or winning the lottery – things for which I got very lucky, or had precious little control over. This one, for once, is all mine. That feels very appropos, and more than a little like the weeks and months after solstice: a little, very little bit lighter each day.

[1] Max Page, “Who Took the Sabbath Out of Sabbatical?Academe Sept/Oct 2010

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues Miscellaneous Women in the Academy


  1. Thanks for this, Tona. You never fail to demonstrate that you think more and more critically about many of these things that we take for granted, and are much better for it. Best of luck with the much-deserved time off!

    Comment by Ben P — December 27, 2014 @ 10:00 am

  2. I have been thinking about the work of historians and history professors a lot lately, particularly writing. One main idea that comes to mind is “passion.” How do you remain passionate as a writer and scholarly researcher? My passions stem from relationships and interactions with others. Writing and research can seem so introverted and personal. I sometimes feel like I am shutting the world off when I write, when I should really be inviting them in to help guide me as I address my communication towards people of the world (whatever audience it is). So, I wonder, how do scholars balance writing, passion, and the world in stages such as dissertation writing and sabbatical? Thank you for your insights!

    Comment by Farina — December 27, 2014 @ 3:51 pm

  3. I’ve been mostly on vacation for the holidays, so I’m late to comment–but thanks for this post. I have found it increasingly important to be clear, when talking about sabbatical, research leave, and other time when I’m not teaching (such as summer) that it is not “time off”–this is not paid vacation. Instead, it’s time for research and writing–two things that I find I do best and most productively when I have the time to focus on them in a sustained way. In a world where people outside academia (and even our students, who are sojourning in the world of academia) often don’t understand what faculty do, it’s important to me that I don’t give them the mistaken impression that when I’m not teaching, I’m watching TV and eating bonbons. (Not that there’s anything wrong with watching TV or eating bonbons! I just don’t get paid for that.)

    Best wishes for a wonderful, rejuvenating, and productive sabbatical!

    Comment by Quincy D. Newell — January 7, 2015 @ 3:21 pm


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