The Exhilarating Return

While a sabbatical is a venerated academic milestone, we should do more to raise the profile of the year after it, argues Heather Camp.

March 30, 2017

Sabbatical. In higher education, few words are spoken with such optimism and anticipation. Taking a sabbatical leave is one of a handful of venerated faculty milestones, keeping company with events like teaching one’s first class, finishing the dissertation, earning tenure and publishing a book.

Sabbaticals are esteemed for their distinct capacity to combine hyperproductivity with prioritized leisure. They are also admired for their transformative potential; forks in one’s professional road are often attributed to a sabbatical. Those who are fortunate enough to take a sabbatical recognize it is a tremendous gift.

Still, having recently returned from my own, I have started to wonder whether there are some downsides to the sabbatical’s luster -- in particular, the larger view that it obscures. In our efforts to reverence sabbatical, we may fail to give proper due to its mighty counterpart, the return. This is a mistake. Currently underrated, the year after sabbatical deserves credit all its own. For me, the remarkable power of sabbatical was only augmented by my return from one.

The year before my sabbatical, I anticipated my leave. The prospect of taking a yearlong exodus was imposing, and I wanted to do it right. In the months leading up to it, I went to work. I consulted advice columns and senior colleagues, gathering tips on goal setting, productivity and managing family demands. I determined my priorities and solidified my plans. As a result, when the time for my sabbatical arrived, I felt ready for it. And I was: in that year, I published articles whose data was nearing expiration, wrote my first book review and drafted a chapter of my book. I also hiked Arches National Park with my sisters, took a canoeing trip in the Boundary Waters and ran the Boston marathon. When all was said and done, I was satisfied with my activities.

As my leave came to a close, I prepared to resume my teaching and administrative duties. A year away felt like more than enough time to restore creativity and verve for my work -- even more so because I had always liked my professional responsibilities. Still, as time had passed, a certain flatness had set in. Back from sabbatical, I expected that mood to dispel. A revitalized version of myself would pick up where I had left off. Armed with new methods and a fresh perspective, I would fulfill my former duties with aplomb.

Only that’s not what happened. Too soon I found myself restless, weary of the old routine. Yes, I could perform my responsibilities knowledgeably and well. I had confidence and experience on my side. But the joy was missing, and I found that disconcerting. “Is this all there is?” I began to wonder. “What’s wrong with me? Have I hit a midlife crisis?”

Perusing the self-help literature and internet sources on midlife crises seemed like the next logical step. I also confided in my department chair, who, wisely, encouraged me to think of this state not as a crisis but as a natural phase in my professional evolution.

In the early years of my career, I had enjoyed the challenge of learning the institutional terrain. I also had the prospect of tenure, promotion and sabbatical to consider; dogged pursuit of these landmarks gave my academic life focus and purpose.

Now, having made it through to the other side, I needed to do some soul searching. Who did I want to be as an academic, as a person? What projects really mattered to me? What areas did I want to grow into? What opportunities for leadership and learning could I seek out?

As academics, we need to have opportunities to ask these questions and -- as we find our answers -- to reinvent ourselves and our work. For me, the year after sabbatical was an ideal time to do so. On my sabbatical, I had undertaken some scholarly projects and readings that set the stage for further work in new areas. The year after sabbatical gave me the chance to deepen that work and to explore other avenues for growth, both personally and professionally.

So, the exploration began. The year after my sabbatical, I pursued leads that had emerged during my year away, joining an editorial board outside my field and getting serious about cross-institutional collaboration. I followed a burgeoning interest in working with international students, enrolling in a 10-week summer program in teaching English to speakers of other languages, teaching my first course for multilingual students and tutoring English-learning refugees in a community center. I took on volunteer opportunities that appealed to me, serving as a YMCA basketball and Special Olympics track and field coach. And I stretched myself physically, joining a masters’ swim program after years of swimming alone.

Not all the plans I pursued turned out as I had hoped. During the year after sabbatical, I sent out two job applications and didn’t make the cut, approached two faculty about cross-disciplinary collaborations and saw neither idea to fruition, and got pregnant but then miscarried. In retrospect, I realize that achieving unsullied success was neither possible nor the point. Nor, I see now, was balance. During that year, I felt a little crazy and sometimes overcommitted, but I look back on it as a rich and wild time -- one of learning and self-definition.

A year later, I am serving in a new role in the university. The position opened up, and my postsabbatical hunger for change and meaning motivated me to apply. I have also joined a new writing group and a new running group, and both offer friendship and the challenge to do hard things daily. Some of the activities that I began last year continue to be important in my life; others do not. Yet it is because of that postsabbatical year that, today, my life is full of new and interesting work and people, and I am grateful.

We in academe have a script for how we address colleagues who have just returned from sabbatical. The brows instinctively furrow, with the words “I’m sorry” imprinted on our faces. We ask, “How are you feeling about being back? You handling the transition OK?” Implicit in those questions is the assumption that the year after sabbatical is hard. It marks the end of an exquisite break from the status quo and an unhappy resignation to a full inbox and too many committee assignments.

But my experience leads me to suggest that we rethink our preconceptions about the return. What if we reconceptualized the year after sabbatical as an intense period of self-discovery? What if we reframed the questions we asked when our colleagues came back. Instead of “Are you sad that your sabbatical is over?” how about “What does the next year hold for you? Where are your interests leading?” Then there would be a set of extraordinary experiences to look forward to: the sabbatical leave and the exhilarating return.


Heather Camp is an associate professor of English and the Writing Across the Curriculum coordinator at Minnesota State University at Mankato.


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