Going on Sabbatical

October 13, 2005

Ah, sabbatical. The word flows from the tongue. Months of freedom to work on academic pursuits stretch out before you like a broad green field. Look closer, though: There are yardage markers and goal posts on that field.

To most folks outside the academic world, the sabbatical looks like a year off. In addition to the standard "must be nice" jealousy, some people with legitimate demands on your time are glad to finally see an opening.

Everyone around you has a few ideas about how you will spend your time. Your family wants more than the usual share of your attention. Your faculty peers and your bosses think you should accomplish certain things on your leave. And then there are your own expectations.

"The problem with a sabbatical is that, when your spouse or family asks you to do something, you don't have the standard excuse of 'I need that time to prepare for class,'" says my colleague Al, a sabbatical veteran. "It's not as easy to say no when demands for house repairs, yardwork, shopping trips, and family visits come your way."

Such demands are justifiable, he emphasizes, and we usually want to fulfill them. His solution? "Your family needs to be aware of your goals, to be made a part of them so they can support you. They must know that this 'free time' is not free, and that the only way it can pay for itself is if tangible academic work results."

Choosing Your Sabbatical Project

Most of us have several research projects going at once: something long, something short, something challenging, something collaborative. We could highlight any number of ventures as the main goal of our sabbatical -- not just in the proposal, but also in our own minds.

How to choose? Even though this will sound obnoxiously like self-help jargon, it's a good idea to think long term. Where do I want to be in five years? In 10? If the goal is a new job, a promotion, an administrative post, or a different line of work altogether, ask yourself: What project would shoot me toward that goal?

Aiming higher -- a larger grant, a more prominent press, a longer, more complex book project -- is usually right if your goal is a promotion or a new academic job. But if you want to move out of academe, for example, you might use your sabbatical to do a stint in a private-sector job. If you need money, you could try writing a book for a commercial publisher.

Now for an even more touchy-feely question: Which of the possible projects before you do you find most exciting? Which one is a little too big, too different, too impractical, or too ambitious? What have you always dreamed of doing?

If you're looking at six months to a year of solid work on a project, it's going to be much more fun if you've gone out on a limb and chosen something thrilling.

If it's not a thrilling project, maybe you could find an exotic locale in which to work on it. A colleague of mine who just returned from a Fulbright in Montenegro looks like a new man. If nature is your thing, the National Park Service has a sabbatical program that offers accommodations and access to qualified faculty members in exchange for research useful to the parks. Yosemite, anyone?

Finally, pull yourself back to earth by asking: What have I already started? While the theory of a sabbatical is that you'll start and finish a new project in a year, the reality is that that's a short time in which to complete a complex project. That's especially true if your sabbatical is only six or eight months long.

Making the Request

When you first apply for a sabbatical, you have to describe the research you plan to pursue. Your proposal will be more convincing if you already have some work to show -- a chapter, an outline, a grant acceptance, or a letter from a publisher expressing interest.

Some people will advise you to have a "real" sabbatical project and one that's just "for show." Here's how that strategy works: Take a project that's nearly complete and present it as the work you will do on sabbatical. Then move ahead on the real work you want to do -- like starting a new project. The idea is that the promotion committee will be amazed at the progress you've made on the for-show project, and you will have the freedom to work on the real work at your own pace.

For my sabbatical, I proposed a longer, more intricate novel than any I had written before. Its suspense elements will stretch me, and the setting will require research not easily done during a busy academic year. The project moves me toward my goal of publishing more complex fiction with a larger publishing house.

I'm excited about the project, but also unsure whether I have the ability to pull it off. And yes, I had already started the book well before my sabbatical year; in fact, I have a rough draft completed. That means I've got plenty of time to revise, rethink, run parts of it by the new writer's group I've joined ... and put it aside to work on something else.

Learning Goals

A sabbatical is useful not just in terms of producing new research. It also gives you a chance to catch up on everyone else's work. I plan to make time to do something that slips by the wayside during my regular academic life: Set up a reading program and stick to it.

My hope is to read 50 novels, as well as criticism and theory about children's books. At least, that's the plan. I'll let you know how it goes through regular installments in this sabbatical diary.

Finding Balance

My tendency -- one shared by many in academe, I think -- is to set my goals impossibly high. In addition to my sabbatical novel, I'm finishing the last book in a mass-market trilogy and writing a short novel directed at middle schoolers for an educational publisher.

I would like to achieve even more. I mean, it's a year off! My dean has informed me I'm not likely to get another sabbatical for a long time. I have to make the most of it.

But you know what they say about the best-laid plans. When I asked my colleagues how their intentions for their sabbatical coincided with the reality, the tone of the responses was almost uniformly rueful. "Not as much as I'd hoped" and "life got in the way" were typical replies.

I like the two-tiered set of goals described by my colleague Cynthia, a professor of psychology. "I approached my sabbatical with two sets of expectations: the must-do project and the wish-I-could-do projects," she said. "I accomplished the former, but didn't get to the latter, unfortunately."

I happen to know that, if I set low goals, that's all I will achieve. So I'm aiming high, but trying to find balance between my work and my personal life in a couple of ways. I've made sure I don't work all day by limiting the amount of time my 4-year-old daughter spends in preschool (more on combining child-care and a sabbatical in a later column). For me, compressing my writing time makes me work harder. An eight-hour day set aside for writing guarantees I will fritter away the first three hours.

Second, I'm giving myself hard days and easy days. I know I can manage a couple of days a week devoted to long hours of writing, but an endless stretch of them will scare me into writer's block. So I'm also scheduling easy days in which I meet with my writer's group, research the market, and volunteer in a literacy program.

With my preparations completed and the sabbatical under way, I hope I'll have good things to report in coming columns.

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.