Looking for sabbatical advice

Every time I mention to a family member or friend I’m on sabbatical, I inevitably hear some version of, “It must be so great to have all that free time!” or “Where are you going?” or “You academics have it so easy, taking time off from work with pay!”

My first reaction is embarrassment. I realize that most people don’t get an opportunity to leave their work space for the primary purpose of rejuvenating. My second reaction is insecurity. Is my plan “good enough” to justify the time away? How will my results compare to my colleagues? My third reaction is anger. I earned my time away and it’s a benefit built into the structure of my position at the university – I shouldn’t have to make excuses for that. But in talking with folks outside academia, I find myself doing it anyway. My final reaction is exhaustion. I have so many hopes and plans for my sabbatical time, will I ever be able to get it all done? Especially the fun plans like finishing a “sabbatical” crocheted blanket or cooking dinner more often for my family like I used to before I was hired on the tenure track or reading for pleasure or calling a cousin I don’t get to talk to often enough.

Since my sabbatical was only scheduled for six months and my daughter is about to enter her senior year in high school, I wasn’t able to do anything fancy like apply for a visiting scholar position overseas or escape to a faraway place to do my writing but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want to make space for some adventure. I’m looking forward to telling you about that in a later post.

SabbaticalBlanket2The hardest part about being on sabbatical is making a schedule for myself. I’m used to being tightly scheduled and I’ve always been an “If you want something done ask a busy person” kind of librarian. I still don’t have any great advice about scheduling your time, maybe I will in retrospect (reminder to self: come back to this question a few months after I return). But now it’s more like when I was home with my daughter when she was little — long stretches of time with nothing to do.

Haha! Just kidding. Actually you know I have a ton to do.

The first part of my agenda was to finish off several smaller writing tasks so I could clear my head and my time for my sabbatical project.

– Complete final draft of the “Global Perspectives on Information Literacy” white paper and send to ACRL editors for the publication process. Prepare to present with chapter authors from all over the world at the ACRL 2017 conference in Baltimore.

– Write a blog post with Catherine Fraser Riehle on a recent research project examining scholarly communication perceptions and understanding among undergrads for the LSE Impact Blog.

– Finish my book chapter with Michelle Reed for my co-edited volume, Undergraduate Research and the Academic Librarian: Case Studies & Best Practices, (with Stephanie Davis-Kahl) and send the entire manuscript to ACRL for the final publication process. (Expected fall 2017)

– Collaborate with Emma Coonan on an article for Communications in Information Literacy. We were invited by an editor to write about how to generate enthusiasm for a research project and how that translates into writing a successful journal article.

Whew! I know, right? I had a ton on my plate and this is a lesson learned for me. I took on more than I could handle before leaving for sabbatical so I wasn’t able to start with an entirely clean schedule, which would have been more rewarding. But who doesn’t overestimate what they can handle in a specific amount of time? If you’ve figured it out, we would like to invite you to write a guest post for this blog.

One thing I did do during the planning process was search for advice from those who have taken sabbaticals. I couldn’t find much written by librarians so I turned to the higher ed literature — I wanted to learn from those who “sabbaticalized” before me so I wouldn’t waste time making common mistakes.

Here’s a few of the more salient pieces I found. If you know of others, please post in the comments below.

Five Steps to a Successful Sabbatical by By Chris Tachibana

Going on Sabbatical by Lee Tobin McClain

How to Enjoy a Sabbatical by Sybil L. Holloway

Coming to Terms with My Sabbatical by Michele Mendelssohn

The Dirty Little Secret of Sabbatical by Susannah B. Mintz

Follow us on Twitter: #librariansabbatical

Next :: The sabbatical application process


The beginning of the beginning: fits and starts

Thinking back now on the first few weeks of my sabbatical I’m struck by what I don’t remember.

I remember flailing around a lot in that first month of sabbatical. As I mentioned in my first post, it’s been a big change for me to go from a very structured weekly schedule to having wide open spaces on my calendar to fill as I choose. It’s not that I’ve never had to deal with a lack of work structure before, but it’s been a long, long time since that’s been the case for more than a week or so. I am most definitely out of practice.

