Rethinking Tenure, Part VI: Sabbaticals Outside of Tenure

A response to a short University Affairs piece about sabbaticals. In a way, a followup on my previous posts about tenure.

Here goes…

Glad you were able to explain the situation in a way your friends could understand. As with many explanation, the important thing is to match it with the context. Many people have a hard time understanding what research entails, even if you describe the whole process (I’m teaching field research, these days). So it’s nice that the match happened.

Thing is, even within academia, some people seem to have misconceptions about sabbaticals, Not that they’re taken to be vacations, but they became so associated with a reward system that they seem not to have their own purpose, anymore.

I’m part-time faculty, so I don’t get sabbaticals in that same sense. And, among the many sources of bitterness among contingent faculty members is the fact that we don’t get the opportunity to apply for sabbaticals. Unlike many of my colleagues, I’m not bitter about my position outside of the tenure-track. And while I understand the importance of sabbaticals, I perceive them as one option among others, to make possible a certain type of academic work. Sabbaticals might even blind some people into misunderstanding their own work.

These are issues with PTR (“Promotion, Tenure, Reappointment”). In that context, the formula used to calculate rewards in the tenure system has become something more of a bureaucratic requirement, and less of a reflection of that work. The percentages themselves are often misleading, as many a professor integrates several of these activities together. When it becomes reality, the dream of cross-fertilization between teaching and research makes percentages more of an accounting exercise than an assessment of the actual work being done. Attempts at making one’s work more efficient often pushes professors to focus their teaching and service work on things which can contribute to their “research output”. And the very categorization of academic work in these three little boxes has been the object of much discussion. Academics typically want to be free to do the work they want to do and are in fact so driven by intrinsic motivation that they’re likely to work more when they’re free to decide how they spend their time.

Something I’ve noticed at institutions where research is the primary thing (for instance, at “Research I” universities in the US) is that not-insignificant number of faculty members have a tendency to publish a rather large number of very similar papers, as if publication were its own goal. At more “comprehensive” institutions (including Concordia, but also a satellite campus in a state university system in the US), it’s not uncommon for faculty members to frequently publish book-length accounts on diverse topics, even though books are often considered as not counting for PTR purposes.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the overwhelming majority of research professors “keep publishing the same article over and over again”. But there is an intriguing pattern in terms of the research focus whereby it may become more about lines in an annual report, whereas research by professors who primarily teach may be more of a “labour of love”.

In other words, while an article can certainly require a lot more work than a book, there has been a tendency for certain research-heavy professors to focus on numerical output instead of on breadth. In the process, the “dissemination” goal of publication may get lost. Not blaming these faculty members, in this. They’re caught in a very constraining system. But the effect remains that some of them may “go through the motions, because they have to” instead of developing the type of research career which is likely to benefit society as a whole.

So, back to sabbaticals… One reason they function in context may be that they allow a sort of “reset”. They bring research back to its roots in deep curiosity and passion for knowledge. Sure, much of it has to do with the time needed to conduct a research project. In field research, it’s obvious that extended field trips are qualitatively different from short stints in the field. In many situations, it is in fact impossible for a scholar to accomplish her work while teaching in even the shortest and least time-consuming of contexts. You simply cannot be in two places at the same time.
But I sincerely think (based on diverse contacts with colleague) that much of the effect felt subjectively by researchers during sabbaticals has more to do with putting things in their proper perspective. During these extended periods of time devoted to their research work, researchers are allowing themselves to explore. While they do have a responsibility to bring back something rather impressive from their time spent away from their more quotidian departmental lives, this pressure is somewhat more indirect, and is less likely to constrain them to “think in the short term”. Chances are relatively high that, during her sabbatical, a given scholar will have an epiphany, will make an life-changing discovery, will go through an actual shift in paradigm, or will cause a sudden leap in scholarship. Any of these things depends on a large amount of work but, mostly, they require a lot of freedom. And freedom is almost the “currency of academia”.

Which brings me back to my own situation outside of the tenure system.
While tenure (and sabbaticals which depend on it) may be associated with academic freedom, there are other ways to be free in academic contexts. One approach which is rarely discussed is to act more as a “free agent” and less as “departmental property”. Belonging to an academic department brings many benefits but it can also be quite constraining. On the opposite end, “contract teaching” can sound extremely constraining but also brings about its own type of freedom. While a tenured professor who goes on sabbatical may accomplish impressive work because she’s free to do so, contingent academic workers are also contributing important work because they are free to work outside of departmental routine. It may well be that, taken on its own, the work of a given adjunct may be much less impressive than that of any full professor. But, in aggregate, contingent academic labour allows for a different type of contribution to knowledge and social change. The same can be said about many non-academics, of course. Several of them could take advantage of a sabbatical, once in a while. In fact, I’ve done a bit of work for a foundation (Carold Institute) which provides for something like a sabbatical for non-academics in the form of a fellowship in support of leaders in community organizations and in diverse spheres of voluntary action.

The fact that sabbaticals are restricted to tenured faculty members isn’t just a matter of rewards and privilege. It’s also about putting research work in its proper context.

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