The fall semester had barely begun when I received an e-mail message seeking input to our department’s spring teaching schedule. Shortly thereafter, another message brought a similar question about summer courses. And e-mail over the next few days brought announcements for various institutional initiatives inviting proposals for projects to be funded for the following academic year. These queries in September for things that would not happen until the following January and May and beyond reminded me of how far down the groves of academe we need to look for the campus to function efficiently.
The situation is not much different for our forays off campus. Calls for papers ask us to commit now to a meeting taking place overseas a year and a half from now. Requests for proposals can have deadlines six months out for research programs that will begin a year after that—and the proposal must contain a three-year plan and a corresponding budget. This requires us to look almost five years into the future for a research project that, strictly speaking, should be full of unexpected twists and turns.
The life of an academic is a life lived in the semesters and years of the future. Among the more personal of decisions that many faculty members face every seven or so years is whether to request a sabbatical leave. For those who wish to spend a full academic year away from their home institution, there is usually the need to find external financial support.
Fellowships are perhaps the most desirable source of such funding, but the application process often must start well over a year ahead of time. It is not uncommon for an initial fellowship application to be turned down—in a letter encouraging resubmittal the following year. It is a tough call whether to postpone a sabbatical in the hope of better luck next time.
Spending a sabbatical year on another campus requires considerable logistical planning, particularly for young families who must arrange school transfers. There’s the matter of finding someone to rent a house that will be vacated for a year and finding a house far away that someone is willing to rent for the same year. The exercise can be a lesson in regional cost-of-living differences.
A colleague of mine who teaches at the University of Virginia is on sabbatical this year. It is costing him twice as much to rent half the house in Berkeley that he is renting out in Charlottesville. The faculty member from whom he rented the Berkeley house was herself on sabbatical at Columbia. She ended up paying more rent in New York than she was realizing in California—and for just a studio apartment. I envision a small fish being swallowed by a larger fish being swallowed by a still larger fish but can’t quite keep straight who or whose house was the larger and the smaller fish.
Perhaps the most difficult task of looking ahead has to do with life after the academy. Without mandatory retirement ages, and with the myriad options that are available to most academics, the decision of exactly when and on what terms to retire can be more of a challenge than preparing a proposal for a major grant.
Of course, it is not just in academia that people find the need to plan for and coordinate multiple futures. It is all just part of living in modern society. Today’s personal computers, PDAs and other electronic marvels not only help us make commitments well into the future but also remind us when the time arrives to deliver on our promises to others and to ourselves.
Henry Petroski, the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University, is the author of “Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design” and a dozen other books on engineering and design.