Taking leave

Back in 1984 I was completing a book, and was finding it difficult to achieve this alongside what had become a rather heavy teaching load. So I approached my head of department, and he decided to give me a term off (this was before the age of semesters in Trinity College Dublin). So I packed my bags and set of for Berkeley in California, where I spent some time sitting in a really excellent library and enjoying the opportunities for intellectual and other stimulation in the San Francisco Bay Area. Not only did I get the time off, I was also able to get the financial support that made the American trip possible. I finished the book, developed a new course, and also discovered a lifelong fascination and love affair with California – but that’s another story.

But now to 2012. A few days ago a former colleague, who got his first academic job from me, sent me an email. He has been in his present university for 11 years, but in that time he has never had any kind of leave. Moreover, recent cuts in his department have left him with a teaching load that leaves no time for sustained research. His head of department has now told him that sabbatical leave is out of the question for the foreseeable future. But at the same time, his department is playing host to a lecturer on leave from another university. As far as my friend can tell, this visitor isn’t doing anything significant, and indeed is telling everyone that the purpose of the leave is to ‘re-charge his batteries’.

So where is all this heading? Is sabbatical leave a luxury we can no longer afford in straitened times? And when we had it more widely, was it sometimes abused?

How we handle the idea of sabbatical leave depends a little on what we think academic employment is all about. Do we want lecturers to be academic explorers and intellectual entrepreneurs? If we do, we need to give them the occasional space to pursue these aims. Equally, we need to ensure that this space is used appropriately. But increasingly we are creating a system in which academics are not designers but assembly line workers, and we are achieving this state of affairs by stealth rather than design.

There are still academics who are able to avail of sabbatical leave. But the number is declining, and the new more restrictive conditions are changing the face of the academy.

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7 Comments on “Taking leave”

  1. Don Says:

    Sabbatical leave is one of the great anachronisms of university academic life. No doubt there is evidence to demonstrate the benefits have accrued to the individual, their families, the subject (or object) of the sabbatical pursuit, and the body of knowledge. But it’s simply a reward mechanism for being a ‘good boy’. Sabbatical leave is a term also used in other walks of life, mostly in the higher echelons of commerce and industry who have hi-jacked the term as a cloak to disguise the effects staff burn-out or other indiscretions. And that’s why the term has fallen into mis-use. Not only the term, but the concept has been abused by many time and time again. Get rid of it. Academics should find the time to write that book/review article or organise that ‘international’ symposium during their paid time. Better still, give sabbatical leave to all university staff; I’d love to take time off to make that journey to California šŸ™‚

  2. The expansion of higher education has mostly been funded by the increases in productivity in the workplace in general. These productivity increases in areas such as farming, manufacturing and services have resulted from ingenuity rather than working harder. To what extent do we believe that ingenuity has been used to increase productivity in higher education over that period? Should higher education be exempt for this responsibility? If we show no interest in working smarter should we be surprised that when a crisis looms we are just asked to work harder?

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      That’s brilliant, Brian. I have a way of “working smarter” [sic; parenthetically, anybody who uses such solecistic and mindless buzzphrases has no credibility on any such matters]: I’ll teach my students 200 rather than 20 at a time. Imagine how my “productivity” will go up!

      The very notion of “productivity” has zero application in universities. We are not in the production business. Indeed, we’re not in business at all. We are educators, scholars and researchers. In none of those fields does the notion of “productivity” make the slightest bit of sense. I realise people like you want to see business as the model for all human endeavour of any kind. It isn’t. When you understand the difference between education and production and between a university and a business, please do come back to us.

      And what about that Arts Council? Surely our writers and composers and visual artists should also increase their productivity, no? Why have string quartets? Surely today’s technology will allow you to have the same production using only a trio!

      • MunchkinMan Says:

        Hmm..not sure that I agree with you there, Ernie. Educators, scholars and researchers, particularly those in the state sector, all need to justify their salaries. Productivity is a complex area – it’s not just (student) bums on seats. Universities are relatively complex environments. I do agree that adopting terms from the private/commercial sector such asd ‘productivity’ may sit uneasily with some academics (obviously you’re one of them) working in these complex environments. In the university where I’ve worked for over 30 years I see academic staff (some, not all) who feel that they are above the notions of: value for money, productivity, even health and safety. Somehow, they see themselves in a different world, rarefied, beyond definition and even description. So what: you’re an educator, scholar and researcher, but many like you who are academics (presumption made by me) need to justify their existence. Productivity, or whatever you want to call it, is a common term these days. If productivity doesn’t sit too well with education, why don’t you meet the challenge you set Brian, above, and tell us why that is so…?

  3. foleyg Says:


    Please tell me a ‘smarter way’ of supervising 5 undergraduate student projects rather than 2 while maintaining the ‘service’ I give each? As Albert Reynolds famously said (more or less) to one of the Smurfits: “There is more to Government than making boxes.”

    By the way, in reply to Ferdinands original comments about sabbaticals and writing a book, that sounds fantastic! I’m on a deadline to submit a book manuscript while having the highest teaching load of my career. Oh, the bliss of being in Berkeley or Cornell…………………

  4. cormac Says:

    I’m currently trying to finish a book and I sometimes think I will never get there. If I do finish it and it is good, my department, my college and my students benefit (it is based on a course I teach). So I think allowing staff some time off for this sort of project pays dividends, especially if travel is involved.
    As it is, I may not finish, desite the fact that i work until 9 pm almost every evening. Why should I keep this up?

  5. Tony Says:

    I agree with the general sentiments expressed in this article, though I’m sure sabbatical leave has been abused on occasions. As a lecturer for almost 25 years, however, I have to say that never once did the thought of sabbatical leave enter my mind. Whether it was because of a high teaching load each year and a consequent lack of motivation and desire to look beyond the parapet, so to speak, or simply because whenever I heard the term ‘sabbatical’ there was almost a sense of guilt about it, it never occurred to me to even think about applying. Now the option is not there any more because of the financial cutbacks. I’m sure I would have been a better teacher, researcher and mentor if I had availed of the opportunity when it was there, but as I say, I would have almost felt guilty applying. That was the prevailing philosophy where I was. As for the concept of being an academic explorer, unfortunately that’s not something I was ever encouraged to become. And I’m sure today’s academic is too busy applying for ‘funding’ to even have time to consider such a calling, more’s the pity.

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