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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