Thinking about “sabbatical”

I recently received an email from a former student and had to laugh when he wished me well on my “sabbatical” (quotation marks his, and hence their presence in this post’s title).

I should confess here that I love to write and am a self-proclaimed grammar nerd. I also have the privilege of teaching Honors English at Trinity Christian College and also of serving as manuscript editor for book reviews for Christian Scholar’s Review. And, finally, my friend and colleague Bethany Keeley-Jonker created, and curated for over a decade, the “blog” of “unnecessary” quotation marks.

So I am not one to take quotation marks lightly.

Furthermore, my student’s comment was one of several I’ve heard along these lines. Several times I’ve been describing to someone what I’m doing this semester: coming to Indonesia with my family, teaching full-time at Seminari Alkitab Asia Tenggara (SAAT). And the reply has been something along the lines of, “That doesn’t sound like a sabbatical.”

All this has had me thinking over the past few weeks. How is this a sabbatical? (Note the absence of quotation marks.) I can tell you that it certainly feels like one. But I’m also going to write here to reflect further on how it actually is.

Before I get into that, perhaps I should think about my understanding of sabbatical. First, I realize it’s a great privilege, one that is not normal for most occupations. Every seventh year, I can apply to re-focus my activities away from teaching and toward another aspect of what I do.

Normally, this is scholarship. On my last sabbatical, for example, I wrote the chapter “Vocal Music” for The Routledge Research Companion to Johann Sebastian Bach (edited by Robin A. Leaver) and took a three-week research trip to Berlin that has contributed much to my scholarship since that time.

But for this semester, I proposed, and was granted, a sabbatical to pursue another aspect of my life as a professor: a new context for teaching that built on Trinity’s existing ties with SAAT. I proposed to serve SAAT through my teaching here, but also believed (and am finding to be true) that teaching at SAAT would give me new perspectives on teaching and on life that would shape my own life as a professor.

Another aspect of my understanding of a sabbatical is that it provides rejuvenation. So, yes, I am teaching full time this semester. I’m also coaching chapel music teams at Wesley International School and am finding quite a lot of other ways to be involved both at SAAT and at Wesley, as well as with our local church gathering here, the Malang English Service. And I am enjoying my ongoing scholarship, as well.

So how is this rejuvenation? Here are a few of the ways it is:

  1. Hospitality. My colleagues and students at SAAT are exceedingly generous and have done much to welcome us into their community. We feel this hospitality each day as we are here and can only respond in gratitude.
  2. Change of place, change of routine. Being away from home, away from my own college, away from the familiar, my family and I simply live life differently here. And this is a gift, an invitation to encounter, enjoy, and learn from a new place.
  3. The gifts of a new semester. I am seeking to live in gratitude for the gifts of this semester (and every semester), as I wrote about in my post on February 3–more details there.
  4. My particular course offerings. I am grateful that my teaching includes two courses I’ve taught quite often (Music History: Medieval & Renaissance; Music History: 19th Century to the Present) and two that I don’t normally get to teach (directing two choirs). It’s a good balance of stability and familiarity with variety and new challenges.
  5. Different foci of scholarship. In December, my friend and colleague, Reginald L. Sanders (Kenyon College), and I recently submitted a book manuscript, Compositional Choices and Meaning in the Vocal Music of J. S. Bach, a collection of essays by leading Bach scholars that will be published by Lexington later this year. Having concluded that project in my primary research area, I’m excited that my sabbatical offers a chance for some different foci of scholarship. One of these is several speaking opportunities I have in Indonesia, primarily focused on church music. Another is an edition of Christiane Mariane von Ziegler’s writings about music, writing, and women’s rights, on which I’m busy selecting writings, transcribing poetic texts, and crafting translations.
  6. Addition by subtraction. While I do have a full teaching load and am welcoming additional opportunities to serve, I am finding rejuvenation in things I normally do that I am not doing here, including administrative tasks as music department chair and chair for the arts & languages area, serving on committees, attending faculty meetings.
  7. An invitation to new ways of thinking. The opportunity to live and teach in a new culture invites me to think differently about the world, my teaching, students, higher education, etc. And I believe this is the greatest gift of rejuvenation I am receiving: new ways of thinking about and encountering the world and education that will doubtless inform my ongoing vocation as a professor.

So yes, I am really on sabbatical (not “sabbatical”), pursuing a different focus in my life as a professor and one that I believe will strengthen and sustain my teaching, scholarship, and service for years to come.