Breaking Bad Habits, Building Good Ones

Sabbaticals aren't just about writing books, writes Russ Olwell, who discusses the value he gained from his.


September 3, 2010

During my sabbatical this winter term, friends and colleagues dropped the not-so-subtle hint that I was wasting it. “Aren’t you not supposed to be here?” was a common phrase when people saw me on campus. As the sabbatical wore on, questions became more pointed, such as the barbed, “How is the book coming? You are working on a book, right?”

While my sabbatical this winter term did not involve the glamor of moving to the south of France, sipping fine wine and completing a monograph, there were some good and productive things about it, despite the charges of my critics. The time freed up by a sabbatical is an opportunity to discontinue the bad habits that have built up over the years, and to build some new routines that boost productivity, mental health and personal happiness. Some of the key areas that can be tackled on a sabbatical include:

1. Writing and researching. During the sabbatical, I was able to go back to several pieces of writing and have the time to thoughtfully revise and rethink them. In the quest for tenure and promotion, this is a real luxury, as the time clock is ticking, and pieces need to be written, edited and revised quickly, often in a few hours. Being able to spend time on my own work was revealing, as it allowed me to work on my ideas in a way that previous versions had not benefited from. Getting to work on the same piece four or five times and getting feedback from others was a far healthier writing process than the tenure-track strategy of print, send, and hope/pray for luck.

2. Time management. I was able to create some new, more productive habits for myself. Rather than spending the morning on email and office gossip, I found a good rhythm of going to the gym in the morning, then staying there and writing on my laptop for an hour or so. Without wireless access at the recreation center, I was able to get down some ideas for the new project and was also able to write and exercise more regularly than during the academic term.

3. Working with people. I was able to step back from the grant project I run and rethink the ways I manage people. I realized that on sabbatical I was more honest with people and more likely to say “no” to initiatives when I did not think they would work. Outside the role of eternally optimistic project director, I was able to voice my concerns with our direction more clearly and able to coach my staff more accurately about their difficulties.

4. Community service. The sabbatical also gave me some time for some genuine community service. While much of my job involves education and youth, it was a real change to work in my church’s food pantry or stay overnight as a volunteer at a men’s temporary shelter. Having consistent time to help out members of our community at the ground level helped me appreciate the blessings in my life. There is nothing like handing out food for an hour, or moving cots into place for a shelter, to clear your mind of the annoyances of university life.

5. Being a person. I was able to be a more present father and husband. Without the pressure of teaching (what am I doing in class tomorrow at 10 am?), I was better able to listen to issues or problems and respond in a less hurried and more thoughtful manner. I could cook dinner in late afternoon, making our dinnertime less harried, and I was able to tune out my email more easily. The projects I started around the house were actually finished, including some wood working that I had put off for about a decade.

6. Preparing for class. I returned to teaching with a different sense of my priorities. I had always prided myself on being able to plan on the fly and able to shift the direction of class minute by minute. While these are good skills to have, my sabbatical reinforced to me the need for planning in order to make teaching a less stressful experience. I also committed myself to creating higher value classes and activities for my students, focused on their professional goals, rather than on what I wanted to teach.

Not everyone shares the above sunny view of the sabbatical. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, in their latest book, Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids -- and What We Can Do About It, targets professors as underperforming educators and overcompensated employees. The sabbatical, getting paid not to teach, comes in for special criticism from Hacker and Dreifus, as it takes professors out of the classroom where they belong, and gives them time to do research that only betters themselves, not their students or institutions.

Under economic and political pressure, the sabbatical may not survive this generation of academics, as more of our institutional lives is driven by year-round budget, enrollment, accreditation and assessment pressures that do not fit with the idea of taking long periods of time off to renew.

However, critics of the sabbatical do little to quantify the costs of the eliminating the sabbatical and the renewal it can produce. Without time off, the academy would suffer from wider burnout, more frustration, and lower levels of collegiality. The creativity and perspective that people gain during time off would be lost, traded for a few more credit hours generated.

I stand by my contention that sabbaticals are only really judged by the goals of the participant and by the period that comes after its completion. An endangered species in today’s world, the sabbatical is a throwback to ancient times, to a sense that in order to be fertile, both land and people need to lie fallow for a time. It is only in future productivity that the benefits of the sabbatical can be seen and measured.


Russ Olwell is a professor of history at Eastern Michigan University and director of EMU Gear Up.


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