Making space/time for writing in the neoliberal university: The role of the sabbatical

Post by Rae Dufty-Jones

Writing and Space Series: Post 1/3

This semester I am taking my first sabbatical since I completed my PhD in 2008. After seven and half hectic years of full-time teaching-research (with ten months of maternity leave thrown in for good measure – just in case I didn’t feel busy enough) it feels like (and it quite literally is) an utter luxury to be spending six months on the research projects and writing I promised my university I would work on. I am sincerely grateful to Western Sydney University for providing this opportunity and the Universities of Wollongong and Sydney for hosting me while on this leave.

The term sabbatical is derived from the Hebrew ‘shabbat’ literally meaning ‘ceasing’ (thank you Wikipedia). Reflecting the monastic tradition from which academia is derived; the sabbatical generally involves providing (tenured) academics with the opportunity to take a six-month period of leave from teaching to focus on research (usually every 3-4 years). At first glance, this is a tradition that appears not to have been impacted by the various reforms that have come to characterise the neoliberal university.

In this first of a series of three blogs around the theme of ‘writing and space’ I want to reflect on the various challenges of making ‘space’ for writing in the neoliberal university with a particular focus on the subtle changes (and those features that remain stubbornly unchanged) around the academic tradition of the sabbatical.

My home workspace (a.k.a the kitchen table)

My home workspace (a.k.a the kitchen table)


Writing and the neoliberal university

Writing is an inescapably integral part of being an academic. As Kamler and Thompson (2006: 15) argue: ‘we are represented by our writings and we are judged by them’. Yet, academics (myself among them) regularly espouse the need to find or make ‘space’ (and time) for our writing. Many feel they have both less capacity and concomitantly greater demands being placed on them to produce writing.

Capacity has been reduced through fewer tenured positions combined with growing class sizes (i.e. fewer academics teaching more students). At the same time the expectations of academic writing has changed; with not only quantity but also quality and the impact of that writing being measured. As part of increasingly complicated systems of metrics, this quantum is then taken and used to calculate both individual and wider institution’s value.

Such pressures around making space/time for writing can be compounded if you are one or a combination of things:

  • A nearly completed PhD student (perhaps also teaching)
  • An early career researcher
  • A teaching-research academic
  • An academic with a high administrative load
  • An academic on casual or on short-term contracts
  • An academic with parental (especially mothers) and/or carer responsibilities
  • An academic with a disability

As Lesley Head has argued in a previous blog post ‘in academic life no one ever gives you time to write’. I would say that this is, for the most part, true. However I would counter this perspective using the (qualified) example of the sabbatical.


Making space/time for writing in the neoliberal university and the changing role of the sabbatical

Unlike most of academic life, the sabbatical does offer an important opportunity for us to carve out some much-needed space/time for writing. As outlined earlier these periods offer semi-regular opportunities for academics to revive and re-energise as writers. They not only offer time but also often require a change in where you locate yourself, whether it is at home, down the road at a local university, across the county or on the other side of the world. However there are subtle and important changes and challenges to how the sabbatical is accessed in institutions that I argue reflect an increasing neoliberal mentality to this important aspect of academic life.

The sabbatical period seems to be increasingly viewed by institutions as less as a period for an academic to re-energise after an extended period of service to teaching, research and community and more as an opportunity to turbo-boost research output and build international reputation. These objectives fit very much with the new types of metrics used to assess individuals and their institutions. Increasingly, I fear, universities view sabbatical leave in terms of ‘risk’ and as an opportunistic means of enhancing institutional metrics. As a consequence teaching-research staff, who have less capacity to build a track record of writing output than their research-only counterparts, are often viewed as ‘riskier’ applicants for sabbatical leave. Such a risk-averse approach to how sabbatical leave is granted only reinforces a creeping proletarianisation of the academic workforce and contributes to the low-value placed on the teaching aspects of academic work.

Despite the changes to how sabbatical leave is assessed and granted there are also aspects of the application process that remain stubbornly unchanged. Principally, the ideal academic-worker prevails in the ways in which sabbatical leave is structured and the assessment of the quality of applications. At many institutions there is an expectation that academics take a substantial part of their sabbatical period at another institution, with those applications based at international institutions generally viewed more favourably than those locally-based. Applications for sabbatical are also less likely to be approved if the applicant is not tenured. These expectations and rules are based on an out-dated notion of the ideal academic-worker, one who is tenured, male, and if he has a family also has a partner who is able to drop everything and follow him overseas for two-six months or alternatively will happily keep the home fires burning while he is away for that period.


Can we be more strategic with the sabbatical?

As the above suggests, the sabbatical, as it is currently conceived and applied, is far from offering a silver bullet to contemporary challenges faced by academics when trying to make space/time for writing. Nor would I like to suggest that it has ever been thus. Rather, as with many aspects of contemporary universities, neoliberalised mentalities appear to be subtlety changing the way in which the sabbatical is understood and used by institutions, while more problematic aspects of the old system of sabbaticals remain stubbornly unchanged.

However I do not want to conclude on this despair-provoking point. Instead I would like to borrow from Ellen Messer-Davidow (1991: 282) who wrote: ‘Universities and colleges are in a strange way us, and we are them … we have the opportunity to use them even as they use us, to change them, even as they change us’. With this in mind how might we be more strategic about the sabbatical? I offer up three options:

  1. First, application processes and the way they are assessed need to be brought into the 21st Committees need to let go of the ‘ideal academic-worker’ who is male and tenured and has no impediments to travel where he will in the world to build the university’s reputation. This ideal needs to be dispensed with, not only because such individuals are becoming rarer in higher education institutions, but also because the discriminatory outcomes of this ideal are extremely destructive to the careers of those who do not ‘fit’. Instead applications should be assessed not only in terms of potential outputs (writing and reputation) but also in terms of ‘relative opportunity’ and the opportunity the awarding of such leave will present to the development of an applicant’s career. Sabbatical leave should be structured more flexibly and funded to reflect the added costs of carer responsibilities and/or disability.
  2. Second, while writing output and reputation are not unworthy outcomes for institutions when deciding whether to invest in a sabbatical period, the assessment of applications for sabbatical should be less risk-averse and not ignore the utility of this type of leave for avoiding ‘burn-out’ in their academic staff.
  3. Last, despite the difficulties, senior academics need to exemplify how to ‘do’ sabbatical by taking it and also mentor and support junior colleagues in regularly availing themselves of this important academic tradition (NB I know many who already do this in various ways).

The sabbatical remains one of the few moments in an academic’s career where we are actually ‘given’ time to write. Used strategically, it has the potential to be an invaluable tool in the academic kit for ‘making space’ for writing in the neoliberal university.

In my next post I will take the discussion around writing and space into the realm of doctoral pedagogies of writing.


Dr Rae Dufty-Jones is a Senior Lecturer in Geography and Urban Studies at Western Sydney University. Rae’s current research projects include: ‘Mobility aspirations of tenants listing on the “Our House Swap” website’ and ‘Writing pedagogies and the writing retreat’. You can find more about Rae at: and follow her @raeduftyjones on Twitter.

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