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Executive Director's Report - July 31, 2022

Faculty Excellence Developer’s Note:

Rejuvenation, Passion, and the Sabbath

I am stepping in this month to write the note preceding the July report instead of our intrepid Executive Director, Dr. Jessica Riddell. After many months of hard work, including a 30-day work trip which kept her away from her husband and two young children, Jessica is taking a vacation at a family cottage. However, just three days into her time off, our team got this message from her on our Maple League Teams channel:

Knowing that taking the time to write this month’s note would mean sneaking away from her family, I told Jessica that I would write it this month.

Jessica’s assumption that she would need to sacrifice her vacation time in order to take on this task prompted me to reflect on our relationship to down time in the academy.

As part of my work as Faculty Excellence Developer in the past year, I’ve encountered the culture of overwork in the academy countless times in countless ways. I’ve had several faculty pull out of the Maple League Book Club with effusively regretful emails about how much they value the opportunity to read and talk with colleagues, but they simply can’t find the hours for it. Conversations with faculty often veered into sharing anxieties about the work everyone had on their plate, and, on multiple occasions, I’ve seen faculty literally weeping over the stress of keeping up with what they feel is expected of them.

I’ve also seen evidence of overwork firsthand, with emails and messages from colleagues landing in my inbox on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, or at 1:30 am midweek, and even one on Christmas day!

There are undoubtedly many causes at work in creating this culture of overwork: from the strenuousness of graduate studies which sets the tone for academic life, to the publish-or-perish mentality (which we may have called into being through our own fear of publish-or-perish), to the perception in the broader culture that an academic career is a luxurious and easy one (as pointed out by Berg and Seeber in The Slow Professor).

I succumb to this pressure to prove my worth regularly myself. In the past year, I have (in addition to my full-time work with the Maple League): directed an Opera for Dalhousie’s Vocal Music program, taught a fourth-year acting course at Acadia, coordinated a seven-day national conference on theatre research, joined the board of directors for a theatre-research organization, taught a two-week online theatre intensive for youth in the Niagara region, run a workshop for contingent theatre faculty from around the world, done preparatory work for a theatrical production I’m directing and co-producing this fall, written two papers for publication, and presented a third at a conference.

In the coming year, one of the topics I’m keen to insert into conversations (with a crowbar, if necessary) is about finding the right relationship to downtime in the academy. We are seeing movements toward this in the corporate world. Some companies have experimented with four-day work weeks, and others have gone even farther. CEO Sean McCabe mandates that every employee take every seventh week off. As he says in the “We don’t have ‘unlimited time off, we have mandatory time off.” Stefan Sagmeister goes one step further – in his 2009 TED Talk The Power of Time Off he shares how his world-class design firm Sagmeister & Walsh shuts down all operations every seventh year, so he and his employees can take a sabbatical.

Of course, with sabbatical proposals and sabbatical reports required to prove you deserve a year free from teaching and service obligations, we in the academy have strayed far from its roots in the sabbath day, where work is forbidden. Sean McCabe offers a very different proposal for sabbaths: “The purpose of the sabbatical is freedom from obligation. When you go into a sabbatical, you should have NO prior commitments, so that you can say ‘Yes’ to anything in the moment.” He has found that he and his employees undertake exciting, challenging projects during sabbaticals precisely because those projects are not obligations but passions that finally have space and time to be pursued.

It is my hope that we can learn to trust our own passions and the passions of our colleagues more. In my year at the Maple League, I don’t think I’ve met a faculty member who isn’t working too hard, and I’m confident that most of them think they’re not quite working hard enough. I’m hopeful that we can learn to carve out time with no obligations so that our passions can bubble back up to the surface.

I know that Jessica certainly could have written a great piece for the start of this report – she is a talented and prolific writer! But, the fact that she wasn’t driven to write about something proves that she needs the sabbath she’s currently on. I’m also quite certain that, freed from this obligation, she will undoubtedly be cooking up some future piece of writing – even if the work on that piece looks like picking up that book that’s been gathering dust all year, sitting quietly by a lake with time to think and reflect, or playing with her children and her new puppy. And if these activities don’t turn into a paper down the road, they are no less valuable. As educator and novelist, Hank Green writes in A Beautifully Foolish Endeavour “You will always struggle with not feeling productive until you accept that your own joy can be something you produce. It is not the only thing you will make, nor should it be, but it is something valuable and beautiful.”

And I implore you, dear reader, to ensure that you find some unobligated time this summer and trust that, after you’ve caught up on the rest you missed during the year, your own passions will light up once again, and you, too, will be productive. Whether that leads to a new project or a little bit of joy for you, I hope you’ll celebrate it just as much either way.

~ Mr. Neil Silcox, Faculty Excellence Developer, Maple League of Universities

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