Pipe Dreams for a First Sabbatical

Brett Foster is making lists of his goals, and thinking about what would be realistic.

February 1, 2013

I recently learned at this year’s Modern Language Association gathering that next year’s conference theme will be "Vulnerable Times," and that is just one of a hundred or so reasons why I feel a little sheepish about setting any words to paper that may remotely seem to fidget about or "problematize" something as enviable and increasingly rare as a sabbatical. After eight years in the classroom and in committee meetings and trying to get myself to a couple of annual conferences, I am spending the spring term of 2013 on a first sabbatical. I mainly feel grateful, for the good timing, felicitous circumstances, blessing — choose whatever word or phrase that makes you most comfortable. Anyone these days who finds her- or himself pondering an upcoming sabbatical has been touched with various rays of good fortune, like sun streaks in a summer haircut.

But if that’s so, then why am I so damn anxious about the new year? Why does the beginning of this much-longed-for sabbatical feel so forbidding? I think I may have come up with an answer.

I am one of those academics with a fairly tenuous grasp of time, and that may be putting it generously. I must check my watch or phone constantly, and bow regularly before the altar of Google Calendar, to ensure that I am not late for a class or meeting. It is easy to become too caught up in this or that present task. I also sometimes find myself – inevitably each term this happens a couple of times – short of breath with heart pounding because I have a sudden recognition that three or four things that need immediate doing, each of them equally important, simply will not all be completed on time. The feeling I experience at that precise moment is worth a second thought because it is a mixed one. Sure, the stress of the time pressure is reaching its peak, but then a welcomed resignation arrives hard upon it. In these harried, busy moments, pausing for a moment and nodding one’s head to the reality principle can feel not only mentally and emotionally healthy, but extremely pleasurable, too. As you begin to contemplate a more realistic, step-by-step plan, and even calculate consequences or possible fallout, it is as if the mind has just taken its shoes off and removed its sport coat. Its neuroses receive a massage, before stepping renewed back into the work fray.   

This same tense mix of time delusion, I am coming to believe, operates on a far grander scale as one prepares for a sabbatical, and especially a first sabbatical. Again, I fear sounding like the Marie Antoinette of associate professors here, but a single term off is not a substantial amount of time. May will be here before I know it, and let’s hope some sabbatical project work can continue smoothly into some of the summer months. After that, back to the show. Conventional wisdom as well as older colleagues suggest that I concentrate on one or two big things, and feel reassured as measurable progress is made. The sensible part of me tells me that this will be the best strategy for success.

Unfortunately the sensible part of me is rarely at the wheel, and so I have found it impossible to avoid forming in my excited, freedom-seizing brain an accumulating, increasingly sizeable, at this point nearly laughable heap of sabbatical goals or to-do projects. I would like to enumerate those here, and I hope others will relate to them, and be more enabled to call out their own ridiculous expectations.

1. Make progress on and possibly complete a few overdue article or book projects. I mean, duh. That, after all, is the raison d’etre, the golden apple of sabbaticals, especially for those of us at teaching-oriented colleges. It is the main item you’ll need to report on when the sabbatical ends. This one’s easy, and easily justifiable. Any dummy, and every optimist, will list this first.

2. Begin a new project or two, or finally tackle some small piece of writing that has been patiently awaiting your attention. This is always the temptation, right? The excusable procrastination. The more immediate gratification. Or the simple wish to clear off a folder with a few citations from your desk. Maybe an essay whose timeliness has not yet passed. Maybe a book review you wouldn’t be able to write otherwise. As for me, I’m hoping to translate a few sonnets.

3. Read. Read a lot of things. Just sit there and read. Read some books you’ve been meaning to read, or previously enjoyed enough to read again. Since graduate school, I have grown alarmed by how my attention for long stints at reading has atrophied. There’s very little time to do it regularly. I’m a "pocket-reader" now — read a chapter here, or a half an article there in whatever pocket of time presents itself. It may turn out to be a literary mirage, ultimately, but it has been a pleasure to compile a shortlist of books I’d like to discover or re-encounter, including some big books that would serve as worthy “sabbatical-mementos,” so to speak. (My current list includes the Argonautika, Origen, Boiardo’s Orlando innamorato, writings by Vittoria Colonna and Elizabeth Cooke Hoby Russell, two Renaissance women who were smart as hell, Middlemarch, the poetry of William Carlos Williams, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, along with his new book of essays (and Virginia Woolf’s essays, too). And Michael Robbins’ Alien vs. Predator and Katie Roiphe’s In Praise of Messy Lives. That’s my list. For now.

