Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Sabbatical Myth

My last leave was an NEH fellowship, supposedly to finish a book. As it turned out, in part because my previous institution would not actually allow me to take the fellowship in a timely manner, things got a little complicated. Between applying for the fellowship and taking it we moved and had a third child. Some time around March I wrote an email to my friends explaining the top ten reasons I hadn’t gotten my book done. It included things like the 18 month old had eaten the head off the five year old’s Batman, figuring out a birthday party for the whole preschool class that merged interests in weapons, yoga, princesses, Pharaoh, and knights, being on a search committee, and locating an apartment in Rome that accommodate our family plus my mom who was happy to take care of the kids but not to walk up and down stairs.

So here we are in the second week of March planning a twin birthday party again and once again it is safe to say at this point that short of a miracle there will not be a second book at the end of this leave either. There will be two articles that should have been done on the last leave and a few chapters. The good news is that the b-day party has become much easier. After many complicated negotiations the kids decided on free roller-skating at the rec department followed by a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream cake. This means that mostly these children will not be in our house... (The above mentioned party was truly from hell—think 18 five year olds, a random assortment of younger siblings and a rainy day during which the electricity went out) Despite the seeming lack of twin b-day stress I could very easily write another list about why I haven’t gotten my book done. My list would not be unique and would likely match up pretty closely with that of many other 40-something professors. It would include things like hanging out in the bathroom potty training a recalcitrant four year old, advising graduate and undergraduate students, guest editing journals, picking up tiny Legos from every possible crevice in our house, reading chapters of books and dissertations from junior scholars outside of my own institution, reminding the piano diva to practice not improvise, explaining to the violin diva that you have to put harry potter down to pick up the violin, strep throat, learning to play rock viola, organizing arts and crafts in the housing projects, etc.

The lesson in all of this is that sabbatical is a myth predicated on the model of the single minded academic supported by a staff and a wife. And the bummer in this is that to write a book, at least for me, that kind of focus really matters. I can write an article or a conference paper while doing 10 other things. A sustained project is another matter. But the notion that any of us can simply lock ourselves in an office for nine months and write a book essentially sets us all up for failure. In Music, at least, departments are too small for anyone with a conscience to truly exit. Academic commitments are often made a year or two ahead and move at a glacial pace—that means that when you are in a pre-tenure panic and say yes to every talk, essay collection, and committee that comes your way it can take you five years to finish it all up. And for women, especially, but yes men you have this problem too, families don’t offer sabbaticals. I know I am not alone in spending a good chunk of my “work” day on family business—doctors appointments, finding babysitters, calling the plumber etc…

On the plus side I am incredibly lucky to have a husband who can hold down the fort in my absence and friends with an empty apartment in New York City. This allowed me a week in NYC with no responsibilities and no one to take care of, and I managed to get more work done in five days that I usually do in three weeks. There is absolutely nothing better to a mother of three than an empty apartment and an empty datebook!

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