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Guilt, Trips, and Insights

How little we know about one another!
By Joyce Milambiling

I was recently on a sabbatical leave from my position in the Languages and Literatures Department at the University of Northern Iowa. Both during my leave and since that time, I have reflected on how the circumstances under which sabbaticals are granted can vary from one university to another and how the experiences of individuals, predictably enough, also differ. I have heard many stories about sabbaticals firsthand, and I have read numerous other accounts that appeared in print. The personal narratives were delivered with varying degrees of insight, formality, and humor, but what did these reports and the patterns that emerged from them mean, and how did they compare with my own experiences and impressions?

“An Investment in the Future”

In an article published in the AAUP Bulletin in 1962, Walter Eells related the history of the academic sabbatical. He identified common elements of sabbaticals: “Purpose, compensation, and a definite period of prior service in the institution.” These three components were apparent when I conducted an impromptu review of sabbatical policies presented on the websites of several US institutions of higher education. Sabbatical policies are generally introduced with no-nonsense language. The State University of New York’s policy states that “sabbatical leaves are not an employment right, but rather a leave which may be made available by the campus president,” and Howard University clearly establishes that “a sabbatical leave is not an automatic right upon completion of the necessary period of service.” All of the policy statements that I encountered went on to provide similar details concerning what an academic sabbatical is and who is eligible for one.

Sabbaticals represent an extraordinary opportunity for faculty members to engage in the kind of scholarly exploration and sustained thinking that are difficult to do while teaching full-time and engaging in university and community service activities. By providing sheltered time for such work, sabbaticals can contribute to individual faculty members’ professional growth and revitalize institutions. Sabbaticals are widely regarded, as Eells made clear more than fifty years ago, as “an investment in the future of the institution granting it.”

By Any Other Name . . .

Although “sabbatical leave” was the most common term I encountered, some colleges and universities used their own terminology, often defending sabbatical leave explicitly and in a few instances even distancing themselves from the very word sabbatical. The University of Pennsylvania’s policy states that “the University’s scholarly leave program is what many faculty refer to as a ‘sabbatical.’”

At the three public universities in my home state of Iowa, what was previously called a “leave” is now known as an “assignment.” Justification for this wording was given in a 2010 article in the Cedar Rapids–Iowa City Gazette by then University of Iowa president Sally Mason: “The way we do it here in Iowa, these are not sabbaticals or leaves. The full expectation is that you’re working this entire time, you’re just working on different things.” Some universities might shy away from calling an academic leave a sabbatical because of the common assumption outside academia that a sabbatical is a paid (and possibly undeserved) vacation. When I told a local business owner that I was on sabbatical for the semester, he asked, in apparent disbelief, “You mean the university pays you for this?”

Where in the World Are You?

My own sabbatical, or “professional development assignment,” did not start out smoothly. Initial plans to conduct research in Wales for four months had to be adjusted for logistical reasons, some of which had to do with the needs of my family. For roughly the first half of the semester I remained in the United States and worked at home, on campus, and for a short time at a writers’ retreat in Arkansas. I was fine with changing my plans, but it became clear that some of my colleagues were taken aback when they saw that I was still in town. When I spoke with some of them, their tones ranged from pleasantly surprised to startled to almost indignant that I was not genuinely gone. It got to the point where, to avoid having to explain myself, I came to campus only in the evenings and on weekends, sometimes working with my winter gloves on when the heat in my building was turned off on the odd Saturday or Sunday.

In the end, I was able to travel to the United Kingdom for five weeks to do my research. After returning home in May, I read other academics’ accounts of their sabbatical adventures and misadventures. In the first line of an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, political science professor Steven Michels recalled that during his sabbatical he asked himself the question, “What am I doing here?” He was referring, of course, to being on campus during his leave.

It turned out that in the various accounts that I read, “where” was a hot topic. I came across the virtual sabbatical, the stay-at-home sabbatical, and a host of other creative solutions to time, family, and physical constraints. I particularly identified with other women who wrote about the difficulties they faced when taking or even contemplating an extended leave, regardless of whether they stayed at home or traveled during the sabbatical period. And I came to understand that initial plans are just that—plans—and that flexibility is usually required.

The mention of guilt caught my eye more than once. Many expressed feelings of guilt about getting a sabbatical in the first place, doubts about not following the initial arrangement to the letter, or insecurity about being perceived as not using the sabbatical period profitably. I laughed out loud at English professor Carol Foster Segal’s line in an article that also appeared in the Chronicle: “When I heard the occasional ‘You deserve it,’ I wasn’t certain that I did.”

Such reactions rang true, and I came to realize that only some of these feelings are prompted by others— the rest come from within. I delved more deeply into the remarks that other faculty members, friends, and even casual acquaintances made and reflected on my perceptions of what they said and even how they said it. I formulated some hypothetical reasons for how I viewed my own sabbatical and came to some conclusions about the meaning and value of faculty sabbaticals from different perspectives.

Pressure to Perform

For years, I believed that you had to propose something earth-shattering and utterly unique to stand a chance of having a sabbatical proposal accepted. You then had to live up to those expectations in everyone’s eyes. Although the expectation for excellence in a sabbatical proposal and project is a given at my university and elsewhere, the scope of the projects can be placed on a continuum from modest to grandiose. In each discipline—indeed, in every subdiscipline—an astonishing array of research methods and theories and approaches exists. When you factor in the subject matter and details of the research, the choice of what to study and how to go about doing it is wide open.

