Monthly Archives: October 2015

In silent screams, / in wildest dreams / I never dreamed of this

That’s pretty much how I feel about sabbatical right now.*

I won’t lie; this is pretty great.  And not just because I can avoid meetings and have no grading to do.  It’s also because I have the time and – more importantly – mental energy, to do some things I haven’t been able to do in a while.  (And have no fear, one of those things does involve teaching, which I will get to below.)

Of course, I’ve been working on a research project.  I’m trying to write a book on contemporary Native American/First Nations fiction and narrative theory.  I have a draft of the introduction, and I’ve just started writing the first chapter.  Honestly, the work is going much more slowly than I had anticipated.  But I’m glad for that.  I still have plenty of time left on the sabbatical, plus winter break, and even when I start teaching again, I’ll still have time to work (especially because I’ll be teaching a class based on this project).  And because this is a brand new project for me, I have no deadlines to meet.  In short, there’s no need to rush.  So when I only wrote one page yesterday, I didn’t worry too much about it.  I spent a fair amount of time thinking about this chapter, took some notes, and have a pretty good idea of where it needs to go.  And because I’m not in any rush, I don’t feel any pressure to stick to a timeline I cobbled together months ago, before I had done any work on this book.

But another reason why things are going slowly is because I’m not devoting as much to the work as I had imagined.  I decided to use my sabbatical to do other things, things I otherwise would not have done if I were teaching.  Although I have been paying guitar for a while now, I play much more regularly these days, and am spending more time learning new things as opposed to merely rehearsing what I already know.  With few exceptions, I pick up the guitar every day, and consciously work to improve something.  And it’s great, because I don’t have to find the time to practice, or worry about what work I’m not doing in order to practice.**

I am also taking a class online with a friend, the Stanford Introduction to Mathematical Thinking class.  Maybe in another post I’ll comment on my experiences – good and bad – with this MOOC, but I’ll need to finish the course before I can do so.  What’s important here is that I’m learning something that interests me, but which I would absolutely not have time to do if I were teaching my normal 4-course load.  And in a related vein, I’m also (slowly) working my way through Godel, Escher, Bach, which has been sitting on my shelf for a while.  When I get the chance, I like reading about mathematics, and now seems to be a great time to dive into this interest more fully.

And because I’m a huge nerd, I’ve also been designing syllabi for courses I will be – or hope to be – teaching soon.***  If I were not on sabbatical, there’s no way I would have put the time into moving my syllabi online.  I’ve wanted to do it for a while, but I always had something else I wanted to spend my time on, and so this work got pushed aside.

And this is the real benefit of a sabbatical: a chance to rethink what I do and how I do it.  And to not have to try and squeeze it between other things that have to get done.

When I applied for sabbatical^, I thought that I would use it to write a book.  And sure, I’m doing that work, even if I’m not doing as much of it as I thought I would.  But that’s not what my sabbatical has become.  As one good friend calls it, this is my semester of “intellectual cross training” my chance to explore various interests and think about how to make them a more significant part of my life and work.^^  And like physical cross training, intellectual cross training is vital for long-term health.

And it has already started to pay off.  One need only look at my syllabus for the Introduction to Graduate Studies class to see how my interests in mathematical thinking are creeping into my teaching.  In various ways, my thinking about logic and structure have helped me to clarify what I am doing in my own writing, as I notice the ways my notes and drafts may contain brilliant, but hopelessly muddled, analysis.  I’m also starting to tease out connections between my musical practice and my research, as I find new ways to identify and think about patterns (not to mention the insights that come from the conscious repetition of familiar patterns while incorporating new ones into the practice).  And of course, having the time to slow down and really think has been a welcome break to the rush of teaching four courses while also finding time for service, grading, advising, grading, and grading.

And yeah, it’s fucking wonderful.

But as I write this post, I also realize just how unfair this all is to those in the profession who cannot take advantage of this kind of opportunity.  In addition to all of the shit the profession – and let’s face it, those of us on the tenure track who allow this system to exist – shovels onto contingent faculty, we also do a terrible job of helping them to engage in the kinds of formal and informal professional development that comes with a sabbatical.  It’s bad enough that contingent faculty are given the lion’s share of lower-division courses and often don’t have the support to do so properly^^^, but we also do not support their ability to engage in the kind of intellectual cross training that helps us to grow as scholars and teachers.^^^^

As is too often the case, I don’t have an answer for that.  But I will add it to the things I think about as I walk around town, and hopefully the freedom that I enjoy will give me the time and space to come up with an answer, or at least the start of one.


*Alternately, I was thinking of titling this post “But we are never ever ever ever getting back together,” but I know that I actually will be returning to teaching next semester.  As of right now, I am scheduled to teach one section of Introduction to Literature, two sections of Literary Analysis and Research, and one section Native American Literature.  But if I could, I drop that load and never return from Sabbatical Land, the most magical place on earth.

**This is absolutely one of the worst things about the job: the pressure to always be working.  No matter how hard I try to eliminate it, the pressure is always there.  Sometimes, it’s self-generated, like when I know I could be designing some great new course, or reading up about new pedagogical practices, or wondering when I’m going to finally read that new book relevant to my interests, etc.  But often, that pressure comes from others, like when administrators want things from you, or students email you at all hours (and yes, even though I’m not teaching, I have still had multiple students email me for various things), or when people nominate you for committee work.  (One of my colleagues nominated me to serve on a committee this semester, and I never want to know who thought it was a good idea to nominate me for a committee while I’m on sabbatical.)

***Over time, I would like to have all of my syllabi posted online, with links to various resources and other interesting points on the internet.  (The syllabi I linked to above should all be considered drafts, and if you have suggestions, I’m all ears.)  Once I get my syllabi online, this will save me from having to print out and/or email various copies of them to students, but it will also allow me to share thing with my students more easily, and perhaps give them some places to start their own thinking outside of class.  And an added benefit is, if they are posted online for all to see, other people interested in such work can share their suggestions with me for further development.

^Actually, all three times I applied for sabbatical, including the third time when neither my chair nor my dean supported my leave, but failed to tell me that until it was almost too late to do anything about it (but that’s a post for another time, perhaps).

^^Because I have the time, and have recently moved into the village proper, I’ve been walking for most of my errands instead of driving.  In addition to the exercise, this has given me a chance to listen to my walkman (yes, a cassette walkman, filled with wondrous music from 1980s!) and think deeply about various things, one of which is how to perhaps introduce purposeful movement into my pedagogy.  I always do my best thinking while moving about (I fidget when I read, I pace when I teach), and I know I can’t be alone.  (I’d really like to hold class outside one day, where we can talk about literature while just walking around campus.  I wonder how my students would react to such a suggestion.)

^^^I still remember adjuncting as Eastern Connecticut State University, and being told that adjuncts have no office space and no access to computers.  After putting up something of a stink, I was allowed to use the same computer labs as the students (but needed a special ID to do so), and was permitted to hold office hours in one of the buildings (not the same building that housed the English department) provided I did not disturb the staff working there.

^^^^There is one adjunct in my department who, for the entire time I’ve been here, has only taught one course.  One.  Nearly ten years, and this person has taught only one course, multiple sections of it every semester.  I can’t imagine how numb my brain would be if I spent the same length of time teaching the same class, and only that class, and forever Just That Class.  None of us went to graduate school so that we could spend our professional lives teaching Just One Class.


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