4. Catch up on backlogs of periodicals and journals, including New York Times Book Reviews dating back to October, New Yorkers that are older than that, and three issues apiece of Renaissance Quarterly, Sixteenth Century Journal, and Literary Imagination. Enjoy the sensation of feeling roughly “caught up” in your field and broadly “in the know” on intellectual and literary matters.

5. Make a Nate-Berkus-style organizational effort. Some professors will not need to do this. They have a smooth, carefully curated professional workspace. I, however, am not one of those professors. My main goal here is simply to move my office a few degrees away from being a likely candidate for close-ups in a "Hoarders" special. Seriously. Years’-old departmental minutes, risk-management announcements — those are the easy things to dispatch. But then, what next? Dispensing with extra or outdated classroom materials? Desk copies and other books to the give-away shelf? Purge, little pilgrim, purge.

6. Relatedly, restore order and retrievability to my library, and maybe even to file drawers full of articles. This wasn’t always to be a problem. In graduate school, I proudly tallied my growing volumes and had everything grouped in single-minded devotion to dissertation research. In the eight years since, with the library growing and more numerous, simultaneous projects under way — well, an intervention is needed. I usually complain that a lack of time is the culprit, so we’ll see if that is so. I know of some friends and fellow scholars who have taken the time to digitize all of their photocopied articles, from their doctoral days onward. I know immediately that I have more of a chance of success at creating a new mobile device that will surpass Apple’s iPhone 5. Never going to happen, so I won’t add it to the list.

7. Not only organize, but also look through and gain resources and insights from, the stacks of conference folders that I have dutifully deposited on an office table. Is this one crazy? Or am I the only one who never quite returns to the many notes and quotations and book titles written down at a conference because I knew they would be valuable? I would like to test my memory and judge again what seemed so worth recording in the conference-going, panel-attending moment.

8. Undertake some new habits or pastimes. This goal will look different for different people. Some colleagues of mine have used sabbaticals to study different languages, or read deeply in a side-field or entirely new subject. I’m not sure I have that drive or diligence in me. Exercise, maybe? Exercise would be good. It depresses me, really, that I don’t have a shortlist ready at hand. As scholars, we risk flat-lining ourselves, consumed by our ongoing pursuits. Maybe this one will develop as the sabbatical happens.

9. Visit some new places. Ideally this would involve destinations such as Umbria, the Cyclades, Vancouver or the Lake District. But my aims here are considerably more modest. I hope to visit some unexplored neighborhoods in nearby Chicago, check out some restaurants that friends have recommended, find a particularly work-friendly public library or two.

10. Plan an unusually timed family vacation? Talk to spouse about this? (Too radical?) Seriously, most academics with families know well the work-home juggling act required during the semester, or when deadlines loom. I find myself, with the sabbatical approaching, wishing to be more present at home. It doesn’t have to be heroic; spontaneous outings or do-nothing-together evenings are fine, but at least this: a capacity to be less distracted, more relaxed in my family’s company, and to show more often the gratitude I feel toward them.

This does not seem like a reasonable, hopeful list. It is grandly optimistic, at best, and may almost be an absurdity. When it comes to creating a sabbatical that can be recalled fondly, one where you achieved a poise between rest and pleasant productivity, between rounding up past things and seeking out new experiences, well, these 10 goals seem like just so many Scud missiles of sabotage, a recipe for frustration, a misspent gift.

So now I have made a checklist for myself. It is not quite the calendar that Edmund Spenser, one of my favorite English poets, boasted of making, but it is something. And as with any checklist, I am intent on crossing out items whenever I can. The more satisfying thing, the higher road, would be to cross out some goals because they aren’t worthy of my service or care, do not need doing, not really, or maybe need doing but simply won’t get done — not during this brief season, at least.

Non serviam says Stephen Daedalus in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. "I will not serve." Or as Melville’s Bartleby puts it, "I prefer not to." Likewise, I do not want to be a servant to all possible tasks. I prefer not to be subservient to the bogey of multitasking, or haunted by perfectionism’s ghost, or bullied by ambition’s pimp. Instead, I think I will try to live in my skin a little more naturally, and attempt to do better in profounder ways. Most of all, can I improve my relationship to time itself? Reconcile with expectation? I wish to be content in the present moment. It is not a modest goal, to be sure. Yet, for a sabbatical, speaking as somebody who has not yet experienced one, I have a hunch it is worthy of being called "goal number one."



Brett Foster teaches creative writing and Renaissance literature at Wheaton College (Illinois). His two poetry collections are The Garbage Eater (Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2011), and Fall Run Road, which was awarded Finishing Line Press's 2011 Open Chapbook Prize, and has just been released. He is also the author of Shakespeare's Life, a volume in a "Backgrounds to Shakespeare" reference series.


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