On Sabbatical

When my sabbatical leave started, and I was giddily enlisting myself in travel, tai-chi, French class, salsa—you name it, I was signing up for it like Marsha Brady—I’d find myself talking to civilians (non-academics) who would, at first, express interested surprise: how come I had so much free time? I’m on a sabbatical leave, I’d reply. The other person would do a bit of a double-take, and then, ask, hesitantly and delicately, …is everything, um, all right…? Since months of time off from one’s work is a phenomenon nearly unheard of in North America outside of academia, they all thought a sabbatical must be some kind of forced psychiatric leave, but didn’t want to question me too closely for fear of setting off whatever problem had got me on the leave in the first place.

Thinking of sabbatical as a psychiatric leave isn’t really inaccurate—whatever your employer’s expected outcome, one crucial function of taking any kind of leave has got to be R+R. Throw in a few more Rs: rest, recreation, restoration, recuperation (and more to come). The opportunity to cleanly and decisively separate yourself from your regular work for a few months, to extract yourself from office life, and the identity that goes with it—is a gift. You can be the most introspective, fiercely self-examining and self-defining person—and still become very easily swept away by the demands of the structures in which you work. All one’s energy goes into just keeping up with the current, to the point that the current is all that one knows. There’s a significant risk of drowning. Sabbatical is a chance to swim to the shore, climb out of the torrent, lie panting on a rock, and look around to see what else there is.

People doubtless have some ancient connection, in the collective unconscious, to a working rhythm based on changing seasons and communal needs, which included periods of intense effort, alternated with intense rest, often accompanied by feasts and rituals. In western, Judeo-Christian culture, this rhythm is encoded in the concept of the sabbath, from which the word sabbatical derives. From God’s rest after six days of creating the heaven and earth, it became part of religious observance for the devout to rest every seventh day as well. Though the sabbath—a time to rest, or cease—is meant to be a time away from worldly obligations, it’s not exactly meant as leisure. While one might rest the body, one also rests the spirit. It’s a time of renewal, to prepare oneself for further service.

In the secular academic world, sabbatical retains those principles of rest and renewal, but the line between spiritual and worldly restoration is blurred. Sabbatical has always been a privilege, but academics are expected to make good use of that time…somehow, perhaps by doing research, or a teaching exchange, or field work, or writing. Traditionally, what the person on sabbatical really did during that time was not scrutinized too closely, being measured more by what they did when they got back. But just as higher education in general has become increasingly influenced by corporate culture’s desire for deliverables, outcomes measures, and assessment, so has sabbatical. From the administrative standpoint, sabbatical—its itineraries and details loosely defined, its practitioners free from oversight—seems to have boondoggle written all over it.

If it were really the case that sabbatical leave was a glorified spring break—months spent in debauchery on beaches, or lying insensate in opium dens—then certainly, the practice should be re-examined. But professors are like other humans—if they’re the types to get themselves into significant trouble, they will, no matter what, more likely on the job than off of it. This bears some formal study, but I’m willing to bet that most people on sabbatical actually succumb to vice and weakness less, not more, when given some respite from the office and classroom.

But sabbatical doesn’t offer the pure (idealized) relaxation of a vacation—instead, it provides a space for more intense kinds of work. With time to rest, and nourish yourself, you have more energy, not less. Free to let your mind wander, the ensuing creativity drives you to new kinds of work, new kinds of productivity—things you didn’t even know you had in you, long buried questions or interests or talents or needs, work their way to the surface. If you come back from sabbatical with a book chapter, but without also feeling like you’ve met some new, healthier, more lively version of yourself, you’ve been doing it wrong. You might spend a day washing your bathroom walls, or doing research in the library, or starting your memoir, or writing a grant, or volunteering in an animal shelter. Some of those activities result in direct, bottom-line product; some may instead, or also, result in a rejuvenated capacity to do, to give, to be, to make/think/feel/care—the most essential pre-conditions for productivity, however its outcomes and deliverables have to be defined.

We’ve all seen the studies which migrate through the media on a regular basis about the benefits to morale, productivity, attendance etc etc which come from people 1) feeling they have control over what they do; and 2) getting adequate rest—not just sleep, but breaks in, and from, the workday. We know—history, social sciences, medicine, philosophy—there’s nothing obscure about this—we know that our 21st century work lives are new phenomena in human culture, artificial, not nearly as well-controlled as we would like, and very, very hard on the minds and bodies of the people who have to live them. Many writers and thinkers before me have tried to make sense of our culture’s deep-rooted suspicion of excess fallow time, without changing our mania for productivity one bit. And, as I’m trying to wrap up this piece, I’m aware that I have no particularly compelling call to action to leave you with (other than: let’s overhaul everything about our how our society does business) and no power to make any of it happen anyway. But: everyone should get sabbaticals, plural, period. It’s the very opposite of laziness, shirking, uselessness, or boondoggle for workers to take both vacations and sabbaticals—being able to rest, retreat, and cultivate renewal should be considered part of one’s schedule, not a departure from it.



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