In a way the beginning of my sabbatical was just a bigger version of what often happens to me in the first few weeks of the summer, when the academic year has ended and projects and reports have wrapped up. Switching gears from very busy to less busy can be a challenge for me. I flail around a bit before settling on a list of what I want to accomplish over the summer and sketching out a rough plan for doing it in between vacation time and other commitments. I try to balance my wishlist of tasks with blocks of space and time to catch up on reading and thinking. And some summers (though probably it should be all summers) I end by taking stock and reflecting on what I did before heading into what I will do in the fall.

I keep a very brief research journal — really just a list of dates plus a couple of words about any research I worked on that day — and going back to consult it reminds me that I started my sabbatical by catching up on some writing that was coming due soon. I also made a Google doc called Sabbatical Plans (very literal!) with a list of all of the projects I’m working on during these six months, big and small, real and ideal. The blank page can be scary when starting a new writing project, and I felt that same fear when looking at 6 months of my (mostly) empty calendar. Starting to fill that calendar in with tentative, self-imposed deadlines helped.

It’s taken a while for me to settle into a routine, mostly because my sabbatical work is just less bound by routine than my director work is. Each day and week can vary, sometimes widely, in both what I’m doing and where I’m doing it. Some of my sabbatical work has been affected by external constraints, for example, interviewing students (which had to happen during the semester) or preparing for a talk on a specific date. Other work is less time-sensitive, like file management and CV maintenance. I update that Sabbatical Plans doc every week or so, tweaking and fiddling and adjusting and crossing off tasks as I finish them. Finding the structure in my unstructured time has in some ways been the biggest challenge of my sabbatical.

Tears, cribbage, baseball, and a butterfly

What did I do the first month of sabbatical?

I know what I *had* been planning in my mind for months: start a new yoga program, clean out the fridge and make some homemade meals, KonMarie my house, Project 333 my wardrobe, catch up on my movie list, plan a vacation with my daughter, and read at least a handful of fun books. (Goodness, I miss pleasure reading! I’m so tired of reading for work that I gravitate towards spending free time playing with our cats or challenging my family to a game of dominoes). 

But in reality, I spent the first week working. Since my sabbatical started on January 16th, I thought I would use the quiet campus time to catch up and prepare before and after the holidays. But nope – that didn’t happen for a million reasons. I had so much work to finish in order to prepare my colleagues to do my job while I was gone. I have quite a few day to day responsibilities including managing a really busy open workshop program, the Savvy Researcher. We teach over 60 different workshops each semester that reach over 2,500 students per year. We have librarians, graduate assistants from the iSchool, and campus partners that teach as part of this program so there are a lot of folks and details to manage. While I made the schedule before I left, I wanted to also make sure that the person covering for me would be able to handle any type of crisis that might arise, especially since I didn’t particularly want to be pulled in while I was trying to sabbaticalize. 

The entire first week I spent in my office, plugging away and refining instructions and FAQ for my colleagues. There are almost 10 people in total covering for me! I wanted to make their job as easy as possible. I drafted an outline for each responsibility that included anything I thought might arise, campus contact info, important dates, and draft language for specific emails that would need to be sent. Did I go overboard? Maybe. But I’m hopeful that everyone is doing alright and I haven’t heard from anyone that I didn’t expect to. Quick! Throw a shoe over your shoulder! (a Czech expression for good luck)

Once I got home after that first week, total and complete exhaustion set in. Do you remember how you felt on November 9? I do and I pushed down all those feelings and moved forward at a frantic pace because I had too much to do. But now that I was alone in my house with three cats and my email notifications turned off, the emotional pain set in. And I cried. Seriously, I cried for days. As soon as I would drop my daughter off at school the waterworks set in. I cried for our country, I cried for feeling like I didn’t enjoy the past eight years enough because I was preoccupied with tenure, I cried for the time I missed with my daughter while I was writing on the weekends, I cried for my husband who learned how to cook in the past decade or we would’ve starved, I cried for the cat I lost during my last days of graduate school but didn’t have time to mourn because I was too dang busy trying to get a job at Illinois, I cried for the tough days I experienced learning how to deal with library politics, I cried for the constant back pain I had been battling from a car accident in the late 90’s, and I cried because I hadn’t been doing normal family activities because there was never enough time in a day. I did get it all out, eventually. But man, it was a rough (and cathartic!) time for me. Looking back I can see how much I needed that time for myself just to think and breathe. Perhaps most importantly, I am also now committed to going back to work an evolved person. 

