The State of Connection

Today’s guest post is by Veronica Arellano Douglas, Reference & Instruction Librarian at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

My partner and I are both currently on a one-year sabbatical. Rather than sabbatical-in-place, we chose to spend the year away from our home in rural southern Maryland. In July we moved our son and a few essential items (legos, hair products, shoes) to Houston, Texas, a city we last called home almost 8 years ago. We wanted to take a break from the woods and rivers of St. Mary’s County and see if we could live in a big city again. We wanted to be closer to family and old friends, most of whom reside within a day’s drive of Houston, if not in the city itself. We wanted a chance to do something different.

So we did.

This summer I said goodbye (temporarily!) to friends and colleagues. We bemoaned our loss of whine/wine nights, weekend play dates with the kids, Martini Fridays, and communal dinners.  We may not have had family in Maryland but our friendships were solid, and, it turns out, an integral part of our everyday lives. We promised to FaceTime regularly, preferably with a glass of rosé in hand. We would stay connected.

In my sabbatical proposal, I focused on productivity. I will read this, do that, write that one thing I’ve been talking about writing for the last two years. One of my sabbatical goals included learning more about Relational-Cultural Theory and its applicability to librarianship. It’s only natural that continuous reading about the ways in which relationships shape human development and growth would lead to an examination of the significant relationships in my own life. I’m just surprised I didn’t see this coming. I was so focused on the “doing” of a sabbatical that I didn’t stop to think about the ways it would impact my emotional connection to other people.

I’m writing this post from my kitchen table, my usual day-to-day workspace. I admire Maura’s ability to work in new spaces, but unfortunately I’m too much of a hermit to work anywhere outside of a very familiar place, which is almost always my home or office. Since my office is 1,400 miles away, home it is.

Home is lonely, y’all.

My husband is teaching one class at a nearby university and has the luxury of an office space, so he’s usually there to work on his research and meet with students. We’ve made it a point have lunch together regularly, but we both recognize that we kind of need our own workspace. A few mornings at the kitchen table together made us both want to take a long walk alone (who knew typing could be SO LOUD?!?). So we tend to plan maybe one date a week in addition to lunch, but this still leaves a lot of the day to myself.  

The FaceTimes and phone calls with Maryland friends aren’t as regular as I would like, of course. It’s so difficult to plan a conversation with people in a different time zone who work all day, take care of families, and try to find time for themselves. Once my son is home from school the focus is on him, and once he’s asleep I’m usually too tired to hold a coherent conversation. It’s tricky. I’ve managed a few emails, phone calls, and Skype calls over the past few months, and as much as the conversation focuses on our personal lives, it naturally starts to turn towards work.

Merinda wrote about purposefully retreating from colleague gatherings to fully immerse herself in the sabbatical experience. But my St. Mary’s County friends are my St. Mary’s College colleagues (that’s the joy of rural living), and inevitably, talk turns to work. There are always apologies: ”I’m sorry to bring up work” or  “Not to drag you into work drama, but…” It’s only natural. Our work is a huge part of our life, and if I were still on campus we’d be lunching and talking about our last class and that movie we just saw. I appreciate my friends’ attempts at shielding me from work, because sometimes I honestly don’t want to hear it. I can feel my shoulders tensing over the latest workplace incident. But I still want to provide a listening ear. I want to be the friend who will talk them through their crappy day, and I do want to know what I am coming back to in the fall. So how can I do that and still manage to maintain some kind of distance from work? Setting up boundaries about work talk inevitably sets up boundaries in personal talk, particularly for those of us in academia, where work-life bleed is common. That tether to work is something I’ve realized is at times stressful, but necessary to maintaining those friendships that mean so much to me.

As challenging as it’s been to negotiate friendships at a distance, it’s been relatively easy to reconnect with old friends and family in Texas. I’ve already seen my family more in the past 6 months than I have in the last two years and finally made the road trip out to West Texas to see one of my favorite people. What I didn’t anticipate was the need for daytime connection. It should come as a shock to no one that people work during the day. Because my home is now my office, if I don’t make an effort to reach out, I can have a pretty lonely day. My little introvert soul needs connection, too. I’ve managed to create connection by scheduling lunches and after-work get-togethers with local colleagues and friends. But it’s also developed organically in a way I would not have expected: through my research.

The time I’ve had to read, think, write, repeat has given me the opportunity to find and reach out to other academic librarians whose scholarly interests intersect with my own. The critical librarianship and POC library communities, are, as a whole, filled with kind, welcoming, generous people and I’ve found connection through that openness. I’m on Twitter more often, reading and responding to interesting conversations, and direct messaging some of my favorite writers and thinkers. I’ve joined a small relational theory community of practice, and set up Google Hangouts to chat about research ideas and possible projects, and called folks just to brainstorm. I don’t know how vital these interactions are to the people on the other side of the conversation, but they mean the world to me. The reflection time I have had during this sabbatical makes me crave deeper conversation. I was already terrible at small talk, and now the research connection I share with others makes it relatively unnecessary. There’s a familiarity we have with one another from reading each other’s words that makes it so much easier to forge a friendship, and it makes our work better, I think. We’re able to compliment and critique without defensiveness or fear.

I am so grateful for these new and growing friendships. I am hopeful that my Maryland friendships will continue. I wish I’d given more thought to the relational consequences and possibilities provided by a sabbatical. It’s so much easier to over-focus on productivity during a sabbatical, often to our detriment, than it is to think about the personal connections we are making, breaking, and changing along the way. But we should consider this aspect of any sabbatical, whether it’s a year, 6 months, or 3 months. Use that time to work, sure, but spend some time fostering connection as well.  

