Sabbaticals: from study tour to ‘frenzied burst of research’

What makes a sabbatical special any more, asks professor, if it is a continuation of the demands of academic life rather than a break from them

December 8, 2022
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Once a grand “study tour”, the academic sabbatical is now a “frenzied burst of productive scholarship squarely aimed at grant-getting and publication”, a professor says.

Bruce Macfarlane, professor of educational leadership at the Education University of Hong Kong, analysed decades of university records from Australia and the UK to track the transformation of the sabbatical from a seven-yearly spell of rest to a research errand with “tangible outcomes”.

Writing in the Journal of Higher Education and Management, Professor Macfarlane says the concept of the sabbatical has early Jewish and Christian roots, derived from the Hebrew verb “shabath” for resting from labour – a practice that occurred on the seventh day. In agricultural tradition, the seventh day morphed into the seventh year, with fields left fallow to rest and recover.

When sabbatical leave was introduced into higher education in the late 19th century, it borrowed the concept of a break every seventh year. “The professor ploughs and tills himself, but is not expected to produce a crop of students that year,” a 1962 US Office of Education historical report observed.

Professor Macfarlane says sabbaticals were originally conceived as study tours that enabled academics to refresh or renew their intellectual knowledge and direction. A 1932 description of the practice highlights “advanced study or travel” and makes no specific mention of publications, research grant applications “or other directly productive types of activity”.

In a 1930s US survey, just 3 per cent of academics on sabbatical reported writing books or doing research.

But research expectations began appearing as early as 1933, when the University of Cambridge linked sabbatical pay to academics’ research intentions. “Audit creep” was palpable Down Under by 1978, when the Australian Tertiary Education Commission’s draft report on study leave recommended that sabbaticals be limited to six months, and that academics should be discouraged from travelling overseas and obliged to submit reports following sabbaticals.

The original conceptualisation of sabbaticals is now long gone in university policies that stress the need for “tangible outcomes”, the paper says.

“In many ways the modern sabbatical, as a period of intensified research productivity, represents the very opposite of its etymological purpose since it is a continuation of now routine demands of academic life rather than representing a break from them,” Professor Macfarlane writes. “This begs the question as to what, if anything, makes the sabbatical special anymore?”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Original purpose of sabbaticals ‘now long gone’

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