Relax? You've got to be joking

March 4, 2005

David Wilson reveals the secret of how to make the most of a sabbatical - and here's a clue, it doesn't involve putting your feet up or doing odd jobs around the house

The most common reaction I get when I tell people that I'm on sabbatical is "you jammy bugger". Indeed, so common has the association of "sabbatical" with "on holiday" become that I have even had to remind my wife that being on sabbatical does not mean that I can "do all those little things around the house that need doing".

So, for the record, this is what I have done with a sabbatical that started after the exam boards in June 2004 and finished last month. I have written a book ( Death at the Hands of the State , to be published later this year); written and presented three BBC documentaries - the first on the plight of juveniles on death row in the US for BBC One and Newsnight ; the second, for BBC Four, about an inspiring Canadian group called Circles of Support and Accountability that befriends released paedophiles; and the third, Who Killed Ivan the Terrible? , for BBC Two's Timewatch . I have also written two broadsheet newspaper articles, one book chapter and one article for Granta . I hope that this is evidence enough of productivity.

Yet the real issue to discuss is how all of this was achieved - leaving aside my desperate Presbyterian work ethic. What advice would I give to others about to embark on sabbaticals to make theirs equally productive?

Well, the first and most obvious thing to say is that if you are about to start your sabbatical and are only now beginning to think about what to do with it, you have, quite frankly, missed the boat. Planning is the key to being productive during a sabbatical and so, for example, the documentaries that I made had been discussed and agreed at the beginning of 2004, some six months before my sabbatical started. Most of the research for the book (which involved visiting a number of prisons and interviewing prisoners, prison governors and so forth) had been completed long before the exam boards. This meant that the sabbatical - as far as the book was concerned - could be devoted to writing, rather than to primary or secondary research, having tapes transcribed, manipulating the results and thinking about what they all might mean.

Second - and look away now, for I am going to use a word that is universally loathed by academics - try to find synergy in the work you do during your sabbatical. By this I mean that the various products of my sabbatical mutually supported each other; they evolved and grew out of the different projects that I undertook so that one fed the other. Thus, to take one example, Circles of Support and Accountability - which I wrote about in an earlier book called In nocence Betrayed: Paedophiles, the Media and Society and that facilitated access to the project - was not simply the subject of the BBC Four documentary, but also became the basis of one of the newspaper articles. Indeed, the filming also allowed me to do further interviews with some of the key people who run the scheme and thus I am now able to develop some of my earlier published work. In short, the filming facilitated a research trip that in turn will facilitate more writing.

So, too, the documentary about juveniles on death row allowed me to put an international perspective into my book - Death at the Hands of the State , which is about the UK's own secret death penalty. Hundreds take their lives each year in our penal system; others, such as Zahid Mubarek, are murdered by their cellmates.

My third piece of advice is not to plan your sabbatical so carefully that you can't take advantage of opportunities that might arise during your time away from the university. Frankly, I don't know much about Ivan the Terrible, but when I was offered the chance to film a documentary about the circumstances surrounding his death for Timewatch I jumped at the chance. Who wouldn't want two weeks filming in Moscow? And the fact that I happened to be there during the awful events in Beslan brought historical realities very much up to date, but that, as they say, is another story - one that has been sent to Granta .

Finally, if you want to make the most of your sabbatical, you need energy. I spoke to colleagues who, in effect, described how they had used their sabbaticals to "recharge the batteries". I'm sure that I don't have to spell out the results. Now, I am as happy as the next academic to complain that we are underpaid, overworked, overburdened with bureaucracy, unloved and undervalued (I think that's the lot), but if you want to achieve anything productive with the time that you have away from lecturing, marking and meetings, meetings, meetings, then the last thing you should do is lie on your bed and think wonderful thoughts about what you might have done if only you had the energy.

With my sabbatical now over, I am being sucked back into departmental meetings, debates about timetables and worries about the research assessment exercise. Yet I know that I have also created more space for myself as a result of the sabbatical and helped to develop an interesting network of colleagues, contacts and friends who will undoubtedly be of use in the future. Indeed, I want another sabbatical as soon as I can - if only to help with all those little jobs around the house that I never got around to.

David Wilson is professor of criminology at the University of Central England.

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