Last week, I began the first sabbatical of my career. I’m still trying to figure out what to make of it.
I don’t mean “what to do with it”–I’ve figured that out. I decided what I was working on last year. And again last semester. And then this past month. Repeatedly. With lists, calendars, spreadsheets, and every other timetable-based organizational tool that imagination can contrive. Twice in the last twenty-four hours, in fact.
Maybe I do mean “what to do with it.”
The problem isn’t in finding a project–I’ve always been blessed (or cursed) with an overactive mind when it comes to thinking up things to explore, learn, etc.I’ve always been the sort of person who spends a month or more at a time reading everything I can find about vice-presidents, or the history of football, or nineteenth-century sailing memoirs, or gerrymandering, or armorsmithing, usually at the expense of more immediately important things like doing the laundry. I would be, in other words, an utter failure as a zen master, but am reasonably well-equipped for the life of an intellectual dilettante.
The problem is sorting out which are the projects to pursue now. What can I manage in a few months’ time; which ideas are ripe for exploration and which need more time on the vine; how much energy should I pour into my ongoing commitments and half-finished articles, and how much should I devote to finding the next steps on the path? Given my teaching-heavy professional obligations at Bridgewater, how much time should I devote to recalibrating my course structures, reading up on the pedagogical insights of my peers, and seeking out the latest scholarship on my most-taught texts?
And, of course, with two boys aged 1 and 2 at home with me much of the time, I also expect and hope to spend time on snowman-making, pillow-castle building, toy-share officiating, feeding, entertaining, (etc., etc.) and generally enjoying my never-to-be-this-young-again sons. And how about a little time with my wife, whose own job as a secondary-school Classics teacher is at least as all-consuming as my own?
I want to explicitly state that I don’t mean any of this as a complaint. I’m grateful, almost unreasoningly so, for the existence of the sabbatical as concept and practice. As concept, because of its value in punctuating the years of “if-only” in between, when so many texts go unread and so many ideas unexamined due to a simple lack of time. A sabbatical is a gift, and I very much feel it as such. All the more so because I’m painfully aware of how many equally- or better-qualified minds, both in academia and outside of it, are never afforded this space and time in which to follow a labyrinth to its center. As practice, because I entered into this profession for a multitude of reasons–teaching, writing, a love of medieval literature and history, a strong conviction in the importance of the humanities to the health of the human animal–but also because I believe in the hunt for ideas worth having. Not necessarily big ideas, though the profundity of the smallest idea probably comes from its place among and between the big ones. A sabbatical is a chance to follow ideas in uninterrupted fashion through to their completion.
Well, less-interrupted, anyway.
Some of this work of envisioning how best to spend my time went on (repeatedly, as mentioned above, and with Escherian feedback loops) over the last year, but some adjustments are still being made. I have a plan–a modest one, which I’ll stick in a separate post at some point–and a much bigger and broader dream of learning how to manage all of the facets of my daily routine–teaching and publishing and family and magpie intellectualism–with real attention. I involuntarily recoil from the self-help-speak version of these ideas, but I can recognize the need for both greater integration and, not paradoxically, greater compartmentalization of the component parts of my life and work. This semester, with its store of time, is a chance to renew my commitment to my commitments, and I revel in it.