Wednesday, September 11, 2013


For readers curious how Flavia is spending her sweet sweet sabbatical year, I'm here to assure you that it's not just about arising late, debating which exotic shade to paint my toenails, and getting quietly blitzed on gin. (I do all those things in a regular semester.)

Mainly, I'm trying to arrive at a negotiated settlement with Time. If life during an ordinary semester means doing battle with clock and calendar--trying to fit everything into an already jam-packed schedule--life on leave involves a different kind of struggle: the effort to impose a schedule on endless days during which no one particularly cares where I am or what I do. (Except for the cats, whose only requirements are that I hang around and produce body heat and feed them once a day.)

If you're lucky enough to have a year or semester "off," how do you ensure that you're using it well? And at a more basic level, how do you fill each day in a way that allows you to go to bed without a gut full of guilt and self-loathing?

I've known since grad school that maximal free time does not make me maximally productive. When I was teaching, I wrote an average of two dissertation chapters a year (usually one during the academic year and one during the summer). But the year I was on fellowship and relieved of my teaching duties, I wrote exactly one new chapter. Now, I wasn't loafing around; in addition to research for my new chapter, I got two articles based on earlier chapters accepted for publication, I went to a couple of conferences, and I continued working two full days a week at my publishing job. But though I may not have done any less scholarly work that year than the previous one, it's impossible to argue that I did more.

A tenure-line job ties up my time as grad school never could, and it's much harder to get work done during the academic term. Still, my progress during summers and my pre-tenure leave suggests that when I have no obligations other than writing and research, I do not get a strictly proportionate amount of work done (which is to say, I don't fill up my normal 40- or 60- or whatever hour work weeks with scholarship). That's not something I fret about, particularly: people in intellectual and creative fields need time to recharge, to read widely, and to pursue tangential interests; if I succeeded in spending even 25 hours a week, every week, for an entire year, reading and writing within my field, I'd consider my sabbatical a screaming success.

The problem, then, is how to get those hours in, how to make them feel worthwhile, and what to do with all the other hours in a day.

So for now, this is how I'm getting through the days and weeks with a reasonable sense of purpose: I'm taking Italian classes Monday-Wednesday-Friday, which also involves a commute. Initially I was worried about all the extra time this would suck up (just going to class takes approximately three and a half hours each day we meet), but in fact it's turning out to be exactly the structure I need: three days a week, I have to get up and get out of the house at a halfway normal hour, put on something other than yoga pants, and pay some attention to my hair and makeup. I take the light rail downtown and have a pleasant walk to campus. That's also my exercise for the day, which amounts to about two and a half miles total, between getting to my neighborhood rail stop and the walk to and from campus.

I walk up one of the city's grand old nineteenth-century boulevards, lined with beaux-arts buildings, past the theatre district, restaurant row, a sports stadium, and a public library that looks like the NYPL's younger sister. I know from experience that parts of that walk are deserted and even ominous at night or on the weekends, but at lunchtime on a weekday the street is filled with office workers, tourists, and sports fans. It's nice to participate in the regular, workaday rhythms, nice to have some human interactions, and nice to see more of the city and its citizens.

I get home at 3.30, which still gives me plenty of time to work if I want to--and on the days I don't have class, I have wonderful long blocks of time to immerse myself in my work; blocks I wouldn't value or get excited about if every day were similarly open and unplanned.

It's been working well so far, but up to now I've been working on deadline for a few discrete projects--proofreading and indexing my book, writing a short commissioned article, that sort of thing--which has helped my sense of focus. Starting the second week in October, though, it'll just be me and Book Two, which remains a vast, amorphous, and somewhat intimidating project. I'll report back then.


Readers: how have you dealt with unstructured time or made the most of any research fellowships or leaves?


Sisyphus said...

I walk up one of the city's grand old nineteenth-century boulevards, lined with beaux-arts buildings, past the theatre district, restaurant row, a sports stadium, and a public library that looks like the NYPL's younger sister.

Now you're just trying to make us all jealous. :P

Flavia said...


It is, I think, objectively lovely--but I'm also trying to be a booster for Punchline Rustbelt City, which doesn't always have a lot of boosters: some of those buildings are vacant or significantly underutilized, and lots of suburbanites would think twice about walking that route after dark (or, indeed, about taking the light rail at any time of day, given that its ridership is almost entirely Not White).

Anonymous said...

