My First Sabbatical
Academic sabbaticals have a bad rap, I think. Many folks outside of the hallowed halls of hight education have the impression that a sabbatical is just a vacation. Far from it! A true sabbatical is a time to refresh and to regroup. It is a time for a professor who is normally caught up in the daily activities of preparing for and teaching classes, attending countless college meeting, advising students, etc. — to catch up on recent scholarship, to write that article or book which has been percolating in the back of your mind for months, with no chance to do the research or work needed to do that in the midst of all those daily obligations.
When I first started my teaching career in 1975, the standard routine regarding sabbaticals was that you didn’t get your first one until you were tenured and promoted from assistant to associate professor — a process which usually took six years. I always felt that that sequence was a bit off because getting tenure meant getting published — in some cases a book, in some cases a number of articles — but finding time to get that book or those articles into print while teaching full time was often a challenge some good teachers were never able to meet.
Fortunately for today’s young scholars, that system has become more flexible My academic daughter, for example, was able to take a “pre-tenure” sabbatical which helped her finish her book and eventually get tenure. But that is not the way it worked for me. I was not eligible for my first sabbatical until I gained tenure. That took me the traditional six years. I was tenured and promoted at Howard University in 1981.
The following year, in my seventh year of teaching, I was finally eligible for my first sabbatical. I could take a whole academic year — at half pay — or only a semester at full pay. With two young children at home, there was no question that the semester-long sabbatical was the only viable option from a financial point of view.
The next question was where to spend the sabbatical. I could have decided to stay in situ and try to research and write either in my office at Howard or at home, but either of those options ran the risk of major distractions, of “getting sucked into” campus politics or just enjoying family life. A better option was to change location entirely, if possible. So I applied for an honorary fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and, much to my surprise, I was accepted. “Honorary”, of course, meant no stipdend, but I did have my regular salary from Howard to keep us in kippers and haggis while we were in Scotland, so I accepted.
Fortunately, we had the fall semester of 1981–82 to prepare for our trip and our two daughters-aged four and two — were still to young to realize the pending upheaval in their lives. Anne and I had not been out of the country for more than six years, so we all needed passports. Somehow we managed to do everything necessary and, after a whirlwind visit to our families in New Jersey and then in Maine at Christmastime, we wound up in Boston’s Logan airport for a flight to Britain. Inexperienced family travelers that we were, Anne and I were worried about taking two small children on such a long flight and came equipped to the plane with tranquilizers for our daughters. In retrospect, I think their parents needed the tranquilizers, not our daughters. Besides, we gave them the pills just before we were supposed to board and our flight wound up departing very late due to snow.
In the end, however, we had an uneventual flight to Britain and spent a few days in Reading with our friends Viv Edwards and Chris Morriss and their young sons before heading north to Scotland. We took the train from King’s Cross Station in London to Edinburgh. It was a full day’s ride. It was a Sunday. By the time we arrived in Edinburgh the sun had long set and all the shops were closed. We could barely find anything to eat. I think Edinburgh has changed a lot since 1982. It was still very dour then. The Edinburgh I visited again several decades later was much more lively. I am not sure John Knox would approve of the change.
We were fortunate to be able to rent a nice house in the New Town, a reasonable walk to the university. I was given my own office at the Institute but the secretary was a bit put off when I asked if I would have a typewriter. I don’t think she expected scholars to type their own work, but I did. At least she helped me find an electric typewriter for sale at a reasonable price. I got a lot of use out of that typewriter, which I donated to the program when I left.
So everyday I would walk into the institute to do my work — at the time I was studying the chorus of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. The article which emerged from that work was eventually published and I was also invited to read a paper on that topic at a number of Classics Departments, including a memorable joint meeting of the departments at Glasgow and Edinburgh, a meeting which took place in Glasgow in a room with a picture of Gilbert Murray, the great early 20th-century Classicist, looking down at me while I talked.
On weekends Anne, the girls, and I would explore the city which we came to love. Our first weekend we tried going to Arthur’s Seat. We never made it to the top with our two children and were humbled to have a fairly elderly but spry woman pass us down on her descent. One of our favorite spots was the statue of Greyfriar’s Bobby, the faithful dog who loyally spend years at the grave of his dead master in the Greyfriar’s cemetery. There were several visits up to Edinburgh Castle and we enjoyed many strolled along the Royal Mile. We also enjoyed many visits to the National Museum of Scotland — the old 19th-century building, not the more recent facility — where our girls especially liked the display of wedding gowns. On our visit to Holyrood Castle I even ran into one of my Howard students — it’s a small world.
Our friends Viv and Chris came up to visit while we were there. Most memorable from their visit was a Punch and Judy show in front of St. Giles Cathedral.
Anne and I mostly “did” Edinburgh with our children in tow. But we did hire a sitter, at least once, to attend a concert of Scottish folksingers during the Folk Festival which occurs every spring. At that concert we were thrilled to hear Jean Redpath, Allistair MacDonald, and other major Scottish singers performing songs about Scottish life, Scottish history and current politics.
Our most exciting day in Edinburgh, however, was the day that Anne’s grandmother’s first cousin came to meet us. This was the first time that the US and Scottish branches of the family had met since Anne’s great-grandfather had emigrated many years before. “Cousin Joey,” as we affectionately came to know her, warrants a blog of her own sometime. For now all I will say is that when we saw Joey approaching our house we thought we were seeing a ghost. She looked just like her American first cousins!
So that semester in Scotland was productive not only from a scholarly point of view — I did get some papers written, after all — but it was also a life-changing experience for the whole family. My children still listen to those Scottish folksiners and 2e caught a travel bug which we never lost and which will be the subject, I amMsure of future blogs.
And, yes, I did return to Howard the following fall academically refreshed and looking forward to returning to the classroom. During my professional career there were several more memorable sabbticals about which I will share memories in future blogs.