What’s it like to be on sabbatical? Managing intention, expectation and self-worth

En route to Canada and the USA for my sabbatical: the start of 10-weeks of research leave.
En route to Canada and the USA for my sabbatical in late October 2014: the start of 10-weeks of research leave.

One of the greatest things about my job at York is the regular sabbatical opportunities that academic staff in the department of archaeology have available to them. We do not need to compete for these opportunities – we do not need to earn buy-out monies to fund them; they are part of our everyday benefits, accruing with each term that we work. I feel fortunate to be associated with a department that recognises, unconditionally, the value of research leave. It has been an important, cathartic experience for me; a necessary one that has had a deep impact on me both intellectually and personally. I wanted to share this experience with you, because in my efforts to prepare for it, I researched the process, hoping to learn from others’ sabbatical exploits, capitalise on the opportunity, and not let the time pass me by unmindfully. In scanning the literature for counsel, however, I found very little meaningful information to guide me,* and hence I went into my research leave naïve, with unrealistic expectations, and burdened – to a point of real anguish – by feelings of great pressure to perform. Below is my account of managing those feelings, readjusting my expectations, and regaining a sense of myself as both a scholar and a contented individual.

My first-ever sabbatical was due in January of 2014, but owing to my heavy teaching load in the spring/summer of every year, it was pushed back to the autumn. It has allowed me a 10-week period of leave that began in October, and is now effectively over as the holiday season begins and I look ahead to my normal pedagogical/administrative commitments that resume at the start of 2015. I created a week-by-week list of targets to meet, which – on reflection – was unreasonable, especially because it didn’t allow for any flexibility whatsoever: I had to output at a rate that did not account for any interruptions, miscalculations or added responsibilities. Consequently, I was almost immediately derailed.

I did manage to stay firm on my commitment to myself not to reply to non-urgent emails/requests for assistance; not to compromise my time by focusing on administrative duties that could be handled by others; and not to be discouraged when the inevitable sense of being disconnected from day-to-day affairs set in (see Bill Caraher’s reflections on this disconnection here). I also believe that I achieved a fair amount, although I have no point of comparison to use here nor any specific means by which to measure my performance. I’ll say more about these achievements in January, but they variously include four journal articles (one in press; two now out for review; one near completion), two grant applications, one fieldwork report, one magazine article, two co-curated exhibitions, two major conference presentations/academic sessions (in Chicago and Washington DC), one workshop for anthropologists, and a series of mentoring sessions for anthropology students. As well, I was confronted with multiple unanticipated and unavoidable obligations that presented themselves; some very energising: e.g., producing supplementary content for a major project bid that is now in the last rounds of adjudication; some perhaps less so: e.g., submitting a full draft of my academic CV for a routine professional task, formatted according to our university’s laborious requirements, including c. 35 separate sections of content. The CV alone took me 5 days of work and, honestly, was a rather deflating experience as 10+ years of accomplishment were reduced to a series of homogenised bullet points.

I had originally aimed for far more than what’s listed above, and it’s taken me a while to come to terms with the fact that I haven’t met my goals. The greatest source of tension for me here is a conflict between simultaneous feelings of underachievement and overexpectation—both seemingly self-imposed, but framed by a broader and insidious culture of relentless productivity that pervades academia. I’m perturbed by not having done as much as I wanted to do; just as I’m perturbed that I could have ever thought it reasonable to actually do as much as I wanted to do. I’m annoyed at myself; and, at once, I’m annoyed at the larger, enabling intellectual climate. (Although, as I’ll reiterate below, my department has been nothing but supportive; my concern sits at a much higher level.)

The roots of this conflict are complex, and arguably all-too-familiar to most of us, especially those of us who work in the British university system in the twilight of the REF 2014. I understand them to be tangled into what Mark Carrigan (with Filip Vostal) calls the “acceleration of higher education.” Carrigan’s recent blog post on the philosopher/cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek – “Life in the accelerated academy: how it’s possible for Žižek to publish 55 books in 14 years” (also read the post’s comments for critique) – hints at the dynamics of such stimulation, where Žižek is a “product of the neoliberal academy”—at once a brand, a commercial venture, a thinker, and a phenomenally prolific writer ripe for ‘metrification’. In this way, he seems to generate mixed feelings of wonderment, idolatry, impotence and futility among followers—feelings that, I would suggest, are familiar to many academics aspiring to succeed. We variously admire our mentors, strive to meet (exceed) their accomplishments, and struggle to reconcile these desires with sentiments of despair about their realities: the practicalities, accountabilities, personal sacrifice, duress and subjugations that accompany high-impact professional life. Borrowing from Davies, that life appears to be increasingly one of “managed unhappiness,” where audit culture and austerity combine into a kind of control economy. Herein, “one is never finished with anything” (Davies citing Deleuze) and is therefore left to endure a combination of what Davies variously calls “psychological torture,” “the feeling of earned failure,” and “suffering…through stress, guilt, self-blame, isolation from colleagues…reducing their desire to stick with it.” Of key concern (and arguably the goal of the economy itself), as he notes, is that “everyone has a limit regarding what they can tolerate.” The number of posts that I see on a regular basis which either question why one would ever enter academia in the first place, or which reflect on why one now needs to leave academia for other work, all seem to be wrestling with precisely these issues of control, competitiveness, un/happiness, toleration.

