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Sabbatical Musings One: On how not to do a sabbatical

20 February, 2014

So. Or even, Hwæt!

I am on sabbatical. I’ve been on sabbatical since the beginning of term in January, but I am really only counting it since a little over two weeks ago, when I arrived in the UK. That’s when the separation from SLAC began, and I didn’t need to worry about my house, etc. Of course, I did have to find a place to live, get settled there, get my paperwork turned in so I could officially call myself a Visiting Research Fellow at an institution where I never dreamed I might have even an honorary affiliation. I’ve been working, but honestly, it feels like time is slipping away, and I managed to have something close to a meltdown. 

Meltdowns don’t really fit my idea of ‘things that one should do on sabbatical.’

So what exactly should I be doing? and how does that relate to said meltdown?

SLAC doesn’t really have a clear policy on the purpose of a sabbatical. We don’t have research leave, other than the sabbatical, which until recently could be taken every eighth year, if approved. The standard load is 24 credit hours per year. Some people have bigger loads than that. Others get a 3-hour release to do research. Add in individual supervisions, etc., though, and it’s never a full course release. Many of us, myself included, teach an incredibly broad range of courses, almost none of which are in our own research areas. So after seven years, we are tired. In my case, it’s been close to thirteen years, i.e., I’ve never had a non-teaching term since I started teaching full-time. Because there are lots of people like me, SLAC’s faculty government, like those at other universities, has kept the regenerative purposes of a sabbatical in the mix. So when planning my sabbatical, I tried to think of non-academic goals in addition to research projects. Basically, I had this weird idea that using the sabbatical and the distance from SLAC to get into healthier habits that would be in the long term beneficial to my health, my teaching and my research. Given that the last approximately four years at SLAC have been hugely stressful and bad for my physical and emotional health, this seemed a good plan. Fortunately, being a productive scholar seems to be important to my well-being, so… yeah. 

I started with modest goals:

  • I would revise and resubmit an article that I really want and need to expand and finish
  • I would do enough research to set up an agenda for the next 2-3 years
  • i would finish an overdue translation for colleagues
  • I would finish a long-overdue (but still only verbally contracted and no agreed-upon estimate of costs for some specialized web programming) project, if I could, AND
  • I would get back into running
  • I would blog
  • I would read in my field, and maybe even catch up a bit
  • I would read fiction, which I haven’t done for about two years
  • I would knit, if I wanted
  • I would draw, and take photographs
  • I would sing
  • I would pay attention to my life as it happened, and to my friends and family.

You know, just looking at that looks a bit ambitious.  Basically, though, it boils down to this: write a couple of things and get some control over my life.

Then, somehow, there were more projects. Add to the list three presentations and a commissioned article, none of which I could turn down, because they all offered me opportunities to work with people I respect. In many ways, each offer was like a fairy tale come true. I could use my sabbatical to pretend I was a real academic, someone who, if she’d done things differently (i.e., better), might have ended up doing that sort of thing all of the time. By the time I landed, I’d internalised the idea that my sabbatical was an opportunity for make-believe. I was going to have seven months to pretend to be someone I clearly wasn’t, because if I were, I wouldn’t be flailing about trying to figure out how to do a sabbatical, how to pay for it, and how to keep up a pretense for such a long time. 

Longtime readers are unlikely to be surprised by this. As the Cranky Professor has said, I have a massive inferiority complex. But you know? even I can look at this and say, “wow. That’s just … kinda fucked up.” And really, that’s not the whole of it. Because at the same time, I was thinking, “Holy Crap. I got a (small, but helpful) grant to help pay for the sabbatical. SLAC chose to nominate me for it. That says something. And I have this kick-ass honorary position and title. Just because it’s honorary doesn’t mean they hand them out like copies of the Evening Standard. People recommended you, idiot. Also? Smart people don’t invite you to present with them just because they need to fill panels. Nor because they want to see you humiliated. They don’t ask you to contribute to volumes as a joke. Aaaand… just like that, by the end of Week One, I wasn’t worried about pretense. I was worried about proving myself. 

By the beginning of Week Three, Proving Myself became “OMG I am OLD and have had cancer and this is the only real chance I have to do enough research and publish enough that I can Ever. Apply. For. Another. Job! MY ENTIRE FUTURE RESTS ON THIS SABBATICAL AND ME SHOWING THE WORLD I CAN HACK IT AT A PLACE WITH A 3-2 LOAD AND MAYBE EVEN GRAD STUDENTS!!!! I CAN’T SCREW THIS UP!!!!!! NONE OF MY MEDIEVALIST COLLEAGUES WILL RESPECT ME IF I DON’T DO ALL THE THINGS! SUPERDEAN WILL FEEL LET DOWN!!”  No pressure, then. 

Cue meltdown.

And then, I stopped. 

Just like that. More or less. 

One of the things that the last few years at SLAC have taught me is how to recognize anxiety. Not worry, mind you, but anxiety of the ‘way too much adrenaline coursing through my body at the wrong time for the wrong reasons’ sort. It’s that fight/flight/freeze thing that can keep a person from accomplishing anything and push a person into a pit of worthlessness and despair. Or so I hear.  Recognizing a physical feeling for what it is is a great way of re-setting one’s bullshit detector. So I called bullshit on myself. And then, of course, I verified my analysis with LDW and a couple of other friends, and came to the conclusion that perhaps, just perhaps, I had allowed feeling like I might be an actual medievalist worthy of hanging out with cool medievalists who are scary smart — a good thing — lead to a set of possibly unrealistic, perhaps even unachievable, expectations. In short (ha!), perhaps I was putting pressure on myself where no such pressure existed? 

