Sunday, December 29, 2013

Irons in the fire

Among the things I planned to accomplish in the first semester of my sabbatical was a draft of one chapter of my second book. That could still happen--RU's classes don't resume until the 27th, and according to the Flavian Calendar I have until then to complete all tasks assigned to the fall semester--but right now I'm finding myself doing both more and less than focusing on that particular chapter.

In the past two weeks, I've done the following:

Continued working my way through Donne's sermons

Re-read old notes on Donne's polemical prose

Read a couple of articles on Izaak Walton's Compleat Angler

Read a couple of articles on early modern science and manuscript culture

Made some revisions to an essay on Merchant of Venice

Thought about Foxe's Acts and Monuments

Thought about All's Well that Ends Well and Jacob and Esau

Looked through some notes on Browne's Religio Medici

Read the first book of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

In case it's not clear, most of those things aren't related to one another. I find myself working on five or six discrete projects, but none in a sustained way. It's possible that this is just procrastination from the primary task I intended to focus on--that Donne chapter--but I'm also finding, for the first time in my life, that I'm enjoying doing a million things at once.

As I've mentioned before, I prefer to be a monotasker, especially when it comes to my scholarship: I like to focus on a single project until it's done (or, at any rate, until I reach some logical or necessary stopping point). Short-term projects can interrupt, but when they do, I focus on that project until it's done, and then return to Project A. The idea of having a whole bunch of half-written articles--or conference papers that I hadn't yet developed into articles, or extensive research that hadn't even graduated to the point of being a conference paper--has always seemed about as appealing as having a bunch of cars up on blocks on my front lawn.

But here I am, having fun. I'm not sure if this is just the result of being on sabbatical and having more freedom to dabble and draw connections across disparate texts and subfields (because it turns out? most of the things I've been doing secretly DO relate to each other!) or if this, too, is a way my temperament has been shaped and changed by academia. Scholarly time is slow and long, and maybe if we're to be sustained by this life--after the monomaniacal focus on What Comes Next that determines one's progress through grad school and tenure--we need lots of disparate projects, pleasures, distractions.

I'm just theorizing, and who knows whether I'll continue to feel this way. But it's good to realize that the world won't stop spinning if I take my eye off it, and to know that I'll probably even finish most of the projects I've started. . . eventually.


Belle said...

Years back, on my sabbatical, I discovered a whole new approach to my research work. I've managed to hold on to some of the benefits of that period, when time away from the classroom & campus obligations gave me a chance to introduce some balance into my working/researching life.

Could that - gasp! - be one of the intents of sabbaticals???

Flavia said...


Yes! Absolutely. A friend and I took our pre-tenure research leaves at the same time (several years back), and we spent a lot of time reassuring each other that leaves were about being a whole person and having time for things other than the specific research project we'd outlined on our applications (in my case, those things involved buying a house and planning a wedding, in addition to revising my book and drafting a new article).

A year or two ago I heard an interview with Alice Waters in which she mentioned that she pays her chefs an annual salary, but they only work in the restaurant for six months at a time, and then they have six months off. Partly this is because the pace at a restaurant is so brutal and the burn-out rate so high, but it's also to allow them to do the equivalent of research: go to other restaurants, visit farms and food suppliers, try out new recipes, investigate new cuisines.

Totally sane. And something all labor and/or brain-intensive professions should adopt in some form.

Withywindle said...

It isn't great, but you might enjoy reading Howard Waldrop's "God's Hooks", which may be the only fantasy story starring Izaak Walton and John Bunyan.

Flavia said...


Thanks! I'll have to check it out.