Before I share my personal reflections from my sabbatical (to be my last blog post), I wanted to share this with you: One of the many wonderful things about teaching at a university is the opportunity to witness, and be a part of, positive change so regularly.
There is, at least for me, a teaching and learning high that comes from interacting with bright, motivated people on issues and ideas of mutual interest.
I use that high as a motivator to conduct research. The more that I have to share with my students, the better the learning experience for all of us.
On sabbatical, because I’m not teaching, I can’t draw on the joys of the classroom to generate excitement for my research agenda.
Certainly, discoveries in the archives can be exhilarating, but such findings are few and far between.
Most of the time, the key is to track down data, organize it and then, typically much later, interpret it in the context of what has come before.
For someone who thrives on the sort of gratification that comes from teaching – or, looked at in another way, from the application of the research as much as from the process of discovery – a sabbatical can too easily become rather depressing.
I’ve been managing this challenge (at least somewhat successfully) through a strategy that has worked for me in other contexts: I’ve set achievable goals and established a productive routine.
In the afternoon or evening before I leave the office, I create a to-do list for the following day. I mix short, achievable tasks (copy-editing an article, creating a first draft of one of these posts) with longer-term, more open-ended challenges (extensive primary or secondary source research).
If I follow my list the next day, I know that I will achieve something tangible without sacrificing progress on the potentially overwhelming demands of book research and writing.
I complete one of the easiest tasks early in the morning – the feeling of having accomplished something inspires further effort – and I try not to allow myself too much time on-line until I’ve taken on at least one of the more burdensome challenges of the day.
When I’m in the archives, I do pretty much the same thing. I arrive with a plan for the day and I try to work on files that I know to be meatier right away.
I also keep a file that I know will be helpful in reserve for later in the day when I inevitably become either worn out or otherwise discouraged.
I cross files off of a master list as I complete them, and plan the next day’s goals each evening before I leave.
The extra 15 minutes that I spend at the end of each day planning for the next one has made an immeasurable difference to my mental well-being.
For me, and likely for other sabbaticants as well, it can be comforting to achieve victories, no matter how small.
I can’t believe how quickly the time has gone by.
I’m about a month away from the end of my first of two six-month sabbaticals and it feels like I just got started.
It’s not that I haven’t made significant progress towards my goals, but rather that I feel like I only recently stopped teaching and dedicated myself full-time, more or less, to research.
I plan to use these final two posts to reflect on what seems to have gone right and wrong. This post is dedicated to the professional side, where the experience has been much more positive. The next one will be more personal, and more challenging to write.
Looking back on what I hoped to achieve research-wise, I’m quite satisfied. My primary goal, to complete the Ottawa-based archival research for my book project, has been met.
My plan to split up the sabbatical has also born fruit in terms of giving me extra time to make access to information requests and to schedule interviews.
Good planning and a heavy workload has meant that I have accumulated enough CV-friendly achievements (published refereed articles, book chapters, conference presentations, invited lectures) to satisfy my chair and dean, so I’m not concerned about the post-sabbatical report or my prospects for another leave in seven years.
And my decision to change my wardrobe (and dress down) while in the office seems to have contributed to the lack of additional service requirements that were imposed upon me this term (even though it seemed to some of my colleagues like I was always on campus).
Sure, I did attend a few more meetings than I might have, but they were primarily teaching-related, and I’m happy to make time for efforts to enhance our students’ learning experience.
All of that said, many readers will find it ironic that I will be returning from sabbatical with an urge to write. I’ve spent a lot of time taking notes and generating ideas, but given the importance of getting the research travel done, I’ve spent much less putting pen to paper (or thoughts to screen).
Once this sabbatical is over, I plan to take on a couple of smaller writing projects that have been staring at me since January. After that, it’s headfirst back into teaching and service.
At one level, it all feels very good…
I was less than two-thirds of the way through my first six-month sabbatical when I began a very gradual transition back to university teaching.
I’ll be teaching an MA-level contemporary Canadian public policy course to active practitioners again this year, and if that particular syllabus is not as current as possible, I’ll not only have a hard time making a credible impression in the classroom, but I’ll also fail to provide my students with the learning opportunity that they both deserve and expect.
Since the course starts in mid-August, and the Canadian Forces College’s administrative process requires that my syllabus be (for all intents and purposes) complete three months before it begins, I have to start my revisions well in advance.
I had been making progress with my research, so I worried initially that turning back to my teaching responsibilities would interrupt my rhythm.
In my efforts to decide how to deal with this challenge, I identified three options:
- Put off the teaching for as long as possible and then completely immerse myself in it at the last possible moment;
- Dedicate a specific time each week to my curricular responsibilities until my most pressing obligations had been fulfilled (in other words, Friday would be teaching day);
- Spend a little bit of time each day (that I’m in the office) making incremental progress on my syllabus revisions.
