Sabbatical: Release?

Text and photos by Prof. Prakash Panangaden, School of Computer Science.

Giving a talk in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Giving a talk in Sofia, Bulgaria.

I was curious about the etymology of the word “sabbatical” after just completing one last August. There is the obvious connection to “sabbath”, which suggests a once-every-seven-years cycle. Apparently it comes from the Hebrew “Shmita” and means the land is to lie fallow once every seven years, with activities like planting and harvesting forbidden. So much for etymology!

Perhaps no other academic practice is so open to misunderstanding as the sabbatical. For many outside the University it is deemed to be a year long “holiday.” I remember thinking to myself as I hauled my suitcase off yet another luggage carousel on my way to give yet another talk that I would slug anyone who asked me “how was your vacation?” Mine was anything but a fallow time. I counted 37 lectures that I gave in my sabbatical year, very few of which were repeats. I racked up far too many frequent flyer miles, travelling to Australia, Bulgaria, Germany, Iceland, New Orleans and even Toronto. I was based in Oxford for the whole year so even Toronto was a trans-Atlantic trip. But was it all just a travel junket?

Sabbaticals are for renewal, but of course that is so general that it could mean anything. I have always viewed sabbaticals as opportunities to go somewhere completely different and absorb a different academic culture. I have always left the city and even the continent and spent the entire year away from Montreal. I have always been based in one place: twice in Oxford, once in Cambridge and once in Aarhus, Denmark. However, travelling has been more common than during the regular year.

A view of the Informatics Tower at the University of Edinburgh

A view of the Informatics Tower at the University of Edinburgh

The most important thing for me was to be able to have a sustained interaction with other researchers. At conferences one has the opportunity for a quick conversation or three, but on a year-long sabbatical one can have more in depth interactions. A researcher does not lock himself or herself in a room and emit preprints of research papers. The ability to talk to people and initiate new ideas is crucial. In my case I was exceptionally lucky to have people who were stimulated by my talks and came up with new ideas that we had the time to pursue. In one case one talk led to two new projects that are still ongoing.

The internet is great for long-distance collaboration and with Skype one can even have a simulated face-to-face meeting. However, there is still no substitute for the process of staring at a blackboard together and trying out new ideas. It is absolutely critical to be confused for a period. If I am not confused for a substantial period, I feel that I am not doing anything really original. Being confused is hard and very unpleasant; that is why I need human companions to support me through this phase. I need friends who will not mind completely idiotic suggestions that I make. I need friends who tell me that my idea is completely idiotic and think I am worth talking to anyway. I have that at McGill too, which is why none of my sabbaticals have ever tempted me to leave; but, sometimes I need to have completely new people with different interests and expertise to play that role for me.

The popular view of research highlights the “eureka” moments, but one does not have an eureka with long periods of frustration preceding it. Andrew Wiles famously described research as being like groping around in a dark room bumping into the furniture until one finds the light switch and suddenly everything is illuminated. But then one sees the door to the next dark room! In my case, I tend to find a small candle and the light flickers fitfully before I or someone else finds the light switch.

About to leave for dinner at St. John’s College, Oxford, dressed as... Batman?

About to leave for dinner at St. John’s College, Oxford, dressed as... Batman?

I don’t deny that sabbaticals are fun. I had a great time during my year in Oxford, dining in Hall, sampling great wines, dressing up in academic robes and participating in arcane rites, dining at the Royal Society, listening to massed choirs sing The Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall, listening to Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood also at the Royal Albert Hall, watching my beloved Indian cricket team get massacred by England (that hurts more than seeing the Leafs beat the Habs!) and being in the middle of the riots last summer in Birmingham. But I could have that kind of fun without uprooting the family for a year. The real reason that the sabbatical was worth it is because, unlike in the Shmita, planting seeds is not only allowed but encouraged and now I am reaping the harvest.

Sunset in Oxford.

Sunset in Oxford.

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