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?

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.

Striving for some work and some play

As is probably obvious I’m an enormous nerd, and it will not surprise you to learn that I’ve spent much of my sabbatical working on my various research projects. Which I love! But like many librarians and academics I also find it all too easy to drift into overwork, which sometimes shades into burnout. And for that reason one of my big goals for sabbatical has also been to aim for more balance between the time spent working and time spent on other, non-academic activities: fun stuff, needful stuff, and other stuff.

Sabbatical rule #1 for me is no research work on the weekends, in attempt to reverse a trend that’s been creeping up on me over the past few years as my weekdays have gotten busier and my kid’s gotten older. I’ve stuck pretty well to this one while out on leave, though to be honest this was an easy goal to hit. I’m usually able to stay out of library work — mostly email — and research most weekends during the summer; it’s during the busier academic year that I feel the temptation to grab some time on the weekends for research. There’s always more than enough to do on the average weekend between family commitments, chores and errands, and time for fun, too, so I’m hoping to carry this rule with me once I’m back in the library.

My other non-research sabbatical goals are all additive: I’d hoped to spend more time on exercise, some home organizing/improvement, social/political advocacy, reading, and gameplaying.

Exercise is, frankly, not my favorite thing, though I grudgingly admit to feeling much better when I make the time for it. I live near a big park and botanic gardens and my spouse (who works from home) and I fell into a habit of taking walks there in the late afternoon whenever the weather’s allowed, which has been lovely. I’ve also joined a karate class on Saturday mornings. It’s a small school for women and transpeople that practices a mindful karate with a focus on technique and moving at our own pace, though it’s also a workout. And having the commitment to taking (and paying for) a class has made me more motivated to keep on keeping on, for sure. I have a bike and have long wanted to be more active in riding it around the city, but I haven’t gotten far on that goal yet. It’s summer and hot, which is a deterrent, though the much-publicized NYC subway system woes might be the nudge that I need, especially once I go back to work (my commute takes about the same time if the subway is running well or if I ride my bike).

I’ve been less successful in finding more time to play games. Some of this is location-bound: my favorite games are usually console games (we have a couple of Nintendo consoles and a PlayStation3), which means that I need to be at home in front of the TV to play. But I do have a few games that I enjoy on my phone and laptop, so that’s not entirely it. Gaming is an activity that I love that’s been easier than other activities to let fall by the wayside as my work and research have gotten busier. I’m absolutely sure that this is at least partly because games seem less “serious” than, say, reading, even when what I’m reading is popular fiction, and maybe I feel a little more sheepish about playing games the older I get. But I also think I’ve fallen into a trap of feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the videogame landscape right now (not even to mention board games!), sort of a paradox of choice situation. I did finally play through a game that I’ve had forever, so hopefully that’s the beginning of the end of my game drought (especially since I just got a new game that I can’t wait to play).

I have been overwhelmingly successful in spending more time reading on my sabbatical, which has been delightful. I like to read a range of fiction (especially speculative fiction and YA) and nonfiction (especially on education, technology, and social justice), and while I do read at least a few pages most evenings during the academic year, I’m often too tired at the end of the day to read nonfiction that’s challenging or difficult. During sabbatical I’ve tried to take lunchtimes to read something work-related, either about my research interests or higher education more broadly. But I’ve also just been doing more reading at more times, even, reading an entire book in one day like I used to when I was a kid. More time for reading has meant that I’ve generally been able to have up to 3 books in process at the same time: one fiction, one general nonfiction, and one work-related. It’s been kind of glorious.

Figuring out how to keep my momentum for rebalancing work and non-work is something I’m definitely wondering about as I look at my sabbatical coming to a close a bit later this summer. I’m grateful that I’ll still have some time before the fall semester starts to settle back in.

Sitting, stretching, and shelf number five

Before my sabbatical began I didn’t really spend much time thinking about where I’d be doing my work, especially writing or other computer-enabled work. While I live in an apartment and my spouse works from home, our kid is in school so there’s relative space and quiet for most of the day (plus cats!). I also knew I’d be spending some of my sabbatical time at my research sites — three colleges in my university — doing things like hanging up recruitment flyers and interviewing students.

It’s kind of a basic concern, but figuring out where best to work was a super important part of the early weeks of my sabbatical. In my office in the library I have a desktop computer with an adjustable desk so I can sit or stand, plus an antifatigue mat for when I’m standing. Typically I sit more on the days when I’m running around to meetings or other commitments, and I alternate standing and sitting every hour or so when I’ve got longer stretches of time in the office. I’ve tweaked my computer setup to allow me to work pretty comfortably throughout the day, avoiding carpal tunnel and other assorted body aches (sigh, aging).

