The True Value of a Sabbatical

Brian Taylor

October 03, 2012

College professors know that sabbaticals provide valuable time to focus on our research and disciplines. However, when it came time for my sabbatical back in 2008, all I really wanted to do was ... nothing.

I was exhausted. I had helped found the theater and dance department at Ursinus College, a small liberal-arts college in Pennsylvania, and my work schedule had been hectic for some time. All I could think about was lying around the house in my pajamas, doing some pleasure reading, cuddling with my four dogs, and watching television. For the first two weeks of my sabbatical, I allowed myself that leisure time.

As my thinking began to clear, I realized that I had been working too hard. It was not healthy. I needed to find time for myself again. I decided that, besides using my sabbatical to pursue my research agenda, I would set aside time to do something rejuvenating and far removed from academe and the performing arts. What I chose to do during my free hours changed my life in more ways than I could have expected, both personally and professionally.

My plan for those free hours was to train one of my dogs to be a therapy dog. I discovered that a local kennel offered a six-week course and that several area hospitals had volunteer pet-therapy programs. It seemed ideal: I love being with my dogs, and the training would keep me active doing something fun and worthwhile. Since I was not tied down to a schedule of teaching commitments and committee meetings, this seemed like the right time to take on the task.

I trusted that Festus, my 2-year-old Rottweiler/pit bull mix, would be a good inspiration to patients in hospitals. Contrary to the reputation of those breeds, Festus, a three-legged amputee whom I had adopted the year before, has a sweet, calm nature. Perfect for the job. I signed us up for the course, and we worked diligently for weeks. Upon passing the certification test, we were officially a pet-therapy team. By the time my sabbatical was over, Festus and I were visiting patients in hospitals several mornings a week.

When I started my teaching schedule again the next semester, I carved out a few mornings each week to continue our visits. The responses I received from patients and hospital staff members were immediate and constant. At a physical rehabilitation facility, I heard continually that Festus was an inspiration. "If he can do it, I can do it," the patients would tell me, or "I will work harder on my exercises now that I have met him."

Volunteering with Festus proved to be as therapeutic for me as it was for the patients. It took me away from my daily routine, allowed me to put aside my problems and stresses, and allowed me to be mindful of the present moment. Our visits were about the dog and the patient, so I could put aside my own identity and become merely "the guy with the dog." No one I met knew my name or anything about me. I could focus on others' needs, plus give myself a much-needed boost every few days.

I could finish this tale here by stating the obvious: Volunteering is rewarding and fulfilling. I feel refreshed and motivated when returning to work after a hospital visit.

However, the story does not stop there. What is unexpected about my sabbatical experience is the change that occurred for me professionally because of the charitable work that I had taken on with Festus.

The first, and most immediate, shift occurred in the project that I had planned for my sabbatical. My original goal was to write and perform a one-man performance piece. After abandoning several ideas that no longer held my interest, I began doing research on pet therapy and the history of American pets. I wanted to share with an audience what I was learning about service and dogs.

I workshopped the evolving piece, "Festus the 3-Legged Wonder Dog," at a local theater and received enthusiastic responses. Encouraged, I brought a rough version of the show to the Micro-Fringe Festival at the 2008 conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. Other theater professors' critiques helped me to shape my show and refine it further.

The finished piece premiered in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival later that year to positive reviews and sold-out houses. Since then, I have been invited to perform the show at a variety of venues, some theatrical and some academic. As Festus and I have shared new adventures together on our hospital rounds in the subsequent years, I have continued to update the piece for new audiences. At my most recent performance of the show, I added an epilogue: the story of my newly adopted dog, Cyrus, who is two-legged and walks in a wheeled cart. He, too, is now trained and certified and visiting with us.

Coincidentally, when I was first performing the show, I saw a call for applications to Project Pericles, which encouraged professors from all disciplines to reimagine their courses or to develop new ones that focused on community and civic responsibility. Since I had been so steeped in service, I wanted to investigate theater courses created for the purpose of community building and healing. I applied and became Ursinus's Periclean Faculty Leader with a grant to develop a new course, "Community-Based Theater and Civic Engagement."

Through my research, I learned a great deal about others who were crafting stage work with, and for, specific groups of people. Some artists had charitable purposes, some therapeutic, others political. Whole new ways of making theater opened up to me, including documentary and verbatim theaters, Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed, playback theater, and so on.

I was fascinated and invigorated to share this type of theater with my students. The course I developed became a mix of lecture and practical studio work. The students engaged with different communities in need and created theatrical productions to reflect their research and interviews. They learned new ways of engaging with people who lacked voices in our town and created stage pieces that shared their stories.

As a result of the course, I was invited to be on a panel of three Periclean professors at the 2011 meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities in San Francisco. I found myself, for the first time, talking with other academics outside my discipline about pedagogy. I was inspired by their stories, and I hope my work sparked some new ideas for others.

My success with this new avenue of research and teaching caused me to rethink how I approached my other courses. For instance, I added a civic-engagement component to my "Introduction to Theater" course to get more students involved with minority groups and sharing what they learned with wider audiences. Students have written in their evaluations that this section of the course is their favorite and the most rewarding.

I was approached to be a faculty mentor to a special-interest house at Ursinus that focused on community service. To be a member of the house, each student had to present a proposal to do community outreach in creative ways. I took the members on a field trip to one of the hospitals where I volunteer. They met with the volunteer coordinator who explained a myriad of ways that they could become involved. I also pulled together a panel of faculty and staff members who were doing community service to talk about their ideas and their experiences. I was staggered by the overwhelming response I got from people who wanted to be part of the panel. One afternoon, about 20 Ursinus staff and faculty members shared stories and exchanged ideas about how to volunteer locally.

This story keeps evolving. Since becoming an advocate for volunteerism and service, I have taken to writing about my experiences in order to reach wider audiences. My career took an unexpected turn recently when I became a regular blogger for The Huffington Post. I have written several columns about Festus and Cyrus and community service, among other topics.

I have come a long way from where I was at the start of my sabbatical. The one activity I chose specifically to take me away from my work has become a central part of my work and of my life. As a professor, I am required to make reasoned and thoughtful professional plans, but going where my heart (rather than my head) led me has yielded unexpected, rejuvenating, and inspiring rewards. My dogs are my guides, and I am thrilled to be able to share the lessons I have learned from them with others.

Domenick Scudera is a professor of theater at Ursinus College.