Category Archives: Personal stuff

And on the Sabbath…

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.

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Com hyder, thou, sir John…

So…here I am again.

Two years ago, before and after the birth of my son, I disappeared from this blog for about six months while I adjusted to the joys and challenges of fatherhood.1 I’d been preparing for both, but hadn’t fully realized how little time it would leave me for non-essentials like typing or sleeping.

And since I’m nothing if not a slow learner, I went ahead and did it again.


This is John Leopold Sexton,2 who on December 20th became the early Christmas present that officially pushed life from busy to utterly mad. He’s a serious little guy, much quieter than his brother…most of the time. They get along quite well.


Carl’s been teaching John about the importance of a well-framed selfie…

So, in short, life is good and joyful and very, very full. This blog, however, has been calling to me lately, and there’s plenty I still want to say about life in the academic trenches. So I hope to be back to semi-regular activity…and I promise to keep the kiddie pictures to a minimum.

1 And just as happened last time, Kisha has been so busy, eloquent, and dedicated to keeping things going that it’s probably obvious to everyone by now that I’m essentially here by her sufferance.

2 John is named for two great-grandfathers, two great-uncles, his father, and a number of other family members (Johns tend to multiply like quantum cats in an unobserved box).  His middle name is for a third great-grandfather. John isn’t the world’s most exciting name, but as a John myself, I can testify that it has the advantage of being entirely value-neutral. Also, “John Leopold” sounds like a pretty reasonable name for an ecclesiast with Papal ambitions, which makes sense for a second son and matches up with his older brother Carl Joseph sounding vaguely like an also-ran for Holy Roman Emperor.


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So when does the medievalist get medieval?

I’m currently in recovery from a series of colds–what a friend refers to as the “creeping crud” that hits teachers in the winter, as one after another of the year’s crop of flus, rhinoviruses,* and other bugs is introduced to one’s besieged immune system by students and colleagues and, in my case, my wife’s students and colleagues and, for good measure, the new treasure trove of colds brought home from day care by our son. Once the cycle begins, it can be hard to break…and so for weeks, my students have had to tolerate my rasping not-quite-laryngitis as I attempt to recreate the fine shadings of sound that make up the Great Vowel Shift, and colleagues have learned to expect that I will be sucking a throat lozenge during meetings. Yesterday, I finally broke down and visited a doctor.

This is not actually about my cold, although it’s therapeutic to grouch about it a bit.

At the doctor’s office, I turned in my forms, and the receptionist’s response to my occupation was, “Oh. That explains it–I was wondering why you were available for an appointment so early in the afternoon.”

I’ve had a few interactions with non-academics lately that have been along these lines–probably innocent comments that nevertheless betray certain assumptions about the work, or lack thereof, of a college professor. I don’t want to go into a long diatribe about one of those ivory-tower problems that never really go away–there have been many articulate defenses of the flexibility of the academic’s schedule. I particularly like the point made by Greg Semenza in his brilliant Graduate Study for the 21st Century that “schedular flexibility is perhaps the greatest practical benefit afforded by the academic lifestyle”–but that with that flexibility comes the responsibility of each academic to create for him or herself a regular (if unconventional) schedule that enforces and accommodates the individual’s work ethic.

So…having rambled around to the subject (the doctor gave me an antibiotic, and I’m a little less than fully coherent at the moment), what I actually want to talk about–and to invite conversation about–is that commitment to a schedule, specifically to a schedule that accommodates the quirks of the medievalist’s work.

As I mentioned in a post a while back, my academic workload was in something of a shambles last fall as I tried to adjust to my son’s needs and my own desire to spend as much time with him (and with my wife, whose job is much less flexible than mine) as possible. This spring, despite the endless sniffles and aches, I’ve been trying to carve out specific chunks of the week when I can focus on my work–Saturday mornings, Monday and Wednesdays from 8-10:30 AM (when meetings allow), late Tuesday afternoons (likewise), and the narrow slice of time at night between when Carl has been washed up and read to and (with my wife) gone off to bed, and when I become too bleary-eyed to work productively. This is still a work in progress, but it’s  an improvement–at least my students’ papers are being graded on a schedule and I have time for prepping my materials and covering my campus responsibilities.

Finding time for the specifically “medievalist” part of my life, though, is still a struggle–keeping my language skills strong, reading up on professional publications, writing conference papers for the looming Congress at Kalamazoo, finishing up two articles that have been three-quarters finished for months, producing promised work for a collaborative project for SSDMA, and so on. Finding slots of time for my medieval self is proving hard enough–deciding how to prioritize the many plates wobbling on their stems is turning out to be more complicated than I’d expected.

So I turn to those of you in this or similar fields for suggestions on avoiding the metaphorical smash of neglected crockery. How does a medieval scholar with flexible-but-very-limited free time maintain his medievalist self?


*The plural of “virus” apparently presents an interesting problem. According to what I can find, it’s unlikely that “viri,” “virii'” or “vira” (all of which are attested in modern use, but not in actual Latin sources) would be appropriate; for an interesting discussion of the nature of the problem and why “viruses,” though unsatisfying, seems to be the best answer in an English-language context, see the following archived explanation from Tom Christiansen, Unix and Perl developer:

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