December 01 2023

Personal Reflections on Sabbatical

by Donna Yarri, Alvernia University

"Resting" by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (French, Lyons 1824–1898 Paris) ca. 1867-1870

The Biblical Concept of Sabbath

“Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in its fruits; but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” (Leviticus 25:3–4, RSV)

The concept of a sabbatical has its roots in the Western religious traditions, in particular in the Bible. The Ten Commandments, ostensibly given to Moses, includes not only a negative series of commands—“thou shalt nots”—but also includes two positive commandments—“Honor thy mother and father,” and “Keep holy the Sabbath day.” Of all of the commandments, keeping holy the Sabbath day was probably the easiest one to obey! Who is going to argue with taking a day off, even if the express purpose is to focus on God? Of course, remembrance and worship of the God who created all and made all things possible was the primary intent. But there were practical implications as well—everyone/everything was able to rest, including humans, animals, and the land.

In our modern world, this directive has been somewhat watered down, especially with so many Blue laws no longer in effect. Yet many religious believers the world over take this opportunity to attend their house of worship to focus on God. The directive to take a break in the seventh year was a further extension of the Sabbath day. While most biblical scholars will be familiar with the religious component of the sabbatical, almost all faculty, regardless of area of study, know the secular idea of the sabbatical used in the modern college and university. This is what specifically informs the ministerial and academic practices of the sabbatical—the idea that one could take a full year off to focus on things other than one’s usual routine, with the ability to apply and hopefully receive the opportunity to be released from one’s regular duties. It is not so much to focus on God (although that is not necessarily precluded), as to focus on “something else.”  

Academic Sabbatical

Those of us in academia will be well acquainted with the idea of “taking a sabbatical,” even if we are not afforded such an opportunity. Schools probably vary somewhat in their guidelines for requesting and taking a sabbatical, but the general idea is that a faculty member can apply to take some time—a semester or a year—off from teaching and usual academic duties, usually after six years of full-time teaching. Most of us who have been in academia for a while can attest to the fact that the expectations for faculty have greatly increased. While some schools emphasize teaching and others research, there is even expectation at most teaching institutions that faculty engage in scholarship. Expectations for service has probably seen the greatest increase, in terms of initiatives both in and outside of one’s institution, need for assessment, advising to students, and an never-ending list of committees requiring faculty presence. Therefore, the idea of getting a break from these duties (and the ever-present stress of politics which accompanies them) is indeed a welcome one. What differs from the biblical sabbatical, though, is that you are still expected to work. No rest for the weary!—at least not complete rest.

The usual purpose of an academic sabbatical is to focus on a particular area of research in a concentrated way and in a manner that one is unable to do so in the midst of a hectic semester. In addition, there is expectation of a specific outcome for this project: a completed manuscript or book proposal, articles, presentations, as well as a willingness and plan to share this with the larger institutional community. The only way that providing this sort of leave makes sense from an institutional perspective is for there to be an exchange of goods and services between a faculty member and his or her college. Even in the sabbatical, universities seem keen on encouraging “production.”

This is certainly the case at my institution. Obtaining a sabbatical can be quite competitive depending on the size of one’s faculty and the number of sabbaticals granted. My institution has a little over 100 faculty, and usually two sabbaticals can be offered per year. The faculty member can choose to have either one semester off with full pay, or a whole year off with half pay. You need to demonstrate that you have already engaged in a significant amount of creative/scholarly work so that the institution knows that you will make good use of your time and that you are a person likely to produce a good and tangible product. But you must also have a strong application and make a convincing case why you should receive this sabbatical. We need to remember that this is an investment—and a gift—for a school, and in addition to paying you to not complete your usual duties, they will likely have to hire substitutes to teach your classes. It truly is wonderful to obtain a sabbatical!

My Sabbatical(s)

I’ve had the opportunity to take two sabbaticals at my institution, where I am currently in my sixteenth year. The first was taken shortly after tenure, and the second one was taken last fall. I could not afford to take a whole year off at half pay, so I chose the one-semester option at full pay. However, in both cases, I had the summer that could be added on, giving me almost seven months off. During my first sabbatical, I wrote three book proposals, presented papers at two conferences, and wrote three articles. I am happy to say that two of the books have now been published, and that I am finishing up the third one.

Because I have done a lot of scholarly research, I decided to focus my most recent sabbatical on developing my pedagogy. I did write a couple of articles and book reviews, but my major project was entitled “Continuing Development as a Teacher.” The idea was to refresh my teaching through reading approximately seventy works spanning five different topics: classics in education, the art of teaching, the science of teaching, using literature in teaching ethics/religion, and using popular culture in teaching ethics/religion. My concrete outcome was two-fold: the creation of an annotated bibliography to make available to all faculty at my institution and a workshop presentation at the conclusion of my sabbatical. The workshop and the annotated bibliography were well received. The sabbatical thus enabled me, at a more relaxed pace, to engage in a project that I might not ordinarily have had the energy or time for. And I did return from the sabbatical feeling refreshed.

