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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sabbaticals and normal life, a brief interlude

I'm going to have to put off until another day my promised reflections on normal academic life and their relations to sabbaticals because the demands of that life have, briefly, caught up with me. So this is just a quick follow up on that earlier post on sabbaticals, one that elaborates a bit on some of the discussion in the comments to that post.

As I mentioned, in response to one comment on my earlier post, sabbaticals have not been automatic at the universities I have worked at.  There is a competitive process for awarding them, and there are, typically, more applicants than there are slots. (In past years, it is my understanding that there has been one exception to this rule--people who apply for the full year, half pay sabbatical have typically gotten it, but often people apply for that in hopes of using it to supplement an outside grant and turn down the half pay sabbatical if they don't receive the outside grant. So it's an exception that few people take advantage of, because for most people it is too hard to live on half pay.)

It is the case, as a commentator noted in response to my post, what has happened is that sabbaticals have turned into a type of research leave. And, at least at places where I've worked, there have been a variety of ways to get research leave, in addition to sabbaticals, so let me set them out, add a few comments, and then get back to work.

1. Sabbaticals: Currently my university offers full year, full pay sabbaticals (a new innovation thanks to the collective bargaining agreement); half year, full pay sabbaticals; and full year, half pay sabbaticals (I think these still exist, but they may not). All three are restricted--you cannot apply until your seventh year, if you are awarded one and take it, you cannot reapply for seven more years. And the first two, at least, are competitive--some people who apply will not get one because there are not as many sabbaticals available as there are interested applicants.

2. Outside grants: Generally at all the places I've worked, if you got an outside grant or fellowship you could go on leave, even if you did not have a sabbatical. As I mentioned before, I am extraordinarily unlucky about outside grants (I am batting .000 over the past ten years), but for people with better luck (or better proposals) this is an option, though obviously it is also a competitive process. And it is also a more complicated process--I did not need to supply letters of recommendation in support of my sabbatical application, I have had to have between 2-4 letters of recommendation in support of my (unsuccessful) grant or fellowship applications. That means outside grant applications burden me and the others I can prevail on to write on my behalf.

3. Inside grants: Both universities I've worked at have offered some types of research grants. More often than note, they've funded summer research or research trips (rather than leave), but there are some exceptions. Once again, these are competitive and there are more applications than there are funds (especially some years when budget problems mean the funds are cut or eliminated). Usually there are restrictions (you can't reapply if you win one for at least a year, or more). Oddly, given my complete failure as a grant writer in the outside world, I have typically been quite successful with getting internal grants, though I have never applied for one that would have given me a semester or more off. At the same time, I've served on the committees that awarded these sorts of grants, and we were consistently unable to fund some worthwhile grant applications. So again, demand exceeds supply and some people who deserve funding lose out.

4. Overloads: Sometimes departments can give people who take on particulary onerous administrative positions a semester or year off after the term is up. I never got that deal, but its more typically an option now than it has been. Alternatively, some departments and colleges at my current university are experimenting with giving faculty an option of teaching an overload for two semesters, and getting a semester off for research in exchange.

So at my university, at least, sabbaticals are relatively hard to come by, but there are other possible ways to get paid research leave. And that's good, I don't want to suggest otherwise.

But, there are some things to note. First, of the four options I listed above, three are competitive and demand far exceeds supply. That means that balances have to be struck: Do we favor associate professors who need leave to finish the work they need to do to get promoted? Do we give leaves to senior scholars who have done a lot for the university and haven't had a chance to do research for several years because of their various other obligations? Do we reward those who have steadily done research and writing over the years, or do we use leaves to try to help people who have not been researching reignite that aspect of their work?  

Those are hard things to balance, and there is always the possibility that there will be some adjusting or rebalancing from year to year. Which means, of course, that it's all a bit unpredictable--maybe last year we rewarded researchers, maybe this year we used grants to help people restart research agendas, next year, who knows?

The competitive aspect also means that some people just lose, and as my hideous experience with outside grants makes clear to me, after a certain amount of time, if you keep getting turned down, it's easy to decide to give up. Why keep kicking a dead horse, especially when the easiest way to interpret the fact you keep losing out is that your work sucks?

The fourth option is a sort of a way around that defeatism, of course, since there is, as yet, no competition involved. You do the overload, you get the research leave. We'll see how it works out and whether it is way to get more people more leaves. It might. But it does so at the cost of helping exacerbate the distortions in our normal work life.

What of the observation that one commentator made that at least by reconfiguring sabbaticals as part of research leave we move away from the external (and internal) perception that sabbaticals are unfair paid vacations? I guess I have two thoughts about that.

One is that I am not sure that this actually does help with the popular perceptions. Most of the criticisms of academics and their workloads that I have read assume that all we do is teach, and that teaching involves only time we spend in the classroom. I am not sure that calling a sabbatical a research leave does much to address either part of that assumption. In fact, it seems to feed into the notion that we do our darnedest to figure out ways to get out from under our real job--teaching.

The other is that by reconfiguring sabbaticals as research leave, we do lose sight of the idea that there is something to be gained from the old model of a sabbatical as a time for experimentation that may not pay off, or a period of rejuvination and intellectual refreshment that may have no obvious payoff. In a research leave, you need to be productive, in a sabbatical you need not be.

I'll have (I think) more to say about productivity in my doubtless long awaited normal worklife post, so let me just say here that, as someone who has been productive during her sabbatical, I would not be too quick to say that of course, productivity must be our goal and that time off for experimentation and refreshment are indulgences that neither we nor society can afford.

Of course, the minute I say that I realize how hideously elite it sounds. So let me be clear, I do not mean to imply that academics live such difficult lives that they alone must be given paid time off to play every seven years. In a perfect world, we would get old style sabbaticals on a consistent and non competitive basis, and other types of workers would get something comparable, as well.




Posted by Elizabeth Dale on April 14, 2011 at 02:04 PM | Permalink


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