The Chronicle of Higher Education Article, "What I Did on My Fall Vacation".

Monday, April 2, 2007 (Around 7 years ago)

“What I did on My Fall Vacation” By Carolyn Foster Segal

The good news is that I now know how to have a successful sabbatical; the bad news is that I will have to wait seven years to put that knowledge into practice.

As my one-semester sabbatical drew to a close late last fall, my husband and friends began saying, “Next time…” In a perfect illustration of point of view — an example I would have appreciated more if it were merely academic — my children began counting down to Christmas, counting down the days until their break. But I refused to turn the calendar from November to December. My first sighting of outdoor Christmas decorations left me unspeakably depressed for three days.

At the end of an e-mail message (one of the — literally — hundreds I received while “away” from the campus), my program director said, “I guess you must be reconciling yourself to the ever-closer approach of the spring semester.”

I was not reconciled or even in the process of reconciling. I could not imagine going gently to my office and my old routine in January. In fact, it had taken me until early November to settle down: not in terms of working on projects, but in accepting and embracing my freedom.

First, there was the guilt. Most of my friends outside my college are, well, college teachers; the few who aren’t teachers are writers with demanding day jobs. I had no response to such comments as “I envy you” and “You are so lucky.” When I heard the occasional “You deserve it,” I wasn’t certain that I did. Second, there was the pressure, pressure to produce the perfect piece of writing and to produce far more than I do during any other semester.

Those feelings fell away, however, as I read and wrote. Another concern that I had had before the start of my sabbatical also faded away: my expectation that there would be additional familial demands on my (free) time. Aside from the advantage of being able to attend my daughter’s field-hockey games — and introducing myself to the other mothers (this was my daughter’s fourth year on the team) — our domestic lives continued as usual. (That my cheerfully independent 17-year-old had long ago reconciled herself to the demanding schedule of my college is a topic for another essay.) We all got up early and started our days: My husband went to his office; our daughter, our third child and the only child still living full time at home, drove herself to school; and I settled down at the dining-room table with my laptop and my books.

All would be well until I checked my e-mail messages. Far more problematic than any residual feelings of guilt or pressure to perform were the nearly constant interruptions of my sabbatical by my college. As David S. Perlmutter explained in his Chronicle Review essay “Why Would Anyone Write a Book on That?” (June 17, 2005), if you are thinking about writing a book on any subject, consider the time, and the nature of the time, it will take: “Plan ahead how to put aside for the book days or large sections of days during the semester, or weeks and months during vacations and sabbaticals. If you’re writing a book, you will need lots of time to sit and think — with no interruptions, or even a threat of an interruption.” I read this article near the start of summer; how timely, I thought: just what I need as my sabbatical begins. By mid-October I found myself ironically recalling that passage and my naïveté.

Another essay in The Chronicle, Lee Tobin McClain’s “Mom on Sabbatical” (Careers, December 2, 2005), neatly bookended, with Perlmutter’s piece, my own leave and offered another ironic note. In pondering the ways we use sabbaticals, Professor McClain quoted her academic dean: “Many deans … OK the sabbatical because they know the faculty needs time for renewal.” You cannot experience renewal, however, if there is no break from the daily grind. You cannot return refreshed to what you never left.

The accepted wisdom is that one should go far, far away. I agree, given my experience, although I’m not certain where one might go to escape e-mail, except possibly another galaxy. I don’t possess the travel gene that my husband possesses and that he passed on to our three children. I’m a member of the Thoreau school: “I have traveled widely in Concord.” I had one semester (my college does not award yearlong sabbaticals) cobbled together with a summer. All I wanted was solitude — and unbroken time.

Granted, mine is a small college; leaving — or attempting to leave — a four-member department is very different from taking a break from a department of 200 or even 20 faculty members. In fact, my sabbatical had already been delayed a year because of a staff shortage. With that in mind, I had prepared, or so I thought, for every eventuality. I had even explained that I would come to the campus in late October, to meet with all of my advisees as they prepared for spring registration. I was assured that incidental advising matters would be handled by others.

And they were — to a degree — with a volume of e-mail messages: “So-and-so will be coming in to discuss…” Was there anything that my correspondent needed to know? Um, the student’s course choices for spring? The requirements listed in the catalog? The student’s transcript? The latter was available in my file cabinet, organized the spring before my leave, and on the school’s Intranet, which, of course, could be accessed only on the campus.

Then there were the emergency meetings, such as the urgent departmental session in September to discuss a proposal for a new set of core requirements. I should have known better than to fall for that old curricular line. At the second emergency meeting (which I did not attend: As my husband’s grandmother liked to say, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me”), it was decided to carry over discussions into the spring. I learned that fact from reading my e-mail.

I lost a considerable amount of precious time not only reading and answering e-mail messages but also experimenting with the most effective way, and time of day, to handle the tsunami. A three-day leave of absence from my server proved disastrous — it took me an entire fourth day to catch up. The first-thing-in-the-morning approach was also counterproductive: I lost the morning, and sometimes the whole day, along with the impetus to produce anything ever again. Next I tried an early-evening slot. After witnessing the effects of that plan, my family, now home from their own daily trials and rigors, begged me to log out. It was too painful for them to be with me as I reeled from the latest batch of trouble. Late night? That approach, too, had its downside: If I opened my e-mail at 11 p.m., I would not be able to fall asleep until around 3 a.m., and would find myself contemplating a phrase attributed to St. John of the Cross: the dark night of the soul.

I finally determined that the best time for reading e-mail messages was late afternoon, and that it was best to approach the computer fortified with a glass of wine. I recommend a white zinfandel; it is easy on the palate and goes well with all kinds of messages.

What sorts of missives besides those regarding my advisees did I feel compelled to answer? For starters, there were questions from the program director about course rotations and teaching schedules for spring 06, summer 06, fall 06, and spring 07. Then there were the required assessment forms for all core curricular courses (Sample question: “Explain how this course will address the standards. … Standard II. The ability to evaluate the relative merits of alternative bodies of knowledge and modes of interpretation on the basis of their assumptions, causal beliefs, normative commitments and/or practical implications”) and calls for “new innovations” to seduce and retain freshmen.

I received a request to revise, ASAP, the information sheet for the writing minor. Questions about the budget (not only for the spring but also for the 2006-7 academic year) and about my willingness to serve on an additional committee in the spring followed in short order, along with a lively debate among my colleagues over the title and content of the nonfiction course that I have taught for the last eight years. Finally, I addressed the rumors of my death, prompted by a student’s message to an assistant in the registrar’s office. Unfamiliar with the term sabbatical (real or faux), the student apparently concluded that it had to do with a mysterious, fatal illness.

After that hubbub died down and the attendant confusion cleared up, I realized that I had thrown away an excellent opportunity. If only it had occurred to me sooner, a la Huckleberry Finn, to fake my own death! In that way, I might have averted the daily little deaths. Maybe then I would have felt, as the spring semester unfolded, not only reconciled but reborn.

Carolyn Foster Segal is an associate professor of English at Cedar Crest College.

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