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The changing sabbatical

Nothing beats a sabbatical away from home, but nowadays there are other ways to recharge your scholarship.


Having lived in academic families my whole life, I am one of the lucky few to have experienced five full-year sabbaticals. I’ve participated as a child, as an adult before I had children, and with children – though never as the academic taking the sabbatical. I’ve learned first-hand that sabbaticals away from home require a huge amount of planning, emotional turmoil, and often financial or career sacrifice. It has all been worth it, in my opinion, but not everyone agrees.

Most faculty members still take sabbaticals, but what seems to be changing – hard data is difficult to get – is that fewer and fewer academics are actually leaving home for their full-year or even half-year sabbaticals. Is this key benefit of academic life fading away?

The first academic sabbaticals were launched by Harvard University in 1880. There’s debate about Harvard’s rationale for introducing the plan but the research suggests that sabbaticals were intended for academics to take a year to recharge themselves mentally and physically, to be exposed to new ideas that they could then incorporate into their own work, and to pursue research and writing projects that would be difficult to complete with the day-to-day interruptions and demands of a normal academic year. The sabbatical was viewed as benefiting both the professor and the institution: the professor would recharge and the university would reap the new ideas and energy of the returning professor.

There’s no question that professors who have taken their sabbaticals away from home feel that they’ve benefited professionally, academically and – usually – personally. Their colleagues often agree with this perception. But what little empirical research there is doesn’t show any noticeable increase in productivity following a sabbatical leave or in teaching quality as assessed by students. Yet, that research, from the United States, defined productivity by the number of publications (“Testing an evaluative strategy for faculty sabbatical leave programs,” by Michael T. Miller and Kang Bai, Journal of Faculty Development, 2003). It said nothing about improvements to the depth or quality of the academics’ work or about the sabbatical’s impact on their teaching or service to the institution.

One who has no doubts that she reaped professional benefits is York University anthropology professor Naomi Adelson. She says the benefits of her two sabbaticals in Australia eclipsed the hassles of arranging child care for her toddler during the first sabbatical and schooling during the second.

Spending the sabbaticals at a different university each time, Dr. Adelson worked with colleagues who do research in an area similar to her own but with the aboriginal populations of Australia; she normally studies aboriginal populations in Canada.

“The sabbaticals were tremendous,” she says. “Seeing the work that I do from a different perspective … being able to speak directly with colleagues – there’s no comparison with just having email conversations or reading each other’s works.”

From an administrator’s point of view, sabbaticals can be challenging, particularly if several faculty members want to go away at the same time, says Harvey King, a professor of economics who directs the University of Regina’s Centre for Continuing Education. Nonetheless, he encourages faculty to take advantage of this benefit. “The biggest thing for the professors is they get the chance to refresh themselves and to escape. They come back … invigorated.”

His own experiences reflect a dilemma faced by many professors today: how to balance one’s sabbatical needs with those of the family. For his first sabbatical, Dr. King was able to turn this challenge into an opportunity when he, his wife and their young son went to Toronto. For Dr. King, the location was ideal for attending workshops and meeting with colleagues at many universities in the region. At the same time, it provided a career opportunity for his wife, who developed a specialty in forensic accounting, something she couldn’t do in Regina at the time.

But when both spouses are academics, they face another obstacle. They have to coordinate the timing of their leaves and find a university or city that makes sense for both. University of Alberta engineering professors Janet and Duncan Elliott faced that situation twice. Fortunately, their fields are different enough – she is a chemical engineeer and he an electrical engineer – that they aren’t competing for the same opportunity, yet the fields are similar enough that many universities are good for both of them.

The hardest part in narrowing their choices, says Janet Elliot, was ensuring that daycare would be available for their two preschoolers. “We ended up paying a daycare deposit at Stanford, Berkeley, MIT and Harvard [because] you have to get on the daycare list about a year and a half in advance.” In the end they chose MIT, which turned out to be “excellent for both of us,” she says.

By the time the second sabbatical rolled around, the Elliotts were reluctant to disrupt their children’s schooling, so they compromised. The whole family went to Toronto when the kids were out of school; in the fall they returned to Edmonton and took turns travelling for two-week trips to other venues during the year. She found the short trips extremely productive: “You can put aside all of your work from [your home university] for a few weeks.” She contrasts that with a full-year sabbatical, where you need to keep up with your graduate students and your research but with the added challenge of managing them from abroad.

For many considering a sabbatical, finances are a big factor. Most full-year sabbaticals involve a pay cut of 10 to 20 percent of one’s normal salary. Half-year sabbaticals are usually at full pay, but it’s harder to rent your home for six months than for a year so the overall costs may be greater. The Elliotts rented their Edmonton home for less than half of what they paid in Boston, and daycare cost three times as much in the U.S. But Janet gets annoyed when she hears some humanities professors complain about a lack of financial support, relative to engineering professors. “We had neither a top-up nor financial support,” she asserts. “We made the choice to go into debt to pay for that trip because we thought it would be a good life experience.”