A list of the projects approved during one year at my university in the not-so-distant past illustrates how much sabbatical research can differ. One faculty member worked on a textbook about psychology and law, another compiled a series of essays for music teachers on the subject of percussion, and a third engaged in a comprehensive study of the wood turtle. Psychology, music, and biology are distinct fields of study, so it stands to reason that the researchers should head off in separate directions and pursue their own particular passions.

In reality, then, when a sabbatical proposal is given the green light, it has been deemed worthy by faculty peers and the administration for a host of reasons. Some scholars write books or articles while on sabbatical, while others spend their time in a nearby laboratory conducting research or in a remote area of the world recording folk tales. It happens that a number of these activities may appear to be exciting to outsiders, but other endeavors, and even the rationale for embarking on them . . . not so much.

When I submitted my proposal on studying bilingualism in Wales, I had a solid rationale for my project. In the end, the undertaking was supported by my peers, the administration, and the board of regents. An approved sabbatical project has a legitimate reason for being and has been vetted by a selection committee, so the faculty member is trusted to use the time well.

Time, Time, Time

Along with teaching and service, conducting research is expected of many of us who teach in higher education, and it is a crucial part of what we do. Despite the awareness of how much it enhances our ability to fulfill our other responsibilities, research, on a day-to-day basis, often takes a backseat. This is especially true at universities that don’t receive hundreds of millions of dollars in external funding every year.

In the absence of release time from teaching and other obligations, many faculty members believe that they can, maybe even must, shoehorn the work required to produce publishable scholarship into early mornings, evenings, and weekends during the academic year. This is in addition, of course, to keeping up with the latest accomplishments in the different fields of study. We are often able to make time for research despite the many obstacles that exist; nevertheless, to conduct research consistently year after year is difficult.

Being granted an extended period of time to focus on research that will enhance teaching and other faculty roles at the university is a positive thing, yet, oddly enough, it can also morph into its own kind of stress. In the Michels article mentioned previously, a colleague advised the author, “Don’t spend your time agonizing over the difference between what you are doing and what you could be doing.” Does that mean that someone on sabbatical should not expect to be productive and deliver what has been promised? Absolutely not. The problem is that sometimes the unrealistic expectations and the resultant pressure can turn into anxiety when one is faced with a large and relatively unstructured block of time. Sound crazy? Well, it is.

Looking from the Inside, Out

We faculty members are generally aware of what others outside the university think of what we do (or do not do). Michael Bérubé wrote specifically about this in a 1996 article in Academe, “Public Perceptions of Universities and Faculty.” In a section that addressed government support of universities, Bérubé referred to a politician’s assertion that allocating additional funds to higher education “would be a waste of taxpayer dollars since the money that we need to put cops on the street would only be put toward faculty sabbaticals instead.” Ouch.

Those who teach and conduct research in higher education know that their work has the potential to be significant not only to them but also to their academic fields, their institutions, their students, and society. It’s sometimes hard, though, to know exactly how to defend the work we do to others outside academia, not to mention adequately describe the value that we add. However, as Bérubé concludes in his article, part of our job as intellectuals who operate in the public eye is to address the different perceptions of those who live outside our own sphere. He suggests that we must “reevaluate our priorities internally if we’re going to understand how we might be revalued externally.”

The debate about the role and reputation of the “public intellectual” continues. In 2014, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an editorial titled “Professors, We Need You!,” and the theme of Academe’s first issue of 2014 was “the new public intellectual.” The resounding message of Kristof’s article and the Academe issue is that colleges and universities and the scholars within them need to break out of the bubble they have constructed around themselves and engage more vigorously in the issues and concerns that are shaping the world today. The question, “Does the public understand what we do?” can be easily reframed as, “Do we really want the public to understand what we do?” The answer to the second question should be, but sadly is not always, yes.

The trick is to make clear, within but also beyond academia, that studying the wood turtle has significance beyond the creature itself. My own sabbatical research focused on language in Wales, a country that is revitalizing Welsh in the face of the steamroller that is the English language. The underlying issue is language and power, a subject that transcends individual groups and national borders. Recent political developments have had a great impact on elevating the status of the Welsh language as well as broadening its use in public institutions, including schools. This is a significant development that can lead to a better understanding of language in its historical context, and it would be a shame to contain that knowledge solely within the pages of an academic journal. Therefore, it is my task to transmit to a wider audience the role that politics and advocacy have played in Wales. Two goals are for people to learn more about a particular place and also to be able to analyze the connections between language and power closer to home.

Coming Full Circle

Sabbaticals—whatever they are called—are highly sought after and not easy to come by. It’s a privilege to be able to devote oneself exclusively to research for a semester or academic year, and the payoff can be tremendous. While the results of a sabbatical can and often do include accomplishments like collecting data or launching an exhibit, some of the outcomes are not as tangible. In my case, I have gained confidence in my talents and instincts, have come to a better understanding of my own shortcomings, and have realized that I am not alone in what I do and in what drives me to find out more.

When people were questioning why I was still in Iowa during my sabbatical, I had not yet come to see that the experience is not the same for everyone, nor does it depend on where you are. Moreover, initial plans for an academic leave, no matter what you call it and where it is taken, often change. The most valuable outcome of my own sabbatical was the wonderfully messy package of personal confirmation and transformation that I was given, something I could never have anticipated but, in the end, amounted to time well spent. 

Joyce Milambiling is professor and coordinator of the TESOL/applied linguistics graduate program in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Northern Iowa. Her e-mail address is

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