Going on sabbatical in uncertain times (and other first world problems)

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Strange as it is to think about now, it was around this time last year that I was starting to think about applying for my first sabbatical.

Though I’d heard other librarians at my institution talk about their sabbatical experiences, it wasn’t anything I’d ever thought of as a possibility for myself, mostly because I was so focused on the journey toward tenure that I wasn’t thinking much about what would come after. But as I entered the last stages of that process last summer, my department head suggested that I think about it and my dean was also supportive of the idea. If I scheduled my sabbatical to begin in fall 2020, the timing would be perfect.

So I put together an application that detailed a project idea related to my interest in the role of research in creative writing. It felt kind of weird since, at the time, my proposed sabbatical was over a year away and I had no idea what I would want to be working on so far in the future. I worried a little that my project wouldn’t seem important enough or closely related enough to my day-to-day work to pass the test. But when my application was submitted to the Provost’s office, I heard back the same day: I’d been approved for a six month sabbatical starting in September 2020.

I spent all of fall 2019 daydreaming about where I would be and what I would be doing in a year’s time. Fall is usually a busy semester for me and the thought of getting a one-time pass on all that stress to focus on a pet project was a beautiful thing. I thought about what it would be like to have the freedom to structure my own days. No teaching, no meetings, no requirement to go into the office. Just me and my writing and research.


Then this coronavirus thing hit and suddenly the future became very uncertain.

As far as I know, I’m still going to be on sabbatical in the fall except now I’m kind of dreading it.

On the one hand, no one knows what this fall is going to look like but it’s definitely going to be a new experience for us all and navigating that new experience, well. It’s going to be a bit of a shit storm. Especially when you take into account the financial crisis that higher education is in and all the scary stuff that comes with that. I should probably be glad to have a sanctioned reason to remove myself from the stress and the drama. Or at least the stuff that wouldn’t directly affect me anyway.

On the other, while I wouldn’t say that I’m someone who likes crises per se (I mean, who does?), when one presents itself, I do like tackling new problems. I like to roll up my sleeves and get working, brainstorming ideas and contributing to a shared effort to Figure This Shit Out.

As a nonessential worker, there have been very few opportunities for me to Figure This Shit Out while this pandemic has been happening. I’ve spent a lot of time feeling helpless and powerless. I have nothing to contribute except my absence from society in the form of social distancing. And while I do feel that social distancing is a civic duty in a situation like this, it’s not the same as Doing Something.

So now the fall semester is coming and there’s finally an opportunity for me to actually do something and instead I’m on the bench. I’m not a part of the conversation about the creative ways we’re going to continue to try to reach students with our services and instruction and resources during a semester that will look very different from any fall semester that’s come before it. I want to contribute. Put me in, coach!

Instead I have this sabbatical. The idea of being released from committee work is still nice and of course it’s nice to know that whatever happens I’ll be able to continue to keep myself safe and isolated as needed, but after two months of working from home mostly focused on writing and research projects, the fact that we might be doing this for the rest of the summer is daunting enough, much less the idea of doing it until my sabbatical ends in March 2021. Suddenly, sabbatical time is no longer sounding like the paradise it once did.

To be clear, this is a first world problem if ever there was one. Given the financial situation in my state and at my university, I’m lucky that I even have a job, much less one where (as far as I know) they’re still allowing me to take the release time I applied for when the world looked very different. Though my institution is trying its best to avoid job losses in all of this (except through attrition), I really have no idea what will happen between now and when my sabbatical ends next year.


If there’s a positive in all of this, I guess it’s that I originally envisioned that at least the first few weeks of my sabbatical would be spent flailing around and generally not being as productive as I would like while I inevitably struggled to adjust to a new routine that didn’t include going to work every day. Working from home these last few months has given me a bit of a head start such that I hopefully got all of that flailing over with in about mid-April. If my department continues to work from home for the rest of the summer, the flailing will be behind me. If I go back to work before I go on sabbatical, I assume the flailing period will be much shorter with some past experience under my belt.

I also have some small hope that at some point in the six months I’ll be on sabbatical things will start to look a little more normal than they do now. I don’t know how realistic that hope is given that it’s not like the coronavirus is going away any time soon but working from home during all of this has shown me that there is a definite difference between working from home because you have the freedom to do so and working from home because you have no choice. The reason my original dream sabbatical sounded like a paradise was because it was about freedom. The reason the new reality sounds like a jail sentence is because there might not be a choice.


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