Each of us will be most comfortable with a different option (and some might propose a fourth that I haven’t thought of), and I don’t think there’s a ‘right’ approach, but I chose the third one.
Given the importance that I attach to small measures of accomplishment, assigning myself a doable, a daily teaching task has met my personal and professional needs.
I feel a sense of achievement every day and, bit by bit, my syllabus is starting to come into form.
I haven’t yet allowed myself to spend much more than an hour in any given day on my teaching, but the daily routine has generated momentum that seems to be making me more efficient every week.
I also use the teaching time as a mental break, which adds a level of variety to my day that I’m quite enjoying.
It’s worth noting that I’ve continued to keep myself away from the day-to-day responsibilities of college life even while at the office, so I anticipate that there will nonetheless be some fairly significant culture shock when I lose some of the freedom provided to me by my sabbatical.
I hope, however, that this incremental approach will temper some of the challenges of the adjustment period and allow me to reintegrate into my departmental community more quickly.
Sabbaticals are meant to free you from teaching and committee work, but what about service to your discipline?
During the third month of my sabbatical, I was asked to
- adjudicate a journal prize competition
- assess a book manuscript
- write a brief review essay, and
- evaluate submissions to two academic journals.
Should being on sabbatical have affected whether I accepted these requests?
Although some readers might instinctively say yes – isn’t the point of a sabbatical to focus on your own personal and professional goals? – I’m not so certain.
Sure, there must be limits, but is it really fair, or right, to deny your services to the broader academic community for one year out of every seven?
I see three issues here.
First, there is the golden rule. I have had two very positive experiences taking book manuscripts from submission to publication and have every hope that this sabbatical leads to a third.
It follows that I feel an obligation to help others get through the peer review process just as smoothly.
Second, I think it’s important that the academy remains largely self-regulatory: it matters that the peer review process – and not the opinions of non-experts from government or elsewhere – retains the internal and external credibility that it generally still has today.
Tenured professors who are granted sabbatical leave have the professional credibility necessary to sustain the integrity of the peer review process. If every sabbaticant refused all requests to serve as a peer reviewer, the pool from which editors could draw would decrease by as much as 15 percent, causing these editors to refer manuscripts to reviewers who might not have the same degree of experience or credibility. Such an outcome could eventually damage the reputation of the profession.
Finally, I see the peer review process as a service that post-tenure and senior faculty should perform for the sake of graduate students in particular.
I am fortunate that, at this point in my career, I will not face undo harm if an article I have written is published six months late because a reviewer takes longer than expected to complete a report, or doesn’t submit a report at all. Graduate students headed for the job market have no such luxury.
In summary, in my experience, service is typically treated by most members of the academy as, at best, the poor cousin of research (and teaching). And I understand that the incentive structure at most institutions only reinforces this unfortunate perception and likely makes it easy for sabbaticants to set aside requests to review manuscripts while they are on leave.
But I worry about what happens when those of us inside the academy do less than we can to maintain the integrity of the profession.
The alternative, letting outsiders make academic decisions, rarely seems to lead to positive results.
Because the Canadian Forces College is a federal institution, it does not recognize Ontario’s Family Day as a statutory holiday.
My daughters’ daycare does though, so on Monday, February 20, I took the first real day off since my sabbatical began.
I consider myself a recovering workaholic, and when I realized that I had worked 7 straight weeks, I became concerned.
Fortunately, Family Day allowed me to reflect on how sabbaticals can and should leave you revitalized – see the comments on an earlier post – and what that means in terms of finding time for personal reflection and relaxation.
Because archival research (involving travel) virtually demands extended work-days to take advantage of the limited amounts of time available to examine otherwise inaccessible documents and artefacts, it becomes all too easy to retreat into workaholism, complete with its potential for professional burn-out and the deterioration of personal relationships.
I’m trying to mitigate the problem by doing something that most academics are loathe to do – I’ve begun tracking my ‘work’ informally.
11 hours in the archives has become an 11-hour work day. I’ve set a rough minimum of 40 hours of work per week and a rough maximum of 48, numbers that are reasonably consistent with the terms of my employment contract.
I’m also allotting about 2 weeks of holiday for this 6-month period.
Since I’ve begun using this system, I’ve found it easier to work a guilt-free short day on a Friday (if I’ve spent most of the week in the archives), and I’ve also scheduled a number of days off later in the winter, along with a full week in the late spring.
I am no longer obsessing about abusing the trust that’s been vested in me by those who granted my sabbatical, I’m less concerned about ‘falling behind,’ and I’m also finding it easier to articulate to non-academics how I spend my time.
This process will not work for everyone, and all sorts of academic ‘work’ takes place outside of the traditional workplace (I’ve personally pre-drafted a number of articles on the treadmill), but it seems to me that there are two bigger ideas here:
- First, it serves no one’s interests for first-time sabbaticants to burn out or to coast through their time away and, for some, having a system to ensure that these things don’t happen will be helpful.
