Today my first sabbatical, a semester off from teaching, is finally coming to an end. As soon as I was granted a sabbatical I knew that this day would come a lot sooner than I could imagine, and of course it has. And although I have made some good progress on a couple of projects, of course I wish that I had done more with my time off from teaching. But for today, I want to think about teaching as I return to it after eight months away from the classroom.
If you teach at an institution like mine, a sabbatical is mostly a break from teaching. I have also managed to evade almost all service work, and I took a break from almost all faculty meetings during my sabbatical, but the dramatic change-of-pace was produced by not being in the classroom for the semester. To me, it is telling that a sabbatical is a break from teaching.
I love teaching; it’s the reason why I pursued an advanced degree, and it is what makes me feel like a productive and successful member of society. But teaching is also tremendously taxing and — if done well — tremendously time-consuming. So it is important to be able to take a break from teaching periodically. The summer breaks are critical, as they allow for some recharging of the pedagogical batteries after a couple of long semesters. But I also need my summers just to keep up with the reading, planning, and new course creation that my role as a teacher requires, so a sabbatical is probably the only time that I will really have time that is fully free.
And that’s one of the ironies of the sabbatical: we grant them so that faculty can pursue other “productive” activities. Rolled into that fact are a lot of the conflicting ways that we view teaching in higher education. Teaching is easy enough that we let anyone do it without any formal training. Teaching is not important enough to meaningfully assess… unless you buy that student evaluations and periodic pre-staged visits to the classroom are meaningful assessments. And yet teaching is somehow enough of a burden that we periodically grant professors a break from the practice.
Is teaching important at the college level? Having been a middle school teacher, I often ask myself this question, because when I was teaching New York City public school kids the importance of what I was doing was pretty clear on a daily basis. College-level teaching is more of a faith-based practice, wherein one has to believe that what goes on in one’s classroom is important, even as that work is rarely honored institutionally.
I’ve enjoyed the free time that my sabbatical has afforded me, but I am excited to get back in the classroom. While it often seems like that research and writing that my sabbatical was designed to support are what is rewarded in my professional field, I remain skeptical that this kind of scholarly output makes much of a difference in our societies. But every time I step into that classroom, I believe I am having an impact… even if no one bothers to measure it.A Major Post, Higher Education, MSCI-260, Evolution, MSCI-271, Ecology for Architects, Teaching