At many U.S. colleges, pressure has been building to limit sabbaticals as a way of controlling university expenditures. In California, sabbaticals were suspended at several community colleges due to budget constraints from 2001 to 2004. Kent State University cancelled them in 2009 to save money (though it has since reinstated them), and Iowa universities have been under government pressure to eliminate them.

This does not seem to be happening in Canada. Many Canadian universities have formalized the application process and demand a post-sabbatical report of what was accomplished, but it appears that they almost never deny a legitimate sabbatical request.

For a variety of reasons, though, it seems that a growing number of professors are choosing to stay home for their sabbaticals. Apart from family and financial pressures, many simply value the break from teaching and the chance to tackle major projects – often writing – that they cannot get to normally.

Queen’s University drama professor Kim Renders joined academe and moved to Kingston, Ontario, after many years as a theatre artist. Interviewed just before the start of her first sabbatical, she was eager to spend more time connecting with the local theatre community. She believes that it was her experience in community theatre projects that helped get her the job at Queen’s, so becoming more involved with the community has academic as well as personal value.

“For six years I’ve been working really, really hard,” she says. “I’m happy about the work that I’ve done but I want to do it differently now. I want to do it as part of the community and not this little nose-to-the-grindstone hard worker.”

In industrially focused fields such as engineering, professors who stay home can enjoy new and important learning experiences by working with industry. That’s what Vladimiros Papengelakis, a University of Toronto engineering professor, did on his second sabbatical. In retrospect, he wishes he had chosen this route sooner.

“When I started my academic career,” he explains, “I didn’t have any industrial experience. [The sabbatical] was outstanding because it … gave me more experience about what are the problems, the industrial issues, so I can generate some ideas that are more relevant.”

Now on his third sabbatical, Dr. Papengelakis is again spending it at home, but this time to organize a major conference. He was also influenced by family constraints. With two sons in high school, a daughter in university and a wife who’s an academic, “it would be a huge undertaking for all of us to go somewhere,” he says.

His wife, Brock University kinesiology professor Nota Klentrou, is one of the rare professors to opt out of a sabbatical entirely. A high-energy professor, Dr. Klentrou declined her most recent sabbatical to take up a new position as associate dean of research and graduate studies.

“A sabbatical was never very appealing to me anyway,” she says. “Most people use sabbaticals to catch up with their research.” Since she is caught up, “I don’t need that.” Moreover, “unless the sabbatical is organized in such a way that it enhances your research and knowledge and opens your horizons to new ideas,” she contends, “you should not have it.”
If many sabbaticals have become a break from teaching without extended exposure to new people and ideas, do they still make sense as a universal benefit? In many fields, one of the key reasons for sabbaticals in the past – to access materials in faraway libraries – no longer exists in this Internet era. Arguably even the need for face-to-face interactions is fading away. (See “The virtual sabbatical” below.)

But interactive technology has not yet reached – and may never reach – the point where it can fully replace the energy, enthusiasm and fresh perspectives you can get from shaking up your world by living and working in a new environment. “There’s no comparison,” says York anthropologist Dr. Adelson, “to actually being in the same place, sitting over a cup of coffee and having conversations.”

Tema Frank is based in Edmonton and runs her own business, Frank Online Marketing. She recently returned with her family from Pau, France, where her husband had a one-year sabbatical.

The virtual sabbatical

Patricia Easteal, a law professor from the University of Canberra, Australia, and Nicole Westmarland, a criminal justice professor from Durham University, U.K., tried something new. Using web-based technologies, Professor Easteal spent six months as a “virtual visiting fellow” at Durham, working with Dr. Westmarland as her host. They tried to transfer every aspect of a traditional sabbatical into a virtual model. Dr. Easteal participated via video links in staff meetings and seminars, and she tried to have informal exchanges with professors
at Durham.

And how did it go? While the technology exists to make it work, the experiment required a considerable time investment by information technology staff in both countries and significant software-learning curves for the professor on sabbatical and her host. The time zone differences made informal hallway-type chats impossible, and communications were more challenging. Dr. Easteal’s physical absence also made it hard for her to engage with faculty at the host institution. Few professors took the time to visit her blog or LinkedIn page or even to attend her virtual presentations, although those who did found them worthwhile.

Tema Frank
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  1. Sue Sorensen / November 14, 2012 at 11:07

    My recent sabbatical was my first, and because of family and finances I stayed home and wrote, for the most part. It was okay, but rather bland, and I longed for more travel. The modest travels I did manage to take were very worthwhile, and I commend to other academics the pleasures of work at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Wales. This is a residential library and retreat centre, not far from Chester, and it is full of academics, theologians, writers, and artists who are hard at work on various projects and make stimulating conversation partners at the end of the day. It is not expensive to stay at Gladstone’s Library, and there are also some scholarships available.