Why We Must Support Sabbaticals

A sabbatical is a privilege that everyone should defend and seek out, not something to be eliminated where it still exists, argues Christopher Schaberg.

February 22, 2017

I’m on sabbatical this year. I opted to take the full year off from teaching, which my university grants me at 2/3 of my regular salary. Alternatively, I could have taken only one semester off and kept all my pay. But several of my senior colleagues encouraged me to take the full year if I could make it work financially. When it comes to finishing research projects, there is something to be said (they said), for the full academic year plus two book-ending summers.

It’s not just about getting away from teaching. Like other people who have written about sabbaticals here, I actually miss being in the classroom. My students push me in dynamic and important ways. But it’s all the other stuff on the campus that is gradually, cumulatively draining: Committee meetings. Drawn-out strategic planning sessions. Bombastic announcements of new administrative positions being created, followed by flat-toned assertions that there is insufficient funding for salary increases or tenure-track hires. Observing messy tenure-and-promotion cases drag out, and occasionally seeing mediocrity get rewarded. Yes, it was time for me to take a break, to regroup.

So my partner and I put our home up for rent on sabbaticalhomes.com to make up the other third of my salary, and we started to make plans for the coming year. That involved a temporary new school for our first-grade son and countless logistical considerations. Then we headed up to Michigan, where we have family and I planned to finish one book and begin another.

Over the summer and as the school year began, I found myself thinking a lot about this time: sabbatical. It’s an enormous privilege, obviously. And it seems downright sensible and humane when explained in a certain way: an extended time to rest and reflect on one’s profession before returning to it, renewed and refreshed. I could feel that happening as the months went on. I am having new ideas about teaching, and I also have the time to do research and reading, which has spurred fresh course ideas and suggested facets of my department’s curriculum that might be honed.

One thing I noticed last year was that my students had an awareness of what sabbatical was, and even what it meant. Toward the end of the year they would carp about not being able to take certain classes that I regularly teach this year, but then they were also curious about what I was going to be working on while I was away. I don’t think I was imagining this: my students seemed to share a vague sense of pride knowing that their professors could go on sabbatical and come back reinvigorated to teach after finishing big projects.

And really, consider what sort of message a sabbatical sends to students: the basic idea that it is healthy and justifiable to give people time away from the grind. In fact, a sabbatical is a kind of indirect acknowledgement that a career is a grind. This is not a message that career-planning services on the campus probably want to convey. But such an acknowledgement is not necessarily a bad thing: some grinds are arguably worth sticking with, and being creative within, if then to discover deeper levels of satisfaction.

The underlying meaning of sabbatical is this: long-term jobs are hard, and people deserve real, significant breaks at consistent intervals. That is an important message that colleges and universities should want to communicate to students -- especially institutions that want to train students to dedicate themselves to things, to make enduring commitments.

But then, a sabbatical isn’t fully a “break” at all. I had to apply for my sabbatical, referencing actual work in progress and articulating concrete goals. It is a break from teaching, yes -- as well as from all the extra legwork of academic campus life. In truth, however, it is really choosing one type of academic work over another for a year.

That is the real advantage of sabbatical: I have chosen to focus solely on my writing this year. I have now finished one book and delivered it to my publisher this winter (Airportness), and by this coming summer, I hope to complete my next book (The Work of Literature In An Age of Post-Truth). I also have a book series that I co-edit (Object Lessons), which involves innumerable daily tasks as well as regular correspondence with many authors and continuous, detailed tracking of manuscripts in progress. So I am working, for sure. (In fact, my family might argue that I am working more than ever this year.) But still: I am on sabbatical. It is a break from the grind, and I am very grateful for it.

It feels a little extravagant to write about this, to reflect on sabbatical itself, even though sabbatical is supposed to be a time for reflection. In the age of shrinking budgets and mass adjunctification, when so few college and university instructors have the opportunity to even apply for sabbatical, how dare I wax philosophical about this supreme luxury? Yet that is one of the very reasons I am writing about sabbatical in the first place: It’s something we need to talk about, defend and explain in terms of its importance.

As I watch institutions whittle away tenure-track positions, through voluntary severance packages and in favor of short-term, part-time, and ultimately disposable (or at least replaceable) faculty positions -- positions that cost less and offer far fewer benefits -- I realize that students are going to hear about the sabbatical far less frequently, if at all. And likewise, scholars will cease to think about sabbatical as a goal, as a desired time to finish a big project or start a new one. (Of course, a certain amount of fantasy is at work here -- it’s not all hyper-productivity, all the time.) Perhaps worse, sabbatical can become a point of jealously and suggestive of a bifurcated faculty.

Unfortunately, rather than encouraging a culture of sabbaticals, campuses seem to be cultivating something quite different. This is the regime of constant work for plateaued if not decreased pay, ruthless competition among instructors and disciplines fighting for a piece of “the pie” (as I often hear my university’s budget referred to), and reward structures than can appear ludicrously incommensurate across the institution. It is almost comical to witness the sharp split between those on the campus wearing pressed suits and the disheveled professoriate. That split is a sign of a class division, and it also suggests a deeper divide: between the administration of finances and other operational matters, on the one hand, and education itself on the other.

But a sabbatical is a privilege that everyone should defend and seek out, not something to be eliminated where it still exists. Many people probably enjoyed a sabbatical or two before they became full-time administrators. I hope they can recall the boon of those times and protect sabbaticals for their faculty.

One thing I didn’t see coming in my sabbatical was the stress of this year’s presidential election -- especially the results. I’ve found myself thinking a lot about how I am going to teach differently when I return, given the very real sense that the country has taken a big step backward with respect to inclusivity and open-mindedness. My campus is home to one of the more diverse student bodies in the region, and so those are absolutely practical concerns. While I wasn’t ready for such twists in my sabbatical year, I am trying to view them as further opportunities for reflection and critical writing, rather than as black holes of depression.

I have been extremely fortunate to be in a tenure-track position at a university that has supported my teaching and scholarship, and that has helped me to flourish even during tight periods. These are tricky times for higher education, with contradictory mandates to innovate while not risking positive outcomes. Assessment measures and strict syllabus guidelines rule the day, yet the incalculable magic of the classroom perseveres, delightfully impossible to pin down.

I hope that my sabbatical energizes me to return to the classroom with verve, and that my batteries get recharged for dealing with the grind of the job. More than those things, however, I hope that my junior colleagues will have this privilege to look forward to as they set goals for their teaching and research. And I hope that my students continue to have the sabbatical to ponder, far into the future.


Christopher Schaberg is an associate professor of English and environmental studies at Loyola University New Orleans. His new book, Airportness, comes out in September.


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