Things I Learned During My Sabbatical (In Progress)

I still have a few weeks of sabbatical left, but recently, I’ve been reflecting on my sabbatical experience. Here are a few things I’ve learned:

  • Everyone has their own vision of a sabbatical. I’ve had to learn not to react when people voice frustration that my approach to a sabbatical doesn’t match how they would use the time. Some critics have suggested my work-life balance has been tilted too much towards the life end during this semester; listing what I’ve accomplished on the work end likely won’t change their minds. Well-meaning friends have worried that I haven’t taken enough of a break from campus; making my breaks more visible isn’t going to make them more rejuvenating for me though. Like everything else, taking a sabbatical requires practice, and I’ll make a few different choices the next time (in 6+ years?) that I have an opportunity to apply for one. For now, I’ve revised my strategies throughout the semester so that my sabbatical better matches my own vision for the semester.
  • I am most productive when I’m working on campus. I can squeeze out a few productive hours at home (particularly if my dog is at puppy play school and not home distracting me). Similarly, working in a coffee shop with headphones facilitates a couple of hours of writing. If I want a productive day, though, my office is still my most natural work setting. If I close my office door and turn on some music, I can work away the morning. The campus setting, with its vast green spaces and its proximity to local restaurants, makes it easy to enjoy a lunch break that involves both “lunch” and “break.” Then I can return to my office – and all its resources – for another work stint in the afternoon. Some people cringe when they learn that I often work on campus, but everyone has her own preferred writing space, and being comfortable and productive is far more important than meeting other people’s expectations for where you should (or shouldn’t) do sabbatical work.
  • I’m not good at letting everything non-research-related go. And I’m not surprised or disappointed by that realization. Academics spend a lot of time negotiating a teaching/research/service balance, and that balance is shaped by institutional context. Some faculty can make the sudden shift to one-third of that triad, but for many of us, the shift introduces a disconnect. I’m at home at an institution that values teaching above all else, and my research often interlaces my teaching (or vice versa). Likewise, I thrive on service; I think it’s in my DNA. Not letting every single service responsibility go doesn’t mean that I don’t trust my colleagues to pick up the slack; rather, the majority of the service responsibilities I continued during my sabbatical are part of my identity. I would have felt unbalanced divorcing myself completely from them, and I suspect a research-only focus would make “re-entry” more difficult next semester. The key is to prioritize the non-research commitments and to know which are integral to your professional work so that you can make smart decisions about which to retain during the sabbatical. I admit to keeping one or two too many, but I’ve found a better balance as my sabbatical has progressed.
  • Most people don’t know I’m on sabbatical (and it’s not because of the service referenced above). Rather, other faculty have enough to keep track of in their own lives and can’t reasonably be expected to remember which colleagues are on sabbatical in a given semester. Therefore it’s important to have a stock response prepared when others ask for your participation in activities during your sabbatical. Some people use an out-of-office message to convey that they’re on sabbatical, but I’m still using my email for my sabbatical project (and the Elon Research Seminar), so I’ve opted simply to send short notes as needed (e.g., “Thank you for thinking of me for this project, but I am on sabbatical this semester and not able to participate.”).
  • Flexibility is key. I’ve had unexpected opportunities come up that I couldn’t have predicted when I submitted my sabbatical application over a year ago. I’ve also had a few unavoidable set-backs. I’m not as far along with my sabbatical project as I predicted I’d be by now, but  I still have a lot to show for the past several weeks. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.
So what are the take-aways if you’re preparing for your own sabbatical? Map your own goals for your sabbatical and have faith in your ability to construct a sabbatical experience that meets your needs. Take time to find your own preferred writing space, and during your sabbatical, don’t feel compelled to change what works – unless you want to try some new/alternate writing venues. Know yourself and be true to yourself; trying to change your research and writing practices to match someone else’s ideal will only add unnecessary stress. Decide how you’ll say “no” to requests, but forgive the one-time transgressions; colleagues are doing their best to achieve their own work-life balances. Allow for the unexpected, and celebrate every success.
If you’ve taken a sabbatical, what tips would you share? What strategies helped you achieve your sabbatical vision?







One response to “Things I Learned During My Sabbatical (In Progress)”

  1. Stephanie Vandrick Avatar
    Stephanie Vandrick

    Thoughtful comments and good advice, Jessie! I have had several sabbaticals, and each one has been different. Each time I have to decide again how I will handle it, how I will allocate my time, etc. And matters never unfold exactly the way I planned, but that is life! I, like you, by the way, prefer to write in my office at the university. Good luck with the rest of your sabbatical!