This Week In My Sabbatical: Reading and Writing
This is actually the third week of my winter term sabbatical — which is why you haven’t seen any recent posts in my series on ‘This Week In My Classes‘! Classroom time is hands-down my favorite part of my job, and yet I look forward to and cherish this teaching-free time. Paradoxical? Not really, because classroom time is only part of what goes along with a teaching term, and that time, too, is prepared for and paid for by a lot of work only some of which is as fun as taking an hour to talk about Villette or The Big Sleep with a keen (and captive!) audience. Sabbaticals also mean a reprieve from administrative duties and meetings, and as this aspect of work was particularly stressful last term, I feel particularly relieved to detach myself from the attendant anxiety and fretfulness. Sure, the problems remain, but my colleagues will do fine working on them without me for a little while.
I wrote already about some of my plans and hopes for this term. What can I report, this short distance in? Well, for one thing, I got off to a slow start because I had a really bad cold the first week of January. If I’d been teaching, I wouldn’t have been sick enough to take any time off, so it felt nicely self-indulgent to let myself be unwell for a few days and treat my symptoms with rest, tea, and books.
However, because I had signed up for A Meeting With Your Writing, I did go in to work that Monday, because I was determined to at least get started on my main sabbatical project — and I did, enough that I felt a rush of enthusiasm for it and set myself up so that I could pick it up again pretty smoothly last Monday, which was the start of a much more productive writing week overall. Besides doing more of the start-up work for the George Eliot book, I actually finished a review I have been thinking about since I got the book back in October: I had promised the review for early January at the latest, and it felt good to get it done. The book in question was Detecting Canada: Essays on Canadian Crime Fiction, Television, and Film, and the review will appear at some point in Belphégor. I learned a lot from the book, and it yielded a long list of potential texts for my Detective Fiction class, where I have always been a bit shamefacedly aware that I include no CanCon beyond one Peter Robinson short story that was in an anthology I used for a couple of years — and as Detecting Canada made me almost too aware, Robinson may or may not count as CanCon since he’s not from Canada and doesn’t set his books in Canada. (You’ll have to wait for my review to find out what I think about parsing his or anyone’s literary identity in that way!)
My work on the book project has so far been mostly of the collecting and contemplating sort: after choosing which chapter topic I wanted to start with, I began clipping relevant excerpts and commenting on them in a more or less open-ended, open-minded fashion, letting patterns and connections and ideas for arguments emerge without trying too hard to shape them into anything. I love doing this, because it’s an excuse to revisit so many wonderful moments in the novels. (Rereading “Janet’s Repentance” was part of this preliminary work.) I have a lot of material gathered up now, though, and I think I’m at the point where I have to do some organizing and then some more focused writing. I’m working to hold at bay two sources of anxiety and thus writer’s block: first, that this larger project feels a lot messier (so far) and more amorphous than the nice discrete tasks I’ve been doing (book reviews and single-title essays), and second, that I know perfectly well it’s a kind of Quixotic project, neither academic nor popular, in a genre with no market potential unless you bring a certain degree of celebrity to it. I know the former anxiety will abate as I keep working, but right now I do get a bit mentally dizzy if I look up from the specific thing I’ve chosen to do. I’m lucky that I don’t have to care about the latter issue, and I don’t want to care, but I follow too many authors, publishers, and reviewers not to be a bit sensitive about doing so much “ardent labor all in vain.” But you have to write what you have in you and what you care about, and when I shut up that particular gremlin (as Jo is teaching me to think of him!), I feel pretty happy, actually, to be able to give it a try.
The absence of mandatory course reading has also helped me get some good reading and blogging done; I’ve been doing editing for Open Letters; and I’ve done some reference letters and some make-up work from last term as well. I’m meeting regularly with one of our Ph.D. students who is reading for her comprehensive exams — that makes up a bit for the lack of classroom time, since it’s a nice opportunity to talk over a whole range of great 19th-century material. Later this week I am participating in a Twitter chat with Karen Bourrier‘s graduate seminar, and a bit further into the term I’m holding another session on blogging and social media for our own graduate students. In other words, I may not be teaching but I’m definitely keeping busy, in ways that feel like a refreshing change from what was feeling last term like a pretty tired and unsatisfying routine. That kind of renewal is a big part of what sabbaticals are for, and I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity. I definitely want to make the most of it.