What makes a successful academic sabbatical? I want to find out. And I want your help.
Few of us get any explicit training in how to take a sabbatical as graduate students. After all, our advisors aren’t around to counsel us, because they’re away.
Once out in the world, we tend to assume that sabbaticals are simple, even unproblematic: once the obligations of teaching and advising are removed, our creativity will naturally uncoil, the Muse will be unleashed, and all the pent-up ideas and articles and revisions will just tumble out.
And while academics treasure sabbaticals, the practice is oddly under-studied. The research on academic sabbaticals is not nearly as extensive as sabbaticals themselves: for example, sociologists have studied their effects on job satisfaction, but little attention has been given to what distinguishes successful sabbaticals.
I know first-hand that a great sabbatical can be intellectually transformative. In 2011 I had a three-month sabbatical at Microsoft Research Cambridge. During those three months, I did much of the research behind my 2013 book, The Distraction Addiction, laid the groundwork for my current book, and helped me forge a new sense of my self as a writer. When I was writing REST, I found lots of examples of scientists, scholars and artists who completed ambitious projects, extended lines of inquiry, or asked questions that defined their careers and occupied decades of their lives.
So my experience is not unusual. But I also don’t think that good sabbaticals are merely the absence of professional obligations and daily distractions. Sabbaticals, like all forms of creative rest, are actually a skill. We can learn a lot about how sabbaticals actually work by collecting stories from scholars of their experiences.
So I want to interview academics about their sabbatical experiences. (I include people who are on tenure lines, who are lecturers or adjuncts, or continue to do scholarly work.) I want to hear how you prepare for sabbaticals; how much you’re able to disconnect (or not) from your normal lives and duties; what your daily sabbatical schedules look like; and what non-professional interests or activities you develop. I want to know how things like e-mail, electronic publishing, the quickened pace of professional life, and publishing pressures have affected the way your spend time on sabbaticals. And of course I want to know what differences sabbaticals really make in professional lives.
How can you help?
I’ve got six open-ended questions, which you can read below. You can email your responses to askpang at restful dot company (yes, “company” is a top-level domain!); alternately, if it would be easier, we can arrange a time to talk via Skype or phone (or in person, if you’re in the Bay Area). I’ll treat all answers as confidential, and not identify people in talks or articles.
Thanks for your help.
1) I’m curious about how scholars view sabbaticals— what assumptions influence their expectations about the opportunities they present, how they should be used, what long-term effect they can have on one’s work or career. As a student or young professor, what were you taught about the purpose of sabbaticals, and how one should use them? For example, did your advisors or colleagues see the sabbatical as an opportunity to continue ongoing work, to finish existing projects or start new ones without the usual distractions of classes and committees; as a chance to explore a novel area or experiment with a riskier project; or as something more like a retreat, an opportunity for mental restoration and reflection?
2) How connected or removed were you from your normal life on your sabbatical(s)? Where did you go? Did you have regular contact with your graduate students, department, or other institutions, or did you avoid such contacts? Did your family move with you? More broadly, how helpful do you think being away— away from your home campus, normal working routine, and being among people in a similar situation— is for making sabbaticals a success?
3) I’m interested in the daily practices of creative people: how much time they spend each day doing their most important work, when during the day they work best, how regular their schedules or routines are, and what other daily activities (such as walks, cycling, or other exercise) that aren’t obviously productive but which stimulate new ideas or are mentally restorative. Can you describe your daily routine during your sabbatical— how your organized the day, how many hours you spent working? Did your routine include activities you did that to outsiders wouldn’t look like work, but which helped you think? Finally, how different was your daily routine on sabbatical from your routine during the academic year?
4) What difference did your sabbatical make in your intellectual trajectory? What significant publications did you start or complete during the year? Did you develop new research interests or embark on projects that you think you wouldn’t have otherwise?
5) What advice would you give to others about how to get the most from their sabbaticals?
6) For purposes of sorting people into their various scholarly and disciplinary categories, can you tell me what field you work in; when you completed your highest degree; and your current affiliation.