The next few weeks I spent sleeping and watching TV and hanging out with my family. My daughter grew up so fast! She’s entering her senior year in high school and has been super busy with cross country and friends and homework. I taught her how to play cribbage so I could get her to hang out with me for an uninterrupted period of time without her phone. For the past three years, my husband has been working on a mechanical butterfly for Art Prize (he is a sculptor for a local company that builds museum exhibitions) but I hadn’t really looked at it. We talked about his art and our family and our goals. It was a wonderful time for the three of us. butterfly

I went to Virginia Beach to visit my mom. She moved there last year after having lived in South Carolina for almost a decade. I’ve been missing my mom and we only get to see each other a handful of times each year. We went to the beach, shopping, and she’s the one that taught me how to play cribbage. 

Looking back on the past few months, one of the most fun decisions I made in the first month was agreeing to fill a spot on my friend John’s fantasy baseball league. As a die-hard Red Sox fan, I have been known to watch/listen to baseball most days during the season and I’ve been meaning to fill gaps in my knowledge of the game. I’ve been having the best time – from the draft to today where I’m vacillating between 4-7th place (out of 12). Not bad for the newbie in a league who’ve been playing together for many years. 

That first month went by way. too. fast.

All this to say, if you are planning to take a sabbatical, give yourself some space at the beginning. The main purpose of a sabbatical is to rejuvenate yourself – whatever that means for you. 

Next :: How I fill my days and a few side projects 

Leaving space on my plate

One of the first things friends asked me when I told them I was taking a sabbatical is “what are you working on?” My project for sabbatical leave is a study of undergraduate attitudes and practices around their course reading: I’m interested in how they get access to what they need to read, their process while reading (for example, do they take notes? where do they find space and time to read?), how they prioritize the task of reading, and where they encounter frustration and success. This project builds on research that my colleague Mariana Regalado of Brooklyn College and I have been doing for nearly a decade (and also work with other colleagues at CUNY and beyond), talking to CUNY students about how, where, when, and with what tools they do their academic work.

For my sabbatical project I’ve interviewed 30 undergraduates at 3 CUNY colleges: Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), Brooklyn College, and my own campus of City Tech. Like my previous projects this involves many steps: getting approval from the university’s Institutional Review Board; recruiting students by hanging flyers around each campus; scheduling (and rescheduling) interviews with students; gratefully relying on the assistance of my colleagues at each campus to find a suitable spot for interviews; purchasing student incentives (in this case either a $10 public transit card or $10 online giftcard); holding student interviews; transcribing the audio recorded during student interviews; coding transcript data using qualitative analysis software (in this case, Dedoose); and analyzing the coded data to elucidate themes (which I’ll then write up).

My university’s sabbatical approval process requires applicants to submit a timeline for the work they expect to do, and when I was putting the timeline together I remember thinking that there was more than enough time for all of the parts of this project over a 6 month sabbatical (maybe even too much time?). But that hasn’t turned out to be the case at all. While I’m on pace to finish what I need to with this project before my sabbatical ends, I haven’t had any trouble filling the time that I’m not working on this project.

In many ways this is the result of timing. The sabbatical application deadline at my college is always in the fall, even if you’re only intending to take a 6 month sabbatical over a spring semester like I did. Which means that I prepared my sabbatical application in November 2015 though my sabbatical didn’t begin until February 2017. That’s a long time span, and perhaps unsurprisingly I’ve picked up additional projects since I submitted my application. Mariana and I are now working on an edited book about research on and services/resources for commuter students in academic libraries, so we’ve been working on our own chapters in the book as well as wrangling our contributors’ chapters. There are some longstanding file and data management tasks I’ve been taking care of, too, and scattered other commitments: an article with collaborators, a panel presentation at ACRL, teaching a workshop and delivering a talk at a couple of CUNY venues.