- Second, in this age of increasing calls for public sector accountability, the more transparency we academics can integrate into our work-lives (without, of course, sacrificing peace of mind or scholarly effectiveness), the better.
It only took three days of sabbatical for me to experience my first minor panic attack.
It could have been the amount of archival work that I was facing, the unexpected meetings with a student seeking a supervisor for a research paper in my area of expertise, my acceptance of the need to be away from family so regularly for the time being, or the loneliness of knowing that much of the next six months of my life would be spent alone.
But it wasn’t – I don’t think – any of that.
It was a stack of non-sabbatical-related reading that was overwhelming one side of my desk that very nearly led me to tears.
The nature of my duties at the Canadian Forces College has traditionally meant that I’ve been be able to use January and February to clear off the pile of books, articles, and reports that would typically accumulate during my most intense teaching term.
This year, however, I’m bypassing that period to dive head-first into archival research.
After some fairly intense reflection, I identified the more general source of my stress: I had not been honest with myself in setting sabbatical goals.
Although I pledged to concentrate first and foremost on archival research, a part of me clearly assumed that I’d be able to catch up on the reading as well.
And perhaps I could have, had I not also agreed to give a series of lectures, workshops and presentations, many of which will require significant preparation.
Since the first attack of nerves, there have been at least two more, but I think that I’ve finally reached a better place by (re-)establishing a clear, more honest, set of sabbatical priorities:
First still comes work in the archives, and second still comes anything and everything else.
But within the second group, I think I’ve set more realistic expectations:
- I will (mentally) set aside time when I am in the office to make sure that my teaching and professional commitments are met and I will adjust my expectations of how much research I can do while here in Toronto accordingly;
- I will read when I can, but I will no longer focus on reducing the ominous pile. I will simply try to keep it from growing (too much).
In an earlier blog post, I noted that unrealistic expectations have often left first-time sabbaticants disappointed with the outcome of their time away.
I thought I’d dealt with that problem preemptively by setting fairly moderate goals, but I was really just deceiving myself.
Although I wouldn’t want to repeat my recent bouts of stress and insecurity, I’m glad that my wake-up call came so quickly.
I won’t make the same mistake next time.
My wife and I recently had a number of people over who we had not seen in a while. None of them were academics. While we were all talking, it came up that I was on sabbatical.
Those friends who are less familiar with the university environment were too polite to suggest that they were envious of what they perceived as my six-month holiday. Even those who knew that I wasn’t on an extended vacation didn’t instinctively understand what the next six months would entail.
I admit to being particularly sensitive when it comes to assumptions about academics’ work ethics – too many of my military colleagues kid almost too seriously about what professors really do when they are ‘working from home’ – and I’ve therefore thought a lot about how I might explain my sabbatical plans to a skeptical audience.
The approach I took in this case was to talk about how my terms of work were defined (40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service) and how I was supposed to demonstrate that I’d fulfilled each element. The teaching is straightforward, and just about everyone has sat on a committee of some sort and can therefore understand the concept of service, so the key was to explain research.
I spoke about how my research output was measured primarily in terms of published books and journal articles. I can write during the academic year, I explained, but the research necessary to produce a book about Canada in world affairs requires extended consultation with sources and records that are not available online.
Without a period of extended leave from teaching and service (the Canadian Forces College’s academic year is 10 ½ months long), I simply can’t piece together the time necessary to get the research done. My next sixth months will therefore see me working harder than ever, since I know that I have a limited amount of time to explore the available archival sources.
This explanation went over well, but I was speaking among friends. If my sabbatical plan had been simply to write, and my audience had been less sympathetic, it would have been a more challenging conversation.
But it would have been one that I should have been ready to have nonetheless.
At a time of significant government cutbacks, it’s particularly important that academics are able to articulate and publicly defend the value of what we do when we aren’t in the classroom.
If we can’t do that effectively, we risk incurring some of the potential consequences that are now regularly contemplated across the border.
The Canadian Forces College is not like most typical post-secondary institutions. For one, the student body is made up exclusively of military and public service professionals (aged 35-50) who are in mid- to senior-level positions.
The organizational culture here also emphasizes the importance of face time: even my colleagues who prefer to work from home tend to be in their offices (all day) at least three days per week.
I work at the College every day, regardless of whether I am teaching. I find that doing so allows me to create a clear break between work and family life. I’m also more efficient – at least in terms of scholarly output – when I can’t use housework, or playing with my daughters, as an excuse to procrastinate.
It has taken me some time to figure out how to manage my relationship with the College while I’m officially on leave. (note: because I’ll only be gone for six months at a time, I get to keep my office.)
I’ve decided that I’d like to be in the office about twice a week when I’m in town. My Internet connection at work is faster, the printer is better, I have a larger desk, our library is excellent, and I’m productive here.
