The Doctor is Out: Sabbatical Guilt

“So, I hear you have a year off. I hate you.” These were not particularly auspicious or well-chosen words with which to begin massaging a naked stranger (I was already feeling awkward about the massage – a gift from my mother), but I couldn’t really blame the therapist for the sentiment. If I made my living getting paid by the hour for giving myself sore muscles by rubbing other people’s sore muscles, I might feel the same way. I could have quibbled with her about the accuracy of calling it “a year off,” but decided there wasn’t much point. “I know, it’s totally unfair,” I responded.

After six years at my institution, I am in the first stages of a year-long sabbatical from teaching and community governance – the two most time-consuming pieces of my job description as a faculty member. The point of such a break (as readers are well aware) is to allow the third piece of my job description – scholarly contribution – to move to the front burner for a while. My institution will give me half of my annual salary, along with my usual benefits, to go away and read, think, and write.

So far, sabbatical feels like summer. But not like a summer when I have a dissertation to finish, or a grant or an upcoming deadline to meet, such that I have people counting on me actually to produce something within a short period of time. The last dozen of my summers have been that variety. Those summers are still a treat, and I have certainly managed to squeeze frivolous novels and family vacations into them, but their glory is tarnished somewhat by guilt whenever one is not working.

This summer is also diminished by guilt, but not necessarily because I should be working. My year-long research grant (which I will share with my collaborator on a book) doesn’t begin until August 1, so I feel genuinely entitled not to be productive for a month or two. As it turns out, I am still quite proficient at being unproductive: I’ve had pajama days with my kid, been on a meditation retreat, taken multiple road trips to visit family and friends, seen several summer blockbusters, and slept till 10 a.m. more than once.

But the ever-present guilt of this particular summer comes precisely from my sympathy for the massage therapist who doesn’t get a sabbatical… and the adjunct faculty, college administrators, maintenance crew, and IT employees at my institution who are still working in their hot offices… not to mention the postal workers, restaurant servers, construction workers, day care providers, bank tellers, prison guards, farmers, and all the other countless laborers to whom the idea of a sabbatical probably seems like a horrible injustice. Again, I could try to justify myself by arguing that twelve years of higher education have earned me barely a middle-class wage (next year after my promotion my full salary would finally have met the median salary for my impoverished county), and that this is my consolation prize for all the weekends and evenings I’ve worked, blah blah blah. But in the end, it is indeed unfair, in the same way that most of life is unfair.

Nevertheless, I also feel certain that if someone offered the massage therapists, prison guards, and bank tellers of the world a year off from showing up for work (even at half pay), most of them would jump at the chance. I also know that the summer portion of my sabbatical year will end soon enough, and then the slogging will begin… even if most of that slogging takes place in my pajamas.

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One Response to The Doctor is Out: Sabbatical Guilt

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