Sabbatical Planning

August 22, 2014

Getting tenure was a bit of a letdown. The momentous event I had so long awaited was marked by receipt of a letter in one of the same mundane envelopes that I have in my own desk. A certificate the size of one of those oversized fake checks seemed more in order, or a reality-TV camera crew surprising me at my office door, blurting out “Congratulations, you got tenure!” The closest thing to fanfare that I received was an email announcing, “You are eligible for sabbatical during the 2014-2015 academic year.”

Sabbatical was finally mine, but now what? I read as much as I could find, and contacted colleagues who had recently ended their sabbaticals for advice. Their accumulated advice roughly fell into the familiar set of questions, albeit in a different order: the Why, What, Who, Where, How and When of sabbatical.

Why. For the past seven years, I have been engaged in a perpetual game of whack-a-mole, knocking out one professional task after another as they arise, then coming home and taking care of family obligations until collapsing into bed, totally spent. I have been efficient, but I have also been overwhelmed. Now, I am tired, and the constant stress of being a professor has made me a little resentful. The other day I had a dream I was so frustrated that I started yelling at everyone. Did I wake up feeling guilty? Far from it – I felt relieved.

Clearly, I need a break, and sabbatical is intended specifically to allow me to recover and re-engage with my deep love for and commitment to my work. One colleague wanted to re-vision her work, unbounded by particular papers or projects. Others re-established routines in their personal lives, spending time with their kids, sleeping, exercising.

I hope to use the time to profoundly change the nature of my working and personal life. I want to spend long, luxurious days taking pleasure in new writing projects as well as to push the assumptions that underlie my work. At the same time, by doing less, I hope to have more energy for my personal life, savoring my time with my family, getting back into knitting, rediscovering my yoga practice.

What. When I asked others what they did on sabbatical, I got various answers: grant proposals, a new book, branching into a new subdiscipline. Many set forth overly ambitious goals and ended up disappointed, and warned me not to take on too much.

When I made a list of what I wanted to accomplish, two categories emerged: Things that need to get finished and things I’d really like to do but never have time for. The first category is the professional equivalent of the half-finished photo albums sitting in my closet: articles in various states of doneness and which, to quote a journal editor acquaintance, “make me want to vomit” every time I think about them. I could easily dedicate a whole semester just to finishing them.

The second category, however, seems better-aligned with what a sabbatical is for, and that would take maximum advantage of the time I will have: to make headway on a new book, to write a proposal for another, and to learn about new ways of theorizing my work and analytic approaches.

To get ready, I dedicated my summer to getting all of the first category things submitted. Review times in my field can run for months, and this time I’ll use that to my advantage by finishing off the almost-done projects and getting them under review. Then I can focus my sabbatical into the service of finishing the projects that I really want to do.

Who and Where. The idealized vision of a sabbatical is to relocate to some exotic locale, collaborating with people who will provide new experiences and perspectives. Although I am told that sabbaticals of this type have many logistical challenges such as securing external funding and finding housing, they certainly involve a change of scene. This vision, however, is hard to realize for those with partners who are not able to leave their jobs for extended periods of time, and even more complicated for those with kids. I have both.

The alternative is to spend a sabbatical in place, but this has its own risks. It’s much easier just to show up for a meeting when you’re across town instead of across an ocean. A colleague warned me that when she took her in-place sabbatical, she had to wear a disguise when she came to campus to meet with her students to avoid unnecessary conversations and commitments.

I will be doing a combination -- I received funding that will take me to Munich for two months, and my husband and kids will come along. The rest of my sabbatical will be spent at home. This dual approach was a necessary reality given my family situation, and may leave me with the worst of both worlds. Getting set up to live abroad for eight weeks will not be easy, and it’s likely we will be hitting our groove right about the time we need to pack up and fly back home. At the same time, working in my home office isn’t necessarily the best place to spend two months, either -- I will be just as likely to get distracted by toilet-cleaning and plant-watering as I am on any other day. I hope to find an office at another local institution so that I can be somewhere different than my usual working environment, thereby changing the "where" and "who" without going anywhere.

How and When. I don’t want my sabbatical spent checking my email first thing in the morning and throughout the day, holding countless meetings for research projects and advising, working in evenings after the kids are in bed to make up for lost time, and on weekends when deadlines loom.

Although I have a lot of clarity on how and when I don’t want to do my regular work, I am not entirely sure how to create a space in which I don’t fall back into regular work patterns. Should I put an  permanent out-of-office response on my email for the entire semester, as some of my friends at other institutions have done? Should I put as many of my collaborative research projects on hold as possible? Should I not meet with my students at all, or at least meet with them them only when absolutely necessary?  Or meet with them while dressed like Charlie Chaplin?

At this point, I am building a set of ground rules to make explicit with my students, collaborators, and family, all in the spirit of reducing the constant availability that permeates my daily life. When in town, I will stay away from campus. I will not check my email for days at a time. I will ask my students to keep running Google Docs that summarize their weekly activities, and their questions for me, that I will check weekly at a designated time.

I will wake up in the morning, and -- in the absence of the de facto to-do list that email perpetually presents -- I will work on what I want to work on. I will allow myself to follow intellectual tangents and whims, to write, draw, and sketch not in my regular old college-ruled notebook, but on the blank pages of my newly acquired Leuchtturm 1917 journal. I will attempt to change the game in every way possible and make my daily act of professional existence totally different in order to refresh, recharge, and renew. I will go to yoga regularly, not work after the kids come home, and sleep as much as I can.

Over this set of questions, the theme that emerges is that I intend to Be differently. If successful, I hope that I will return from sabbatical having dreams of embracing my work, finding new inspiration, having dreams of embracing my work, and bringing my own ticker-tape parade along with me. Stay tuned.

 

Bio

Erin Marie Furtak is associate professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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