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Sabbaticals often conjure up visions of yearlong trips away, unfettered time to do research and writing, and completion of big writing projects. Yet many faculty members don't experience such luxury conditions. Universities often come under fire for not providing the space and time for faculty to recharge research agendas, as Annmarie Caño recently noted. And even when faculty members are, in fact, lucky enough to have sabbaticals, they often involve continued university responsibilities and geographical restrictions in the compressed timeframe of a single semester.

As a third-time sabbatical faculty member this past semester, I still had responsibilities that I had to manage. I direct a graduate program, so I had to respond to students in the incoming pipeline for the coming year. I also met with potential students via Zoom and on the campus. In another administrative role, I helped faculty members design and submit the tenure-review materials due each semester. Although my sabbatical officially started on January 9, those administrative responsibilities meant that I remained tethered to my university email—and, frequently, physical location.

I’m not alone. Faculty members at regional state universities and small liberal arts colleges experience similar responsibilities and time restrictions. One-semester sabbatical leaves with full pay, instead of or in addition to the traditional yearlong versions, are also already common for land-grant institutions, comprehensive private universities, and even many major research universities such as Georgetown University and University of Pittsburgh.

And beyond university responsibilities, child or elder care can make leaving for long stretches of time impractical for many of them. While sabbaticals are typically still offered roughly every seven years to tenure-track and tenured faculty, we need to recognize the nuances of “tethered sabbaticals” so faculty members can make the most of those semester-long experiences. Here are some suggestions based on my own experiences and observations.

Rethink location. While some faculty members can get away to archives, live elsewhere or be off the university map for a year, academic parents and caregivers often find short-term relocating during a single semester impractical. Like many mid-career scholars, I’m in the “sandwich generation” with school-aged children at home and an elderly parent to monitor. Although my partner is capable, he has a demanding position as an academic dean requiring travel and late nights.

Thus, for two of my three sabbaticals, I went to a research university within a two-hour drive, allowing me to drive in and out for a day or stay overnight for two consecutive days without disrupting my family responsibilities. What worked best for me was finding a sabbatical location far enough away with research opportunities, but close enough to go home if necessary. For the third sabbatical, which required longer travel, I worked on location for a week and then from home several weeks.

While this doesn’t resemble the sabbatical many academics dream of, I found both semi-local and short-term distance stays provided benefits. Like all time-compressed faculty members doing research, I found ways to be very efficient when working on location. Location days offered the anticipated burst of productive work, while home-based days provided critical planning and insight to get more work completed. Another benefit was actively exploring opportunities to take advantage of lectures, research libraries and writing rooms on my sabbatical campuses. Choosing a semi-local or short-distance sabbatical location also accommodated both my university and family responsibilities while allowing some time away for research and writing.

Establish a starting date. In a recent episode of my “Real Life Sabbatical” podcast series, I described my decision-making process for making the most of the 16 sabbatical weeks. Part of this process was determining my own start date.

Officially, my sabbatical began on Jan. 7. Yet I used the first two post-holiday weeks for long overdue home maintenance while tending to university responsibilities. Then, I used the last two January weeks to ease into sabbatical research. I started organizing, reading and writing projects while acclimating to the culture and exploring the resources at my sabbatical institution.

Ultimately, I actively started working in earnest with intense reading and writing sessions on Feb. 2. While this choice may seem as if I wasted four out of 16 weeks, I had a much-needed reset. After devoting a few weeks to taking care of tasks that had been neglected for years during busy regular semesters, I was ready to dive into scholarly work.

Set realistic productivity goals. Many academics, particularly those with heavy teaching loads, are guilty of overly ambitious academic agendas while on sabbatical. From my two previous sabbatical experiences, I knew that 16 weeks was not enough to complete a large writing project or longitudinal research study. But it was enough time to meet several smaller sabbatical goals that would contribute to both my short-term and long-term productivity.

My major goal was to design a research tool for interview data collection at my sabbatical location. As a visiting scholar at The Ohio State University’s Project Narrative, I planned to use narrative theory and methodology to analyze faculty members’ descriptions of their writing processes, while taking advantage of better access to research about methodology, faculty expertise and visiting lectures where I can ask questions. The realistic goal for the one-semester sabbatical was to design the research tool for data collection, not to collect the data itself.

A second project I undertook involved mapping out an upcoming book and leisurely starting the research and writing to develop its bigger components. My end-of-sabbatical goal was having a proposal and table of contents drafted. A third project included finishing a halfway complete scholarly article that has lingered in my pipeline too long. I’m happy to report both of these projects are now complete. This project mix of new and ongoing work took advantage of the short time frame to complete an overdue project (the article), set up a tool for new research study (completed on location), and make progress on an extended writing project (the book).

Study your writing practice. Sabbatical semesters are ideal for rediscovering your natural reading and research preferences, and the semester-long time frame offers a distinct opportunity to study how you can best use your time when it is over. Sabbaticals don’t happen often, so they offer a good reminder to revisit what works for scholarly writing.

For instance, my recent sabbatical reinforced the fact that I continue to write most productively in a library, whether on my home or sabbatical campus. I also experimented with the best time of day for writing, and my natural preference of writing in the afternoons for several hours reemerged, even though I’ve trained myself to write in the mornings for years. As a result of this insight, I’m prioritizing afternoon writing for the next academic year when I return to a full roster of teaching and meetings. Rather than just accept the status quo of morning writing, I have worked more actively to schedule morning classes and meetings. In sum, semester sabbaticals provide an ideal block of time to reconnect with and optimize preferred writing routines.

Slow down. Productivity experts recommend developing a realistic pace of work during your sabbatical, and the “slow professor” movement has become more popular. But, in fact, faculty members on sabbatical tend to overwork on projects and speed up—either because they are more aware of a time clock ticking louder than it does during the regular term, or because they feel behind in their projects due to overload and exhaustion built up from years of punishing teaching and service schedules. Some academics, like Hanna Tervanotko worry about “not living up to the plan” they set when applying for sabbatical leave if they don’t meet timelines, even though they need rest. Such pressures are more intense during the semester sabbatical where the impetus is to get moving quickly.

But with three sabbaticals now behind me, I resisted the urge during my third one. As an academic mom with days planned down to the second, I deliberately slowed down. I set a goal to avoid rushing everywhere for 16 weeks. I leisurely filled a prescription at 9:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, got gas before my tank was on empty, and drove the speed limit instead of trying to make a 15-minute drive in 11 minutes between a late meeting and a middle-school pickup. I wrote thoughtful and detailed notes at the end of writing sessions about what to work on next. I allowed a full hour per day for hobbies like playing tennis or guitar. Even though the sabbatical was only 16 weeks, it felt longer, because I gave myself permission to slow down.

Sabbaticals, as Christine Grant has argued, “have changed in the ‘new’ academic realm” and have been impacted by COVID-19 disruptions over the short term and continuing challenges involving university funding. One-semester sabbatical leaves with full pay, instead of the traditional yearlong versions, will probably continue to be the norm as institutional finances increasingly tighten. These changing conditions necessitate faculty rethinking of sabbatical approaches to maximize our scholarly productivity as well as our rejuvenation.

Christine Tulley is professor of English at the University of Findlay and president of Defend, Publish & Lead, a faculty development organization.

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