It’s important for me to say that my department at York has imposed nothing upon me for my sabbatical. Indeed, an incredible colleague and advisor (to whom I am greatly indebted) sat with me before I left York in late October and encouraged me specifically to stop giving myself away—to take the time to reclaim myself, my interests, my priorities and inspirations. It made me start to consider who I’d become since enrolling on my PhD programme in 2007. I’ll speak more about this in a future post, but – in thinking about how higher education has changed me – I was immediately drawn to the words of archaeologist Kate Ellenberger, who speaks of her graduate experiences as follows:

the first years of graduate school, I put every bit of energy, compassion, and power that I had into my education. I was determined to do well, and I did. I wrote, I read, I discussed, I taught, I sometimes even ate and slept…Unfortunately I also suffered the consequences of putting my all into school: I got burned out. I’ve spent the intervening time trying to avoid being exhausted and resentful of how my past self left my well-being on the back burner.

Be sure to read all of Kate’s post, because it’s a powerful one. It also resonates with something that a very important person in my life said to me before I headed off in October; namely, that I should spend time on my sabbatical learning to “be quiet.” That guidance—the idea of trying to train myself to be quiet—has really affected me. It’s affected me because I’ve discovered that it’s a surprisingly hard thing to master. But it’s also affected me in reframing my expectations of myself. In fact, I’ve taken these words to heart, and it’s meant that my sabbatical has become a transformative experience—beginning in angst, and ending in a state of calm that I would never have anticipated. It’s provided me with time, space and a kind of silence that has been healing for me. While I don’t want to overstate its effects, I do think the sabbatical has given me a perspective and a sense of purpose that I had otherwise lost track of. It is something that my department provides to me unconditionally, and in this respect, it gives me some hope that the control economy is not an inescapable, totalising phenomenon, but one that we can challenge, disrupt, push back against, or altogether eliminate.


*If you have constructive resources to share, please do!


11 thoughts on “What’s it like to be on sabbatical? Managing intention, expectation and self-worth

  1. Excellent reflections! Academia is not alone in the relentless drive to produce and achieve, and we can all relate to these feelings in other high pressure jobs. But, surely higher education should be about releasing the potential of scholars to research, think and teach. It seems to me HE has become too much of an industry run by bureaucrats and accountants. As you say, the department at York should be preaised for its enlightened stance. The recent REF results where it came 4th in archaeology in the UK show that success does not have to come at the expense of human values.

    I’m glad you’ve come out of the other side in a calm place. A great advert for self-reflection. No matter how much others push us, we always seem to push ourselves even more. What you have achieved in 10 weeks is still phenomenal. I look forward to your calming influence appearing back in York.

  2. wow! :-) so much of this resonates, can’t wait (though need to be measured with myself in this respect) to start my MA in cultural heritage management at York next year. the control economy can be escapable i think and believe.

  3. American Advice:

    Don’t worry Sara. Be happy. And always remember “Bristol” and the most famous statement ever made about Bristol in the United States:

    “Hogs has Bristols.”

    If you have even the slightest clue about the meaning of that brief statement, then I hereby affirm and declare that your first sabbatical was successful. Dwell in peace.

  4. This was a very helpful article, thank you. My day job is in spacecraft, but I periodically take a week off to work on my world history model, Running Reality. I find myself having to plan these weeks carefully to get things done and not feel bad that I couldn’t use those five days of leave more effectively. There’s lots of pressure to use the days well when you are burning non-vacation annual leave for them, but too much pressure results in unmet expectations. It is good to know that I have company with these issues. Thank you.

  5. Sara,

    This is fantastic. I was just working on a post that shared some of these themes. In particular, I’m coming more to terms with the idea of being busy without being so stressed out about completing things or staying on a schedule. Along these lines, I think that our tendency to “burn out” as academics comes not because we work so hard, but because we expect so much of our work.

    I think this must fit in, in some way, with your idea of quiet (i.e. it’s not just speaking with voice, but publishing, producing, contributing, making, doing, et c.) and finding peace in the work of being. When I focus on being, I find that everything else has a tendency to take care of itself. When I work a month straight on a deadline, I finish that month feeling crushed, exhausted, and burned out. When I work a month straight on various things and projects and and push various things along without so much focus on the future, I find that I still have energy and … even without lists, plans, deadlines, and other externally structuring forms of organization, stuff still got done.

    This must have a parallel with the advice given to cricket batters to “clear their head” in the moment before a ball is bowled rather than thinking about how they plan to hit the ball. Shifting my gaze from our goal to the simple acts of our daily life has been fantastically gratifying to me. I have no idea whether I can continue to do this after my sabbatical has ended when things like semesters, grading, and committee work imposes deadlines…


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