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UD Takes A Year-Long Sabbatical From Teaching
May 5, 2008 - 3:58pm



The question of the sabbatical -- salaried time away from teaching and all other university activities --is caught up in the larger question of how luxurious - in terms of time to yourself - a professor's life already is.

CNN Money recently ranked professor the second best job in America, noting that "Professors have near-total flexibility in their schedules. Creative thinking is the coin of the realm. No dress code!"

Many professors stay at home three working days out of five, coming to campus to teach, say, two Tuesday/Thursday classes (each an hour and fifteen minutes long) and hold office hours. If the classes meet at 10 and 2, there's time for a relaxed lunch.

Certainly there are meetings and thesis defenses and so forth; but CNN Money's right -- remarkable flexibility rules.

Add long non-teaching summers.

Plus there's no on-campus supervision. You've got to be there for your classes and your office hours, but beyond this, you're on your own with your time.

On your own generally - at an urban campus like GW, UD sometimes works through her day seeing few other faculty members.

Most schools give tenured faculty sabbaticals every seven years, and most faculty choose one semester off at full pay. The University of Southern California a few years ago revisited its sabbatical policy, and suggested a couple of changes -- extending sabbaticals to younger faculty; upping the salary for a year-long sabbatical from one-half to two-thirds of the person's regular
salary -- but the committee mainly confirmed the importance of sabbaticals, which have "been part of faculty life for over 100 years," providing an opportunity for "refreshment, new experiences, uninterrupted study and research or travel."

Typically, you've got to write your dean a reasonably extensive description of what you plan to do, and in principle you can be turned down for a sabbatical, though this rarely happens. You're not allowed to earn money doing anything that'll take away from your research time (every year a few
scandals arise involving professors taking full-time consulting jobs, say, during their sabbaticals -- a form of double-dipping).

But to return to the luxury question: Do we deserve sabbaticals? Not all professors have the job description Money Magazine's gushing about, of course, but many do. Among these some get sabbaticals and don't publish, or don't publish much ( UD can't recall where she read it, but she read somewhere that few professors even at research universities do significant -- in terms of quality and quantity -- publishing.). For them, a sabbatical falls into the rather murky realm of refreshment, professional development... UD suspects that this means getting yourself comfortable in an armchair and reading all those novels you've been meaning to get to.

Which seems to UD a perfectly okay way to spend your sabbatical -- reading with the care that time and solitude can offer. UD remembers, during her last sabbatical, reading Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano for the, whatever, fifth time, at her little house in the wilds of upstate New York. No neighbors. Alone. Silence. She spent a week wandering Lowry's underbrush, and she's never forgotten how fine it felt, this daily lectio divina... She taught the novel better than she's ever taught it the following semester.

And this coming sabbatical year, UD, having released Teaching Beauty, her book written with Jennifer Green-Lewis, hopes to complete two projects: a book about writing, which collects and elaborates upon some of her Scathing Online Schoolmarm entries, and a book about universities, which also draws from posts and articles featured in her two University Diaries blogs.

Tenured university life is already luxurious in terms of time to yourself, and the sabbatical may seem an unnecessary addition to this independence. Sometimes -- during the academic year, during the summer, during her every-seven-years sabbaticals - UD feels like what her mother used to call a luftmensch (or whatever the female equivalent of this would be) -- a dreamer living in
the air, a happy privileged floater...

The effort to end this drift and anchor herself in intellectual work must come entirely from herself; no one, as I say, is supervising. And indeed, the condition Mr. and Mrs. UD call sabbatical depression (why would anyone be depressed on sabbatical?) emerges, they suspect, from the enormous expectations you place on yourself when you set out on a sabbatical semester or year -- all that time, all that reading, traveling, writing... The very thought that you'll piss it away, that the stuff won't get done, is harrowing. And of course having completed a sabbatical and indeed failed to produce anything much must be truly depressing.

The challenge, UD supposes, and the justification -- if there is a justification -- for faculty sabbaticals, involves the location of a mental space somewhere between the unbearable lightness of the luftmensch and the sometimes plodding dailiness of the working teacher -- a space for new
thought, new emotions, new settings, out of which clarified understandings might emerge.
UD, by the way, intends never to take a sabbatical from blogging.


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