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

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*:



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.