 

>> Have you taken a sabbatical? Are you planning a sabbatical? Consider sharing your experience on this blog. 

 

The Shoes We Wear

Today’s guest post is by Anne Leonard, a colleague of mine at City Tech, CUNY.

The morning after the presidential election of 2016, I was alone in my apartment, and I was nearing the end of a year-long sabbatical. My spouse was traveling for work, my running buddy was out of town, and I hadn’t made any plans, figuring I would meet up with friends at the spontaneous festivities I envisioned as we Brooklynites took to the streets to celebrate the ascent of the first woman leader of the Free World. As that gray morning pushed into midday and afternoon, I realized how much I missed my City Tech colleagues, who surely grasped the gravity of the new regime and the threats to our freedom to write, speak, assemble, teach, learn, and research, etc. etc. etc. that lay ahead. I didn’t know it yet, but after that day I was ready to return to college routines and rhythms. Earlier I wrote about a big walk that was the crux of my sabbatical experience. Within a few months I went from lacing up my hiking shoes daily to filling big shoes as I moved into the role of interim chief librarian and department chair after a year of sabbatical leave.

A wise friend and colleague assured me that the most angst-inducing part of returning from sabbatical were the few moments spent approaching the college entrance, crossing the threshold into the familiar college building, swiping my ID, and finding myself in the swirl again. Our urban campus is experienced as entering a megastructure shared by 17,500 students and thousands of staff and full-time and part-time faculty, not stepping onto a grassy quad. Once I crossed that threshold, I was forevermore in the select elite who had gone on sabbatical. I was also surprisingly at ease in familiar surroundings.

I anticipated a steep learning curve upon assuming interim boss duties. What follows is an annotated list of things I am grateful to have learned and experienced while doing a new and much bigger job for six months.

I quickly acquired super meeting stamina for super long meetings. Within a week or 2 of the start of the semester, I discovered that 2+hour meetings are nothing to fear, resist, or dread. They’re fine! And eventually they come to an end. Translating my notes from the meeting into something concise and digestible to share with my colleagues at the next department meeting — now, that is a skill I am still working on.

Even before I laced up my boss boots, I anticipated asking if not the dumb questions, then the naive questions. I thought my six months as interim chair and chief would be an ideal time to use my inexperience to my advantage and ask questions like “How come we still do ____ this way?” or “How do you get permissions in the system to do  ___ ?” (fill in the blanks with myriad tasks related to personnel processes or the online integrated resources and services tool). When I asked for help, colleagues were so thoughtful and generous with their time! Still, I wish I’d asked even more naive questions in some of those super long meetings. They would not have made those meetings much longer.

Early on, I noticed that a misstep led to a ripple effect; my mistakes in the boss role were much more time-consuming to correct and contain than missteps I made in my role as instruction/information literacy coordinator. Containing the ripples took much more time than doing the task correctly the first time; as a result of this experience, my attention to detail improved.

It was a time to use my power benevolently. I made ample use of the phrases, “It’s fine to tell me later” or “Take a few days and get back to me” when I asked colleagues about committing to a project, joining a committee, or taking on extra work of various sorts. Sabbatical offered me a new perspective on how time progresses — more slowly than I had thought. My work as interim chief and chair taught me that not everybody makes decisions the same way I do.

I also learned to ask for a reply-by date in emails, and I learned some finer points of email etiquette. I still make very sparing use of the high importance ! tag in emails, relying on the words in my message to convey importance. After a colleague expressed confusion about an email I’d sent on a weekend, I began to use the low importance tag when I used email for routine communications outside of work hours.

I got a bit smarter about routine scheduling. Something I learned to do in my first days as interim chief and chair — and I wish I’d been doing all along — is scheduling all meetings of a particular flavor for the semester at once. It clarified colleagues’ availability for the reference and instruction coordinators, allowing those folks to move on those scheduling tasks with greater ease

I learned that the library runs because non-librarians do their jobs consistently and with sincere investment in contributing to the highest quality student learning experience that we can provide. I’m  in awe of the talent and dedication of officers, administrators, assistants, student workers, and other staff who make the college and library function better because of their daily, reliable, genuine work.

Recognizing that certain attitudes and mindsets would contribute to my success (and maintenance of sanity) more than others, I strove to be always engaged, yet to maintain a certain detachment. I realized that mental energy spent worrying about ongoing, institution-wide budget and personnel complexities fully out of my control (or colleagues’ reactions to those complexities) was energy I would not have to actually solve the problems or communicate my concerns coherently.

I like to think that my time in the interim chief and chair role helped me become a little more adept at seeing large-scale patterns, and with them, upcoming plot twists, such as policy or personnel changes and budget inconsistencies. To use this aptitude advantageously is to consider a range of possible future developments and how the library will respond, rather than obsess or ruminate overmuch about calamities that haven’t happened yet.

Some days I almost regret not having more time in the role of interim chief librarian and department chair. With more time, I might have found some relaxed mental space to hatch the good ideas that fill in the big picture goals and help us move towards the library we envision.

Keeping up after coming back

I’ve been meaning to write this followup post for a while, but this first semester back from sabbatical has been busy. Unusually busy, even. Which is even more reason for me to work on writing this post about how to hold time and space for my research and scholarship now that I’m back from sabbatical.

One strategy that I’ve fallen into far too often in the past for keeping up with my research has been additive, tacking project and writing time on top of my usual workday schedule (and, too often, on the weekends). For me that’s not been sustainable; I’ve come very close to burnout. In addition to time and space to work on my research, sabbatical afforded me the time and space to think about other ways to incorporate research time into my schedule without spending every waking moment on work or research.