Getting together a comfortable setup at home took some time. My home computer is a lightweight laptop: portable but not exactly body-friendly. My apartment has windows on the north and the south, and the light varies throughout the day. What’s ended up working best for me is to use four big books to raise the height of my laptop, and plug in an external keyboard and mouse. I usually work at the dining room table in the mornings, when the light is best there, and move to my desk in the bedroom in the later afternoons, which also happens to be when the kid gets home from school. And on the plus side, being at home has actually made it easier to remind myself to get up from the computer and stretch every hour or so.

While I do work at home many days, as I was starting my sabbatical I also realized that I’d occasionally need to find other locations for work, for example, when my kid has the day off from school. I’ve sometimes needed to go to one of the colleges at CUNY for a meeting, and on those days I’ve brought my laptop and settled in for some work in that library before or after. But most often when I’m not working at home I’ve been at the Allen Study Room in the New York Public Library on 42nd St. in Manhattan.

A colleague of mine at City Tech turned me on to this spot, and I am so glad she did. The NYPL has three study rooms that scholars can apply to use. Each room has cubicle desks (the Allen Room has 10), and each person assigned to that room gets a keycard for entrance and a shelf for materials. Books from the research collection can be paged and are delivered right to the room, and the materials can stay on your shelf for as long as your study room contract lasts. It feels super fancy using the keycard to open the carved wood Allen Room door, at the end of a long marble hallway. I am shelf #5.

Through most of the late winter and spring the study room wasn’t crowded with other researchers, though on a warm Thursday afternoon in June I got the last cube, with the somewhat crappy chair (padded, not adjustable, no wheels, as opposed to the fancier rolling ergonomic chairs). The space feels very private even though it isn’t, which I always remember when I stand up to stretch a bit. I’ve been using the room about once a week so far, but once my kid gets out of school at the end of June I expect to be there more often.

I can’t stay at the NYPL (or other non-home location) for more than a few hours, since using my laptop without an external keyboard and mouse and raised height doesn’t work for my body for very long stretches. But I’m grateful for to have access to this as a workspace, even with the 45-minute commute each way to get there. There’s lots of history for me at the NYPL generally. As a grad student in archaeology I used the print collections heavily to supplement my university’s holdings, and the final course in my MLIS was a map librarianship class taught on Saturdays in the incredible map division of the NYPL. All of this history plus the special workspace feeling help me focus in the study room, too.

The beginning of the beginning: fits and starts

Thinking back now on the first few weeks of my sabbatical I’m struck by what I don’t remember.

I remember flailing around a lot in that first month of sabbatical. As I mentioned in my first post, it’s been a big change for me to go from a very structured weekly schedule to having wide open spaces on my calendar to fill as I choose. It’s not that I’ve never had to deal with a lack of work structure before, but it’s been a long, long time since that’s been the case for more than a week or so. I am most definitely out of practice.

In a way the beginning of my sabbatical was just a bigger version of what often happens to me in the first few weeks of the summer, when the academic year has ended and projects and reports have wrapped up. Switching gears from very busy to less busy can be a challenge for me. I flail around a bit before settling on a list of what I want to accomplish over the summer and sketching out a rough plan for doing it in between vacation time and other commitments. I try to balance my wishlist of tasks with blocks of space and time to catch up on reading and thinking. And some summers (though probably it should be all summers) I end by taking stock and reflecting on what I did before heading into what I will do in the fall.

I keep a very brief research journal — really just a list of dates plus a couple of words about any research I worked on that day — and going back to consult it reminds me that I started my sabbatical by catching up on some writing that was coming due soon. I also made a Google doc called Sabbatical Plans (very literal!) with a list of all of the projects I’m working on during these six months, big and small, real and ideal. The blank page can be scary when starting a new writing project, and I felt that same fear when looking at 6 months of my (mostly) empty calendar. Starting to fill that calendar in with tentative, self-imposed deadlines helped.

It’s taken a while for me to settle into a routine, mostly because my sabbatical work is just less bound by routine than my director work is. Each day and week can vary, sometimes widely, in both what I’m doing and where I’m doing it. Some of my sabbatical work has been affected by external constraints, for example, interviewing students (which had to happen during the semester) or preparing for a talk on a specific date. Other work is less time-sensitive, like file management and CV maintenance. I update that Sabbatical Plans doc every week or so, tweaking and fiddling and adjusting and crossing off tasks as I finish them. Finding the structure in my unstructured time has in some ways been the biggest challenge of my sabbatical.