In the final weeks of the Spring 2023 semester -- really, the whole semester, if I'm honest -- I noticed and joked with my students about the telltale apathy afflicting those students with forthcoming graduation dates about their "senioritis." This is a familiar academic joke, one of those things we say and expect other people to say at this stage in the annual rhythm of the school year as I've experienced it for most of my life. This year, though, I shared this sense of the thing to come outweighing the thing at hand -- I called this my "sabbaticalitis" in reference to the sabbatical I've been awarded for the Fall 2023 semester.
This is my first sabbatical, and this August will be one of only a few times in my life (the third, if memory serves) since I was a preschooler that these late Summer months did not signal a return to school.
It's a tremendous opportunity, and I have lots to hope for as well as some anxiety -- hence, the title of this post: "Sabbatical Fever," which nods to Derrida's "archive fever." Also, it has been quite a some time since I've used my personal website as a blog, but in light of the things I want to think through, I thought this would be a good reason to heed Kathleen Fitzpatrick's recent call and return to blogging on my own platform. In fact, it is one of my aspirations (see below) to make regular blogging a thing that I do as part of this sabbatical period.
As this time has approached, the sabbatical has been like a black hole into which I defer all of my aspirations, anxieties, and as many obligations as possible. But this time is not infinite, and I probably won't accomplish everything I aspire to. This is my biggest anxiety: that at the end of it I won't feel like I used my time well or that I did enough while I could. A related, deeper, anxiety is that I will do the work and make the things I want to, but in the end of it all I won't be happy with them and no one will care. A version of imposter syndrome, I guess.
What follows is a bit of a brain dump about the future work.
There are, of course, certain things that I am obligated to complete in the next few months, so I am listing those first.
- The Book. I am working on a book. I have been working on this book for a few years now, but the chief goal and obligation of this sabbatical is to finish the manuscript. There are other goals implied by this one, of course, like completing a proposal and securing a contract, but all of that is lumped into The Book in my mind. It is a book about computer-generated books: their history, forms, and meanings.
- Conference Papers. I currently have two accepted. One in a couple weeks at ELO and another in January at MLA. Both are related to the book, so I'm looking for other conferences to get into with different topics because one of my aspirations is to start feeling around for the next book, the next big topic for my research agenda. I think a well-received conference paper could provide that launchpad, so I'm keeping my eyes open.
- Administrative Things. I have a couple of out standing peer reviews to complete this month and will probably have more. In addition, my department is looking at some major curricular changes (that were my idea) so I will probably emerge from sabbatical to participate in some of those meetings.
- Class Prep for Spring 2024. As much as I'd like to, I can't totally forget about teaching. I'll be back to teaching three preps in the Spring, including one and maybe two courses that will need major updating, so the more of that that I can lock in before that semester starts, the better.
This is the big category occupying my idle thoughts for the last few months. Things that I hope to do and the person I hope to become by the end of this time. I present the following in no particular order and with no particular sense of category. Many of these aspirations come from very different parts of my life and identity.
- Make my Office Somewhere I Like Spending Time. My department has recently moved offices to a new building, and I've put a lot of thought into that space. It needs some work still, but that work is good for me. I have found that I work well when I can put sharper edges on something otherwise diffuse and ad hoc. Also, I want to get a nice chair for reading and some plants to hang in the window.
- Improve my Physical Fitness. Again, I like the hard edges and predictable patterns. This past Winter, I was able to use the hard edges of a day of teaching to find blocks of time. For example, I knew I needed to be on campus by 7:00 to start class preparation, so I could get 45 minutes of biking if I pack my lunch the night before and wake up at 5:00. That kind of thinking left me physically stronger and weighing less, but it was all possible because of the non-negotiable deadline of a 10:00 AM class. Without such external edges on my time, I will need a way to create those edges through intrinsic motivation, which is always the challenge.
- Write More: Get my Ideas Out. Obviously, the book project and the related things like conference presentations will involve writing, but I also want to find more opportunities for writing. I have a blog on this website, so I would like to blog more. Maybe once a week? Again, this is aspirational. As I mentioned earlier, I am writing a book about computer-generated literature and art, but I have felt a little left out of all the recent conversations about the dangers and promises of AI. It seems like everyone's an expert on this, but no one is interested in the expertise I've been developing. It could be that what I have to say isn't that helpful, or it could be that I haven't done enough to put my ideas out there. Of those two, the latter is the easiest thing to do something about, so that's what I am going to do. Blog more. Here, on this website.