A few years ago I started waking up a little bit earlier than I needed to and spending my first hour awake each weekday morning on writing and research. That hour — accompanied by coffee, before getting ready for work — has proven to be the most reliable way for me to make progress on my research projects. It can be slow going, for sure. Sometimes that hour goes by too quickly (or even too slowly), or I end up not using many of the words I’ve written. Even so, the consistency of that habit means that eventually it all adds up to something.

This semester it’s been harder to get back to that hour. Going from the summer to my kid’s fall school schedule — which varies from term to term — was an adjustment, as it always is. Last month my spouse started a new job, which meant a change for all of our morning routines. Combined with more than the usual number of early-ish meetings at work, I’ve been slacking on my morning research and writing hour more days than I’d like (though I’m proud to say that I’m writing this very post during that morning hour).

The morning hour is a good habit, but sometimes I fall into the bad habit of beating myself up for not getting enough research and writing done. So I’m bringing back the research journal where I quickly note what I did at the end of each morning hour (full disclosure: it’s just a spreadsheet with the date and a few words about what I did). I’d put this aside during sabbatical in favor of more robust ways to track my projects, but this is the perfect tool for me to stay accountable to myself and stay motivated.

Habits are tricky things: once you get into the groove it’s easier to stay there, but even long-time habits can be broken and it’s hard to get back into that groove once you’re out. At this point in the semester — a couple of days off this week, then full steam ahead hold onto your hats for one more busy month — getting back into keeping up with my morning hour is still a challenge. But I know this is a good habit, a habit I need, the habit I’ve built that’s been most successful in enabling me to keep up with research and writing. And it’s perhaps not surprising that after sabbatical I ended up back at the habit I’d established before sabbatical: one hour every weekday morning, first thing.

The Walking Sabbatical

…Or when to step away from the laptop and enroll in an utterly immersive course in humanity

Today’s guest post is by Anne Leonard, a colleague of mine at City Tech, CUNY.

During my sabbatical I undertook one of the most challenging and transformative experiences of my life, which on its surface, appears to have little to do with academic librarianship or teaching and learning in higher education. Fulfilling a nearly decade-long dream, I walked over 800km (500 miles) from southwest France over the Pyrenees and across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago, or Way of Saint James. The Camino has called out to me since I first discovered it several years ago as a tourist in Galicia, the northwesternmost province of Spain. Over the ensuing years, I researched both the practical and the metaphysical aspects of undertaking the pilgrimage. The connection between academic library work and walking the Camino (which can be viewed variously as a spiritual quest, an extended Spanish vacay, or a very long exercise in vanity thinly disguised as personal growth) may seem elusive, but the lessons I learned there continue to resonate in my professional and personal life, and I have found an intellectual community of multidisciplinary colleagues who query the cultural, historical, spiritual, and embodied dimensions of pilgrimage in an annual symposium.

When I began to draft my sabbatical narrative, I knew I wanted more time to dig more deeply into the fascinating teaching and learning theories that formed the underpinnings of the faculty development seminar I’d worked with for awhile. As the research and pedagogy liaison, I helped design field experiences that provided faculty with the tools to design engaging extramural learning experiences that met general education learning outcomes while covering the discipline-specific content of a technical and professional college curriculum. I envisioned myself doing quite a bit of embodied research on my sabbatical, that is, fieldwork where I was the research subject, as a walker in the city. The foregrounding of the city and its complex issues and problems makes for a perennially engaging starting point for research topics in across all disciplines at the college of technology where I work. One of the only things that students at our college have in common is their connection to, and residence in, New York City (fewer than 10% of students live outside of New York City).  My motive was to test my theory about the metacognitive affordances of walking and walking as a means to learn. Does “solvitas perambulum” really work? What would I know upon reaching Santiago de Compostela, Spain that I didn’t know when I started in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, and how would I know it?

Between Viana and Logroño
Between Viana, autonomous community and province of Navarre, and Logroño, capital of the autonomous community and province of La Rioja.

Once I started, I realized that the Camino is an experience about sharing – space for every activity of daily life – sleeping, dressing, bathing, laundering, sharing blister remedies, germs, food and wine, stories and perspectives. The peregrinos (pilgrims) I met hailed from several dozen countries, spoke as many languages, fell into all age categories (I met folks from anywhere between 9 and 79), and demonstrated a range of physical abilities. Some I walked with for an hour or 2, some in groups and for several days, long enough to become close like a family. Others I met intermittently, our paths crossing serendipitously after days or weeks of occupying different time-spaces. Yet as much as I shared with the thousands who made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in 2016 (around 300,000), as a peregrina sola, undertaking the way on my own, I found myself regularly overwhelmed by the ample opportunity to be alone with myself. Early on, around day 8, in lovely Logroño, capital of La Rioja, I found myself in conversation with new compadres discussing the need to just Be. With. Your. Self. Authentically. We joked about our innately competitive natures and our feelings of resentment when we noticed someone who seemed to be “caminoing better than me.” We all nodded sagely over our pintxos and tintos, as if we were already completely adept at feeling comfortable in our own skins at all times during this intense and unfamiliar, engrossing experience. This conversation went on for weeks, mostly in my own head, as I made my way west with a 14-pound pack, no advance reservations apart from a return flight, and only painted yellow arrows to show the way. When my path crossed that of one of my compradres from that evening, in Astorga, 18 days and 350 kilometers down the road, we returned to this topic easily and more lightly, no longer burdened by some notion of authenticity we felt we had to prove, and feeling freer to express our Camino frustrations (we’d both run into the same creep and endured his serial harassment), Camino fails (taking unscheduled zero-kilometer days, losing our camino families, unexpectedly falling ill), and Camino victories (completing 30+ kilometer days, building a daily reflection habit, sticking to a resolution to avoid social media). I feel it’s important to mention that we made time for a restorative café con leche y napolitana (the latter is a useful pastry vocabulary word to know; it’s similar to a chocolate croissant).

