Today’s guest post is from Colleen Derkatch, an associate professor of English at Ryerson University. Part I was written while Colleen was on sabbatical. Part II, in which Colleen reflects back on the lessons she learned on sabbatical and how she’s applying them now that she’s back on campus, will be up next week–stay tuned!
Last fall, inspired by Melissa Dalgleish’s post, “Why Can’t We Be Our Whole Selves as Academics?” , I reflected very publicly in a Twitter thread about my own experience as a recently tenured Associate Professor:
Focussing on the pervasive culture of overwork in academia, I described being flattened by exhaustion by the time I got tenure, my body wrecked in all the ways chronic stress can wreck a body. Naturally, my ability to feel guilty and anxious remained undiminished, having been fine-tuned over my years of grad school, adjuncting, and pre-tenure work, so I was not only exhausted but also hardwired to feel guilty and anxious about it. Perfect.
I’m pretty sure my own disposition and work habits contributed to my wrecked post-tenure state but the very structure of academe seems designed to fail those who study, work, and try to live within it. These structural problems are stuff for another post but, if academia almost wrecked me—a person with quite a bit of privilege as a cis het white woman on the tenure-track, working at a relatively humane institution, with generous extended health benefits, and living in a dual-income household—then what does it to do my less privileged colleagues? Universities seem pretty uninterested in finding out.
And I was left to pick up my own pieces.
So I made a promise to myself (and the Internet) about how I would use my sabbatical:
I’ve just passed the halfway point in my yearlong leave so let’s see how I’ve done so far, shall we?
What I looked forward to most about sabbatical was the opportunity just to be curious again. Our day-to-day engagements with scholarship are often instrumental, with little time for deep reflection: many of us have to zoom through course prep and marking (because there’s so much of both) and read the literature in our fields selectively and strategically (because there’s so much of it, and because our jobs valorize writing, not reading). And so, in the spirit of intellectual renewal, I gathered a stack of books I’d been wanting to read and headed to the tropics to spend 2 weeks gloriously alone, reading.
Except I wasn’t alone: for the first time since my comps (in 2004!), I was able to luxuriate in the voices and ideas of others, following wherever they took me without any thought about how I would use them in my own work. Freed of my everyday obligations, there was nothing else I “should” be doing, not even writing, because that wasn’t the purpose of the retreat. As the days went by, I felt myself unfurl and de-clench, little by little—forehead, jaw, neck, shoulders. Lingering in others’ thinking pushed mine in new and exciting ways. And because reading involves input, not output, my retreat fed my tired soul.
By the middle of week 2, however, the anxiety and guilt crept back. As my departure neared, I wondered: Had I been productive enough? Was the trip a good use of time? Did it justify abdicating my Mom duties?
Lesson 1: De-clenching takes time and requires ongoing practice.
Lesson 2: Reading retreats rule.
Overall, I’m happy with my academic progress since the fall: I produced an article from scratch (now accepted and in press), I submitted a grant application (I got it!), and now I’m deep in research for my next book. More importantly, however, I found my curiosity again and have incubated it in the warm pocket of space and time that sabbaticals give. But how will I maintain that precious curiosity when I return to the everyday demands of my job? And what about my progress as a person, putting myself back together? I didn’t realize until this year how intertwined those two things are, that for me to be a functioning academic I need to be a functioning person.
I see now that I got burnt out partly because my identity was so deeply bound up in my work, even though I’d thought I wasn’t one of those academics. But if you spend enough time in grad school, on the job market, and on the tenure track, you really do start to see yourself as measurable only by your productivity. Our academic lives are defined by metrics: teaching evaluation scores, CV lines, impact factors, citations, granting agency scores. I had to learn new ways to measure my life.
Lesson 3: You are not your CV (obvs, yet often hard to remember).
And that’s how I found myself this January, at 41, back in figure skating lessons. And taking French classes. And working with an academic coach. Things finally began to click: the person in me started to wake up.
I took my last skating test in 1990, before I got too cool as a teenager to skate. I always wanted to go back and finish my tests but felt I was too busy as an academic and a parent. What’s more, this may be Canadian sacrilege but I find figure skating aesthetically ridiculous so I was reluctant to admit to myself that nothing beats the way it feels to skate well on the ice. But I promised myself I would spend more time this year doing things that feel good so now I hit the ice every Sunday with a crew of other adult skaters and I practice for my first test in 28 years. I’m no Tessa Virtue but I’m trying to embrace my awkwardness. And I love it.
Lesson 4: Do what feels good, even if it means looking goofy or falling on your ass. Especially if it means that.
The French class, I’m taking because my kid is going to full-French school next year and I should probably be able to understand some of what’s going on, and also because speaking French is just a good life skill to have. Being on the other side of the classroom again is a total trip. I got so sweaty with nerves during my placement interview, conducted in my rusty French, that I thought I would cry. Now I have piles of homework to do and my daughter is thrilled to help me with it. The role reversal is oddly comforting.
Lesson 5: It’s good to sweat it out in the student’s seat.
Finally, I’ve tried more consciously to round out my life, which means cooking more, getting more sleep, taking evenings and weekends off, saying no to social things I don’t want to do, and perhaps most importantly, hiring a coach for my academic work (thanks for the recommendation, Aimée!). My wonderful coach Rebecca works like a project manager, helping me plot my short- and long-term goals into realistic schedules that keep me on-target and unfrazzled. I’ve never felt more calm and focussed in my work and I don’t feel like I’ve been working very hard but my word count tells me otherwise. Now, you might think of the coach as benefitting me academically but, more importantly, I would call this one a win for me as a person: if I can get though my days without crushing guilt and anxiety, the whole-self me wins.
Lesson 6: You don’t have to do it all by yourself all the time.
So that’s where I’m at seven months into my sabbatical. I’ve made progress as both an academic and a person, and I’ll keep at it over the next five months before I dive back into the fire come September. Hopefully I’ll be ready for it.
Alright, I’ve got French homework to go do.