Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

I am waiting.  I am waiting hopefully and patiently for the pendulum to swing in the other direction.  I am waiting for a cultural shift that will stop glorifying busy and that will stop measuring our worth by our ability to multitask, work long hours, and turn our smartphones into near-permanent appendages.

(And rest assured, I am guilty of all these things).

For now, however, I know that this means tilting at windmills.  So instead, I will write in defense of sabbaticals–both big and small.  At its most literal sabbatical comes from the Hebrew word “shabbat” or sabbath and means ceasing or taking a time of rest–typically, ceasing from work, so that attentions can be devoted elsewhere.  In the academy, of course, it is a break from teaching and other quotidian responsibilities, so that you can take time to do research, travel to archives, work in the lab, develop new curriculum, finish your book, etc.  Arguably, that ceasing from other tasks and obligations, opens up time and space for productivity to flourish.

But it might also do something less grand, but no less essential.  It might create space and time to think.  But, wait, isn’t that what we, as academics do all the time?  I’m going to guess that most academics would not answer that question in the affirmative.  Yes, I have to think about the student thesis I’m reading or the agenda I need to prepare for the department meeting or my lecture notes for Western Civ.  But careful, reflective thought that would help me finish that book chapter or outline that new course proposal?  Thought that would result in creative and innovative ideas/solutions/brainstorming?  Moments for that are few and far between.

And yet, we all need exactly that kind of time, as a recent study demonstrates.  In a compelling piece in The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen investigated the dilemma of  feeling overwhelmed and overworked.  The big takeaway from that piece: “The brain is wired for the ‘A Ha’ moment to come, not when our noses are pressed firmly into the grindstone, but in a break in the action. When we let our mind wander. In the shower. On a walk. When we are idle, neuroscience is showing that our brains are most active.”

So if a semester-long or better still, year-long, sabbatical opens up space and time for that kind of thought?  So much the better.  But what about all the years, months, and days that separate us and our faculty from the next sabbatical?  If we really intend to spur creativity and innovation both inside and outside the classroom (and I’ll be honest, I’m not always sure this is the goal of my upper administration, but that’s a subject for another blog post) we must go about it differently.  As chairs we must find ways to encourage our faculty to create these open spaces when they cease from multitasking, put down the smartphone, and give themselves a break.  How do we do this?  By modelling it and talking about it.

As I noted above, I am as guilty as anyone of these overwhelmed and overworked practices.  We all have to-do lists that are a mile long.  But if my faculty see me disconnecting (even it it’s as simple as not eating lunch at my desk and instead going into the break room) there is power in that example.  And we must talk about this, too.  As most faculty prepare to depart for the summer, what if we encouraged this kind of openness instead of asking when the book is going to be finished or the new course proposal drafted?

Now certainly, we cannot encourage endless mulling that results in nothing.  I know that every reader of this post could present an anecdote about that faculty member who took three sabbaticals and never finished the long-promised book.  You might ask, why create a system that caters to these types?  The problem with that faculty member may be that he/she is overworked and overwhelmed, but there are also issues of procrastination and perhaps even project conceptualization at work there.  The question, then, is which faculty member should dictate the terms.  I will reach out to the faculty member who is always stymied in completing a project.  But overall, rather than a culture that penalizes procrastination, I would rather foster one that encourages creativity and time to think.  In the best sense of the word “sabbatical,” whether they last twenty minutes or a year, we all need more of them.

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3 thoughts on “Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

  1. I’m fully on board with the bit about inspiration in “idle” moments, though (as you also point out) that usually comes after one has been working hard at something for a while. For me, these moments of inspiration usually come at conferences while I’m supposed to be listening to someone else.
    I have a senior colleague with 40+ years of service who prides himself (rather vociferously) on never having even applied for a sabbatical. On the other hand, he’s not a researcher. For anyone doing any kind of creative work, this is essential time.
    And a dispatch from outside the ivory tower: I have a good friend who works at a major technology company (no, not *that* one) who is eligible for a six-month sabbatical every half-dozen years or so. Said company has decided that the occasional sabbatical makes their workers more productive in the long run.

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    1. It’s encouraging that other professions and industries are coming to recognize the value of sabbaticals.

      My moments of inspiration often come when I’m getting my brain to do something really different–like when I’m running or doing needlepoint.

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