Report from a Self-Declared Quasi-Sabbatical

A few months ago, I declared that I was experiencing burnout and needed a break. I still need to work for a living, so that break took the form of a “sabbatical” from all writing for publication and concentrated research for a year. After completing my outstanding writing obligations, I would accept no invitations to write for special journal issues, to pitch op-ed pieces, to do peer review, etc., etc. If I needed an intellectual outlet, I would blog (or work on the short book on Star Trek that I had somewhat hypocritically agreed to do even amid this sabbatical).

So far, it has gone fairly well. My brain has gradually healed. At the end of the summer, outside of things directly necessary for teaching, I couldn’t really focus on anything other than comics, sci-fi novels, or video games. The last several weeks of the summer I really let myself go in that regard, not trying to “work up” any motivation for anything more serious. I did eventually start to get a little bored with that routine, and the return of my commute got me reading more serious things. Without a defined research project to work on, I have read a pretty wide variety of things, following random inclinations, recommendations, and a sense that I should have read a higher percentage of the books on my shelves. I don’t know if it will add up to much, but the whole point is that it doesn’t have to.

To some extent, pulling back from research would have happened naturally, as I’ve taken on a faculty governance role (chairing a committee focused on assessing applications for sabbaticals and other grants) that has, at times, been more time-consuming than I anticipated, due largely to several other ex officio committee memberships that it carries with it. From a career perspective, though, it seems to make sense to beef up the “service” portion of my portfolio during a relatively fallow period for my research. And my work on this committee makes me feel more connected to my colleagues and my school, which is a good thing. One of the things I miss about the old independent Shimer is how involved we were all able to be in the workings of the school — this is a small step toward recapturing that, although the “all hands on deck” feeling of such a small institution is obviously unique.

One good sign, it seems to me, is that I’ve gotten a little back into the routine of doing regular language work. My “foreign language” project last summer (aside from an Agamben translation — which, what was I thinking?!) was to work through a formal logic textbook to prep for teaching. Since I feel confident about that now and I’m most likely going to be offering my course on the Qur’an next semester, I decided to dip back into my Arabic. Where I left off in my sequential read-through (intended to help me simply keep track of what I’d read or not!) was one of the most enigmatic passages, Surah 18 (The Cave). It puts me in mind of an article idea I’ve kicked around for several years: “The Art of Qur’anic Narrative,” which would investigate the Qur’an’s unique storytelling approach along the lines laid out by Alter. I don’t know if it’s a feasible idea or where I could even place it, but I might use my class as an opportunity to think more about it. At the very least, it will be good blog fodder.

I have blogged less than I anticipated, largely due to the demands of various meetings, etc. But when I’ve done it, it has been rewarding. I find myself more drawn to blog about my teaching than to offer commentary on current events, and I think my writing and thinking is better for it. And paradoxically, I feel like my burnout has indirectly improved my teaching, or at least my attitude toward it. I’ve noticed in myself a tendency to get overinvested in my teaching in an unhelpful way — sometimes riding the high of a great class, but more often taking it overly personally when students inevitably slack off, etc. After a year of intense overwork, including a seriously dispiriting teaching experience in a class that I took on solely to fill my load, my emotional investment seems to have “reset” in a way. Now I can more easily just show up, do the best work I can with the students who are present (physically or intellectually), and move on, without obsessing over things that are beyond my control. We’ll see how long that lasts!

Despite firmly vowing that I would not take on any extra teaching this year, I am almost certainly going to do one extra class next semester (making my load 3-3 rather than 3-2). Given that I was doing an effective 4-4 last year, that still feels light to me, and all three are courses I’ve taught before. The one I had the opportunity to cancel was the Qur’an course, and even though it was underenrolled, I felt myself resisting the idea of cancelling it. And it has surprisingly gained a few students, which may kick it up to the level of a “real” class that counts directly toward load. Either way, I will be able to “bank” some credit toward either getting a semester off or, more likely, giving myself a little bit of a cushion so that I don’t have to take on an undesirable course every time one of my courses doesn’t meet enrollment requirements. That peace of mind is worth the extra work to me.

I have accepting two invitations entailing new writing — one to give a keynote address on neoliberalism and democracy, and one to participate in an ACLA seminar for the series on franchise studies that my Star Trek book is slated to appear in. In my original post, I made an exception for things like that, since they connect me with my colleagues and therefore tend to be energizing rather than draining. And of course, there is the towering hypocrisy of taking a so-called research sabbatical where I am “only” working on a book, even if it’s a short one. My research on Star Trek is of course ongoing, as I am rewatching all the current shows while I do the rowing machine, and I continue to read the novels even though I’ve clearly reached a point of diminishing returns. I hope that writing a chapter (or two?) will keep my busy over winter break, but it’s hard for me to imagine that I’ll have the time and motivation to start on anything (other than maybe digging into the presumably small body of scholarly literature on the more recent shows) during the semester.

So there you have it — a completely self-indulgent post that I can’t imagine many people will make it to the end of! The blogging lifestyle is awesome.

2 thoughts on “Report from a Self-Declared Quasi-Sabbatical

  1. The translation of Pinocchio is set to be published in April. I will not be publishing any further installments of the Buddhism interview — you will have to buy the book when it comes out!

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