It took me about another hour to take that all in, and to figure out that it had taken me just over two weeks to set myself up to come back from sabbatical as the most stressed-out stress bunny that ever lived.  So today, I started again. I’m not thrilled that I didn’t get into the Reading Room. But I did things I wanted to do: 

  • I sat in a cafe and reviewed my goals
  • I read a couple of blog posts
  • I let myself appreciate being in one of the coolest cities in the world, and looked at flowers, and street signs, and other such things as I walked its streets
  • I took a break from people
  • I breathed
  • I took care of some mundane things
  • I came close to accepting that I know how to translate Latin, since every time I check a translation with someone else, they have the same thing, so maybe I should just stop panicking and finish the bastard thing
  • I found some other things I want to read and think about

Because really, if I can’t allow myself to stop and think during my sabbatical, how is it a break, or even a change of pace? 

And yes, I just realized I already had a panic about Getting All The Things Done, but that was DIY stuff. Note to self and others: a knack for self-imposed stress is not actually a helpful life skill. Just sayin’.


Next time: Nicholas Kristof needs more Sondheim in his life.






14 Comments leave one →
  1. Cronopio permalink
    20 February, 2014 8:00 pm

    Wow. I think you figured out in two weeks what it take some people weeks or maybe years to figure out! I applaud those cafe goals, and look forward to hearing more. xox

  2. 20 February, 2014 10:52 pm

    Good for you! I had a similar melt down recently, and got jolted out of my craziness at a conference (of all the things, in all the world, not a place one would expect to find relief from self-imposed stress melt-down). So rah-rah ADM! Relax! Enjoy! And have a cuppa and a crumpet and breathe.

    • 21 February, 2014 12:55 pm

      But don’t you have a similar sort of job to mine, Belle? I find that conferences are really good for helping me remember the parts of me I like a lot, and that stagnate during much of the year.

  3. Kris permalink
    20 February, 2014 11:15 pm

    First time commentator … this really resonated for me. I’ve just come back from sabbatical, which in Australia, where I work, is called study leave. Our institution has very strict expectations about ‘outputs’, which are the sole purpose of study leave. I had wanted to reset my habits over the 6 months (start jogging again, yoga, etc, etc) but found I was busier, unhealthier and more anxious than when I was in my normal teaching- research position, trying not to waste a bunch of opportunities that sound a bit like ours. By the end, I felt like SL was wasted time because I had squandered my chance to chill out a bit. It’s heartening to read about you stepping back from that spiral and remembering what *you* want.

    On the positive side I realised at the end of SL that if I hadn’t achieved those health and wellbeing goals during leave, they weren’t going to happen until I was absolutely disciplined about putting them first. Which I have done. So there was a delayed positive outcome, after all.

    • 21 February, 2014 12:57 pm

      Welcome, and good for you! I think the most important thing, as David mentions below, is that, without chilling out, there is no way to have a productive study leave.

  4. 21 February, 2014 2:43 am

    So at Dominican, when things get hectic, I, secular Jew that I am, invoke Aquinas. “Contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere.” First you contemplate. Then you can share the fruits of contemplation. I argue that the modern university (especially focusing on my little Dominican home) denies us the opportunity to contemplate as it drives us into constant sharing … without anything to share except reactions, not depth.

    The sabbatical may be productive, but first, contemplate. Breathe.

    • 21 February, 2014 12:58 pm

      Thanks! I shall. And I think I shall also add that bit of the Ox to my Julian mantra. Contemplate, and all shall be well.

  5. 24 February, 2014 12:06 am

    Hey! Long time no blogging! (For me, anyway). Congratulations on the sabbatical! You know what’s great about a sabbatical? You get to sleep. And recharge the batteries. Yes, you should get some stuff done, but just getting to the point where you don’t feel perpetually behind the ball is probably the best benefit of all.

    Looking forward to your dispatches! Now, excuse me while I get to grading papers…

  6. miscellanea permalink
    24 February, 2014 11:18 pm

    Hello – long-time reader and UK-based medievalist here. Any way I could send you a message?

    • 25 February, 2014 3:24 pm

      Yep. Email is on the right side of the page, around all the ‘follow me’ stuff. In other words, a[underscore]d[underscore]medievalist[ATSIGN]hotmail[DOT]com. Or I will be at the CLAMS seminar tonight, and the Earlier Medieval Seminar at the IHR tomorrow.

  7. Scientist permalink
    26 February, 2014 1:50 pm

    I think you are right to just take a step back. Lots of times I approach each day saying to myself “What is the one important thing that I want to get done today”. That’s it. Not two things, not a bunch of things, just one. If that gets done, I’ve had a good day.

  8. Daniel Jeschke permalink
    20 May, 2015 11:54 am

    Hi, i´m glad you found the right way to handle your anxiety. Many people cant come down from “work mode” and still try to finish things from a list, to feel needed and productive. but a Sabbatical is not about that, its about finding peace and listen to your heart, which you can not hear during your work time.


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