My credencial, filled with stamps
My credencial, filled with stamps

When I arrived in Santiago de Compostela in mid-October, the second thing to do, after attending pilgrims’ mass at 11 am (after a quick 11km walk from Lavacolla, out by the Santiago international airport), was to present my credencial in return for my Compostela. All pilgrims carry the same few things, in addition to our packs of clean-enough socks, one or two changes of clothing, and little else: our credenciales, or pilgrim passports. This document bears the stamps that we collected daily, from albergues (pilgrims’ hostels), cafes and bars, and churches. Upon arrival in Santiago de Compostela, we present these to the volunteer staff at the Oficina de acogida al peregrino. They verify the stamps to ensure that the pilgrim has completed the last 100km on foot or horseback (or 200km by bicycle) and issue the Compostela, written  in Latin. The pilgrims’ office reminded me of nothing so much as the Manhattan marriage bureau. Verklempt and dizzy from hunger, I felt as if the polished marble floor might suddenly rush up and smack my forehead while I waited on a long line with hundreds of other peregrinos. Over 28,000 peregrinos would arrive in Santiago that month. Seeing (and smelling) my fellow pilgrims assembled in the cathedral and in the oficina, I recognized few faces. As disparate as our pilgrimages surely were, I understood then that we all shared the experience of finishing the Camino and with it we shared a range of emotions: pride in accomplishment, ambivalence about returning to regular life, and satisfaction in our abilities to adapt to unfamiliar surroundings.

I was still on the Camino, mentally, for weeks after I returned. Even now, as the one-year anniversary of arriving in Santiago has just passed and I review my journal and photos to jostle my memory to write this, I can find myself immersed in vivid recollections of my days walking the Camino and can easily recall places, names, landscapes, cloud formations and sunrises, tastes and smells, (the flavor of an 11 am wedge of tortilla or the scent of a fellow pilgrim’s laundry soap or unwashed socks). I now understand how the intensity and mundanity of the daily walking routine sharpened my experience and helped me form vivid memories. One year later, I can still summon that focus to absorb an experience and process what I’ve learned from it. For me, the Camino induced metacognition that I could not have achieved another way.


Anne Leonard is an associate professor and the coordinator of information literacy and library instruction at New York City College of Technology, CUNY.

Simultaneously near and far

I’ve been back from my sabbatical for two months now. And I’m happy to report that I’m still happy to be back. Since returning I’ve been grappling with both the expected and unexpected, as expected. 🙂 It was somewhat busy during the few weeks I was back in the library in the ramp up before the semester started, and it’s been solidly busy since the semester began six weeks ago.

In some ways it seems like it’s been much much longer than two months since my sabbatical ended. We’re experiencing (hopefully temporary!) library faculty and staff shortages right now that have impacted the rhythm of the semester and added tasks to my day to day list as well. And I think some of my extended-time feeling is the result of current events, everything that’s happening politically and globally. It’s busy at work, busy at home, busy in the world.

But in other ways it still feels like I just got back back from sabbatical yesterday. Back in August I co-wrote a post with my fellow ACRLogger Jen Jarson about her experiences starting a new job and mine returning after my sabbatical. What I’ve found most surprising about returning from sabbatical is that I did come back to the library with fresh eyes, in the same sense as Joan Petit’s tweet in one of Merinda’s posts. I think I thought that six months wouldn’t be nearly long enough for me to grow fresh eyes, especially as some of my research involved coming into the library to interview students last Spring, so I didn’t spend a solid six months off-campus. But it’s true: since coming back to campus and the library I’ve been noticing all kinds of things I hadn’t noticed in a while.

Even now, with two months of non-sabbatical under my belt, I’m holding on to a little bit of that freshness, trying to think about our challenges and successes in new ways. I’m also experimenting with strategies to keep my eyes fresh. On as many days as I can, I’ve tried to use lunchtime for two things: catching up on LIS article and book reading while I eat, and taking a walk right after I eat. Even after sabbatical there’s still a long backlog of Library Things I Want To Read (y’all are so interesting, and write so much good stuff!), and when I can pull myself away from Twitter at lunchtime to read something more sustained it feels good. I’m lucky that the college where I work is at the intersection of a few different neighborhoods and has some park spaces nearby. I’ve figured out a few walks of different lengths, usually 15-40 minutes or so, and (weather-permitting) have tried to take at least a short walk every day. Putting both lunchtime reading and walking on my daily to-do list has helped a bit — even if I don’t get to it that day, the list reminds me of the goal.

And as I write this I realize that coming back from leave puts me a little bit into the mindset of our campus community who use the library, and makes it easier for me to think like a user. Even though most of my research is on students’ academic experiences it’s still easy for my focus to shift solely to the day to day tasks, especially when it’s busy. But it’s worth trying to figure out ways to keep the fresh eyes, I think. Seeing like a student or faculty or staff member can help keep their needs in mind even when everything else — from scheduling to facilities issues to our current job search — takes up time in my days.

Photo of Lost Man Creek, an art installation in Downtown Brooklyn of 4,000 California Redwood tree saplings
Photo of Lost Man Creek, an art installation in Downtown Brooklyn of 4,000 California Redwood tree saplings

Writer for a Year

Our first guest post comes from a CUNY colleague of mine, Kathleen Collins.

