It was mentioned repeatedly during my on-campus interview: there was a pre-tenure sabbatical after year three. Having already taught at an R1, I knew pre-tenure sabbaticals were a rare and wonderful gift. Even in my first year, I was already imagining all that I could accomplish during this year away from teaching.
The amount of research you can accomplish without a pre-tenure sabbatical varies depending on the orientation, culture, and organizational structure of the institution. My SLAC operates using shared governance and a teacher-scholar model. (Terms that were all new to me 2.5 years ago) Our model of shared-governance features a compressed administrative bureaucratic structure – no provosts, no chancellors, and few deans (a much-needed option in this era of the corporatization of institutions of higher ed). But here is the hitch: this shared governance model requires that almost every faculty member (T-T, tenured, adjunct, etc.) engage in quite a bit of service work. Thus, this sabbatical would be a welcome break from not only teaching, but also an unusually heavy service load.
Both the casual conversation and the language in the faculty handbook regarding reappointment at years 1,2, and 3 focused almost entirely on assessment of teaching (thus the teacher-scholar model). I was actively advised to focus on teaching (with an implicit suggestion that research should or could (??) take the back burner in these early years).
Thankfully, this is not my first time at the rodeo. I knew that even at a SLAC with an overt teacher-scholar model, research must always be brewing in the background. You simply cannot pull research out of nowhere after a 3 year hiatus. My first year on campus culminated with 4 out of 6 candidates being denied tenure – many due to low research productivity. This supported my gut feeling that I should perform teaching while continuing to parcel away time for active research. (As I suspected, most folks were doing this anyway – even if the campus conversation focused heavily on teaching.)
But alas – it was finally getting closer – an entire year dedicated to my research. No more squirreling away time. During sabbatical, I was going to be able to dive in – hours at a clip. Then I read the small print.
As I started planning, I realized that our college provided one semester leave at full pay, or one year at half pay, and that this was pretty typical for SLACs. However, colleagues repeatedly advised me to “take the whole year”.
One year at half pay? Well. That won’t fly. I am a mother of a child in daycare, and I have student loans and bills (mortgage, electricity – you know – life). The college has a competitive grant for an extra 10% of pay (so a full year at 60% pay). How to solve this problem?? Outside funding! Yes. Outside funding will give me a shot at a yearlong sabbatical.
So I hit the interwebs searching for sabbatical money. This is when I first became familiar with institutional structures surrounding sabbatical, and how they only support certain bodies in academe. The vast majority of sabbatical funding requires that you become a scholar-in-residence at some fabulous institution (that may or may not be close to your home). I scrolled through dozens of funding opportunities that I would have to forego. I have a partner who is also an academic. As a long-term VAP, he did not have a sabbatical coming. We need his paycheck to make ends meet, so him taking an unpaid leave so that I could apply to scholar-in-residence programs was not feasible. Additionally, we have a child in daycare. It is not impossible to relocate him, but it would present some logistical challenges. (Daycares have notoriously long wait lists.) I wondered for whom these fellowships were developed? Oh yeah – folks who can move and people who can move their partners. I have a feeling this was much more often the case 40 years ago – when there were fewer partnered women and people with care-taking responsibilities in the ranks of the Professoriate.
Fine. No Scholar-in-Residence programs would work. Surely, there is some institution-free money out there. And there is, but far fewer options. I applied to these funding programs that allow you stay in place. (I am still waiting to hear – so fingers crossed.)
As I continued planning, articles noting that women with children were 3x less likely to receive tenure track job offers than fathers and their childless female peers slid down my Facebook timeline. I couldn’t help but think about all the mechanisms by which women with children get edged out of career advancement opportunities. We can talk about meetings scheduled for 5:30 (when daycare and most after-care ends), or the challenges of working mostly during childcare hours. But this was a different kind of hidden challenge. This prize, this gift of time dedicated to research was predicated upon having other kinds of freedoms.
In addition to the above-mentioned ability to move to take advantage of scholar-in-residence programs, there is a *magic money* aspect to sabbatical. One senior colleague and friend repeatedly suggested that I “take a year” – when I voiced concern about a year at 60% pay (even assuming I would receive the internal sabbatical grant), he simply said, “we really encourage a year”. There seems no language to acknowledge disparities in wealth and how they impact opportunity. What magic money was going to cover that final 40% of my paycheck?
If we are concerned about diversity in higher education, we can start right here with opportunities like this. Many first generation college-attending PhDs, working class PhD’s, scholars of color, single parents, etc. do not have disposable income to cover that 40% of unpaid sabbatical salary. There are assumptions in this model about inherited wealth. It smacks of the “small loan of a million dollars” or the “borrow money from your parents” talk we have heard from folks who are clearly unaware of their own financial privilege. To be frank, when you expect people to take a full year sabbatical without providing full pay, you are subtly supporting a status quo in academia that is explicitly exclusionary. And when tenure is predicated upon productivity – productivity that should be accelerated during sabbatical – we have a problem.
I have spoken with folks in the past about this, and many have offered their stories of how they made it work. They usually feature a partner with flexible work. Sometimes they include suspiciously vague references to “making it work” or “just doing it”. I am assuming that “making it work” or “just doing it” meant they actually did have the resources to survive a major reduction in pay. What is rarely acknowledged is that some people simply cannot do this, and this puts them at a disadvantage. It doesn’t make them lesser scholars or less dedicated to their research. It does speak to differences in the privilege we all embody as we maneuver through our careers. As a community, we cannot in one breath ponder why the Ivory Tower remains so Ivory (and so male), while ignoring the structural barriers that enable some scholars to thrive and allow others to simply slip through the cracks.
So I will wait to make sense of my sabbatical opportunities. If it is one semester, I will make the most of whatever limited time I have. Despite these concerns, I am actually incredibly grateful for even one semester. From this sabbatical to tenure – I am hoping to be in position to push for better policy some day soon.