A Sabbatical Ends

October 06, 2006

It had been been coming on for weeks: a few more e-mail messages directed my way, a few more phone calls, a few more problems to be solved. Now it's happened: My sabbatical is officially over and I'm back on the job.

During my sabbatical year, I was sure I would be supremely reluctant to give up my freedom and resume directing a graduate program. However, a combination of factors has make it OK, even good, to be back in the saddle again.

Am I crazy? I checked in with other faculty members who have recently completed leaves to see how they felt. While I'm chagrined to admit that most handled the sabbatical's lack of structure better than I did, I am relieved to know that at least some of them are as glad to be back at work as I am.

A Surfeit of Solitude

I became a professor because I liked being in an environment where people work together on ideas. Before taking my leave, I had forgotten that. I still liked the ideas part, but the people problems had started to seem annoying and overwhelming. Now that I'm back, I realize that I missed my colleagues.

Apparently my desire for academic companionship and involvement with peers isn't unusual. "It will be good to catch up with old colleagues and former students," says Dave Hsiung, a professor of history at Juniata College who is just back from sabbatical. "I missed meeting the new faculty members who started when I went on leave, so I need to catch up with them, too. In many ways, the college community moved ahead without me."

Many of us didn't miss just faculty colleagues. Despite all of our complaints about students, we missed them, too.

"There is something tremendously invigorating about the creative interchange with interested students over the course of a semester that can't really be duplicated in any other setting," says Eugene Gallagher, a professor of religious studies at Connecticut College.

It's true: I had forgotten how much energy I get from coaching, motivating, and advising students. As that energy flows back into my life, I feel reinvigorated for my own creative work.

Finishing the Big Book

I direct a program in writing popular fiction and have written several short novels for young adults. For years, I had an idea for a longer, more intricate novel for that same audience but it was too complicated to write in dribs and drabs amid my helter-skelter academic schedule.

Producing the big book was the whole point of my sabbatical and I can report that it's done. And good riddance. It's a decent but flawed work of fiction. The sabbatical gave me the time to finish it, to meet weekly with a talented group of writers for feedback, and to revise it into publishable condition.

Other faculty members I talked with seemed to get even more work done on their leaves than I did. Richard Labunski, an associate professor in the school of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, completed James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights and began promoting it. Madison Smartt Bell, a professor of English and director of the Kratz Center for Creative Writing at Goucher College, also had a book in the publication pipeline; he completed both it and a biography of Toussaint-Louverture, and started another book as well. Others completed in-depth research projects or long articles headed for publication.

So, it seems, a sabbatical works for many academics exactly the way it's supposed to. Now that I've moved on to other projects, the big book is no longer eating at me. That, in itself, is a gift.

A Little Perspective

Sometimes it's the unplanned part of sabbatical work that is the most memorable and significant. Whether due to travel, unexpected projects, or the ups and downs of family life, a leave from the day-to-day grind offers perspective on one's work.

Janet Lowry, an associate professor of sociology at Austin College, took a yearlong sabbatical and spent part of it in India. "I definitely have come back more committed to global perspectives in teaching students sociology," she says. "I want to help them understand the incredibly privileged position we hold in the world and the power for good that they could bring about." That's why she chose "Whose Globalization?" as the topic of her new student seminar.

Claudia Chang, a professor of anthropology at Sweet Briar College, ended up financing part of her sabbatical with a Fulbright teaching fellowship and spent four months teaching at a women's university in Rajasthan, India. That wasn't originally how she planned to spend her leave. "A sabbatical need not be purely used for 'selfish' purposes like research but can also be used to give back to your colleagues overseas and to improve your teaching skills," she says.

Madison Smartt Bell used his sabbatical to rethink his fiction-writing career. "I'd published a baker's-dozen works of fiction and seriously wondered if that might not be enough," he says. During his leave, he tried several projects that didn't pan out, both fiction and nonfiction. One is going very well: His foray into Tennessee's history is now developing into a historical novel.

Getting away from day-to-day concerns and diving into your work -- or stepping outside of your home environment and into a foreign one -- is a tailormade opportunity for rethinking and retooling. And since most sabbaticals come after a period of grinding work toward promotion or tenure, the new perspective you can gain from a leave is crucial.

The Burnout Question

An administrator at my institution insists that the main purpose of sabbaticals is to cure burnout. I was skeptical about that before, but now I understand what she means.

I've always been a little impatient with academic claims of burnout, my own included. After all, who are we to be burned out, compared with coal miners, firefighters, or even 16-hour-a-day, white-collar wage slaves who have no time to enjoy their BMW's?

But I have to admit that, post-sabbatical, I feel entirely different about my job. I am eager to read the books written by my colleagues and students that used to seem like just another chore on my to-do list. I dive into interpersonal problems with the sense that I may be able to help solve them. My sense of humor about my work, which I had misplaced a few years back, has returned in force.

Maybe the best news of all is that sabbaticals keep on bearing fruit for months and years to come. Gary Gillis, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Mount Holyoke College, used his leave to collect several sets of data that can be worked into manuscripts in coming months, and also began mulling over future research projects.

Dave Hsiung, the history professor at Juniata, puts it poetically: "During my sabbatical, I sent a tap root into the soil. This year, I expect some green vegetation to pop up above the soil; it won't be as big as the tap root, but it wouldn't have shown up at all if it weren't for the root being sunk in the first place. And I know some little roots will grow off the main tap, but I just can't yet predict where these will go."

Daniel Dominick, an associate professor of music at Austin College, accomplished much of what he wanted to achieve on his sabbatical, and also benefited from the break and the rest. But he admits, "I think I do more and better work when busy than when I have lots of time."

That's been my experience. too. Truthfully, toward the end of my leave, I didn't get much writing done. In part, that had to do with an unexpected family illness, but it was also because of the lassitude that comes from too much solitude and too little pressure.

Now that I'm back on the job, I'm writing again with greater enthusiasm than ever. The fact that I have to compress my writing into short bursts seems to build up my energy for those moments.

The dream of writing full time haunts many creative writers; it's always haunted me. My sabbatical was a way to try that dream on for size, and it taught me that I don't have what it takes to be a full-time writer. But as a part-time writer, I am reborn. Not only do I want to write, but I want to write good stuff, to read as a writer and learn how to get better, to delve into new ideas.

Before my sabbatical, a wise colleague told me not to worry if I didn't accomplish everything I wanted to. "The year after sabbatical is the productive one," he promised.

I concur. For me, sabbatical was good. But getting back to my real work life is better.

Lee Tobin McClain is a professor of English and director of the master's program in writing popular fiction at Seton Hill University, in Greensburg, Pa. She is the author of three novels for young adults.