A few weeks before the start of my year-long sabbatical, a colleague remarked that whenever I referred to said sabbatical, I would gesture as if cradling a small, precious object. While I was unaware of doing so, I believe I did instinctively think about said sabbatical as a discrete, special something requiring protection and care. It is, after all, a rare privilege afforded to a very small percentage of humans. I was not of a mind to squander it.

While it’s not true for everyone and doesn’t have to be (see unsolicited advice anon) my sabbatical project was clear cut. I had a book to write. I had been researching it for a few years, whenever I could find the time. So my sabbatical was, on the face of it, to get the thing written. On another level, it was to live out a fantasy I had nurtured since I was about eight years old: to be someone who makes her living as a writer. I had a whole year to pretend I was just that; not a faculty member nor librarian nor employee, just a writer.

To take this self image fantasy to the max, I applied – in retrospect a bit pretentiously and unnecessarily – for a couple of writing residencies, but they didn’t pan out. I wrote about that, and how I created my own neo-residency, here. “Where are you going for your sabbatical?” colleagues asked me in those leading-up weeks. Because I suppose some people have other places they go to do research or overlook a lake or just escape the demands of city and/or family life. Not me. “My apartment,” I said, probably exhibiting the cradling gesture then, too. Like, Maura, I did have a space at the NYPL, in the Wertheim Room, but I found it physically less than ideal to work there – no food or water allowed, a small and crowded restroom, and because it was so nice and silent in that giant mahogany space, any little sound inflamed my misophonia to a disruptive degree. Also, going there necessitated getting dressed and riding the subway, two things I needn’t do to work in my apartment. At home, I have the perfect chair and ottoman arrangement, and a bathroom and kitchen at close hand. Also like Maura, I had my favorite snacks which I could eat whenever I wanted as loudly or slovenly as I desired.

In general, I worked every weekday and some weekends. I did not work every hour of every workday, but neither do actual writers (I am inspired by the late David Foster Wallace in many ways). I am not a word count person nor an hours at the desk person. I feel productive when I have an insight that pushes me forward or if I successfully deal with a messy clump of disorganization. I am an 11th hour writer. Most of the work happens when I’m in the proverbial shower or on the walk in the park, where I manically jot into my phone some misspelled then hilariously autocorrected jumble of letters to remember my brilliant solution when I get back to my chair. Writing comes in spurts, and it is rare to see me typing for more than a couple of minutes at a stretch. It’s a matter of keeping notes and then the writing is patching those together into a cohesive narrative. Somehow, the article or essay or book gets written. As painful as the process can be, I have evidence that this seemingly inefficient process works for me, and I am still trying to embrace it. I have no choice.

So you might think at me, why do you need a sabbatical to get this done? Can’t you write a book in your jagged manner while holding down a day job and doing your patch thing for, say, an hour a day that you’ve carved out for yourself with your office door closed? No. You know what it’s like at work. And besides, after several decades of writing, I have finally accepted the inconvenient fact that I need a good uninterrupted seven hours of pacing, procrastinating, grazing, napping, and podcast listening to squeeze out a quality two hours of work. But those other five hours are essential to the package.

Now for some advice to potential future sabbatical takers. Most importantly, take one. You are entitled to it. Don’t wait until you have a fully formed project. It is a time for exploration, freeing your mind in ways that are unthinkable when hemmed in by the parentheses of an academic calendar and a Monday to Friday workweek.

I took a different approach from Maura and wholly renounced service obligations and did not look at my institutional email. For those faculty whose projects are enmeshed with their work (perhaps a frequent scenario for library faculty), it might be useful or unavoidable to stay connected to your job, but if not, I urge you to ghost your workplace. It’s distracting, interferes with any fantasy you might be trying to live out, and offers a way too tempting source of procrastination from the true task. Speaking of procrastination, delete all social media accounts or have a partner or friend create a new password so that only s/he can grant you access.

Don’t fuss about day to day accomplishments. Avail yourself of the slower, uninterrupted, un-earmarked pace to enjoy life and organically learn about your best habits. You might find out how useful naps are and that you work better at certain times of day. (After about half the year was over, I discovered that I could focus best between the hours of 8-11pm and that’s when I got my best work done. I then allowed myself to take long walks or do errands during the day without feeling guilty.)

You might not like this one: Start work on your project right away, even if it’s only one hour a day, instead of pretending that first you must undertake a deep clean of every room in your house or prepare your taxes or visit every remote family member you never see. You can actually do a little of both. Start forging the association between your sabbatical time and your project so it becomes an agreeable journey and not a looming chore.

I loved being a writer. I know I am still one, even though I am also back to being a librarian, employee, person-who-gets-dressed-and-goes-somewhere-else-to-earn-a-paycheck, but I still envy myself and that precious year. I wish every person in every job had the luxury of a sabbatical. I am unspeakably grateful for it, and I look forward to three years and two months and seven days from now when I am due for another one. When I get there I will likely do everything exactly the same way.


Kathleen Collins is a professor and librarian at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. She reads and writes about media and popular culture with a laser focus on television. Her two books, Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows (Continuum 2009) and Dr. Joyce Brothers: The Founding Mother of TV Psychology (Rowman & Littlefield 2016) were just a prelude to her work in progress which is a memoir of her life with television.

Things I will (and will not) miss

As I wrote this post my sabbatical was winding down and the summer season in NYC was in full swing. August is always somewhat strange for me since our K-12 schools don’t go back until after Labor Day. My kid is still very much in his summer vacation, though I think for most folks in academia there’s more summer behind us than in front of us right now.

