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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What do these professors need a day off every week for?

I promised myself I would write something substantive this week, but I'm still in the middle of end of semester forms and obsessing about process and practice. So I thought I'd pick up on Chris's earlier post about sabbaticals, and try to position sabbaticals in the context of academic careers more generally. Think of it as "what I did for my summer vacation" meets your todo list.

 The title to this post comes from the probably apocryphal tale of a legislator in a state I once worked in, who asked the question during a debate over the value of sabbaticals for faculty at the state universities.  I use it because I find it grimly amusing, but also because it introduces the point (actually, a couple of related points) I thought I'd write about.

In this era of budget cuts and legislative review, the issue of what we need a sabbatical for is a contentious one. In a world that often likes to think that we work 3 hours a day, a couple of days a week, and get summers off, the idea that we should regularly (every seven years!) get time off, with pay, during our working year is understandably hard to swallow. 

Of course, the reality, as we all know, is far from that picture. I am finishing my 16th year of being a professor, all 16 were spent at resesarch universities with graduate programs in history. So I've had a pretty plush career, all things considered,  at least when viewed from the perspective of faculty in departments of history.

Yet this is my first sabbatical, and if past practice at my current employer is any indication, probably my last before I retire (unless I get outside funding, but my grant winning record is so bad I suspect it violates the law of averages).  Perhaps I've been unusually unlucky, but I expect my experience with sabbaticals is not that unusual for mid career faculty in public universities, at least not for faculty in colleges of liberal arts.

Two other things are relevant by way of understanding my sabbatical experience:  First, I've worked more than half of the summers in the past ten years doing various types of administrative or committee work that required a fair amount of time spent at a desk or in meetings or helping draft reports. I haven't taken on those positions for the money (it hasn't hurt, of course, since we are only paid for the nine months we work), but because that work was my share, for lack of a better term, of shared governance.

Second, in history, where I have my tenure home, as we say, faculty get promoted on books in combination with articles (and good teaching evaluations, and active service records--teaching and service won't get you promoted, but its absence can be a problem).  And since books take time to research, to write, to revise, and to just get through the publishing process, summer vacations are a sort of a necessary part of that process. And in my case, my obligations during the summers I was doing administration or service work unquestionably slowed me down.

That, plus some slightly strange experiences with publishers over the previous year , meant that I started my year long, half pay sabbatical this past fall with one mostly finished book manuscript that was under contract and on a deadline, a second book under contract that I had researched, but needed to do a lot of writing for, which was also on a deadline, a couple papers that I had committed to give (and needed to write) and the idea for a third book that I wanted to research. And I also had a bunch of grad students finishing up this year, who needed me to read dissertation drafts, write letters of recommendation, etc, etc, etc.

The good news is that I got it done. Book one is about to turn into page proofs in a matter of days, book two should become page proofs a couple of weeks later, one article is out, another should be done by the end of April. I've given two papers, I have a couple others to give over the next two months but they're mostly written, the third book has been researched, and while I haven't done as much with the research as I would like, it's there for me to turn to when I get a chance.

In addition, I read a lot of books I hadn't read, I've talked to a lot of people who are doing work in areas that relate to my current scholarly interests, and I've managed to put more time and energy into modestly improving my reading ability in a couple of languages that I need for my future research and writing. And the dissertations are either done and defended or so close to being so that they are no longer a source of anxiety (for me at least). 

(For those of you who are wondering, your guess is correct, I have no children, I do, however, have elderly parents whose health has been something of an ongoing issue all year. So I have not been totally free from family obligations, though they have not been a daily obligation, and yes, that helps.)

So it's  been a productive sabbatical, which I am sure makes me a better person. More to the point, I am reasonably confident my department, college, and university will think my time has been well spent.  At the very least, I won't have nightmares about filling out my sabbatical report and in these difficult times, it is good to know that it would be hard to say I wasted my sabbatical.

But I confess to some nagging doubts, both about what my experience says about sabbaticals and about my "normal" work year.

If sabbaticals supposed to be a time of rest and rejuvination, I blew this one.  I joke (much to the annoyance of my colleagues who are not on leave) that I am going to need a sabbatical to recover from my sabbatical. But truth be told, apart from reading a lot of mysteries (which I would probably have done if I was working normally) and occasonally meeting people for lunch, I have not exactly been frivoling away my time. Partly that's because you can't exactly afford to frivol when you are on half pay, but partly its because I've been so busy working to catch up I haven't had the time or energy to take a month off to see the sights or smell the daisies. That having been said, I don't want to complain too much--I'm working 7-8 hour days, not 10-12 hour days. That is a break, even if it's hardly time lazing in the sun.

But that suggests the other side of the problem. If I'm  working that much, and falling behind, during a normal year, then there's either something wrong with me, or something wrong with a normal year.

I'm inclined to think that there are problems with what are seen as normal academic expectations. We'll need to return to that in a future post (this one is too long as it is).  But my take away for today is that my sense is that even for tenured faculty, the demands of the rest of the time are such that sabbaticals are a time of trying to stay on track or play catch up, rather than a time of R&R, academic renewal and intellectual growth.  Or, to put it another way, distortions in ournormal working conditions are, to significant extent, undermining the original purpose of the sabbatical.

Posted by Elizabeth Dale on April 12, 2011 at 11:08 AM | Permalink


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I agree wholeheartedly with your post, Elizabeth, especially your concluding point. I plan to share this post widely.

Just as a data point, our contract at CUNY guarantees us the option of a sabbatical every six years. I think we can choose a full year at 80% pay or a semester at 100% pay, and competition is only over the several full-year-full-pay sabbaticals given.

Posted by: Mark D. White | Apr 14, 2011 8:36:27 AM

At many institutions, sabbaticals have been or are in the process of being renamed something like "research assignments." It makes clear that these are not sabbaticals in the traditional sense of the word (e.g., time off to travel, learn a language, or do as you please), but just a different form of work assignment focused on scholarship rather than teaching. They also require you to produce something by the end of the assignment. This change in name has value both inside and outside the academy. Inside, it seeks to change the culture and emphasize the output requirement. Outside, it hopes to dispel the myth that these are just extended vacations.

Posted by: Anon2 | Apr 13, 2011 1:45:57 AM

Interesting post. It seems that sabbaticals are like tenure in many respects. Both are unique features of academic careers that seem puzzling, and perhaps even wasteful, to outsiders. And it seems that sabbaticals, also like tenure, can have enormous advantages for professors' careers if used diligently for career development, though they can also be abused as sinecures as well.

Posted by: Dave | Apr 12, 2011 8:29:15 PM

Ah, good question. The full answer might take a post, the short answer is that sabbaticals have become a privilege, not a right. There are different ways to be eligible for the privilege, and some other ways to get leave. But generally, more people seek the privilege than there are slots. It's a competitive process, and some deserving people lose.

It's been that way awhile here, in fact in some senses it's easier now than it was five years ago.

Posted by: ERD | Apr 12, 2011 12:18:44 PM

Thanks for the comment--but I was shocked to hear that professors at a flagship state university aren't getting regular sabbaticals. Not even a semester every seven years? What has happened?

Posted by: anonprof | Apr 12, 2011 12:00:21 PM

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