A sabbatical is an opportunity to slow down and do the things that most academics complain they never have time to do during the regular school year: read, reflect, write. Those three words that attracted me to this job in the first place. Yes, I love the teaching too, but once in a while it’s good to get a break from the daily grind of lectures and grading. People outside academia look at the idea of a sabbatical somewhat enviously and some see it as an indulgence—time off with pay that doesn’t get counted as leave?—but maybe precisely because of that, there is this added pressure to have something to show for it. The feeling is quite common, so much so that a search on Google using the question “expectations from a sabbatical” yielded over half a million results. Reading through some of the blogposts, Quora responses, and other social media tell me that practically everyone feels that pressure, and even as one welcomes the promise of open time, there is an undercurrent of anxiety. Sara Perry, a senior academic from York University, speaks lucidly about managing intention, expectation and self-worth on her blog, as she embarks on her 10-week sabbatical. Just a little over three months. And even as she confesses that her institution places absolutely no burden of a specific outcome from this break, it’s clear that she feels that characteristic anxiety.
Much of the anxiety stems from what Perry calls the “broader and insidious culture of relentless productivity that pervades academia”, combined with the constant comparisons that academics make—with others in their departmental units, with others in the same domain within the country, with international scholars—to get a sense of their self-worth and the quantum and value of their output. And the digital complicates this need for recognition and visibility in multiple ways.
Payal Arora, professor of culture and communication at Erasmus University while arguing for a turn to “slow academia”, says that today there’s a “need to market your work across digital platforms to be heard, seen and cited”. We see others doing this, constantly tweeting their latest reflections on media trends or pointing to new publications on academia.edu or ResearchGate or posting their attendance at conferences and meetings. A sort of social comparison dogs us, and we think… so much productivity out there, so little here. The amazing work of scholars like Slavoj Zizek, who seem to produce a book or two every a year (we all have the colleague who seems to be hopping from one launch to another) does inspire, but it also daunts, and sets that bar for scholarship that much higher. While we may not all aspire to be Zizek, there’s something to be (not) said for staring at the computer screen struggling to write that paper and having those scores of citations by a single admired author dance in your subconscious…constant comparison? The progressive metrification of scholarship (what’s your h-factor?) doesn’t help. It doesn’t say anything about the hours spent preparing for classes, scratching your voice to a rasp in the classroom, talking to students about good, bad and indifferent work, poring over barely intelligible assignments into the wee hours of the day. So where’s the scholarship, the administration asks. What’s your citation score?
So. A sabbatical is supposed to give one that opportunity to slow down, to take a breath…and yes, produce that scholarship!
So. Here I am. After eight years in the academy and 34 years in the workplace, a year off from the routine. With pay. What privilege. And what pressure.
So. I begin every morning with a list. Reminding myself of the things I have to do. I write them down with the nearest pen in my lovely Booker diary. And then I pencil in the things I’d like to do. Among the “have tos” are student work to be read and commented upon, columns to be written, books to be reviewed. And the “like tos”? Other writing, other reading. And on a little placeholder on my desk is another list: of deadlines I must not lose sight of. It’s not so long ago that I was in a somewhat similar position when I took the Fulbright. I should have learned, no? And maybe I have. Maybe I have.
I do have my goals. Long term, and short term. But I’m going to try to allow myself to do that other thing. Sit back. Relax. (if you’re a certain age, you might follow that with “Have a Charminar”!) Read. For pleasure and for growth (isn’t all reading for that?). Take the thoughts slow. Take the writing easy. Don’t overthink or overschedule. And above all, take a break from the guilt.