The usual end of summer thoughts and feels are more intense this year with my sabbatical coming to an end as well. Have I made enough progress on my research during my time off that I’ll be able to bring those projects to completion once I’m back at work and have less time available for research? Did I make headway on my other, non-academic goals? Am I heading into the return to work (and, soon enough, the beginning of the busy fall semester) well-rested and ready to go? Within a month after I’m back on campus I’ll need to submit a brief summary of what I accomplished during the time I spent on sabbatical, so while some of these thoughts are my own internal accounting measures there’s an external need to report, too.

For most of these questions I’m happy to report that the answer is yes. That’s not to say that I’m not at all nervous about getting back into my work routine and activities — six months is a long time to be away, and my first day of school feeling will doubtless be turned way up when I walk into the library on that first day back. But I’m generally feeling satisfied with the amount and kinds of research (and other stuff) that I’ve been able to accomplish. I’m also newly appreciative of some of the aspects of my regular day job that had perhaps become invisible to me before taking a sabbatical.

Of course there are things I will miss about being on leave. In no particular order:

Food! It’s been great to be able to eat when and what I want for lunch and snacks. I usually bring leftovers to work for lunch, which are usually delicious (my spouse is a terrific cook). But some of my preferred lunch and snack foods just aren’t feasible for the in-library workday. My absolute favorite snack (in the appropriate seasons) is an apple cut into slices spread with chunky peanut butter. So delicious, and much too messy for eating at work. During sabbatical I’ve found that my go-to fast lunch is scrambled eggs with kimchi and toast. I could eat kimchi every day, and scrambled eggs are easy and help me eat less meat (my spouse and I are trying to eat more vegetarian though it’s slow going as our teen is a committed carnivore).

Flexibility. While I’ve spent most of the days during most of the weeks of my leave working on my research, it’s been lovely to take some weekdays off, too. As a person who identifies as about 60% introvert I appreciate the opportunities to take public transportation, go shopping, and visit museums or other locations in the giant city where I live at times during the week when they’re less crowded. And it’s nice to be able to take any date and time for doctor’s visits or other appointments that need to be scheduled, too. Having a flexible schedule also made it easier to devote weekends more completely to family outings or other commitments, since I could get some of the usual errands and chores done during the week.

Late afternoon walks with my spouse. The late afternoons are hard for me, energy-wise, as I know is quite common. As I mentioned in a previous post, my spouse (who works from home) and I fell into a routine during my sabbatical of taking a walk for an hour or so in the park or botanic gardens near our apartment. Before school let out this was also a nice way for us to clear out of the apartment as our teenager was getting home from school, giving him a little bit of space to get a snack and decompress. I might try and take a brisk short walk in the afternoons when I’m back in the library, just to get my energy back up, but I’ll miss the long walks.

There are also things that I will not miss about being on sabbatical:

The cognitive load of schedule variability. The flipside of sabbatical’s time flexibility is the lack of a consistent schedule day to day, and as I’ve written previously I found myself struggling with this much more than I anticipated. Maintaining and updating a very detailed list of everything I wanted to accomplish during my leave helped, for sure, as did setting aside some time on Sunday evenings to sketch out a plan for the coming week. In a way that’s not too different from how I manage my time in the library: I have a detailed to-do list that I revisit last thing on Friday to set me up for the following week. But the lack of scheduled commitments was sometimes a challenge, as was the variation in the work I was doing over the 6 months of my leave (e.g. from data collection to analyzing to mostly writing). I’m looking forward to getting back to a more predictable schedule once I’m back from leave, one that has some structure while also leaving some space for flexibility.

The need to leave the house every (week)day. I like our apartment: it’s a pleasant place to be, has easy access to food, drink, and two snuggly cats. It’s all too easy to convince myself not to leave the house — maybe it’s hot or raining, maybe the local library will be crowded, maybe it’s not worth the 90 minute round-trip commute to my spot in the study room at the NYPL. Even on days that I get lots done at home, I think overall I’m more productive when I’ve left the house for at least a little while every day.

Trying to find a comfortable place to type. I wrote a whole post about this a couple of months ago, and while I’ve mostly figured it out at this point in/almost at the end of my sabbatical, the fact is that it’s still more physically comfortable for me to do sustained computer work in my office rather than at home or at another location with my laptop.

Okay, full disclosure: I will miss the cats when I go back to work. But that just means they’ll be even more snuggly on the weekends, right?

Day 3 of the Return

Oh. My. Goodness.

How did the time go by so fast?

I am certain that EVERYONE asks this question at the end of sabbatical. Six months ago I felt like time was endless and I couldn’t see my way past the first few days. I fell into a routine and sought to balance work with play. I cherished time with my family and tried to preserve quiet moments for myself. But as I embarked on my final few weeks, I did everything in my power to ignore all things work. I think I was fairly successful, especially since my email is looming as I write this.

Today is my third day back at work. I feel relaxed and softer. I am centered and focused. And I cannot get my mind off this pair of tweets from my colleague Joan Petit*:

Joan1

Joan2

Does forgetting your computer login count? JK! I thought this was so insightful and am wondering how I will feel after I’ve been back in the library for a couple of weeks.

Right now my first priority is trying to catch up on email. I am sure that everyone has their own preferred plan for handling the deluge of email that continues to pile up while on sabbatical. Since I was serving as incoming chair of the ACRL Instruction Section, I tried to keep up with messages that needed my immediate attention but I have to admit that the last two months I have ignored more than usual. I kept telling myself, “Surely that can wait a few more weeks?” Yesterday and today I’ve spent time categorizing email more than answering anything. If I owe you an email (or two!) I am hoping to be caught up by the end of next week. I wonder if a future guest writer for this blog will have advice I could’ve used today!

