October 23rd, 2018

5 Recommendations for Completing the Flexible Sabbatical

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flexible sabbatical

At my institution, academic administrators on a 12-month contract can receive up to a full semester of paid leave to complete scholarship in their fields. Unlike a traditional sabbatical, which is taken for a full semester, flexible sabbatical weeks are taken in clusters throughout the academic year. In this way, academic departments are minimally impacted and administrators can enjoy the benefit of well-deserved leave time.

I began my flexible sabbatical just after graduation and completed it a year later. During that time, I was able to accomplish my scholarship goals and experience the rejuvenation for which sabbaticals are known. In reflecting on my experience, I recommend the following steps to anyone interested in pursuing this type of leave:

  • Communicate widely and clearly prior to each leave period. Key to a successful flexible sabbatical is that colleagues know exactly what it entails. Before each of my weeks off, I reminded my colleagues and vice president of the start and stop dates of my time away. I asked them to contact my administrative assistant if they needed anything during my absence, and I made clear that I would not be checking my phone messages or reading email. I changed the message on my phone, directing callers to my administrative assistant’s line. In short, I let everyone know that I would be out of contact and for how long. In doing so, there was little confusion about where I was, whether or not I was available, and when I would return.
  • Create a coverage system that can address everyday, as well as unexpected, events. Since there was no one permanently filling in for me, I established a coverage system to handle the inevitable issues the office would face in my absence. My administrative assistant managed all the daily phone calls, questions, and requests. She informed students, faculty, and others of my return date and reassured them that I would respond when I got back. Situations that needed an immediate response were referred to a fellow dean who was able to solve—or at least manage—these more complex issues. By ensuring a clear line of command, issues were contained until I returned, and when I did, I made sure to be briefed on what had transpired, what had been resolved, and what remained to be addressed. In order to maintain institutional support for the flexible sabbatical, clear lines of communication and coverage are critical.
  • Do not check phone or email messages. Many times during my flexible sabbatical weeks I found myself drawn to the college email site, pulled by the urge to “just check” my messages. I never gave into this urge, however, and here’s why. Most obviously, doing so would have defeated the purpose of being on sabbatical. More important, because I had been so clear that I would not be checking my email, if I had responded, even once, during my weeks away, it would have signaled to my colleagues that my flexible sabbatical was more akin to working at home than to true time off. So I kept myself from contacting the college and used a separate, personal email account to communicate with family and friends. Fortunately, both my administrative assistant and vice president were fully supportive and neither contacted me during any of the weeks I was off campus. Such boundaries are necessary for the flexible sabbatical to retain any semblance of the full-time sabbatical leave.
  • Select your weeks carefully and stick to them. There are many ways to choose which weeks will comprise your flexible sabbatical. For me, the most successful periods of leave were three-week blocks taken when my office was relatively slow, for instance, the month after graduation, the end of the fall semester, and weeks with long weekends in them. Less successful were the one- and two-week blocks I took off midway during the fall and spring semesters, when departmental searches and academic initiatives were at their peak. During these times, it was difficult to leave the office behind and move deep enough into my research to feel a sense of accomplishment. It is critical that if you pursue a flexible sabbatical you make a schedule and stick to it. Planning your weeks around the ebb and flow of your department will help in this process.
  • Be sure to leave time for the original meaning of sabbatical, from the root word Sabbath, a day of rest.Anyone who has completed a sabbatical knows that every minute of every day is not spent on scholarship. The sabbatical provides educators with a time of rest and rejuvenation so essential to academic life. With the flexible sabbatical it can be easy to miss out on this aspect of research leave. Though the number of weeks away is equivalent to a semester off, the start and stop nature of the flexible sabbatical can create a sense of pressure—to get back to writing or reading or researching one’s project—that leaves little time for the process of slowing down so as to renew oneself. Make sure you do so or you will lose out on one of the most significant benefits of sabbatical time.

It can be easy to perceive the flexible sabbatical as not “real” sabbatical time, and administrators who pursue the flexible sabbatical option are at risk of either cheating themselves of a satisfying sabbatical experience or having their institutions not fully support their time off campus. If you are to make the most of your flexible sabbatical, and if your institution is to view it as a viable alternative, follow these guidelines, be deliberate in your planning, and engage fully in one of the great rewards of academic life.

Sara E. Quay is dean of the School of Education at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. 

Reprinted from “5 Recommendations for Completing the Flexible Sabbatical” in Academic Leader 22.9(2006)1,2 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.