All of which is to say that I’ve no shortage of research-related work to do during this sabbatical, despite my initial suspicions to the contrary. And I’m very glad that I didn’t load up my sabbatical plate too heavily from the outset, so I have the time and space for these additional projects that have popped up since then (including blogging here!).

Unturning all the stones

I began to fantasize about sabbatical when I was preparing my tenure papers in 2015.  I had been working towards tenure for what felt like forever. I was hired in 2006 as a visiting librarian and in order to prove I could work at the level necessary, I treated my position as if I were a tenure track librarian. This meant that I began a research agenda, took regular research time, published several articles, book chapters, and conference proceedings, and searched for ways to contribute to national service. Getting tenure at Illinois means that we have to meet all the same standards as disciplinary faculty across campus and our tenure dossiers are reviewed by a campus committee. (If you’re interested in the details of our process, you can review more here.)

My visiting position was renewed several times until I hit the max at three years. At that point the library had to run a search because of the manner in which I was hired (I had applied for another position that I didn’t get so the library could hire me into a visiting position without an entire search process but that meant I would have to apply for my job just like any candidate when the time came). Once I was hired into a tenure track position (2009), and since we were off cycle (it was October), I was given the option to choose a 0Y appointment instead of a 1Y appointment (the tenure process is six years long and measured in Y’s as in 1Y, 2Y, 3Y – with 6Y being the year awarded tenure). Several of my colleagues advised against this because they felt I had already accomplished quite a bit towards tenure. However, I choose 0Y because my daughter was just entering elementary school and I felt the extra ten months to prepare my tenure dossier would be time well spent. (For the record, I don’t regret that decision.)

So, in essence but not technically, I had been working towards tenure for the past ten years.

In our library, and probably like most with a tenure system in place, we try to protect the untenureds from too much administrative work so the focus can be on research (at least I hope your administrators are trying to do that!). Once you’re promoted, however, we all realize that there is work that will be assigned: standing in for others on sabbatical, agreeing to be interim-whatever in order to fill a gap in our faculty, serving on tenure and promotion committees, running search committees, and much more. I knew this. I also knew that most of my colleagues usually wait a few years after getting tenure to apply for sabbatical or would have requirements in their positions that kept them temporarily from applying for a sabbatical. I also understood that it was unusual in our culture for anyone to apply for a sabbatical at the same time as putting forward a tenure dossier. But I also knew my colleagues would support me and I was TIRED (can I tell you more about that at a later date?) A final note – it is common for teaching faculty on our campus to apply for a sabbatical immediately after being granted tenure so in that way, this was not unusual.

In another post, I will talk about the ins and outs of the sabbatical application process in more detail. For now, I want to share how my research agenda developed over time and how I designed my sabbatical project.

For the first three years while I was in visiting status, I explored several research ideas. I had varied interests and in my position as an instruction librarian, I had lots of options that would tie into my daily work. At Illinois, we are encouraged to consider tying our research to our librarianship but not all of us approach the tenure process in this manner. In fact, we do have a couple of librarians that do research related to their PhD work instead of librarianship related issues.

That being said, I dipped my toes into research related to teaching and outreach of ESL students and distance learners. I collaborated with a few of my colleagues as well as wrote several pieces with graduate assistants from the iSchool that I supervised. It was interesting enough to me but nothing cutting edge or terribly exciting. I did have one major stumbling block: similar to many of my colleagues, I had a terminal degree of Master of Science with no real research component required. I also didn’t do formal research as an undergrad. To say the whole process was intimidating was an understatement. I was required (and wanted!) to do REAL research and do it well and while I had some guidance from an assigned mentor team of two senior librarians, their job wasn’t to teach me how to do research.

So how did I turn that corner? I got lucky, honestly. (Or maybe life is serendipitous?) One of my colleagues, Sarah Shreeves (University of Miami) and I had been talking about a unique undergraduate research program on our campus, the Ethnography of the University Initiative. As the coordinator of our institutional repository and scholarly communication program, she had interest in seeing students submit their work into the IR and she came to me to talk about the instructional component of this outreach. I had been serving as the liaison to EUI for three years at this point and I was excited by the prospect of working with students as content creators. From there, as they say, one thing led to another.

