Time Off

First, the news: I am on sabbatical this year. It’s almost unimaginably cool. The immediate question that almost everyone asks is, “So, where are you going?” and I’ve learned that most people imagine a sabbatical year in which you retreat to a tiny cottage overlooking the Mediterranean (where there may or may not be electricity), live a simple and monastic existence on bread and cheese, and write, in between dips in the ocean.

Sounds wonderful. But my real life is more complicated than that, or at least more enmeshed. The kids go to a school which we actually like and are not seeking escape from, the wife has a business of her own, and frankly, there’s plenty here to occupy me in both thought and deed. There is also the question of whether, in our networked world, a monastic year apart even makes that much sense anymore. I can imagine a time when one could reasonably lock oneself away in a room with a few dozen books and a stack of blank paper, or bury oneself in a dusty foreign library somewhere. But that’s not the world I live in. So while I am most certainly out of the office and not keeping time where anyone can particularly bother me, I’m staying for the most part right here in Vancouver. With my Internet connections.

The second mythical aspect of a sabbatical, it seems, is a project which is, I gather, supposed to direct and focus me during the coming year and culminate in a big production of some sort at the end. Several people have already asked me how my book is coming, as though this were a given. Now, if there’s one thing I’m sure of, in 2012, it’s that a book is definitely not a given; not the writing of one, nor the appearance of one, nor even the importance of one.

The drive to productivity, so paramount in everyone’s careers and daily lives, necessarily comes at a price. The price is this: no task ever gets as much time as it really deserves. Everything is rushed, schedules are crammed, and we spend an enormous amount of energy simply managing time and to-do lists. At SFU, as at other institutions, the old chestnut is that faculty are expected to spend 50% of their time teaching, 50% on research, and 50% on service. But it’s not even a joke anymore, it’s just the way everybody works.

So a sabbatical year is an opportunity for a bit of a corrective. It’s a a little grant of time to think, to read, to write, to reflect, to seek serendipity (is that an oxymoron?). Case in point: three days into my first week of this leave, I’d already read two books. That’s more books than I typically read in a month; as a full-time academic, I have very little time to read. I read a lot of student writing, of course, many many books’ worth of page—not to even mention email. But serious long form reading is not a big part of my usual lifestyle.

With reading comes reflection. A proper scholarly balance is reading and responding, in turn. That can only be done effectively with sufficient time. It’s not merely the time it takes to read and the time it takes to write; there is also an indeterminate time to cogitate, to reflect, to let ideas ferment.

E.B. White said, in a marvellous Paris Review interview,

Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along.

The ultimate point of rest, and making time for yourself, is renewal and refreshment, and having new ideas. It is to make space (if I can switch metaphors for a moment) to do the lateral thinking.

So here’s to my sabbatical year. I do promise to blog lots, not for the sake of being productive, but just as exercise, and to make connections. Watch this space.

JMax, Uncategorized | Posted by John Maxwell, September 10, 2012 | , , |