Sabbatical is a lot like summertime for a professor. No one inside the academy will tell you how to make the best use of your time, and everyone outside the academy thinks it must be nice to get paid to do nothing.
My sabbatical started on 1 July 2018 and continues until 30 June 2019. But effectively, I have been free of teaching and admin duties since mid-April of 2018 and won’t resume them until I start preparing for classes again in August 2019. So it’s pretty much a 16-month break from the scheduled activities that—rightly so—take up so much of one’s energy as a professor.
So what is the point of a sabbatical? A succinct review of the history and origins of academic sabbaticals (Eells 1962) says that sabbaticals have three components: a defined period of prior service, financial compensation, and a purpose.
The prior service component is clear. You get sabbatical after you have knocked yourself out, not before. Most universities that I know require you to work for six years, taking the seventh as a sabbatical year. Very biblical.
As for compensation, my university, York, pays professors 100% of their salary for the first sabbatical of their career, and 82.5% of salary for subsequent sabbaticals. (Naturally, this is going up to 85% next year, as soon as my sabbatical is over.) York allows me to select a shorter six-month sabbatical at 100% salary, but I didn’t see the point of taking one term off. I would barely be getting my research going by that point.
Which brings me to the purpose part. Professors are expected to accomplish something with a sabbatical that they couldn’t otherwise do. For me, this has given me two distinct goals: disengaging, and branching out.
I mean disengaging completely from the university, in order to recover from five years as area chair during which I was drained dry. No phone calls. No emails. No meetings. Nothing, unless it is directly related to my sabbatical.
This is something that I wish everyone in every job could experience. A month of vacation is a beautiful thing, but being able to spend a year absent the daily responsibilities I have been carrying for students and colleagues is priceless. I cannot adequately express how important this is for my mental and emotional health.
I have been addressing my mental and emotional health by exercising more and by dabbling in some really fun projects that have no deadlines:
A series of Wikipedia biography pages for the leading scholars in my field. I started with my York colleague, Marcia Annisette, who is quite simply one of the most brilliant people in accounting today.
A podcast project that I am still trying to get off the ground. I’ll have more news about this when I get further down the runway. Suffice to say that I’m receiving good moral support from York and elsewhere, but professional production takes money so I’m seeking financial backers. The podcast can certainly be done on a shoestring—many great podcasts are—but it would mean spending my time editing audio tracks instead of doing accounting research. Not perhaps the best use of my time, if funding is available for a producer.
Preparing vernacular versions of my back catalogue of academic papers. One of these, on microfinance, is almost ready to go and will be posted on this website in the next week or so.
Branching out means initiating a new, distinctive stream of research, not just a continuation of work I have done before. A radical new direction, in the best sense of the word radical: taking things right back to the roots.
I’ve been working for several months on a brand new theoretical perspective that challenges many of the fundamental assumptions of accounting. This is the kind of project that you cannot get off the ground during a regular school year. It requires time to absorb all the writing outside of accounting that is needed to open up a really new approach to research.
I’ve finished the first draft of the first paper in this new line of research. A lot of work remains but I am excited about the potential of what I’m doing. I’ll have more about it when I have made further headway.
A world of hurt
And now that I’m beginning to recover from the stress of the past five years as area chair, I am looking forward to adding to this website. I’ve not updated it in over a year. To be honest, it has been really hard to feel that my research and my website were worthwhile given the current political climate. As someone who grew up in the 1960s, I believed that our society was becoming more tolerant and more inclusive. (I never thought I would live to see the day when I would have to clarify that I think tolerance and inclusion are good things. But that day has arrived.)
Sadly, some people are attacking these fundamental precepts of a healthy society. The election of Trump in the USA and the Ford brothers in Ontario has opened the floodgates for all the pent-up misogyny and racism that have, unbeknownst to privileged me, been there all along.
For only someone who has led a privileged existence could have looked at Canada for the past 50 years and concluded that things were not only good but getting better. Belatedly, I see that Indigenous people in Canada were never under the illusions I held so dear. Nor were many people of colour, nor many women. I am more than a bit embarrassed that I was so naive and so lacking in empathy.
But I’m slowly, slowly growing as a person, and as I begin to better comprehend the world of hurt that others experience daily, I am also beginning to understand the importance of what I do in a new way. In a world where opinion is granted as much credit as knowledge, sober reflection on carefully gathered data is more relevant, not less. Just because we cannot believe everything we read does not mean that we don’t have the tools to consider the evidence together, in solidarity, and from that evidence speak truth to power.
Eells, Walter C. (1962). “The Origin and Early History of Sabbatical Leave,” AAUP Bulletin, 48 (3): 253-256.