Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | September 17, 2009

Time Out

A “Sabbatical” is the full year or half year that professors and teachers get to take off after every seven years in a particular university or school. The typical process for applying for a sabbatical is that we submit a proposal of activities that we plan to do (typically research projects, writing a book, overseas travel visiting other universities or teaching related skill enhancement) and if the chair/dean/provost agree that the proposal requires sustained and uninterrupted effort and if the faculty member has demonstrated previous success at such effort, the sabbatical leave is granted. I used to think it is a word and concept singular to academe until I started digging around.

Etymologically, “Sabbatical” has roots in Latin (sabbaticus), Greek (sabbatikos) and Hebrew (shabbat or Sabbath) all of which mean “cessation” or “ceasing”. Conceptually the idea of a break or rest or absence of routine activity comes from a number of sources. A law/practice was prevalent among ancient Jews, according to which every seventh year the land and vineyards were to remain fallow and debtors were to be released. This is similar to the idea of the seventh day of the week as the Sabbath day or a day of rest in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Ancient Hindu writings describe the practice of the “teerth-yatra” or pilgrimages that spiritual teachers would undertake from time to time during which they would travel to holy places and seek solitude or the company of other advanced teachers, practice austerity, meditate and pray in order to strengthen and expand their spiritual knowledge.

A sabbatical is then, a period of hiatus from the usual routine of activities (in this case, of being an academic). So how does one go about this hiatus?

First, have a plan, not a water tight one, but a reasonably flexible one. Even a break needs to be planned if one wants to do particular things. Also having a plan is a good way to list down things that are interesting. But it is a good idea to make the plan fluid in terms of content and time. For instance it is okay to list A, B and C, but it helps not to plan them in a particular order or within a particular time or even to do all of them.

Second, tread unfamiliar pathways – stretch. One of the things we do as teachers and professors (especially in evolving fields such as management) is to understand new  organizational phenomenon and convey that understanding to our peers, our students and practicing managers. Therefore it is important to nurture the ability to not be fazed by and indeed to welcome, that which we know little about. So do things which you have not done before. Take your thinking and activities to territory that is uncharted for you. Travel abroad if you can. Visit a school in a foreign country – their ideas may be very different from the system you are accustomed to, try to mesh them with yours and see how much fun you can have and what you can learn. My colleague Jim Pope has a useful primer on traveling and teaching abroad (Pope 2009).

Third, do the things that are important to you. A sabbatical is a special privilege, the understanding behind which is that given the time and space to follow his or her own ideas and interests, the teacher or professor emerges intellectually refreshed, more confident of enunciating thoughts and concepts to peers and students and more certain of their academic, practical and holistic value. So do what you find interesting and vital. It will increase your self-worth and give you a sense of buoyancy and sure-footedness about navigating the profession. If everyone says you ought to write a book, and you think you need to immerse yourself in a company and study something you want to know more about, then the book can wait. I know of a colleague who, after seven years of writing and publishing terse and concise journal articles, explored creative and fiction writing during her sabbatical. She now brings the techniques she picked up to her research papers – she says she enjoys her writing much more and has a lot of fun (successfully) differentiating her papers from the regular academic writing style. Not only that, she discovered that she actually enjoys creative writing and now has a hobby she never knew about.

Finally, be open to serendipitous opportunities and experiences. If one planned to do A, B and C, but if D comes along that looks to be challenging, interesting, one of a kind, then one might even take out A or B or C to include D. Allow yourself to stop by the metaphorical wood, linger and meander. You never know where the next turn will lead. One of my friends came across an unexpected opening to teach for a short time in a different school. He was hesitant at first because it was a teaching assignment which would take time away from data collection that he was doing for research. He went there, developed unexpected collaboration with a research group there, the collaboration yielded high-impact publications over the next few years and eventually allowed him to make an upward career move to that university.

A sabbatical then is a chance to do things by which the pathways of the mind are cleared of accumulated and everyday weeds, the air is let in, the dust that tends to settle due to routine is got rid off, selective older plants are nurtured, others are perhaps uprooted and thrown out and new seeds are planted. And voila, after the sabbatical is over, the garden looks different!


Pope, James A., So, You want to teach abroad?, Decision Line, July 2009.


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