“What are you doing on your sabbatical?”

“So, what are you doing on your sabbatical?”

The question comes from family, colleagues, teachers I visit, people I meet on the street. There’s my immediate beginning to explain, followed by a long pause, followed by a start and a stop and a start again. Because, really, it is too simple to explain in a non-complicated way. In fact, I’ve been trying to write out this answer for about four months now.

I should start by admitting that the very idea of “sabbatical” is both revolutionary and ridiculous. God took one, after only 6 days of work*, and I’d argue that everyone, in all vocations and roles, ought to get such a progressive opportunity. I’m still collecting a substantial portion of my regular salary, funded by state tax and tuition dollars, to do things other than what I’m contracted to do on a semester-to-semester basis. While others cover my teaching and other university obligations, I’m being granted a chance to do the things I couldn’t possibly be doing with a regular workload. So I don’t take this question lightly. I should justify what I’m doing.

And yet every time I’m asked I pause, take a deep breath, and maybe give the impression that I don’t want to answer. The truth is that I’m just trying to get it right. I’d like to make it sound believable and justifiable, and I’d also like to be able to explain it in a polite amount of time suitable for dinner conversation or the possibility that someone was just asking to be nice. So the answer usually goes like this:

I’m visiting different settings for teaching and learning to see what I can learn from them. So I’m sitting in on some classrooms, but mostly shadowing in museums and workshops and a dance class and some national parks and a dressage clinic and a poetry festival and a distillery…

As I start to go through the list — which I admit is more compelling and meaningful than any general statement — I look to see if there is disdain or interest, amusement or offense. Usually there’s some reaction starting with “dance,” and definitely by the time I get to “distillery.” I am hesitant through it all because I’m genuinely concerned that the listener is simply not going to see the value in this, and I’m always aware that I’m missing or misrepresenting something.

But then a funny thing happens almost every time: The person who posed the question doesn’t just get excited about the prospect, but starts to suggest other venues. “You should go to this song writing school …” or, “Have you looked at online courses?” or “You should come visit my knitting support group.” (Okay, the last one is only suggested by Karyn, but she’s absolutely right.) And there’s always another museum or another distillery or another school dedicated to coffee roasting or beer brewing or environmental education.

I’ve found that listing off the possibilities works best. We all inherently know that there’s something going on in those other experiences that’s valuable, and we’ve all had one of those meaningful experiences, often outside of a classroom. It’s interesting to me that we all acknowledge that our best educational memories happen both within and without schools, and that maybe there’s something to be learned from these. It brings me back to the premise of this whole project. I never proposed this by saying, “I want to see how people learn to make whiskey,” because that can only go so far. Really, the fundamental question behind the project is, “What do we mean by ‘teaching and learning’ in the first place?”

I used to introduce the project with that more philosophical question, but it’s usually met with an uncomfortable silence until I bring up the dance and distilleries. Saying that I’m fundamentally interested in the meanings of “learning” is probably the best description, though. I’m working on the assumption that when we step into any educational venue we’re stepping into an ecosystem of assumptions and practices that tie to fundamental beliefs about what teaching and learning mean. What we value as a practice in education should reveal something about what our goals are for education. If it doesn’t, then we’re doing something wrong. I suspect that we’re doing some things wrong in lots of cases, and that we could realize this a bit if we looked at all the possibilities.

For example, I just signed up for a few online courses. One is labeled as an advanced photography course, another an introduction to chemistry. It’s odd to learn to do something, like the art of photography, or to know the practice of something, like the science of chemistry, by having an online delivery system. So far, I feel the online format sucking the life out of me. I don’t think it’s because the descriptions of aperture or chemical properties are poorly described, but because they reduce photography and chemistry into a stale flow of information that you can shove through some technological conduit. In contrast, my work with a dance class is making it clear that such courses aren’t really about dance, not really, anyway. Learning dance is about learning to work together, to empathize, to critique, to be vulnerable, to be brave. You can’t learn that without others around you in some physical collaboration. There’s a reason we don’t do dance class online, and I suspect chemistry and photography and all the rest should pay attention.

So I’m clearly trying to see that relationship between our goals and practices, and I’m trying to get a better sense for all the possibilities for great teaching and learning — whether it’s in a classroom, a museum, a distillery, a stage, outside, or even online. But there’s something else, and maybe it’s the most important: I’m trying to figure out how I can be a better learner and a better teacher.

For years I’ve been working on this, but I’ve infrequently stepped outside of my own classroom. I love to be in a classroom or working individually with students or working with large crowds of students or writing out an explanation or developing a lab or experience or … This, all of it, is what I really pour my whole self into. At the same time, over the past several years, even as I get to work more and more with other teachers, I don’t get the chance to really experience what their teaching is like. In particular, I seldom get a chance to admire the goals, modes, and subtleties of teaching and learning done by others. And I know I’m not alone. Who among us gets to really study what someone else is doing in a classroom, lesson, or apprenticeship and have the chance to reflect on it? For me, this opportunity hasn’t been around except for when I was back in graduate school, sitting in on a professor’s lectures for the course I was an assistant to. More recently, I’ve sat in on a few classes of colleagues, but for totally different purposes. And certainly I’ve followed around a park ranger on public lands or listened to a great lecture or watched my daughter get a horse riding lesson. I’ve admired these, but I haven’t really soaked it all in.

So that’s what I’d like to do — soak it all in. And then I’d like to have something to say about it all. At the very least I should be able to compile something for myself and bring it back into my own practice. And that’s what this essay, a few before it, and (hopefully) more to follow are all for. I have notes scribbled and paragraphs typed out, and I try to make sense of things at least well enough for quick drive-by essays.

Back in December, I was getting shuttled from a parking garage to the airport terminal, en route to visit my friend Brian in Atlanta and some of his work with schools and his museum program that I’ve long admired. I was the only passenger on the early morning bus, and I could feel the question that the driver would be asking me even before it was coming out of her mouth. Knowing myself what I was going to be doing — seeing kids working with power tools in a supplemental school program, creating polymer worms on a Sunday afternoon at the children’s museum — I was readying myself to describe what this trip, and frankly the whole project, was for.

“Are you traveling for work or for fun?”

Besides providing a needed ride, she was friendly and I immediately liked her. She had big sunglasses and an oversized windbreaker that seemed too big for her body, but perfectly paired with her eyelashes and the hoop earrings. I was charmed, and I think she genuinely wanted to know. More important, I felt like I owed it to her in some way to adequately describe what I’m doing. Just like what I’m trying to write here.

I paused, and considered the distinction: work or fun?

“Both,” I said.

And that’s exactly the right answer.


*Really, the Genesis creation story is perhaps our first documented sabbatical, although God wasn’t required to produce a post-sabbatical report that I’m aware of. It’s also no coincidence that “sabbatical” and “sabbath” take the same root, and that they each are typically based on a seven time-unit cycle. Academe and religion share interesting commonalities, for better or for worse.