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A curious post title, you may be thinking? I’m on sabbatical and surely I know what that means! And if I don’t, well then, surely I don’t deserve one!

Well, yes, I think I do, but it can be a valuable exercise when you start a sabbatical to ponder this very question. What does the modern sabbatical look like in academe and what are it’s origins? And how do you convey its meaning and purpose to others?

On the latter note, maybe I should start with an anecdote. I was at a birthday party of a friend of mine recently and meeting new people. As is to be expected at social gatherings, people ask you what you are doing right now. So, given my current state of affairs, i.e., I’m on sabbatical leave from York University Libraries for the period May 2009 to end of April 2010, I endeavoured to explain what this is, and how this will, in my case, involve a combination of research, teaching and project work. And maybe it doesn’t help that many people don’t always seem to know that librarians teach or do research. But I think it’s also the whole sabbatical concept. I wonder what reception faculty get when they explain at parties that they are on sabbatical. In my case, at any rate, the response quite frequently involves a bit of winking, and a bit of nodding, and a bit of shushing (your secret is safe with me, kind of thing!), and a bit of smirking. And on this particular evening, I found myself either winking and smiling along with others, or telling them I didn’t like the question! And while I can see why they reacted the way they did, in some respects,  now I wonder if I conducted myself in entirely the wrong manner, when reacting to their reaction, because at the end of the day, I think York librarians and the institution we work for, would be worse off if we didn’t get these sabbaticals, as kushdy as they may seem, to many outsiders! So I decided to dig deeper regarding the origins, definition and purpose of sabbaticals in academe.

If you look up the meaning of sabbatical year in the OED it defines it as: ‘Designating a period of leave from duty granted to university teachers at certain intervals (orig. every seven years) for the purposes of study and travel…”.

Celina M. Sima (2000)  in an article written in New Directions for Institutional Research titled “The Role and Benefits of Sabbatical Leave in Faculty Development and Satisfaction” points out that various studies of sabbatical policies at universities  reveal an expectation that the time away will yield significant benefits to the institution in terms of research productivity, improved teaching, or to a lesser extent, improved service to the campus. She cites various definitions of sabbatical leave saying that common to them all is an expectation that the faculty member will return to service after the sabbatical is finished, and will write up a report of activities. Moreover her review of relevant studies shows that in general faculty benefit from and express a good level of satisfaction with their sabbatical leave experiences. Certainly good to hear!

Zahorski (1994), who is cited by Sima above, defines the core goal of a sabbatical as being to stimulate a faculty member’s professional, personal and creative growth. Sarason (1990), also cited by Sima above, stated that the purpose of a sabbatical is to “free the person from all teaching and administrative responsibilities and to encourage him or her to review past accomplishments, or to take stock, or to move in new directions, or to go somewhere to learn something new.” It provides an opportunity, he goes on to “take distance from your accustomed routine so that when you return there will be an infusion of new energy and new ideas.’

Bruce A. Kimball (1978) wrote an article in the Journal of Higher Education titled “The Origin of the Sabbath and its Legacy to the Modern Sabbatical”. He points out, in a similar vein to the authors referenced above, that the core goal of the modern sabbatical is to increase the institutional utility of faculty to the universities they are employed by. His article serves to remind us, however, of the ancient roots and definition of the sabbatical year, which he said was given more credence in the last two decades of the 19th century, when American universities such as Harvard began offering sabbaticals for the first time.

Kimball argues it is very valuable to go back and look at the ancient history and religious meaning attached with the term sabbatical.  The spiritual and intellectual origins of this year of rest, which can bring long-term benefits to higher education, might benefit from more attention, he argues. He draws our attention to the fact that the Hebrew rest day (Sabbath) is designed to result in:

  • spiritual, physical and mental regeneration for the human being.
  • economic renewal of resources and facilitation of the market place.
  • social equity to help those unable to cultivate those natural resources.
  • education of people about their faith and purpose in the world.

As regards, the sabbatical year, Kimball’s research establishes that Hebrews began to observe some sort of seventh year of rest shortly after their arrival in Palestine. In the early agrarian era, this seventh year of rest, was one where farmers, would let their land lie fallow, in order to provide for the poor. The book of Exodus (23:10-11) states that the poor would be allowed to use it for food, to take food from it, and that the wild animals would be allowed to feed on what they left behind. Equally Hebrews who had slaves could keep them for six years only and were meant to release their slaves in the seventh year, to remind them that they too at one time were slaves in the land of Egypt (Deutoronomy 15:12).  So this sabbatical year was about regeneration of the self , but equally very strongly about doing good for others.

I took quite a lot from my brief look at the research of these scholars. It’s making me think about how I will, on the one hand, honour the sabbatical goal, as it tends to be framed in modern times, i.e.,  how will I be augmenting my utility to York University Libraries during my sabbatical leave, while on the other hand, thinking about ways in which I will aim to regenerate myself in a more holistic way.

Kimball’s article, in particular, and reflection on the origins of the meaning of the sabbatical year, also served to remind me that, of course, sabbatical is not just about me or indeed solely about the institution I work for, but also about what I can do for others now, and when I return.

Referenced in this Blog Posting:

Kimball, B. A. “The Origin of the Sabbath and Its Legacy to the Modern Sabbatical.” Journal of Higher Education, 1978, 49, 303–315.

Sarason, S. B. The Predictable Failure of School Reform.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

Sima, C. “The Role and Benefits of Sabbatical Leave in Faculty Development and Satisfaction”. New Directions for Institutional Research, 2000, 2000(105):67-75.

Zahorski, K. J. The Sabbatical Mentor: A Practical Guide to Successful Sabbaticals.Bolton, Mass.: Anker, 1994.

One of my goals for this sabbatical is to delve more deeply in to the educative role of librarians – to understand better what it is our students need to learn and want to learn, appreciating that the two may be distinctly different. I’d also like to gain a better grasp of pedagogical theory and practice. And I thought as I engage in this journey, I might as well share some of that which I’m finding. Afterall, having attended many conferences with other instructional librarians, I know those who are passionate about information literacy and teaching, enjoy nothing more than to read, share, and discuss experiences and knowledge.

Perhaps an inspiring place to start is with William Poole, one of the early advocates of the role of academic librarians as teachers. Poole’s writings are referenced in an article by Edward K. Owusu-Ansah titled “Beyond Collaboration: Seeking Greater Scope and Centrality for Library Instruction” published in portal: Libraries and the Academy, Vol. 7, No. 4(2007), pp.415-429.

In an article William Poole wrote for Library Journal in November 1893 titled “The University Library and the University Curriculum”, he states

“I wish to show that the study of bibliography and of the scientific methods of using books should have an assured place in the university curriculum; that a wise and professional bibliographer should be a member of the faculty and have a part in the training of all the students; that the library should be his classroom; and that all who go forth in the world as graduates should have such an intelligent and practical knowledge of books as will aid them in their studies and through life.”

He also writes that:

“This facile proficiency does not come by intuition, nor from the clouds. Where else is it to be taught, if not in the college or university? With it, a graduate is prepared to grapple with his professional studies, to succeed in editorial work, or in any literary or scientific pursuit for which he may have taste and qualification”.

Okay, so we know the information landscape has changed a lot since then, and we know we talk about “information literacy” and not “library instruction” or “bibliographic instruction”, but yet this and other early writings can still inspire and remind that the educative role of libraries is longstanding and that some of the fundamentals remain the same. Food for thought, at any rate!