Two things have conspired in the last week to make me realize my sabbatical is really over. First, my life as a bureaucrat kicked back in. My faculty appointment has always had an administrative component: I am beginning my ninth year directing one of our department's basic courses, Oral and Written Communication. This position requires a good amount of summer labor on my part: hiring and coordinating staff, revising our course manual, coordinating with the library and other folks on campus, and planning for fall TA orientation. This week, while copy-editing my way through sentences like, "After you have decided on a topic, your instructor will ask you to write a topic proposal and research plan," I realized: it's over. Damn.
I also tackled my final official task as a Vanderbilt visiting fellow: the report of my activities. The folks at Vanderbilt asked me to work this up and send it to their dean, who likes to keep track of what the fellows were up to. While writing the report I realized for the umpteenth time how lucky I was to be there and how grateful I am to have had the experience. And how sad I am that it's over.
In an effort to stave off total depression (stage 3 of the 7 stages of post-sabbatical grief, I believe), I thought I might focus on the positive and offer a few reflections on my sabbatical experience. For those of you with sabbatical time in your future (and I hope that's lots of you), this list may serve as a bit of friendly advice. But do keep in mind that this advice reflects my specific situation. I temporarily relocated to Nashville for nine months to be a visiting fellow at the humanities center at Vanderbilt. I had no teaching obligations while I was there. I was part of a fellows program that required weekly meetings and I was expected to be in residence. Okay, here we go...
(1) Having "writing time" doesn't mean spending all day, every day at the computer. Even if you have time to write all day every day, you won't. And moreover, you shouldn't. First of all, it's physically impossible, as I discovered when jaw and neck pain (my personal nemesis) told me it was time to get up and do something else for a while. And just because you have time to write doesn't mean that this is what your project needs from you at every moment. At first I felt a bit scattered as I bounced around from writing to reading to researching to writing again, worried that I wasn't "writing enough" and thus wasting my sabbatical. But most of the time this bouncing around was precisely what my project needed at those moments. Finally, it's important to realize that even when you're not writing, you're writing. One of the best things about sabbatical for me was that my mind wasn't cluttered with other things. The book was on my mind all the time, whether I was writing or not. More than once I had to stop on the walk home from campus to take out a notebook and jot down a few thoughts about the project. That told me my head was always in the game, and that's a good thing.
(2) You can't always escape obligations back home. The sooner you accept this, the better off you'll be. Although I did leave my teaching and course director obligations behind, as well as much of my committee work, I couldn't set aside everything. I still had professional obligations to the grad students who work with me, especially to the three who were writing dissertations and going on the job market. Add to that a co-edited book project at a critical stage and a few other loose ends that weren't completely tied up before I left, and I got good reminders that the year couldn't be all about me. On bad days, this got frustrating and I pouted that all I'd done in leaving was make a really expensive office change. On good days (and there were mostly good days), I accepted these obligations to others as requirements of my job, a way to maintain connections at home, and a chance to give my brain a break from my project.
(3) Don't be surprised if you end up working pretty much the way you always did. Sabbatical seems like the perfect time to try out new schedules, habits, and ways of working. But I know myself well enough to know that I don't like to write in the evenings, or late at night, and that I can't write all day, every day. So I found myself falling back on what has always worked best for me in the past: trying to write for a few hours every day, preferably in the morning, then moving on to reading or other things later on. Mostly I wrote at the office (because they gave me an awesome office), but when I needed to change it up I stayed home in my jammies and wrote at the kitchen table. Nothing new, nothing fancy, just trying to do what worked.
(4) Being a "goodfellow" means knowing the obligations at your sabbatical institution. It's nice to set aside obligations back home, but there will likely be ones at the new place, too. A colleague of mine was on fellowship at a center where the fellows are required to have lunch together, every day, no matter what. (And they were required to sit with different people every day). My obligations weren't nearly that structured, but still they existed. I was required to attend our weekly fellows' seminar, and to do the "homework" that we assigned one another for each meeting. I also felt that I should be as visible as possible to the good folks who had invited me to Vanderbilt. For me that meant spending lots of time in the (awesome) office, attending humanities center events and campus talks, and showing support for my fellow fellows. Frankly, I was selfishly motivated to do a lot of these things; I loved the people I worked with, I attended events I was interested in, and I enjoyed having the time to get to know the community. But I also felt an obligation to the folks paying my way to be visible and make my presence on campus a positive one.
(4) Nothing is more important than sleep. The single best thing I did all year was get an extra hour of sleep each weekday morning. During the school year at home, I wake up around 5:45 or 6 a.m.; this past year it was more like 7 a.m. or, once in a while, even 8. Five extra hours of sleep per week. Multiply that by 36 weeks of sabbatical, and you begin to see what I'm talking about. I did not get a single cold while I was gone; in a typical school year I get at least two nasty ones. I don't think that's a coincidence. The extra sleep did wonders for both my body and my brain.
At some point I might reflect on what I might "do over" (one always has regrets), but for now it's more important to get past stage 3 of grief and focus on the positive.