And on the seventh year...

MARK SHAINBLUM | According to the Bible, God himself invented the sabbatical. He instructed Moses to pass on the news -- after six years of harvesting, people were to give the land "a sabbath of complete rest."

For academics, sabbaticals are a much more recent phenomenon.

According to Kenneth J. Zahorski, in his 1994 book The Sabbatical Mentor, the modern sabbatical dates back only to the 1880's, when Harvard lured the noted philologist Charles Lanman from rival Johns Hopkins University with the promise of every seventh year off.

But time off alone doesn't a sabbatical make, says Zahorski, an English professor and the director of faculty development at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. Three elements distinguish a sabbatical from a simple leave.

One, a sabbatical has a purpose; two, a sabbatical is paid leave; and three, the tenured staff-member must have a period of prior service with his or her institution -- usually six years or more.

Most educational institutions also require professors to return to service for at least a year and to file a sabbatical report on their return.

So what exactly is a sabbatical for? Contrary to general perception, sabbaticals are not the same as time off from work.

Outside of academe, sabbaticals are often viewed as an expensive frill. That professors become better at what they do for having had the opportunity to, say, work in a lab with a respected team in another country isn't always appreciated.

"I remember explaining the notion to an Ontario Tory MLA whose normal life was running a general store in Renfrew County," muses history professor Desmond Morton. "I don't think he ever 'got it.' He laughed and laughed and laughed."

Though professors often use sabbaticals to free themselves from the day-to-day grind of course preparation, teaching, advising, correcting and researching, a sabbatical is not a vacation and may not be used for simple rest and relaxation. A sabbatical must consist of a structured project with concrete, achievable goals.

"Sabbaticals are extremely important for people working in state-of-the-art intellectual work," says McGill Vice-Principal (Academic) Luc Vinet. "At university, it's important that we be at the frontier of knowledge. Sabbaticals give us the chance, every seven years, to immerse ourselves fully in what's happening in our field, to recharge our batteries and get more energized to work. From an academic point of view, the sabbatical also gives you the opportunity to re-think your courses."

Mining and metallurgical engineering professor Ralph Harris concurs. "I have had two sabbaticals, 1989-90 and 1996-97," he says. "Both of which changed my life and McGill or at least the bit that I am involved with."

Harris credits his most recent sabbatical for giving him the breathing room to devise a new innovative distance learning program in his field.

Sabbaticals can also play a vital role in nurturing scientific research by offering talented researchers, who wouldn't have the opportunity to collaborate otherwise, a chance to bounce ideas off one another.

"Sabbaticals in the world of science are used to expose researchers to a new way of thinking or to allow a close collaboration on a topic of mutual interest where the sabbaticant and host lab contribute different expertise," explains Dr. Cliff Stanners, director of the McGill Cancer Centre.

While many academics use sabbaticals to catch up in their fields or to dream up new projects, it is the publishing part of the "publish or perish" academic cycle that is most dependent on the sabbatical.

Completing books would be nearly impossible for most professors without sabbaticals, says Dean of Engineering John Gruzleski. "It's very difficult to work on a book when you're in the university context, doing teaching, research, administration and so on.

"When you write a book, you need time away from everything," he says. "You need to live the thing and think about it seven days a week for many months. A sabbatical is the only practical way to do it. And if you've planned the sabbatical correctly, the book is basically the only thing that you do."

To emphasize his point, Gruzleski cites his experiences writing his current book, Microstructure Development During Metal Casting. "I wrote the lion's share on a six-month sabbatical between January and June of 1997, yet the book did not go to the publisher in final manuscript version until July of 1999. Eighty per cent of it was done very effectively in a six-month period, when I could work on it completely. The other 20 per cent took two years to complete. It is not possible to do these things very effectively outside the context of a sabbatical."

According to Elizabeth Sheley in the March 1996 issue of HR Magazine, even the private sector is finally twigging to the sabbatical concept. There was huge growth in corporate sabbatical programs during the heady 1980s, as firms competed with one another for valuable employees. According to Sheley, about 10 per cent of large American firms offer some form of sabbatical leave to employees, particularly those in high-stress workplaces like law firms, brokerage houses and computer-related businesses.

Some firms also offer the related concept of social-service leave, where employees take time off to apply their skills in the community, often in the service of charities and non-governmental organizations. Though downsizing fever slowed the growth of corporate sabbatical programs somewhat, the practice has at least held its own over the last decade.

For its part, McGill is very careful about granting sabbaticals, says Vinet. When a professor makes a formal request for a sabbatical, many factors are taken into consideration.

"It's not at all automatic," he says. "You need to develop and explain your project and (the sabbatical) is granted on the basis of merit." The impact on the whole department must be assessed. Are there enough professors to take up the slack, will courses be interrupted or on-going research disrupted?

Normally, it is not a problem, because, as Vinet explains, McGill generally assumes, for planning purposes, that one-seventh of its professors are away on sabbaticals or other forms of leave at any given time.

If there is a problem with sabbaticals -- and it's almost impossible to find anyone in academia with a bad word to say about them -- it is that they are vulnerable to a lack of planning on the personal level.

According to Zahorski, even with the best of intentions, many professors waste valuable sabbatical time simply getting themselves organized. The time to plan your sabbatical is well before it begins, up to a year or more prior in fact.

"The key is to set a realistic and manageable pre-sabbatical work schedule -- one which will not exhaust you or compromise your teaching or collegial duties," he says.

"You should try to accomplish two important goals; work towards clearing your professional life of distractions and impediments; and get as much foundation work done as possible so you can build up some momentum before you leave."

Ironically, some professors, particularly younger members of the faculty, often do not take advantage of their sabbatical privileges. Many go for years without ever requesting a sabbatical. Vinet actively discourages this. "Don't miss out on your sabbatical opportunities," he advises. "Use them."

Zahorski concurs, though he admits that it is difficult to arrive at a truly scientific barometer of how effective sabbaticals are. Nevertheless, he says, "A good sabbatical, like a good book, has the power to change one's life."