This Month in My Sabbatical: Not a Bad Start

I’m sort of missing the routine of my weekly teaching posts–not just writing them, but the act of taking stock that they represent. So I thought I would have a go at a similar exercise reflecting on my  progress (if that’s what it is!) through my sabbatical term. It may be even more useful, in a way, to make sure I am self-conscious about the passage of time, because my days are much less structured and my goals are in some ways more diffuse! So here goes.

Ongoing Business: Despite what non-academics often think, being on sabbatical does not mean not being at work–it means shifting the focus of your work, particularly by re-allocating the time usually spent in class prep, teaching, marking, and administration to research and writing tasks. Most of that time, that is, because there are always teaching and administrative tasks that still need to get done. For instance, this month we were asked to turn in our course descriptions for next year, which means I have already spent some time thinking about reading lists. Book orders will be due later this spring, so at this point my choices are only tentative, but I did brood about how things went with specific books or courses the last time and make some changes accordingly; I also researched and then wrote away for exam copies of some alternative texts, particularly for the Mystery and Detective Fiction class. I set up and marked a make-up exam for a student who had a family crisis right before our December final. I worked through 100 pages of a draft thesis chapter from one of my Ph.D. students and about 40 pages from another (and I attended a colloquium paper presented by yet another whose committee I am on). I wrote a lot of reference letters (and have three more I plan to finish up today or tomorrow).

Housekeeping: During teaching terms, though I stay on top of the day-to-day business pretty well, I find there’s not a lot of time to spend thinking about how I organize things, or sorting through old materials to see what needs to stay and what can go. After 15 years in this job (and 10, now, in this particular office) stuff does rather pile up. One of the first things I did in the new year, then, was to begin going through my filing cabinets: so far I have three bags of paper ready for recycling, and much less duplicate or unnecessary material taking up space. I’ve also donated (or at least put out on our “help yourselves” shelf in the department lounge) an array of unwanted books. Equally important now that we do more and more of our work electronically, though, is electronic filing, and here I have begun a big project of reorganizing my files of course materials. Long ago I decided to keep my paper notes and handouts in files by author and text, rather than course, which has worked very well for me: if I’m teaching, say, Great Expectations, I pull out the DICKENS GREAT EXPECTATIONS folder and in it I find old lecture notes, discussion questions, overheads, essay topics, etc. But my computer files have always been by course and then by year. This worked well for a few years, but now I often find myself puzzling over which year it was that I taught The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or where the latest version of the exam questions on Jude the Obscure are filed. Of course, you can simply search for key terms, but inefficiencies still emerge if you’re trying to browse your materials for a particular text or topic–plus there’s redundancy here too, as I end up with many files of lecture notes revised, expanded, or improved on over the years but still stored in multiple versions. So I’m re-sorting all this stuff into the kinds of groupings that I think will help me quickly gather what I need when I’m prepping for class and deleting outdated or duplicate files. Once the teaching ones are better organized, I’d like to do the same for my research materials. Many of these files I might copy into OneNote, which is where I now organize my new notes and draft materials.

Research: My main research project for this sabbatical is getting a version of my essay on Ahdaf Soeuif ready for submission to a peer-reviewed journal–at least, I think that’s what I want to do with it, though I admit, the revolution still unfolding in Egypt has made me feel dissatisfied, somewhat, with what I’ve been doing. More about that later, perhaps. In any case, I have finished taking my fresh set of notes on The Map of Love (on January 25th, as it happens, I was just working through a scene of intense political discussion in the novel, a debate about the future of Egypt and the possibility of change). One of the challenges of academic writing is figuring out, not just what you want to say, but when you’re ready–or allowed–to say it, given the array of contextual and critical material that already exists. When can you stop reading, in other words, and feel entitled to contribute to the discussion? There is no right way to answer this, of course, and it is easy (at least for me) to get so overwhelmed by the vastness of the existing scholarship and the difficulty of drawing lines between what’s relevant and what’s peripheral that I can’t put two words of my own together. I find what helps me most, in this situation, is to go back to my primary text, allowing whatever else I’ve been reading to buzz around in the back of my mind and help me notice things and generate questions as I go. I make detailed notes, going page by page through the novel, and along the way I usually begin to see where the main questions are for me, and how I might begin to answer them. Then I am better able to see what I don’t have to read, and to position myself in the discussion I want to be a part of. In this case, because I am starting from my analysis of In the Eye of the Sun, I wanted to stay in roughly the same territory, thinking about the relationship between Soueif’s work and the English literary tradition she repeatedly invokes. But The Map of Love is a very different book, particularly in its form, and it seems much less confident about the idea of common ground (or ‘mezza terra’) that I argued is central to the earlier novel. Towards the end of last week I started roughing out the new section of the essay.

