Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Category: Sabbaticals

A new project on the craft of academic sabbaticals

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.

Sabbaticals, work-life balance, and leisure vs. idleness

Bowdoin professor Kristen Ghodsee writes in the Chronicle Vitae about her experience on sabbatical in Europe, and how that life compares to American academic culture:

I still worked full time, writing three books and giving 19 lectures in 13 countries. I also had obligations to the research institutes where I worked, as well as responsibilities to professional associations back home. And yet I somehow created a saner balance between work and family than I’d ever managed on my home campus.

In the German and Finnish universities she visited, people leave at sane hours, they don’t check their email on weekends, and they don’t spend all day Saturday and half of Sunday reviewing articles or stuffing yet more footnotes into their manuscripts (always a favorite rainy-day activity of mine when I was writing for academic audiences).

Compare this to her life back home (at the kind of institution you would have imagined offers significant quality of life benefits, being in what a Bay Area native like me would regard as the back of beyond):

back on campus in the United States… my colleagues thought nothing of scheduling two four-hour meetings in the evening, or of proposing a half-day meeting on a national holiday…. At all hours of the night, I receive emails from administrators, students, and colleagues who expect immediate replies. I feel tethered to my iPhone here….

Weekends are meaningless. The workload of full-time teaching, administration, and an active research career spills over to fill every available crevice of time.

What makes this piece– and the perspective that a good sabbatical can offer– is that it’s a window into another, and I would argue superior and more appealing, way of working.

Non-academics may think of sabbaticals as a time when scholars are relaxed and the pressure is off, but that’s not quite true: a sabbatical, especially if it’s underwritten by a prestigious fellowship or at a cool place, creates both an opportunity and an obligation to be super-productive, to finish up those projects you started on campus but couldn’t complete during the regular academic year, or to explore a new direction in your scholarship.

Views of Cambridge from Great St. Mary's

And you can take advantage of it. During my sabbatical in Cambridge (which was more than five years ago, incredibly), I did enough work to establish a strong foundation for my second book, The Distraction Addiction, and started thinking about the issues that I discuss in my third book REST (coming out in less than a month!).

Reading Double Helix in the Eagle

Yet my experience in Cambridge was a lot like Ghodsee’s in Europe. As I write in REST:

My wife and I both worked hard and got a lot done during our sabbatical, but we also found time for evenings in the pub, Sunday walks to the Orchard, quick trips to London, and weekends in Edinburgh and Bath and Oxford. It was an intense and productive time, yet also oddly unhurried. As ardent Anglophiles, we found being in Cambridge intellec­tually energizing. But I began to wonder if our productivity had as much to do with pace of our lives as the place we lived. I started to think that maybe our familiar ways of working and living and our unquestioned assumptions about the need to stay always connected, to keep one eye on the inbox at the playground or the dinner table, to treat weekends as a time to catch up on work, and to hold vacations in contempt, ac­tually don’t work as well as we think.

As Ghodsee’s and my experience illustrates, a well-spent sabbatical illustrates the essential difference between leisure and idleness. From the outside they look similar, but idleness doesn’t offer the opportunity for unforced work and creativity. As John Lubbock put it in a famous essay,

Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summers day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the blue sky, is by no means a waste of time….

Hours of leisure should not be hours of idleness; leisure is one of the grandest blessings, idleness one of the greatest curses– one is the source of happiness, the other of misery.

Because they can let you be very productive, sabbaticals challenge us to think about how regular academic (and working) life could be less of a whirlwind, and more focused on only those parts of academic work that really matter. And, more generally, to think about how we can benefit from putting more rest into our lives.

The story behind the chair on the cover of REST

This is the cover of REST. I wasn’t involved in the design: authors usually aren’t, unless they have design backgrounds, otherwise they’re a lot more likely to mess up a cover than improve it.

Final REST cover

I liked the cover from the beginning: it’s simple, uncluttered, and to the point.

I also liked it because the chair happens to remind me of one of my favorite places: The Orchard, a tea house near Cambridge. When my wife and I were on sabbatical, we went there several times: it’s a lovely walk or ride from Cambridge to Grantchester, via a ridiculously photogenic meadow that was bought by Trinity College around the same time Copernicus was thinking about the solar system.

The Orchard

Once you get it adjusted properly, this kind of chair is super-comfortable, excellent for an afternoon of lounging with a good book, with a cup of tea and a scone. 

I hadn’t had any contact at all with the cover artist, and I don’t know how much of the book they read before starting work. So I was especially delighted when I saw the chair on the cover or REST. I thought, clearly this is meant to be.

Finally, this year for Father’s Day, my wife and daughter found a version of the chair:

Father's Day present: a chair like the kind we sat in at The Orchard-  and that graces the cover of my next book!

So now I can work at home in a version of the chair that’s on the cover of my book, which in turn reminds me of the place where I started thinking seriously about rest. (Not the very first place, but I prefer the chair to a terrifying clown marionette.)

Learning on Change Island

Having been writing away this past week, I've not been updating, but I wanted to mention this excellent piece by Cornell computer science professor Phoebe Sengers, "What I Learned on Change Islands: Reflections on IT and Pace of Life." It's a first-person account of Senger's fieldwork on a remote island in Newfoundland, Canada, and has some excellent reflections on how our information technologies encode and mirror values– particularly a belief in the need to go, and do everything, faster. (In this respect it echoes some of what Jaron Lanier argues in You Are Not a Gadget.)

Naturally, I recognize a certain amount of Senger's experience in my own time here, despite the fact that I'm anything but disconnected and the pace of life here is not really slower than in California. If anything, if you measured it just by how people walk down the streets, you'd think Cambridge was time-crazed: forget everything you imagine of lesiurely punts down the Cam, and think Mario and Luigi, jumping out of the way of bicyclists and white vans. That's what getting around here is like.

So the Sengers is well worth a read while I work on my own stuff, which I think is shaping up pretty well, though I'll start field testing it this week– I'm doing a talk at Open University, then a couple others in the next few weeks. It's going to be a very busy month.

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