For the entirety of the 2018-19 academic year, creative writing professor Katrina Vandenberg will be out of her office, as she is on sabbatical. Though she may not be teaching, her academic duties do not stop.
“I think it’s really important for students to understand what sabbatical is, because a lot of times they don’t understand and think that their professors are being paid to watch Netflix,” Vandenberg said, “when there is actually something really important happening that is part of the whole rhythm of school.”
During sabbatical, a professor takes on a proposed project within their field of study and completes it within the time allotted, whether it be one semester or two. Upon returning to the classroom, they will apply what they learned from their work in order to better enhance the experience for students.
“Sabbatical used to be very different than it is now,” Vandenberg said. “It used to be that… once you had tenure, every seven years, you got a sabbatical, and you could do whatever. You really could just watch Netflix – well, there was no Netflix in those days. But the idea was that it was a period of rest. In more recent years it’s become a much more project-based and competitive process.”
Applying for sabbatical does not guarantee that a professor will be granted it. Two years in advance, one must submit an outline of what they hope to accomplish with their time off. A year later, they need a more detailed agenda, including tangible results for the project and a plan for how they will have their classes covered by other faculty in their department.
Money, Vandenberg says, is hardly an incentive for taking a sabbatical.
“Almost nobody I know gets fully paid… If you take a year of sabbatical at Hamline, you get half your salary; if you take a half-year, your salary is covered.”
Vandenberg’s project is a book, in lyric essay form, about Como Conservatory. The tome deals with three principal characters: Anna, a young girl, named after Vandenberg’s daughter; Mrs. Carl, a professor and Anna’s neighbor, and the ferns of the conservatory themselves, who speak in plural first-person style as one entity.
The idea first germinated in Vandenberg’s mind during the polar vortex of 2014, when her own Anna was a toddler.
“It was just miserable out,” Vandenberg said. “[Anna] was always a super high-energy kid, and she had just learned to walk… We had this little house, and not all of it was being heated.”
The cure for Anna’s restlessness in that frigid season, Vandenberg realized, was a walk around the conservatory, its tranquil temperatures banishing all thoughts of snow and ice. Here, Vandenberg discovered the voices of her characters as she wandered about.
“It’s really fun to devote so much time to it every day,” Vandenberg said.
In addition to working on the project, she will read numerous books she hopes to use in future classes, and expects to alter her coursework based on what she discovers.
“In some ways being eighteen never changes, or being a first-year student, but… things change from generation to generation,” Vandenberg said. “When I started teaching, it was 1992, and the world’s really different than it was in 1992. So I want classes that are relevant for people that are learning to write right now.”
As for the question of how the now seven-year-old Anna feels about having a character named in her honor?
“I don’t know if she knows she has a character named after her. At some point, I will have to tell her. If she wanted the name changed, I would change it. But I have a feeling she’s going to like it.”