Other Reading and Writing: I’ve done quite a bit of reading this month. I began looking at some recent books in Victorian studies, in keeping with my goal of refreshing my own expertise for both teaching and criticism in “my” field. One was Patrick Brantlinger’s Victorian Literature and Postcolonial Studies, but it ended up not being of great interest, as it recapitulates texts and debates that I had already become reasonably familiar with. He’s a good writer and it’s a good overview, to be sure. I’ve begin Rachel Ablow’s The Marriage of Minds: Reading, Sympathy, and the Victorian Marriage Plot, and I have James Eli Adams’s A History of Victorian Literature out from the library–another overview, but given how specialized critical work has become, I thought I’d start big and zoom in. But, speaking of specialized, I saw Julie Fromer’s A Necessary Luxury: Tea in Victorian England in the library while I was browsing around and couldn’t resist checking it out as well. Necessary indeed! I’ve documented most of my other reading on this blog already, including the beginnings of my Margaret Kennedy project–I’m two books in and feeling, frankly, underwhelmed, but I will persist! And if the essay that results is along the lines of “Margaret Kennedy: As Well Known as She Deserves, Actually,” well, that will be as interesting in its own way as “Margaret Kennedy: Underappreciated!” Among the other books I’ve read and written up are Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, for the book clubs I now participate in, and I’m now reading Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, not really for fun (how could it be? too grim!) but with an eye to my mystery class in the fall.  In addition to the ‘other writing’ that I have done here on Novel Readings (including a long piece on Sex and the City 2), I also wrote a review of Sara Paretsky’s Body Work for Open Letters Monthly–though this is not an academic publication, it certainly draws on the work I’ve done preparing for my courses on detective fiction.

Overall, then, though I’d like to be a bit further along in the rough draft of the Soueif essay, and though I feel I have not, actually, done as much reading as I’d like, or (with the academic reading) as much as I probably should have, I think I have made a reasonable start on accomplishing my goals for this sabbatical. A lot of time I might have spent working on other things, I spent reading and watching coverage of events in Egypt–I’m not inclined, actually, to see that as in any way irresponsible. I’ve also been going fairly regularly to the gym, where I run around the dreary concrete track, and I’ve made good progress on my cross-stitch “Bookshelf” sampler, including changing the pattern to include more of the books and authors I like best! Maybe next weekend I’ll get the binding on the quilt that has been sitting unfinished on my sewing table for months, and then I’ll really feel I’m getting things done…

6 Comments to This Month in My Sabbatical: Not a Bad Start

  1. February 7, 2011 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Not a bad start at all. I think you are right that this kind of review of your work post is very helpful. We so often only look at lists of things yet to be accomplished that it is easy to lose sight of everything we have done.

    Also, the filing and sorting project seems like it should be more credit than most of us tend to give it. That is lots of work, takes valuable time and brainspace, and probably reaps rewards that are hard to quantify. If your teaching preparation becomes more efficient or effective because of it, that will be worthwhile. Though I suspect there is also some kind of energy drain just from knowing that there is all that clutter.

    I am also drawn to that bit in the middle of your research report about the difficulty of knowing when you are ready to write your own contribution, and losing your own ideas in the sea of existing critical work. Like the teaching posts, I think your attention to how you have done this in this specific case is valuable information. You are not alone in struggling with this and wider discussion of how we get through this struggle seems valuable.