And it snowballed quickly. Sarah and I collaborated with Stephanie Davis-Kahl (Illinois Wesleyan University) to investigate libraries’ commitment to supporting undergraduate research. We had an excellent response rate, near 40%, so we knew we were onto interest within our community on what eventually became referred to as the “Intersections.” As we mapped out our agenda, we began to talk about other stakeholders who might care about students and information literacy and scholarly communication including campus coordinators of undergraduate research programs, students, and faculty. We wrote two articles together and I wrote three additional for a total of five for me in this research area specifically. Stephanie and I co-edited an ACRL volume on the intersections of IL and SC and I looked for ways to contribute to the conversation through national service. I won’t go into all the details here since you can look at my CV, but suffice it to say, I took my colleagues’ advice seriously – I worked tirelessly to tie all of my daily work together.

{As a side note, if you’re reading this while on the tenure track – one of the best things things that happened to me was finding like-minded colleagues that were willing to mentor me through the research process several times. They helped me think through research questions, design surveys, analyze data, and improve my writing. I am forever indebted to Sarah and Stephanie who not only were excellent colleagues but are now my dear friends.}

By the time I had to sit down and write my librarianship, service, and research statements, I had quite a bit to draw from to construct a narrative that reflected our campus strategic plan to support undergraduate research, a commitment that was re-emphasized by campus leadership in the middle of my tenure process.

But there were still stones left unturned in my mind. My research led me to new questions . . . when doesn’t it?

To perform an ethnographic study of faculty mentors of undergraduate research programs examining their information literacy expectations for students, which impacts effective library instruction programs; and to design pilot instructional materials and complete scholarly journal articles and/or conference presentations. (From my sabbatical application, 9/24/2015)

Throughout my research, I explored several perspectives on information literacy and undergraduate research: librarians, students, and campus coordinators. I also worked with a past GA on instruction with primary resources and archival literacy. However, there was a giant missing piece – talking with faculty mentors about their information literacy perceptions and expectations for students participating in undergraduate research. With the implementation of the ACRL Framework (I served on the task force that developed the Framework), I also had an interest in talking with faculty about some of the concepts presented in the frames. 

From my perspective, this all seemed like excellent timing. The fourth and final piece could be covered during a sabbatical and when I returned I could write a summary piece that pulls all of this research together. Maybe I’ll take my message on the conference circuit?

My initial research questions:

  • What expectations do faculty mentors have for students related to information literacy as they enter an undergraduate research program within their discipline?
  • What are faculty mentor perceptions of information literacy? How does this align/not align with librarians’ understanding?
  • How do faculty mentors perceive student preparedness throughout the research cycle including conducting literature reviews, information management skills, and the knowledge necessary to publish and share their work?
  • What successes do faculty mentors report in student use of library research tools and services?
  • Where are the areas for collaboration between faculty mentors and librarians within information literacy instruction and undergraduate research curriculum?

You can read my entire sabbatical application here.


Next time :: My first month on sabbatical – what did I do?

dlhNote :: As you’re reading my posts about the tenure process at Illinois, you may have questions that I didn’t address. It is true that Illinois is stringent in its tenure processes and if you’d like to learn more, you can review our documentation (which is quite thorough!). I’m also happy to answer questions through the comments below or your can email me at mhensle1[at]illinois.edu.

Image: My daughter, now aged 17

From Sixty to Zero(ish)

Like Merinda, I’m also on sabbatical (day 119). Even before beginning I knew that being on sabbatical would be very, very different from my job as director of the library at New York City College of Technology (City Tech), a large urban commuter college that’s part of the City University of New York.

I’ve been at City Tech for just over 9 years, 6 (and a bit) as Coordinator of IL/Instruction and (a bit less than) 3 as Chief Librarian. My university requires that faculty — including library faculty — are both tenured and have completed a minimum of six years of service before granting a sabbatical leave. My original plan for sabbatical was somewhat different than what’s ended up happening: I intended to apply for sabbatical for my 8th year at City Tech, which would be the first year of my tenure. But then the prior director of our library announced his retirement, and I applied for (and got!) the job.

