For the first time since 1992*, I will not be entering a college classroom this fall semester. This is because I am on sabbatical.**
It’s a strange feeling, in part because I have been doing this for so long that September honestly feels like the start of the new year to me, and in part because of how much I love teaching. Don’t get me wrong, I have every intention of making the most of my sabbatical. But I will miss being in the classroom. As I tell my students, I do my best thinking while pacing back and forth in front of a chalkboard.
This week, I promised myself that I would start writing my next book***, and the writing isn’t coming as I would like it to. I’ve been thinking about this project for much of the summer (even while participating in the wonderful Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement NEH summer seminar), but actually writing new material is…difficult. Yes, I have published 2 books. However, one of those started as a dissertation, and the other was an edited collection. I know very well how to revise a dissertation into a book (and it took me longer to revise than to write, for the record), but writing a book is a completely different beast (or so it seems to me right now). And editing a collection of essays is nothing like writing a book, even if you are writing a chapter for the collection.
(You know, honestly, I think I would have an easier time writing a series of discrete articles, on different subjects. I have a few ideas in mind, but those will have to wait. I suspect that I just think in terms of chapter/article length projects. Those are manageable. And I’m not sure I can fool myself into thinking I am writing 5 discrete chapters, and not composing a longer project. But I digress.)
So today I came into the office, because I had an idea. I wanted to write a syllabus. And no, this isn’t really procrastinating.
Those of you who know me know that I love designing courses. I enjoy writing syllabi. I have syllabi for courses I have never taught, or won’t be able to teach for at least a year. I’ve been designing courses for longer than I have been publishing scholarship, and I do it far more often. Hell, I think I might even be better at it. So I decided to write a syllabus for the course I’m teaching next spring based on my as-yet-nonexistent sabbatical research.
And that’s what I did. I came into the office – the space I prefer to do my syllabus construction (as well as my own academic writing) – sat down, and composed a draft of a syllabus. I considered not only what I want to teach, but how much time I need to spend on it, and what order we should read these works. I hoped that by writing this syllabus – by forcing myself to think about a student audience and how I might teach these works (and what secondary sources are necessary for this course) – I would find a way to start writing this damn book.
And you know what? I was (almost) right.
After drafting the syllabus and rearranging some of the units, I started to jot down notes for my introduction and first chapter. And I made some changes to the overall ordering of the chapters. This might not sound productive, but trust me, it is. By reordering the (potential) chapters, I now think I have a clearer idea of how I should link them together, where before I had a vague sense that I was simply putting things together without any cohesive transitions.**** But more importantly, I have notes! More specifically, I have rough outlines of what I want to do, and reasons as to why things should be done in that order.
In other words, I have a plan. I like plans. I can follow plans.
I still have not completed all the reading I want to do in order to begin writing. But I also know that waiting until all the reading is done is a terrible idea.^ I’ll get some more reading done this afternoon, and even more later in the week. I’ll keep filling my notebooks (yes, I take all my reading and research notes by hand, in notebooks) and eventually bring them into the office. Maybe even this weekend.^^ But as for today, I’m going to feel good about drafting a syllabus and writing some outlines. I’m going call that progress.
So what’s the lesson here? Take your pick:
- Research and teaching are intimately connected, and we perform them each better when we respect the ways they inform one another.
- When you are stuck, try working on something related to get out of your rut.
- I am so invested in teaching that I will invent reasons to come to campus and write syllabi.
God I hope that last one isn’t true.
*Holy shit I’m old.
**I need to note that this sabbatical was only possible because two dear friends and generous colleagues – Derek Maus and Donald McNutt – graciously took on extra unpaid work so that I could get my leave. I am as of now the only person in my department who had to apply three times before being granted a sabbatical, and the only person whose sabbatical was only approved if my colleagues agreed to take on extra unpaid work. That this happened the very same semester I was awarded the SUNY Potsdam President’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities amuses me.
***For those interested, I will try to write a narrative poetics of Native American/First Nations survivance, which I hope will simultaneously demonstrate how narrative theories can help us understand the cultural and political work of Native American/First Nations fiction, as well as how these novels force us to rethink some of the limitations and assumptions currently at work in narrative theories. I know, sexy as fuck.
****The books that I prefer to read – and the kind of books I want to write – build with each chapter. I generally don’t like reading academic monographs that are little more than a series of barely connected chapters.
^You never get all the reading done. Never. Just ask all the unread books about the American frontier sitting in my office.
^^Don’t judge me. I’m on sabbatical. Calendars mean nothing to me.