The other goal I had this week was to catch up with colleagues. This was an interesting aspect of sabbatical that I was warned about early on – deciding how much you want to engage with colleagues while formally away from work. Some choose to schedule brief meetings or informal lunches to try and keep caught up on major events. I suppose this is because we all realize that the day-to-day activities of our libraries can change quite a bit over the course of several months. Another colleague told me that for her to fully immerse into her sabbatical, she choose to forgo those get-togethers and stay off-campus entirely. I choose this route and I was glad I did. It’s too easy for me to let the little things consume too much time in my head. Coming back to my office after months and months made it feel new and familiar at the same time. (I’m daydreaming about some decorating changes to emphasize this for myself.) Running into colleagues in the hallway has been fun, too. I had lunch with one of my favorite colleagues today and it was good to catch up on our personal lives and work. As an aside, I can see this look on a few colleagues faces that makes me wonder if they are thinking, “I will give her a few more days but I need to remember to ask her about X very soon.” 

What I wasn’t prepared for were the number of colleagues that would leave for new positions while I was gone. While I was alerted to their decisions via email, I didn’t get to say goodbye in person and there is some emotional pain in that reality. One colleague had been a mentor to me since I was in library school, over a decade of my professional life. There are pockets of emptiness in my heart for those folks.

But there are also many new faces! I taught a welcome session for new librarians, visiting residents, and new graduate students form the iSchool yesterday and that was heartwarming. Lots of welcoming smiles in the audience and I remembered again how much I enjoy sharing myself with new colleagues. And teaching!

My to-do list is growing … and one of my top priorities is to work with Maura to invite guest writers to examine other aspects of their sabbaticals. There are many topics to explore and out hope is that this blog will serve as a planning and reflection device for those who are dreaming of and planning and recovering from librarian sabbaticals. You will soon see us reaching out over a few listservs and we hope if you are reading this that you will consider reaching out. I know there are many sabbatical librarians out there but we couldn’t find much in the way of discussion when we started this journey last winter. 


My last sabbatical lobster in Rockport, MA. 

Next up: Recovering from sabbatical 

*Joan is Associate Professor and the Communications and Outreach Librarian at Portland State University Library in Portland, Oregon. Her sabbatical sounds so much cooler than mine was – she was a Fulbright Scholar at Jimma University in Ethiopia. She will be a guest writer for this blog soon.

Shelving service during sabbatical?

Sabbatical definitely means temporarily setting aside the day to day responsibilities of my job in the library, and lots of time to focus on my research. But what about that other leg of what’s often called the three-legged stool of academic jobs: service?

Following the standard breakdown of academic service responsibilities, which also aligns with the annual review form that my college uses for faculty, my service divides into four categories: service to the library (department), to the college, to the university, and to the profession. As a library director much, though not all, of my service to the library and college is built into the duties of my position, and while I’m out those service responsibilities have been taken over by my colleague who’s serving as interim chief. For example, I’m a member of our College Council (similar to a Faculty Senate) — since all department chairs are on College Council our interim chief has continued to represent the Library in that role. For my other college service commitments I’ve stepped aside for this semester, as is typical for faculty on sabbatical, and will plan to rejoin my colleagues on those committees once I’m back in the fall.

I kept on with a bit more of my university and professional service during sabbatical, for a range of reasons, though I did also say no to a few things (honest!). I’m affiliated faculty in the Interactive Technology & Pedagogy certificate program at the CUNY Graduate Center, which means that I teach the occasional course, advise independent study students, and work with my fellow advisory board members on program planning. While I did say no to teaching during the Spring so I could focus on my research, I’m advising one student and have gone to a few planning meetings as I’ll likely be teaching next Spring. I’ve also continued to work with my colleagues on the steering committee for the CUNY Games Network on planning for next year. I’m on the editorial board of Urban Library Journal, published by the Library Association of CUNY, and we’ve done some planning for next year, too.

In writing all of this down I see that it sounds like a lot, but truthfully I don’t feel that this service has cut into my sabbatical research time overmuch. In some ways these commitments have been easier for me to accommodate during sabbatical — often they require meetings at other CUNY campuses, and it’s been easier for me to travel around the city with my time as flexible as it is on leave. Also, because the university is spread throughout NYC many of these meetings are at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, to provide a central location from folks coming from colleges in all five boroughs. The Grad Center is only a short walk from the study room I use at the NYPL, and it’s been easy to tack on some time in the study room before or after meetings.

I’ve kept up with some professional service responsibilities during sabbatical as well, though I haven’t taken on anything new. For several years I’ve been the coordinator for the ACRLog blog as well as a member of the regular blogteam, and I’ve kept on with that during my leave. I really enjoy working with everyone on our blogteam and coordinating is typically not a heavy time commitment. While I sometimes struggle to come up with topics for my regular posts, I appreciate the prompt to keep writing, and having a deadline to blog (mostly) monthly. I’ve also said yes to a few reviewing tasks, including peer reviews for two articles and two promotion/tenure reviews. Reviewing is a fraught activity: there’s much to be said about academics who use peer reviews as opportunities to push their own agenda, tear down colleagues, or just don’t treat reviewing with the serious respect it deserves. I do try to take the time to do a thorough review. It’s important work, work that I’ve both benefitted from and for which I’ve been so grateful (especially since I’ve also had bad experiences with reviewers).

I do miss some of my service commitments: I’m fortunate that my service work right now aligns well with my interests as a librarian and scholar, and I get to work with great colleagues, too. And while it’s been nice to have the break, I hope it’ll be easy for me to jump back into this work when my sabbatical ends.

Vacationing while on sabbatical 

To some it may sound a little crazy to schedule a vacation during sabbatical, after all isn’t a sabbatical like one long vacation?
At least that’s what an unnamed family member thinks I’m doing. 

