Who Took the Sabbath Out of Sabbatical?

Worshipping real academic productivity means giving it a rest now and then.
By Max Page

A funny thing happened on my way to a sabbatical seminar. I seem to have ended up at a business management workshop.

My dean invited me to offer some advice to colleagues about to head off on their sabbaticals. These colleagues were recently tenured faculty members. They had spent six years publishing, performing, directing, writing grants, and being reviewed by peers inside and outside the university in order to have the board of trustees grant them tenure. They had reached that much-longed-for moment when they finally had earned a large measure of job security and a semester of paid sabbatical leave. Not bound by the tenure clock, they suddenly had the opportunity to imagine longer-term projects. Now was the time for my colleagues to imagine future directions for their scholarship, explore the boundaries of their fields, pursue speculative research projects that might not pan out, and experiment with new methods of writing or new artistic techniques, using that rare investment in intellectual life to advance human knowledge creatively. As I arrived at the seminar, I looked forward to a far-reaching discussion about what we do as creative intellectuals in the prime of our academic lives.

They wanted to talk about time-management techniques.

They wanted to know how many pages I wrote each day.

They wanted to know whether I turned off my wireless adapter so I couldn’t get e-mail for the working hours of the day.

They wanted to know if I got up at 5 a.m. to work before the kids awoke, and if the new faculty center at the library would help them write more.

They wanted to know how to be “more productive.”

I was depressed.

Something seemed woefully wrong here. It made me go back to that word that is at the heart of this whole endeavor— sabbatical. As in Sabbath. As in “day of rest.” How did we make “productivity” the key word associated with a term that expressly forbids productivity?

I decided to go back to the source to make my case anew for an old idea of the sabbatical.

The very idea of the sabbatical year (yes, a full year), as opposed to the weekly Sabbath which is derived from the seventh day of creation, comes from the Old Testament, in Leviticus, chapter 25:

The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the after-growth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.

It was not understood, at the time or by later commentators, that the sabbatical year was a year for doing nothing. (And what faculty member would, even if I proved that this was the biblical decree? At my university, a joint administration faculty union study recently found that tenured and tenure-track professors work on average sixty-three hours a week at the various aspects of their jobs. There is no danger of faculty members working less than full-time jobs.) The Sabbath was established for religious reasons: this was to be a year of dedication to honoring God, as was the weekly Sabbath. It was also established for practical ones: fields and animals worked endlessly will become progressively less productive and eventually die. The sabbatical year was a time for shifting emphases, from production to reflection and rejuvenation. The long-term goal was to produce better fields, a better harvest, and better people.

A religious precept translated to secular institutions necessarily sheds some of its layers of meaning. But I believe that the heart of the injunction—one of the central precepts, according to ancient rabbis—should be honored in our modern-day sabbatical.

What “sabbatical” meant was that the land—your productive capacity, your brain, your heart—should not be used or exercised in exactly the same way it had been for the previous six years. It needs to be refertilized. It will be more productive and life giving (and refereed journal article producing) if it is allowed a rest from its usual activities. I found it particularly remarkable, and disturbing, that in the sabbatical seminar I attended no one spoke about improving the quality of the work of their sabbatical, only that they produce more, and faster.

Tenured faculty members are an endangered species. Most college-level teachers are outrageously exploited contingent workers. As of 2007, contingent faculty members taught nearly 70 percent of all college and university classes. My colleagues in the seminar were the lucky minority—and they were granted tenure because their colleagues and the university were impressed with their accomplishments, especially in teaching and research. But they were also granted tenure because, in the estimation of colleagues within and without the university, they had creative potential to discover and disseminate new forms of human knowledge and culture over the next twenty, thirty, or forty years. My envious or reactionary friends call this a boondoggle. I call it a small investment in our civilization that has provided remarkable returns. It is no accident that this country’s greatest economic boom, after World War II, was built on a foundation of massive investment in public higher education, when tenured faculty members dominated the landscape. And those tenured faculty members had regular sabbaticals to do the work of intellectual rejuvenation. The discoveries and inventions and research and plays and books and music are the payoff we all enjoy.

This talk of “productivity” is just another sign of creeping privatization. The students we used to treat as citizens-in-training are now called “customers” by an administration keen to attract more of them. Everything is “monetized” (that is the language our provost uses when he visits departments) as universities reward fundraising above all else and states steadily divert declining funds to institutions like prisons, which receive more state money than our public colleges and universities combined.

The fight for the original idea of a sabbatical is, therefore, a fight for high-quality education, top-notch research, and a long tradition of academic freedom.

My plea to my striving colleagues is to be true to the origins of the word. Don’t do nothing—but don’t focus on your usual activities either. Do not till the same soil; dare to do things differently for a year. You will be doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing— honoring your profession and the confidence placed in you— when you explore new areas, pursue projects that might fail, expand your mind with art or music or great literature, and generally upset your routine.

You will be doing what you were hired to do, renewing your capacity for thinking, teaching, researching, serving the public good. You will be doing yourself, and the very idea of the university, a favor.

Max Page is professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is a former president of the Massachusetts Society of Professors, the local of faculty members and librarians affiliated with the National Education Association and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and co-author with Dan Clawson of the forthcoming book The Future of Higher Education. His e-mail address is mpage@art.umass.edu.

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