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.

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