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Sign reading Sabbatical pointing to the right with a flower underneath it

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What is one expected to do during their sabbatical? I am currently on my first-ever research sabbatical. Before this academic year, I had never had the luxury of taking a break from my everyday work routine and focusing on my research. While I understand my vast privilege, I have spent several sleepless nights worrying about the expectations I set for myself this year.

My research is not progressing as I had hoped, and I am not living up to the plan I carefully laid out when applying for a yearlong leave. My difficulties with writing have led me to ask, what are realistic expectations one should have for their sabbaticals? Are sabbaticals at all about rest or only about productivity?

As a scholar of ancient Jewish literature, I know the origins of a sabbatical year. It is the concept of the weekly day of rest extended to every seventh year. Every seventh year, a seven-year agricultural cycle is interrupted. The break’s purpose is to rest the land so it becomes fertile again and produces new fruits. But the concept of the rest is even more revolutionary: animals are also set free and loans are forgiven, allowing those in debt to start over. Everyone is given the chance to rest and start anew.

But in today’s working life, the purpose of a sabbatical year is not as explicit or clear. Websites that discuss taking a sabbatical year and its benefits promote it as time to study or to travel. Generally, a sabbatical allows you to take on activities you do not typically have time for because of the constraints of your job.

The goals of academic sabbaticals, however, are different. Most of the policies on sabbaticals in Northern American universities that I have read indicate that the sabbatical should somehow contribute to the career of the faculty member and their future value for the university.

Indeed, the policies usually refer to sabbaticals as time to ramp up productivity. While the rationale of a sabbatical appears to be to contribute to the institution’s future, policies do not encourage investing in personal well-being. Many universities refer to sabbaticals as study or research leaves. Academics on sabbatical do not usually teach, and their administrative workload is often lighter than usual. The expectation is that the time gained from these duties is to be spent on research and, in fact, to accelerate it.

The challenge is that the nature of academic work is poorly suited for a half-year or one-year break from the usual routine to start something new. Academic projects are usually planned long in advance. It takes a lot of time to apply for funding, and publishing pipelines can take years. As it is difficult to take time away from already scheduled work to focus on something else, academic sabbaticals often provide the desperately needed additional time to finish unfinished projects rather than creating something new and innovative.

My sabbatical allowed me to travel to work in a different environment for a year. But while the view from my window now differs from the one I have in my office space, the view inside my head is just as it was before the sabbatical: I need to finish a long list of tasks that takes my energy, so it is hard to focus on something new.

Realistic Expectations and Honest Conversations

For some of us, a change in our routines may bring some creative power. Others, however, suffer under the assumption that we need to produce more than before. A senior colleague told me some years ago how they wrote one article every month during their sabbatical. My productivity has been far from that pace, and hearing about others’ efficiency makes me feel like a slacker.

One way to resist such unfair comparisons is to determine realistic individual goals for the leaves. Setting clear goals could help not only academics but also their home institutions be more satisfied about sabbaticals. This could mean not only writing a plan for the sabbatical months in advance but also tweaking it when needed. Faculty members could also work with the department chairs and other academic administrators to identify their actual needs—for instance, rest. These and others could be concrete steps toward not assuming that sabbaticals are just time to produce more.

I also would welcome some discussion about whether the sabbatical fundamentally serves the institution or the individual. For instance, which is more important, writing a proposal for a new project, publishing articles or gaining new skills? Or are these all valued equally?

Further, it is possible to have goals that benefit both the individual and institutions—for instance, a new long-term research project—but those goals must be identified. In such a case, people need to accept and agree that the fruits of the project will only be available later. What’s more, the faculty members may need additional resources and support, such as research assistance, to start the project.

Finally, people in leadership roles should consider whether simply resting, the fundamental element of the biblical sabbath rules, is a part of an academical sabbatical. Many faculty members are still dealing with pandemic burnout and backlogs with postponed projects, so it may not be realistic to assume everyone can continue producing without taking some pause.

Moreover, hard evidence shows that rest increases creativity. Therefore, why couldn’t—why shouldn’t—faculty members actively include some downtime and space for reflection in their sabbatical year plans? Again, college and university leaders need to have more honest discussions with their faculty members to determine the answer.

Hanna Tervanotko is associate professor at McMaster University, a public research university in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

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