Actually, I have been working like crazy and my mind is in constant motion about all kinds of librarian-ing that was so much harder to do while I had daily responsibilities. For example, what are my new research goals now that I have passed the tenure benchmark? What does it mean to be an instruction librarian in a post-Framework profession? How do I want to re-envision my contributions to librarianship? How can I contribute anew to my library and support my colleagues? How am I going to keep the fresh sabbatical feeling??

But right now I am on vacation. I left behind all of my sabbatical work and have been trying to keep from thinking about work because I am scheduled to be back in the library in six weeks. [My sabbatical technically ends mid-July but I added a month of vacation.] I called the cat sitter, finished a crazy deep clean of all the closets and drawers, and planned a new crochet project since I finished my sabbatical blanket (yay!). Then my family and I packed up and hit the road. Since I grew up near the sea, I cannot seem to go many months without a re-charge of salty air and lobster and chowder (as more commonly known by is Mainers as lob-sta and chow-da) and sand in my toes. We are visiting family, taking in a few baseball games (have I told you I slipped to 8th place on my fantasy baseball team?), enjoying a few art museums, lazying on several beaches, and catching up on those deep family conversations that come easy from extended time in the car together. I have talked my daughter into a few cribbage games and she’s taught me a new game on my phone. My husband will be heading home early to finish an art project as my daughter and I will spend a few days exploring the northern coast before she starts her senior year. 

But I have done a bit of work, too. This isn’t unusual for me. When an idea strikes, and so many have the past few days, I like to work them through my process as soon as possible. That usually means typing on my phone while the room is quiet and dark after everyone else has fallen asleep. This post for one, a few emails and a conference paper review for two, and three an article idea I have been ruminating on for months. I am so excited about this article! It is the first piece of writing that isn’t part of my traditional research agenda. It is based on an idea that I presented at a conference awhile back. I have always seen writing as something enjoyable but when it comes to getting tenure the academic writing process is mostly about how many words I can get done over the weekend. The words come harder when you have to force them. And writing for tenure is sometimes forced, mostly because there isn’t time to slow down. Some days I really wished that a tenure clock could be determined by my own cycle but then why would we ever finish, eh? Tick tock. 

When I wrote for tenure, I fell into a rhythm – one project idea in the works, one project in the planning or data collection stage, one project in the writing stage, one project in the submission phase, and one article waiting to come to publication. This was safe advice I was given early on in my career and I tried to stay on that course because I learned that it was the easiest way for me to stay engaged. 

On sabbatical, the writing process evolved a bit because there was less time pressure. And for the most part, I wasn’t adhering to deadlines so if I wanted to work on that piece instead of this piece, I could. Or I could put it down and watch Netflix instead. But this paper is different and my whole writing process has been upended. In a good way. Maybe an excellent way. I don’t know how others approach writing so maybe it’s worth sharing with you?

This may sound elementary but I always start writing at the beginning of a project. Because I don’t know when an idea will strike, I keep a note file on my phone where I can jot phrases or copy citations or mark articles to read. Sometimes I ask myself questions because isn’t that the best part of research? Once I have gathered data and processed it, I start to write my article/book chapter/conference proceeding/etc. Maybe this seems obvious to you but it didn’t to me when I started. I am a logical, start-at-the-beginning type of person, When I sit down to write, I start with the introduction. Not exact sentences but phrases and ideas I want to make sure to include. Then I write the methodology in its entirety and I don’t think about anything else until I know that it’s inclusive of my entire process. Then I write the results and start framing the discussion section. Next I pull together a literature review from my notes and my previous reading and do the final reading necessary to fill in the blanks. Again, I don’t move forward until this part is done. The final part for me is done in usually one to two writing sessions where I write the entirety of the discussion and conclusion together. And finally I go back to the introduction for refinement and brainstorm a title (I am the worst at titles and am always bugging my colleagues for better ideas). I have fussed with this strategy but I have found this works for me and when I am collaborating (which I do frequently), I do my best to adapt and accommodate my partner’s preferences but it isn’t always easy since I know what works for me. As for timing, my writing process usually takes only two to three weeks and this is by design because when I am writing all I can do is think about writing. Everything in my life is put on hold – my husband feeds me, my daughter does laundry, and I sleep very little. My final step is to ask a trusted colleague(s) to read and comment. I find this is the most valuable part of the process for me and I have been known to completely re-construct an article after reviewing comments. I want constructive criticism on my writing, I am not hurt when someone suggests to go in a different direction or delete a paragraph or change a title. Constructive criticism has made me a much better writer and I am so glad I have a few trusted people in my life that will go there with me. 

So how is this time different? I have been constructing this article in my head and on paper for over a month already. I have sentences and phrases in one document without any structure yet. I have been working in fits and starts and it’s always in the back of my mind. The idea for the article isn’t anything I have written on before and it has no actual research to report. It is just me and my experience and my ideas. I talked it through backwards and forwards with my husband (or as he would say, around and through the problem) and he rarely engages with me this deeply in my work. I cannot tell you how it is going to turn out just yet and I have not decided where I want to send it for review. I am hoping to finish it before I go back to work but that’s the only deadline I have for myself. I will keep you posted. 

Back to my vacation: we move to the next destination tomorrow and I am looking forward to the change in scenery again. Being on vacation has been different from sabbatical time, mostly because I have left home but also because I have allowed myself to disconnect not only from thinking about librarianship but also the (depressing!) news about the Illinois budget

Thanks for joining Maura and I on our sabbatical journeys. We hope if you have ideas you’d like to see us address in a future post that you’ll leave a comment. 

Next :: Ending a sabbatical