Year of living dangerously

In puritan times, says Thomas Docherty, we need sabbaticals more than ever

August 2, 2012

These are the days of Malvolio’s revenge. At the end of Shakespeare’s saturnalian Twelfth Night, Malvolio, sick with self-love and self-regard, vows vengeance on the play’s merry characters. Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek and Maria have exposed his hypocritical pieties and laughed at his unfashionably yellow-stockinged and uncomfortably cross-gartered legs. Faced with Malvolio’s austerity, Toby asks indignantly, “Dost think that, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” We live in austere times, say our politicians: puritanical Malvolio’s moment. No time for frivolity; or, as David Cameron tells us, we should “roll our sleeves up” like him, modify our behaviour and “do the right thing”. We must pay now for having enjoyed a sybaritic period when every day was Christmas.

It’s probably not the easiest moment, then, to advocate the extension of sabbaticals - with their cakes-and-ale values of rest and play - especially for those in supposedly less research-intensive institutions; but here goes.

Austerity is nowhere evenly distributed; nor are sabbaticals. Recently, sabbaticals have become deeply divisive. They are enjoyed by a privileged few, whose success is rewarded with more research funding, and thus the capacity for more sabbaticals. The vicious cycle of divisiveness richly endows the already wealthy while impoverishing the deprived yet further. We call this the REF (research excellence framework) - but unlike a sporting ref, it ensures unfair play while pretending efficient neutrality.

The word “sabbatical”, cognate with Sabbath, carries ideas of “respite”. However, sabbaticals now are marked by ever more intensive labour. Colleagues must set out a rigorous work schedule, haruspicate discoveries and augur results before the research is done, guarantee high-prestige publication and promise mythic levels of impact. There will be no rest: no time for exploratory play, for the happenstance stirring of an imagination in a lab or library or while naively cultivating our garden, as Voltaire once fondly recommended.

We should note what happens to academic freedom in this. Sabbaticals were once the hallowed space for the exercise of such freedom, allowing colleagues to re-establish fundamental intellectual allegiances with their co-labourers in the field. Sabbaticals served us all by serving the demands of academic life and freedom. Now, under REF-driven efficiency, the sabbatical is a management instrument through which institutions skew academic allegiance. Your sabbatical must produce a result that benefits your university. If it is research-council funded, you must serve the specific research priorities of the council, themselves often directly set by governmental preference and ideological strategy. Academic freedom has become politicised civil service. Malvolio, the steward, governs our universities.

For cross-gartering, read Cameron’s irritating stock phrase, “rolling my sleeves up”. The image is of the manual worker, “one of us”, seriously facing the daily grind and struggle. Relentless hard graft will free us from the mire; not a new idea, and one consistent with a meritocracy whose dark underside is that poverty is the fault of the poor. Malvolio would sympathise: not just a Puritan, he is also a social climber, the steward who would be a lord. For him, as for our own presiding governmental and university ideologies, “social mobility” is actually unsavoury privatised self-interest: an individual, project-managing his gaining of advantage over others. Divisive social and university orders remain unchanged. By contrast, Toby Belch, thoroughly social, subscribes to merriment and pleasure for all. Both characters are flawed; but through them, Shakespeare offers an argument about the relations of work to rest and play: about sabbaticals.

The closest I came to saturnalian comic theatre as a child was Lex McLean’s Saturday music hall in Glasgow, with its fortnightly change of programme. We went religiously. Lex followed in the tradition of Harry Lauder, who began his singing and comedy career while still working as a miner, sleeves really rolled up. Like Marie Lloyd in England, such music-hall performers were of their class while also culturally legitimising that class - their audience - raising its profile and importance. Music hall effected a critical resistance to the dominant modes of the society of the time. Saturday was a time when our family could reassert realities and allegiances with others that helped us to cope with the more routine weekly demands of manual labour. It was a sabbatical.

The sabbatical can serve its proper function if, through it, the academic community reasserts fundamental intellectual and academic freedoms. We should not permit the hypocritical Malvolios to exact revenge through their controlled “management” of research efficiency, with their stifling cross-gartering metrics. Malvolio-metrics may be fashionable, but they arrest the intellectual circulation of the academic blood; and Malvolio rules by establishing divisive inequalities where collegial cooperation, over cakes and ale, should have full sway.

If philosophy teaches us “how to die” (as Plato, Cicero and Montaigne all tell us), we might say that a university education should be about learning how to live a fulfilled life. The sabbatical - like music hall - offers strategies and time for examining life, and for critiquing it, exposing hypocritical and fallacious pieties such as those of austerity and efficiency. It re-establishes the cooperative human relations and freedoms that should be at the heart of our system. We need sabbaticals, cakes and ale: all designed to refresh, to reinvigorate, to please - and above all to do the proper work of a university that resists Malvolio’s negative conformist drive. We need sabbaticals now more than ever; and, more importantly, we need them widely and more equitably distributed.

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