Monday, March 18, 2013

So, How's The Sabbatical Going?

That's a question I've been hearing a lot this year, and understandably so.  Most of my friends and my students have never experienced one.  I hope that all of them have a chance to take a sabbatical someday so they can see for themselves what a gift it is.  Since so many of my students wonder what I am doing when I'm not on campus, I'm writing this mostly for them.  Many of them have (very sweetly!) told me they miss me.  Let me assure them: it's mutual.  But it has also been very good for me to take this year away from the classroom.

Sabbaticals and Long Service Leaves

Sabbaticals can be seasons of letting dry husks bear new life.
By coincidence, a handful of my friends were on some sort of sabbatical last summer.  Mostly they work for tech firms that recognize that sabbaticals make for more creative, more productive workers.  One of them was enjoying a long service leave that Australian law mandates.

Most jobs in the United States don't offer sabbaticals, but I'm fortunate enough to have one that does.  Sometimes my kids chide me for choosing a job with relatively low pay, but self-regulated time is something money can't easily buy.  I think I chose my career pretty well.

I say "self-regulated time" because my sabbatical isn't early retirement or a long vacation.  My job as a college professor has three basic components: teaching, scholarship, and service.  A sabbatical frees me from the first of those components, and from parts of the third.  More precisely, it frees me from the daily tasks of teaching and service, but I expect that at the end of this year I will be a better teacher because I've had time to do research and to tear down and rebuild some of my classes.  And any college capable of taking the long view knows that faculty who take sabbaticals can render better service over the long haul. 

What I've been doing

To the casual observer it probably looks like I've spent a lot of time in coffee shops and airports, and not much else.  For the last three years I've devoted myself to teaching and service, giving only a little of my time to scholarship.  So when I began my sabbatical my scholarly life felt like deep waters pent up behind a strained dam.  Over the last few years I've sketched out five books and seven articles and book chapters.  Over my sabbatical I hoped to get maybe one book and a couple of articles done.  That may not sound like much, but it's fairly ambitious, given how much time it takes to do the research and to write well.

Since my job description breaks down into the three parts I mentioned above, let me say a few words about what I've been doing this year in each of those areas.

Writing: As for academic writing, so far, I've completed one book (on brook trout), and made significant progress on two others (both on the philosophy of religion).   Once I get them done, books four and five are ready to go, too.  I've submitted one book chapter for someone else's book, and I'm about to submit another.  I've written a few book reviews for popular and scholarly journals, too.  Last week I gave a lecture at the College of William and Mary on war and evil.  Now I'm preparing that lecture for publication as a journal article.  By the time this sabbatical is over, I hope to have at least one book under contract and two more articles sent off for review.  I've also done some more popular writing, including a couple of articles on virtue ethics in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Chronicle Review - one on guns and one on the ethics of drones or UAVs.  Perhaps most importantly, I've been writing every day.  As you can see, I've been trying to write quickly here on this blog a couple of times a week, and I've been writing in a lot of other places as well.  Like any other skill, it comes more fluidly with practice.

Snail shells grow by slow accumulation, as habits do. 
Teaching: I've also had the pleasure of planning some new classes, including one I plan to co-teach on environmental science and ecology, and a course for alumni I'll teach in Greece this summer with another Classics professor.  And I have a whopping stack of books I've wanted to read that I've been devouring hungrily.  When you're the professor, it's also good to be the student as often as possible.

Service: Even though I'm away from campus, my heart is still there.  Everything I do as a professor winds up leaning back towards the classroom, which means towards my students.  Nothing I do matters more than the people I do it with and for, I think.  I must have written sixty letters of recommendation for students this year (which is more time-intensive than one might think).  Sabbatical has also given me the chance to help some colleagues here and at other universities.  I've been helping half a dozen friends who teach Classics, Philosophy, and Biology at other universities by reading and commenting on drafts of their essays and books.  And I've done a lot of "double-blind" reviewing for six or seven academic publishers who want advice on whether to publish certain books or journal articles.  Best of all has been time to collaborate with colleagues in far-off places, corresponding with professors and graduate students around the world about philosophy, ecology, Scriptural Reasoning, Henry Bugbee, Charles Peirce, C.S. Lewis, and other matters close to my heart.  I list this as "service" but I could just as well call it "ways I've learned from other people far away."

The license plate on the rental car I had at a recent conference.
But Have You Taken Some Time To Rest?

Yes.  The word "sabbatical" has its roots in a Hebrew word, shabbath, meaning "to rest." It would be a shame not to use the time to get some rest.  Last summer I spent two weeks in a writing retreat sponsored by Oregon State at their Shotpouch Creek Cabin with my friend and co-author Matthew Dickerson.  We were working, but what restful work it can be to live, think, and write quietly with a friend.  We spent half of each day writing, and the other half talking, hiking, fishing, wading in the ocean.  We borrowed some hymnals from an Episcopal church in Eugene and spent part of each evening singing as the sun declined behind the coastal range.

On my way to Oregon, I drove my sons to the coast last summer to look at colleges, to go whale-watching, and to watch some professional soccer matches. When I got home to Sioux Falls, I joined a gym and I became my son's rec league soccer coach. This is his last year of living at home with us, and I can't tell you how grateful I am to have this time with him before adulthood takes him off on the next leg of his life's journey.  Despite all the work, and travel, and writing, I've had more time with my wife and my kids, and more time for self-care. I feel much healthier and fitter now than I did a year ago.  I have a feeling my family is better off for that, too.

I wish everyone, regardless of their line of work, could have an experience like this every few years.  It might remind us all what matters. It's expensive, I know.  I took a hefty pay cut from an already modest salary to have this year off, and thankfully our savings have been enough to get us through.  (And writing and lecturing makes me a few extra ducats to send to my daughter in college from time to time or to spend on my boys at home.)

No doubt some people will read this and wonder why my college is willing to pay me anything at all when I'm not showing up to work.  The answer is that some colleges still take the long view.  You have to put aside your monthly planner and get a calendar that measures time and value "not by the times but by the eternities" (pace Thoreau), that looks down the years the way a carpenter holds a plank to her eye and looks down the full length of the board rather than seeing only the grain of what is nearest. Money has been spent on me this year by people who thought it worthwhile to let me stretch from my cramped pose.  They have let me drink from distant streams so that I can come back nourished not just by the Big Sioux and the Missouri but by the waters of Oregon and New York and Virginia - and in some sense by the Hippocrene itself.

So that's what I've been doing.  I'm sorry I haven't been around campus much.  In the long run, what I've been doing should make my return to campus a very good one indeed.  I can't wait to tell you more about what I've learned this year once I return.

No comments:

Post a Comment