Planned versus Actual Outcome

But I would like to emphasize another aspect of the sabbatical, and that is the opportunity to pursue other personal goals at this more relaxed pace. Too often in academia we live unbalanced lives—with  work dominating in terms of hours, energy, and focus—and with family, hobbies, and friends getting short shrift. I took the sabbatical opportunity to do some different nonacademic things as well. Being originally from New York, I initially explored the possibility of living in New York for three or four months, to take advantage of doing research at a couple of the big universities near the neighborhood where I lived. But I thought that this would also provide me with the opportunities to reconnect with old friends and tour Manhattan. Since one of my personal goals is to write a memoir of growing up in New York, I thought that I could start to indirectly work on that project while working on my sabbatical project. However, that did not work out since at the same time as I was looking at sublets, I was also on the market to buy a house near my job.  A great house became available as I was just about decided to confirm a place to live in New York for the fall. Though I had envisioned my sabbatical as going in one particular direction, life, as it does, got in the way of plans. Thus, tempering expectations became an unintended skill that I learned as a result of the sabbatical. Staying flexible is important. While you do want to work on the sabbatical project you outlined for your institution, be open to alternative means of achieving it, as well as becoming involved in other pursuits (academic and otherwise) that you may not have anticipated.

 Having the sabbatical time, though, enabled me to have more time to work on buying the house and getting it fixed up before the new semester started. In addition, one of my goals in buying a house was to create a “cat room” where I could foster kittens, in a space separate from my own feline companions. I had been doing volunteer work with the local Humane Society for a couple of years, but really wanted to foster kittens. This was also something that I was able to begin on my sabbatical and which I continue to do (I am now on my twelfth litter!). These may not be your interests, but an important thing to think about is not only what research project will you do on your sabbatical, but what “else” will/can you do on your sabbatical? In what ways can this sabbatical contribute to helping you live a more balanced life? I think this is as important as the research project itself, although I wouldn’t advise including it in your sabbatical application!

Your Sabbatical

I am always amazed at how few faculty at my own institution apply for sabbaticals, probably for a host of reasons, including inertia. So I’d like to give some concrete advice on applying for a sabbatical, as well as considering the idea of “mini-sabbaticals” (something of interest to contingent faculty as well). The first thing is to familiarize yourself with the process at your own institution and begin your application as soon as possible. Be aware that deadlines are usually early; at my institution you must apply by September 1 of the current year to be able to take a sabbatical the following year. Realize that obtaining a sabbatical can be very competitive, so you want to have a very carefully thought out and clearly written sabbatical proposal, with concrete outcomes. If you have never successfully applied for one before, I strongly recommend requesting assistance from a more seasoned faculty member who has taken a sabbatical already. This person could offer guidance in terms of how best to write it and to possibly review your proposal. Recognize that you may not get it this year, so instead of feeling discouraged, renew your efforts and apply again.

Faculty committees, such as Development and Research, Rank and Tenure, and Salary and Benefits can work together to make a concrete case to your administration for more sabbaticals to be granted. Our administration has been receptive to requests from our committees over the years to consider increasing monies made available for research, so it is worth a try. Over the past few years, our administration has also created what we call Faculty Excellence Grants, available both during the summer, and fall and spring semesters. The summer grants come with a stipend, and the fall and spring grants come with a small stipend and a course release. This is what I mean by reference to a mini-sabbatical. At our institution, these grants are available to all faculty, not just tenured or tenure-track. While not having the all of the benefits of a full sabbatical, the grants provide some teaching time off to focus on research. If your institution does not have such a program, perhaps there can be some faculty conversation with administration to consider such initiatives. I live by the motto, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” so don’t be afraid as an entire faculty or as an individual to seek what you need and desire to become a more productive scholar and a more balanced person.

Unfortunately, for a large (and growing) proportion of faculty, the traditional sabbatical isn’t an option—yet  another way in which contingent faculty end up disadvantaged when it comes to evaluation and security in most institutions of higher education. Sabbaticals are typically an entitlement available only to tenured faculty. In the current academic climate, tenure-track positions are slowly going the way of the dodo bird. And there are certainly issues of justice since many contingent faculty can work as hard, if not harder, than some tenure-track and tenured faculty. With so few tenured faculty able to get sabbaticals due to their competitive nature, it is unlikely that this will change in the near future. However, justice requires that we continue to have the conversation about how we can better reward contingent faculty.

Donna Yarri, PhD is a professor of theology at Alvernia University in Reading, Pennsylvania. Her teaching and research interests include religion and science, the ethical treatment of animals, and ethics and popular culture. She has published three books and numerous articles, and has also presented many papers at academic conferences. She has won several awards at her university: for teaching, for best service-learning course, and for a two-year fellowship for excellence in teaching and research.


Image: "Sleep," Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (c. 1867–1870). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Theodore M. Davis Collection, Bequest of Theodore M. Davis, 1915.