- Do Fun and Complicated Things with my Family. Since we homeschool our kids (really, I should say my wife home schools the kids, since she does all the work), we have a fair amount of flexibility with our time. I want to take some kind of trip with this gang, since I now have some flexibility, too. We have talked vaguely about a road trip out West, with Yellowstone as our final destination. There are complications to this plan, like the logistics and expense, but I hope we find a way to make this happen.
- Do Some Solo Backpacking. Earlier this year, I read a couple of different books about the Appalachian Trail, which obviously made me want to do some hiking. The logistics of planning for longer hikes has always stopped me from doing much these, not to mention the physical fitness part, but I don't know when I'll have a better opportunity. It would be cool to try and complete a demarcated section, like the complete section through the Shenandoah.
- Do Some Research Traveling. It is the case for my field and my chosen that most of the artifacts I'm interested in are available digitally. However, one of the points of interest in my books' topic is the rare materiality of computer-generated objects. They may be born-digital, but they live in print, sometimes in rare or unique volumes. I know of items of interest that are held at places like Brown, Penn State, Delaware, Cleveland State, and a couple of others. While I can't afford to travel to all of these places, I may be able to visit one or two and/or strategically plan some conference travel.
- Make some Art. I don't know what. I just want to make something (physical) that I feel proud of.
- See some Art. I like going to art museums. If I can manage, it would be nice to attend one on my own. Going to an art museum with family is fun, but it can be stressful because we all feel the push and pull of wanting to spend different amounts of time with what we're seeing. Going on my own would let me spend as much or as little time as I felt like, which I don't often get the chance to do.
- Finish some Creative Digital Projects. I have about three or four of these in progress in various stages ranging from "vague idea" to "nearly done." It would be nice to spend some time on these and get them online in some form -- ideally, submitted to a digital literary journal or two.
- Finish some non-Book Writing. I have two conference papers I think I can turn into journal articles. I have two or three books on my "to read" pile that I could write reviews of, either just published here or in journals.
- Time, Generally. I have heard that when people explore caves for a long time, they gradually lose their diurnal rhythm thanks to the lack of the sun. I do worry that lacking a hard and fast teaching schedule will allow me to get even sloppier than usual with time management, and other things like working around the house or yard will provide fuel for my procrastinatory tendencies.
- I don't finish the manuscript. This is the big one, obviously: the fear that after all this time, all the belief invested in myself that I can do this won't actually pan out in a book. Same goes for all of the other aspirations, though with various degrees of emotional stakes.
- I finish the manuscript but it isn't good. I mean, this might be worse than not finishing at all because it could represent a lot of time wasted. I am hopeful that crafting a solid proposal and plan for the book will help me avoid this problem. Also, I can recognize this as good old imposter syndrome.
- Post-"Marathon" Depression. I have run a few marathons in my life, and one thing I experienced a little of -- but have read about others' experiencing more acutely -- is a period of depression following the achievement of finishing a marathon or ultra-marathon. This is a metaphor for me, of course, since my knees lack the cartilage required for any kind of serious running, but I can imagine something similar playing out after this sabbatical. Whether the book writing goes well or not, I might find myself saying, "Oh, that's it?" in about January as I shift gears from one kind of high intensity research work into different kinds of intensity with the return of teaching.
I am still working on these, but I am developing ways to think about my aspirations in light of my anxieties and obligations. In general, the root of all the anxieties and the tension between my aspirations and my obligations is that blobby, amorphous thing called time. I think most people have a hard time estimating how much time something will take or, after the fact, reflecting on how much time something took them to finish it. I am, I think, especially bad at both of these things.
So one strategy I've found helpful is to rely on "hard edges" or external constraints like a teaching schedule to keep me moving. I will need to develop a similar attention to time with my own intrinsic constraints, which I think I can do.
I have found Notion to be really helpful for planning and organizing my work. For my daily class preparation last semester, I created a "teaching day" template, so every morning on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I would fire up a fresh template already tagged and arranged into subheaded sections for each class and different types of prep work.
I want to make a similar "writing day" template and think of my time as similarly constrained to non-negotiable boundaries on those days. This should be doable.
Another thing I should keep in mind is that the anxieties about the book itself are all imagining future scenarios with negative consequences. I need to remember to envision more successful outcomes -- while working on the things that make successful outcomes more likely -- to give myself the best chances.
Ultimately, I have to remember to avoid thinking about the value of my work in terms of what aspirations I do or do not accomplish. Instead, I need to recognize and take control over how I spend my time. At the end of a day or at the end of my sabbatical, if I can say that I spent my time working toward the aspirations I have set out here, then I should be able to consider that a success.
Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash
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