During this winter and spring, when I had a surplus of time to write, read, and think, I realized again how much I missed teaching.
This was my fifth sabbatical at Alma College, a teaching-oriented liberal arts institution, where I’ve had a lot of choice on how to use my time. For my first one I wrote my dissertation; for my second I wrote essays and poems; for my next two I worked on my composition textbook. At 60, I don’t know if I’ll have another.
Now a senior professor, I publish, do service, and teach with enthusiasm. Although I have devoted my career to teaching writing, a sabbatical challenges me to prove again that I am a credible writer and scholar. It seems I should know this by now. But each time I write it’s a new experiment.
During this sabbatical I decided to focus on writing new poems, revising old poems, and submitting poems for publication. I also wanted to write an article about a first-year seminar I teach on wisdom, and maybe a few essays. This agenda seemed reasonable.
For the first three months I worked on poems. It felt good. Revision kept surprising me: seeing what I had not seen before. Cutting a word, a line, a stanza, I realized when a poem worked better, explained less and suggested more. Many eureka moments occurred. A sabbatical is surely a fertile time for writing and revision.
Yet during this time I received a blitz of rejections. It’s far easier to submit poems now than it used to be. Most journals and magazines use electronic submission engines. No hard copies, no postage, and most places accept simultaneous submissions — no more waiting for a rejection from one place before trying another. Within an hour, I can send out the same five poems to five different markets, like casting multiple lures in different ponds. A few bites happened such as “We quite enjoyed these. Good luck placing them elsewhere.” Since January, I’ve had three poems accepted: a haiku about New Year’s Eve, a poem about a father visiting his son in jail, and a poem in the voice of a conjoined twin who survives being separated from her sister. I’m grateful for these. But why have I wanted more? It’s as if the more I publish, the more I can justify my sabbatical.
I keep relearning that the primary purpose of writing poems is not to publish. In March a friend sent me a timely quote from Kurt Vonnegut: “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow.... You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” Well, yes, but after a while I didn’t feel my soul growing — ego got in the way.
That’s when I started work on my article about wisdom, soon realizing it’s much easier to teach a course than to write about it. I researched theories on wisdom and methods used in higher education to help students learn about wisdom. One book led to other books and articles. I spent nearly two months reading and taking notes, and I enjoyed it. This work did not feel self-indulgent as writing poetry sometimes does. However, I hit the same wall when starting any major writing project: how to begin, how to synthesize all the information, how to choose what to use, how to make it all cohere. After a dozen drafts, I completed the article. Is it ready for publication? I hope so but am not counting on it. If I’m lucky, an editor will accept it pending a few minor revisions.
Sabbaticals are for relearning that we can deal with the anxiety, fear, and desire of trying to achieve something. For me, the process is humbling. After a while, all the poem rejections made me smile. What should I expect? Alice Walker writes in a poem, “Expect nothing. Live frugally / On surprise.” I value this advice but too often forget it. Besides, we can never tell when our writing may be accepted for publication: the process usually transcends the perimeter of a sabbatical.
The need to prove myself — will it never end? I can’t imagine coasting my way to retirement. In my own small boat I often go in wide circles, relearning what I thought I knew. I believe in the struggle to create something out of nothing, to scrape the rock of wisdom if I can and glimpse a hint of amber, to tell some truth.
The tension between teaching and sabbaticals is invaluable. But thankfully sabbaticals don’t last forever. I’m eager to work with students who dislike writing, to figure out new ways to engage them, and to show them that the struggle to write well is worthwhile. I’m eager to be a mentor again. I’m eager to be a constructive and courteous colleague, helping our department and college grow stronger.
When I teach, my job is to help others succeed and shine. Teaching is less about me. My world is larger than my study at home. I spin my wheels less. Traction happens naturally. Students and I go places together. Teaching for me always feels more dynamic and meaningful. A sabbatical helps me relearn this.
William Palmer teaches English at Alma College in central Michigan. His poetry has appeared recently in Ecotone, JAMA and Salamander. His college textbook Discovering Arguments: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, Writing, and Style is in its fourth edition (Prentice Hall).