My Year Away. And Back.

The Joys of Getting Back into Academic Life after a Year-Long Sabbatical.


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Here’s What I Learned During My Second Sabbatical Cruise.

I agree that two cruises within four months is kind of extravagant—and not the typical sabbatical outing. But this trip to the Panama Canal was altogether different—and beneficial in a completely different way to my sabbatical than my first cruise for two reasons:

  1. I went with my sister. While this might not seem like a big deal, for me, it was. I haven’t spent any significant time with my sister since we were both in high school. Let’s just say that that was a long, long time ago.   Thanks to my dad who helped finance this trip, we spent 12 days together—and we even got along the whole time.

    My sister and me when we were little.

    My sister and me when we were little.

  2. I have wanted to see the Panama Canal for about forever and, really, the only way to do that, is by boat.

So how was it? In a word, epic.

We travelled on Holland America’s Zuiderdam, either a “good old boat,” or a “needs to be in dry-dock boat,” depending on your perspective. I found I kind of liked her creaks and moans. I could relate!

To the first point: my sister.

Those who know me well know that I am actually a bit of an introvert—or as I like to remind people, I’m an introvert stuck in an extrovert’s body. My sister is both a chaplain’s wife and a social worker. She helps people. So, of course, she talks to them. I, however, am a professor. On sabbatical, no less. So I’m alone a good bit.   Give me a comfy chair and a book and I’m good to go.   On this cruise, however, I decided that it was time to strike out and play the extrovert. I’m glad I did because in the process, my sister and I had dinner with at least 50 different—and mostly interesting—people. Our dinners typically lasted two hours in which we would savor our lovely four-course meals.

Time for the first course.

Time for the first course.

My sister and I were quite adept at bringing people out of their shells. Between her social work skills and my curiosity, we were both able to work the crowd fairly well. Most of the people we met were retired—and thrilled to have more free time, even though they all seemed to have enjoyed their careers. Most were eager to chat. We met a former editor of the Boston Globe; a retired soprano with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus; a doctor who had climbed Kilimanjaro; another doctor who weekly travelled up to North Dakota from Minnesota to practice medicine in an area that desperately needed doctors.   We met couples who had been married over 50 years. We met people who were traveling alone. We even met another set of sisters. In the process, my sister and I also learned quite a bit about each other.

Now to the second point: The Panama Canal.

To get to the canal, you have to travel a long, long way. Lots of days at sea. And the seas were something during this trip. We had near gale force winds more than one day hitting F7 on the Beaufort scale. (Even if you don’t know what that is, it sounds terrifying, doesn’t it?)

It was a lot of rocking and rolling on our ship.

It was a lot of rocking and rolling on our ship.

One morning during our daily 7a.m. “stretch and exercise” class, we had to do all the moves sitting down because it was too difficult with the movement of the ship. So it felt like I was on a voyage, which, somehow seemed appropriate for my sabbatical.

Once we got to the canal, we entered the first set of locks (Gatun Locks) early in the morning. Each section is about 1,000 feet long. Interesting because it is also the length of the ship. It was a tight fit and quite exciting to go up 87 feet (over the three locks that make up Gatun Locks). Once we got into Gatun Lake, the real fun began. Here’s what I did: got into a lifeboat (really!), and traversed the high winds to the shore; got into a not-great bus for a 90-minute trip across not-great roads listening to a not-great guide spew political opinions (of which I disagreed) about the canal. I can sum up his viewpoint by saying he was not a fan of Jimmy Carter. Then I got into a not-great ferry boat for a very hot ride through the rest of the canal, including the San Pedro and Mira Flores locks. Then another 90-minute ride back with the same (but even more annoying by this time) guide. I was glad to get back on the big ship and was sound asleep by 8.

But the point is this. I saw the Panama Canal. Just about every inch of it. It wasn’t necessarily the most fun way to spend the day, but it was one of the most interesting days I’ve had in a long, long time.

On the canal heading toward the Bridge of the Americas.

On the canal heading toward the Bridge of the Americas.

