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.

Leaving space on my plate

One of the first things friends asked me when I told them I was taking a sabbatical is “what are you working on?” My project for sabbatical leave is a study of undergraduate attitudes and practices around their course reading: I’m interested in how they get access to what they need to read, their process while reading (for example, do they take notes? where do they find space and time to read?), how they prioritize the task of reading, and where they encounter frustration and success. This project builds on research that my colleague Mariana Regalado of Brooklyn College and I have been doing for nearly a decade (and also work with other colleagues at CUNY and beyond), talking to CUNY students about how, where, when, and with what tools they do their academic work.

For my sabbatical project I’ve interviewed 30 undergraduates at 3 CUNY colleges: Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), Brooklyn College, and my own campus of City Tech. Like my previous projects this involves many steps: getting approval from the university’s Institutional Review Board; recruiting students by hanging flyers around each campus; scheduling (and rescheduling) interviews with students; gratefully relying on the assistance of my colleagues at each campus to find a suitable spot for interviews; purchasing student incentives (in this case either a $10 public transit card or $10 online giftcard); holding student interviews; transcribing the audio recorded during student interviews; coding transcript data using qualitative analysis software (in this case, Dedoose); and analyzing the coded data to elucidate themes (which I’ll then write up).

My university’s sabbatical approval process requires applicants to submit a timeline for the work they expect to do, and when I was putting the timeline together I remember thinking that there was more than enough time for all of the parts of this project over a 6 month sabbatical (maybe even too much time?). But that hasn’t turned out to be the case at all. While I’m on pace to finish what I need to with this project before my sabbatical ends, I haven’t had any trouble filling the time that I’m not working on this project.

In many ways this is the result of timing. The sabbatical application deadline at my college is always in the fall, even if you’re only intending to take a 6 month sabbatical over a spring semester like I did. Which means that I prepared my sabbatical application in November 2015 though my sabbatical didn’t begin until February 2017. That’s a long time span, and perhaps unsurprisingly I’ve picked up additional projects since I submitted my application. Mariana and I are now working on an edited book about research on and services/resources for commuter students in academic libraries, so we’ve been working on our own chapters in the book as well as wrangling our contributors’ chapters. There are some longstanding file and data management tasks I’ve been taking care of, too, and scattered other commitments: an article with collaborators, a panel presentation at ACRL, teaching a workshop and delivering a talk at a couple of CUNY venues.

All of which is to say that I’ve no shortage of research-related work to do during this sabbatical, despite my initial suspicions to the contrary. And I’m very glad that I didn’t load up my sabbatical plate too heavily from the outset, so I have the time and space for these additional projects that have popped up since then (including blogging here!).

From Sixty to Zero(ish)

Like Merinda, I’m also on sabbatical (day 119). Even before beginning I knew that being on sabbatical would be very, very different from my job as director of the library at New York City College of Technology (City Tech), a large urban commuter college that’s part of the City University of New York.

I’ve been at City Tech for just over 9 years, 6 (and a bit) as Coordinator of IL/Instruction and (a bit less than) 3 as Chief Librarian. My university requires that faculty — including library faculty — are both tenured and have completed a minimum of six years of service before granting a sabbatical leave. My original plan for sabbatical was somewhat different than what’s ended up happening: I intended to apply for sabbatical for my 8th year at City Tech, which would be the first year of my tenure. But then the prior director of our library announced his retirement, and I applied for (and got!) the job.

Other retirements meant other personnel changes in the library, and settling into my new role took some time, too. So it wasn’t until my second year as director that I started thinking again about a sabbatical. While library faculty are eligible for a full year of sabbatical leave, as I thought on it more I realized that I’m not comfortable taking a full year at this point in my time as director. Which I think has turned out for the best (more on that in another post). The prep leading up to my leave was busy, though luckily it overlapped with the college’s intersession which is relatively quiet in the library and on the rest of campus. And I’m so grateful for the work of my colleague who’s serving as our interim director.

And now here I am, about two-thirds of the way through my 6 months, having settled, sort of, into the pace of things. My weekly schedule in the library during the semester tends to be very meeting-heavy, with the typical week clocking in at about 20 hours of meetings. While my sabbatical project has required meetings and traveling to different campuses in the city (more on that in another post, too!), I have far more control over my own time than I’ve had in a long time.

It’s been an interesting change — I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to take a sabbatical, and I’m really looking forward to reflecting on my experiences with Merinda here on the blog (and hearing about others’ experiences too).