    Keep up the great work. Perhaps there is the more scholarly article on Soeuif and a related piece (perhaps for one of the blogs, or even some kind of crossover publication that publishes thoughtful work for a wider audience) on the Egypt situation that is related to this literature. Not sure who might publish that, but I suspect you have interesting things to say given how immersed you have been in this literature before the current crisis. And a literary perspective might make a nice addition to all the foreign policy/Middle East politics perspectives that get in the news.

  2. February 8, 2011 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    This is a really good idea. I know from personal experience how easy it is to let the time pass by without being aware how much of it is going to waste. It will also give you ammunition when your line manger wants to know what you did with your sabbatical. A question that can be really iffy to answer.

    I’m very interested in what you say about Soeuif. I’ve only read ‘The Map of Love’ which I very much enjoyed. However, if it’s not typical then I would like to read something else by her that is. What would you recommend?

  3. February 8, 2011 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I find this post fascinating. I don’t often have access to such detailed (and well written) descriptions of one’s process and thinking and concerns–especially concerns that seem so well aligned with my own.

    I appreciated hearing about these ongoing work responsibilities you have while on sabbatical (often wondered what goes on), and found the stuff about organizing the files (especially the digital ones) oddly compelling. These are things I think about a lot but would never think to write about. But why? Knowing that you have these same concerns validates them, makes me feel less “alone” with them. So thanks for that.

    Also, so interesting to hear about your questions for approaching the Soeuif article. Finding a fresh approach to a subject is challenging in any “genre,” but I feel I now have a better understanding of how this works in academic writing.

    Most of all, I think, I appreciate the attempt to weigh how much you’ve accomplished versus how much you may have hoped to accomplish–another concern I have had recently. I know that from a motivation standpoint, we are supposed to reward ourselves for what we have accomplished, but when there’s still so much to do, it’s hard for me to feels it’s time for rewards. My point here is not that there’s an answer for this, but that I so much appreciated finding someone else considering the questions.

  4. February 8, 2011 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, all of you, for these thoughtful comments. This is the kind of post that feels, when I’m writing it, as if nobody could possibly be interested–and yet look, it turns out that we all puzzle in our own ways about how to manage our time, and our files!

    @Jo, I am wondering if there’s something else to be done along with the academic essay on Soueif. It feels opportunistic to try to seize on this historical moment–there’s something a bit shameful (or should be) about so many people in ‘the west’ suddenly discovering Egypt. And yet finding one’s academic / literary interests suddenly highly topical is rare.

    @Annie, Soueif’s only other full-length novel is In the Eye of the Sun, and I would recommend it, though in some ways I think it is a less polished and somewhat stranger novel than The Map of Love Her book of essays and journalism, Mezzaterra, is also very interesting reading.

    @Susan, I agree that it can be very hard to figure out how or whether to reward ourselves, especially when our aims or desired accomplishments are quite long term or diffuse. I think both writers and academics, who are often answerable only to themselves, especially need to find ways to do this. I’m never going to be eligible for any kind of merit pay, and none of my colleagues cares if I get an article done (or a blog post!) so a nice cofee and a cinnamon bun when I finish a particular task, or a luxurious afternoon browsing bookstores when I’m done my grading, is as much as I’ll get–it’s enough, really, but it’s up to me to make sure I do get it. About the digital files, it’s particularly noticeable how important these questions become if you are ever transferring material to a new computer. Suddenly, all those neat folder icons seem like so much clutter! I’ve recently acquired an iPad, which does not use an independent folder system, and this is going to create a whole new array of confusions for me–though I do hope I’ll learn to manage my files there effectively or the iPad won’t end up being nearly as useful as I fondly imagine now.

  5. Melissa's Gravatar Melissa
    February 12, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    This post was just as useful for me as a mid-stream PhD student as I think it seems to be for other faculty reading. So much of what I’m thinking about now that I’m in Year III is professionalization–I’m done courses and exams, and I often feel like I’m very consciously making the shift from thinking about myself as a student to thinking about myself as an emergent academic. I’m just writing my first article, so that’s currently a big part of it. It’s useful to hear about the kinds of things that faculty are doing on sabbatical and how they’re using their time–and that you have the same concerns about research and writing. I often wonder if I’m doing enough work, or too much, and this puts it in a bit better perspective for now and the future.

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