That said, there’s a real danger that if I’m around too much, I’ll end up taking on additional tasks within the College that will slow down my research.
Comments on this blog thus far have shown that this is a significant concern for most sabbaticants, even those who don’t generally work from the office as regularly as I do.
So I’ve decided, first of all, to change the way that I dress at work. Like most of my colleagues (and all of the students who are not in uniform), I normally wear a tie every day, but unless I am meeting with students, I’m going to dress casually.
The stark difference in appearance will make it awkward to include me in higher level meetings, particularly if they include guests of the College.
I’m also not going to announce all of my comings and goings in advance. (Since professors at the College are in the office so regularly, we leave notes on our doors when we are away). Even if I have a regular routine, I don’t want anyone to be able to count on me being around on a particular day at a particular time.
As for my students, most of whom are used to stopping by unannounced and finding me available to talk, I’ll be strongly encouraging them to make appointments to see me.
We’ll see how this all works out…
When the call for sabbatical applications came out, I had no idea what to expect.
It turns out that the process where I work (Royal Military College) is fairly rigorous. I had to write several short essays that explained the purpose of my time away, my goals, as well as the value of the sabbatical to me personally and to RMC more generally.
I included details about the funding applications that I had already submitted, and committed to working for RMC for at least one additional year (a requirement of all sabbaticants, as far as I am aware). My final submission – which borrowed heavily from my SSHRC application – was about 3,000 words long.
Since so many first-time sabbaticants report disappointment in failing to meet their initial goals, my proposal was relatively unambitious: I pledged to do as much archival research as I could in the time available.
I did so knowing that my ongoing research program should result in a number of smaller publications this year, and between them and a few speaking commitments that I have already accepted, I expect to be able to demonstrate sufficient evidence of scholarly productivity.
So I haven’t set the bar too high, but I expect to overachieve.
Although I was eligible to begin my sabbatical in July 2011, I proposed a starting date of January 2012.
I do the bulk of my teaching in the fall and am happiest when I am in the classroom or taking part in the development and implementation of the Canadian Forces College’s faculty, staff, and student orientation programs.
Once my chair and dean learned why I sought to delay my sabbatical, they suggested that I break it into two halves.
This would mean continuing to teach extensively in the upcoming fall terms, and taking my leave during the relatively slower (for me) winter terms of 2012 and 2013.
The proposal made sense at a number of levels (beyond the chance to keep teaching).
For one, I will be making a number of access to information requests this year, and they take time to be fulfilled. Second, my research involves interviews, and spreading out my sabbatical will allow me to be more flexible with my subjects in terms of dates.
Finally, splitting up some of the travel will be good for our family. After six months of near-constant research trips, I will be home for six months before it all starts again.
I recognize that a split sabbatical is not for everyone, but given that I love to teach, I am not burned out, and my family is supportive of decreasing the intensity of my travel schedule, this arrangement feels right.
I started to think about my sabbatical after I received tenure in 2009.
I quickly realized that there was no recipe for what to do your first time out. Colleagues that I look up to have dedicated their year to any one or combination of:
- sustained writing;
- revising and planning new courses; or
- serving as visiting fellows at other universities.
As I thought about their experiences, and read what I could find out about sabbaticals online I discovered that what successful (first-time) sabbaticants seem to share is a focus on professional goals that cannot not be achieved during a traditional academic year.
Since I am trained in history, I decided to focus my year on sustained, potentially costly, archival research.
The research would support a new book project that, conveniently, I was starting to contemplate seriously at around the same time.
So I ended up thinking through three major developments in my career simultaneously:
- a new book-length research project;
- a funding proposal to sustain it; and
- a schedule for completing it that would allow me to undertake the bulk of the archival work during my sabbatical year.
The process was stressful, but I’m glad I persevered.
Working on the three issues at once enabled me to set out a five-year vision for the next stage of my career that translated well into the various proposals.
Just as important, it also enabled me to begin to negotiate how my sabbatical would affect our family life (my wife and I have two young daughters) two years in advance.
I eventually developed a book project that would see me travelling to Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa fairly regularly for close to six months, to the United Nations archives in New York for a number of weeks, followed by shorter trips to Washington and London.
Ottawa is close enough to home that I would not have to be away on weekends. The international travel – particularly if it were for two or more consecutive weeks – would be scheduled around my wife’s work schedule.
With all of this in mind, I put together a funding application for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. I used most of that same application to compete for additional financial support from Royal Military College (where I work).
By applying to SSHRC a year before my sabbatical was set to begin, I gave myself two chances to win before my opportunities for uninterrupted travel would be over. (In April, I was pleased to learn that my SSHRC proposal had been successful. I also received additional funding from RMC.)
With the grant applications out of the way, I prepared my sabbatical request…