What is the point in going away during study leave?

So I have been back on campus for two weeks now – well, not really as we have had some extra public holidays etc but it is close. I’ve been thinking a lot about why you should go away when you are on study leave. We strongly encourage our staff to do this, and we are becoming more interested in our students undertaking exchanges as part of their studies now, so I wanted to reflect upon what the actual advantages are.

One obvious one is that you are away from your usual location… and so people can’t find you. I certainly found this very useful at the start of each semester this year, being away so that students and staff were not able to ask me questions, and also so that I wouldn’t be tempted to interfere. Regardless of whether I would have been helpful or not 🙂

But this can be achieved by just moving somewhere else – perhaps to another campus, or even working from home – and I certainly know staff members who do this. But what else is there? Of course, if you are working with colleagues who are based at other institutions, then it can be a fantastic opportunity to work together for an extended period of time. I think there is more to it than that, though – and being aware of exactly what is that “more” is important, as – at least in my case – it changed my behaviour throughout my study leave visits.

Moving to another institution helps you experience other cultures. Seems fairly obvious, but I don’t just mean the culture of your location, but also the culture of the higher education system where you are based, the culture of communication, of research, of sharing teaching, of helping each other, or training, etc etc… I have found the most useful and eye opening opportunities during my study leave to be those that were serendipitous. Not the planned meetings and seminars, although some of those were outstanding. But I mean more of the unexpected discussions and issues that arise that make you aware that all of your underlying assumptions about that issue are no longer relevant in this context. It makes you appreciate more the need to communicate, and the need to share your assumptions about the world we live in. And it makes you think a little more openly about your decision making – why can’t we do this, just because we never have? For me, this meant that I spent less time working away on papers in my little home-away-from-home office, and more time attending seminars and open meetings, talking with people from areas where I wasn’t able to see a direct benefit, but just a common interest.

I have come to the conclusion that study leave is not something that should just be reserved for academic staff. At my institution, it is reserved as such, and professional staff or research only staff are not able to take advantage of this opportunity. This seems shortsighted to me. I can see huge benefits for these staff members in having that reflective time away from their projects and research contracts for a period of time, as well as the chance to recharge.

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