I have a sabbatical coming up in the spring, and people have been asking me, "Where are you going to GO?" -- my answer is, "to my office, pretty much every day." Like you I need the structure of getting up, getting dressed, and coming over to work. But I am looking forward to managing my own time reading, doing research, and setting up future projects. It's all about routine and structure.

Anonymous said...

I have a lot of difficulty with unstructured time because I get less done than when I'm teaching. These experiences actually make me terrified of semesters "off." I had last Fall free from teaching for my postdoc and I dealt with the potential for not getting things done by making a semester plan of goals and projects to finish. I made sure I continued to write 500 words a day. I attended three conferences where I submitted abstracts of material not yet written in order to make myself write it. The deadline became the conference presentation. I also met with a writing group every Friday and another friend to write on Monday. With all of those plans and precautions I actually did manage to have a productive semester.

Enjoy your sabbatical! So far it sounds lovely.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Start drinking early.

Anonymous said...

I am very eager to see the range of responses, because this is a question that puzzles me as well. I've had exactly two leaves in my career so far, and both of them corresponded with the birth of a child! In my first job, there was no maternity leave, so I had to take my pre-tenure research semester as maternity leave. Then, six years ago, I got a lovely year-long residential fellowship for which I applied before finding out I was VERY unexpectedly pregnant with child number 2, and then delivered said child literally on the first day of the fellowship (which, heck yes, I took even though it meant moving out of state when I was 8 months pregnant and then spend half of the year as the sole residential parent of a 6 year old and an infant).

So all I know how to do on leave is squeeze research in between nursing sessions! I'll have an entire year of leave once my term as department head ends, and since I am absolutely not having any more kids, I am not sure exactly how to cope with vast swathes of time. I'm looking forward to it, but it also scares me a bit, since I'm very accustomed now to working productively in small windows of time.

Flavia said...


Yes, external deadlines--if you can get 'em!--are key. Private deadlines don't work as well for me. It's not that I miss them (sometimes I do, but sometimes I beat them by a wide margin), it's that they have no teeth.

In the absence of external deadlines, routine & structure--as both Anon 11.13 and Anon 11.31 suggest--are the only way I know how to do it. As the second Anon says, it's often much easier to fit in work around the edges of other tasks.

Personally, I don't find that dictating the number of hours I'll work per day is effective, but output minima are much easier (because if I work super-efficiently, then I'm done for the day!). So when I'm writing, I typically assign myself three pages to write a day, or when I'm researching it'll be reading four articles or half a book or whatever.

I used to joke that that I wrote my entire dissertation between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m., and there's some truth to that: I had a standing phone-date with my then-partner at 11, after which I never got any more work done. So in a typical day I'd procrastinate for hour and hours and hours--and then at 8 p.m. I'd sit my ass in a chair and pound out a few pages just so's not to hate myself the next day. Whatever. It worked.

(I also respond to rewards: if I do X by 11, I can have a drink and watch a movie!)

Dr. Crazy said...

1) as a native of Punchline Rustbelt City, I love your description of it, mostly because we natives generally tend to forget its (TOTALLY AWESOME) charms. Also, The Rapid RULEZ (says a girl in another Same-State-City that has been debating about installing a similar system for as long as I've lived here.)

2) When I had my sabbatical, three things were essential: 1) I woke up at the same time (around 8-9) every day, 2) I went for a walk every (working/writing) day, and 3) I put together a group with whom to workshop research stuff and to whom I had to report (even if I wasn't "on"). I realize the last one might be hard since you're not in the city of your home institution, but that provided me with necessary external accountability, even though I was working on a "new" book project for which there was then not an audience.


Psycgirl said...

I do nothing in terms of productivity with unstructured time, so I appreciate this post Flavia. Also your Italian lessons and your commute does make me jealous!

Anonymous said...

Yes, yes, yes to your post. In that situation I find that forcing to myself to write one hour a day (or half an hour, or even 20 minutes) EVERY DAY, no matter what, results in me being productive enough. The trick is doing this even on the days when you don't feel like it, or make plans to do something else. It's like exercise that way.

Flavia said...

Dr. C:

Yes, walks are featuring largely in my life, too--on the days that I'm at home (which are the days Cosimo teaches), I've been routinely taking a late afternoon/early evening walk for about an hour. It's nice to have that as a firm commitment in my otherwise unstructured days.

Also, seriously? I'm getting so much exercise these days--more than I got even those weeks when I succeeded in making it to the gym three times. Learning Italian and losing a few pounds: maybe not the ends my sabbatical was intended to serve, but not bad outcomes either.

Nikhil Cherian said...
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