The next morning after the ship docked in Limon, Costa Rica, I was refreshed enough to head out with my sister to the rain forest to zip line. Did I ever think I would zip line anywhere (let alone the rain forest of Costa Rica and let alone with my sister???)? Uh. No. No. No. No.

I had hoped that my sabbatical would provide a combination recovery period from a decade of administrative work and a platform for (re)launching my scholarly life. It has done that. And more. I’m looking forward to returning to campus. But, not quite yet. I still have a lot of rest, recovery and research to do!


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The Path Between the Seas Is More Than a Book About the Panama Canal

As I’ve shared in several previous postings, I’ve been focusing my pleasure reading on presidential biographies. Sometimes, however, circumstances require a detour. On Sunday, I am heading to the Panama Canal. Talk about a detour! So, of course, I needed to read up on the building process. All scholars agree that the final word on the canal is David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas (ISBN #0-7432-6213-1). With 600+ pages, it presents every detail (and I mean every detail) in constructing the canal. As a bonus, it features my current three favorite presidents—Teddy Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson—so it seemed like a no-brainer of a book to read during my sabbatical.

Visiting the canal has been on my bucket list, which is a bit weird since I actually know very little about the canal. That is, until I read Path. Whoa. This book covers everything including “political skullduggery” (thanks New York Times review!), swashbuckling French iconoclasts (Ferdinand de Lesseps, the original canal champ), explanations of economic fortunes (who knew General Electric was basically put on the map because of the canal?)—and Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson to boot.

What people might not realize about this book, however, is that it’s also an excellent primer for learning about university administration. Path boasts vision, but it also celebrates the day-to-day drudgery of getting into the mud, digging all day, returning in the morning to the same mud, and starting all over. Day after day. Year after year. When some of the visionaries gave up on the canal, it was left to the worker bees to take that vision and complete the task.

I’m all for vision. But vision without structure (or the tools and resources to complete the vision) makes a lot of people grumpy. To his dying day de Lesseps preached “We can build the canal.” But they couldn’t. The vision was plumb wrong. The Panama Canal could be built. But not the way de Lesseps’ envisioned it. And he was too stubborn to change. A lot of French citizens’ life savings were swept away with de Lesseps’ vision.

Universities are certainly not immune to skilled bloviators. I’ve worked at four and have dealt with at least one in every school. I continue to marvel at faculty who are willing to believe the hot air. The French should have known better. But many wanted to believe the get rich quick dream. (You’d think a decade into the project with no discernible progress would make people hesitant to continue to invest, but that was not the case.)

Professors are smart people. They, too, should know better. Perhaps we should all swallow a big dose of realism. Let’s face reality. Making progress is hard. You can’t just create a vision and then wave a magic wand. You have to dig deep and get dirty. It’s not all that glamorous. For example, I’m not sure we’d have a Panama Canal without John Stevens, the American engineer who tried to figure out what the French were trying to do, who organized the masses, who found financial support for the doctors who figured out how to control yellow fever, who spent his days at the dig sites making sure everyone was doing the work. John Stevens didn’t start the canal. And he didn’t finish it. Sometimes his name is not even associated with helping to build it—although it could not have been built without him.

During My Year Away, I’ll admit I’ve written some rather cranky posts about administration. Sure, it’s probably a bit of sour grapes. But this post is really meant to be a paean to the hard and important work that administrators do—especially the associate deans, directors and chairs who work in the background. If you find yourself in one of the non-glamorous administrative jobs know that your work is important. Realize that if you’re doing your job well, there’s a chance that no one will notice. But it’s still important. I’m thankful for the behind-the-scenes administrators who stand at the ready to get dirty and do the tough work. One shovelful at a time.

I will be thinking about y’all when I lean over the ship’s railing at the Gatun Locks and marvel at how those behemoth gates still work. I’ll remember that it took an awful lot of hard work from lots of people. That if it weren’t for those willing to work even when the end was nowhere in sight, we’d never have a Panama Canal. That it took both vision and simply slogging it out.   And I’ll tip my hat to the sloggers.