Other retirements meant other personnel changes in the library, and settling into my new role took some time, too. So it wasn’t until my second year as director that I started thinking again about a sabbatical. While library faculty are eligible for a full year of sabbatical leave, as I thought on it more I realized that I’m not comfortable taking a full year at this point in my time as director. Which I think has turned out for the best (more on that in another post). The prep leading up to my leave was busy, though luckily it overlapped with the college’s intersession which is relatively quiet in the library and on the rest of campus. And I’m so grateful for the work of my colleague who’s serving as our interim director.

And now here I am, about two-thirds of the way through my 6 months, having settled, sort of, into the pace of things. My weekly schedule in the library during the semester tends to be very meeting-heavy, with the typical week clocking in at about 20 hours of meetings. While my sabbatical project has required meetings and traveling to different campuses in the city (more on that in another post, too!), I have far more control over my own time than I’ve had in a long time.

It’s been an interesting change — I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to take a sabbatical, and I’m really looking forward to reflecting on my experiences with Merinda here on the blog (and hearing about others’ experiences too).

Day One of 134

Someone told me just before I left that you want your sabbatical to be long enough that you get bored.

mkh_1I am on sabbatical. I have been for 134 days. 

It took me until passing the halfway mark to admit this idea wasn’t going away. Everyone told me I should just enjoy the time and not take on anything extra. But I’ve learned that if I can’t get an idea out of my head, I should just give in. And besides, I have all kinds of things to tell you.

When I started my career at Illinois as an instruction librarian in 2006, I never imagined I would get to this point. There was too much work to accomplish to get tenure. Librarianship. Service. Research. The days blended together and I lost sleep, didn’t eat particularly well, abandoned my exercise routine for precious time with my family. As I settled into the routine of academic life, the only thing I could think about was, “How am I possibly going to be able to finish everything this week AND do email?!?”

And the rumors are true – working at Illinois is stressful. My colleagues all work at a very high level in their areas. They are successful in securing high profile grant funds, are recognized by awards at astonishing rates, and set the highest bar for all areas of librarianship. I am frequently bombarded at conference with questions about our collective work. The expectations are extraordinarily high.

I wasn’t prepared for a research agenda and I didn’t know how to say, “no.” I didn’t know how to ask for help or even who to ask. I realized pretty quickly that my highly rated graduate education didn’t take me far enough in being prepared for my first position. And to make matters even more complicated, instead of reassuring me with practical application my graduate assistantship taught me just enough to be perpetually unsure of myself and overwhelmed for the days to come.

Anyone who knows me knows that I compensated by taking on too much. I overcommitted in my daily work, I volunteered for too much service, and my aspirations for my research far exceeded my capabilities. All the while trying to be a supportive wife and mother. And daughter. And friend.

No one was more surprised than me when my dean called to say I had been promoted to associate professor. I mean, I knew I had made it. But I was still surprised. Not because my colleagues supported my promotion dossier but because looking back over the past ten years, I couldn’t recount for you how I made it. But I do know that I took it one day at time and I plugged away. I asked a ton of questions. I leaned on a few of my amazing colleagues. And my family.

Here I am. More than halfway through a six month sabbatical (with a month of vacation tacked on for good measure!) and I have so much to say. Maybe it’s the result of too many days by myself, circling an empty house with too much on my mind. Someone told me just before I left that you want your sabbatical to be long enough that you get bored. I’m reasonably sure that’s not going to happen for me, especially since Maura and I have decided to start a sabbatical blog.

So, what now?

I don’t have all the answers. I never have. But I do like to reflect and I do enjoy sharing. And I have learned that I enjoy writing. I used to keep a journal in my teenage years and throughout my twenties. I’d like to explore that part of myself again.

Maura will be here in the next week or so and I will see you again in a few days.

Merinda Kaye Hensley

Merinda’s U of Illinois profile

Next time :: Outline of Merinda’s sabbatical project and how it came to be