Emerging from the sabbatical cave

Well, hello to anyone who is still out there! I am officially poking my head out of my self-imposed sabbatical seclusion. Things got really complicated inside my head last year and I kind of didn’t know how to write about it. Also, C. and I decided to sell our condo and buy a house, which took up lots of time and brainspace.

I returned to campus two weeks ago and it’s been a bumpy transition back into this whole business of going to work everyday. Things are feeling a little better now. Something that really helped me get my brainspace back into a good mindset was teaching my very first library instruction session after several months off.

You guys. It was SO GREAT. I don’t even know how to tell you. Honestly, I had so much dread about the return to the library instruction classroom, because my burnout was so all-consuming. But mainly, what helped the most in terms of developing an enjoyable and energizing session was that I avoided as much lecture and point-and-clicking as possible. Instead, I focused primarily on getting students to think about information, rather than teaching them how to find information. I mean, most students know how to click links and type words in a box, right? What they need help with is evaluating the stuff they find when they click search. This is my informed hunch based on years of doing this thing.

When preparing for the session, I cast about for ideas for what to do. I looked at all of my teaching files from the past several years and initially decided to recycle something I’ve done before. But then something told me to keep looking. I dug around in some files that I’d copied from some library instruction book a million years ago that I failed to make note of properly so I can’t correctly cite my source. Bad librarian! But anyway, I found something that looked promising and adapted it so it looked like I wanted it to. This is the result linked here.

The best, most enjoyable part was not really how well they filled out the worksheet, but the conversations I had with them while they did so. While they worked in pairs, I walked around the room and talked to each pair. I asked them how they were doing, what they had found so far, and nudged them along if they needed help. I concluded the session by quickly recapping the general findings of the group, which addressed not so much what they found, but that they thought about what they found.

In fact, when I stopped to talk to one of the pairs, they were looking at a library catalog record not for a book on our shared topic (what makes college students successful), but instead Fifty Shades of Grey. And I totally did not care at all that this was not on our topic! It was still a chance to talk about how to read a catalog record and figure out how to get their hands on a book.

In short, I am thinking that maybe I’m not entirely cured of my burnout, but I have a good idea of how to plan library instruction sessions so that they can help prevent further burnout. And it was a fantastic way to begin the semester and return from my sabbatical.

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Invigorating insomnia

It is late, and I am awake. I stupidly drank a pumpkin spice latte at 6 pm. I ingest so much caffeine that I thought–wrongly–that drinking coffee so late would not have an effect on me. I was wrong. But I’m also awake because the coffee was accompanied by an invigorating conversation with a trusted mentor, a conversation that reignited my passion for my work and provided guidance on where I might go next in my career.

I haven’t been writing as much about my sabbatical as I had anticipated. This is, in part, because I’ve had so much going on internally, a good deal of agonized introspection, that I’m still processing and trying to integrate into my mind and heart. I never anticipated that my sabbatical would provoke an existential crisis. And I just haven’t been willing to share this publicly.

But here are a few things that I’m now willing to write about openly:

1. My sabbatical project has departed pretty significantly from my original idea. And I am only just now making peace with that and feeling okay about it. What this new idea is is still taking shape, but I have a self-imposed deadline to formulate a book proposal about it. In short, my project seeks to integrate both storytelling and an examination of burnout in instruction librarianship.

2. I honestly don’t know if I want to be a librarian forever anymore. Or, rather, I don’t quite know how to be a librarian and still engage in the creative and intellectual stimulation that I’ve quite recently acknowledged to be a true, real, critical part of who I am and what I need out of life. I think I might be figuring out ways to do this. One of these ways is to take advantage of what remains of this sabbatical and dedicate myself more fully to creative writing. My previously dismissed MFA dreams may be bubbling back up to the surface. Today I wrote 2,006 words, the beginnings of a novel that is slowly taking shape in my imagination. This excites me immensely.

3. I am truly, truly professionally fortunate. I have an economically secure tenured job FOR LIFE. This fact cannot be understated. But I have sufficient flexibility and freedom to seek out and engage in creative pursuits while still contributing professionally to my field. I have an incredibly supportive director who gives me the time and brainspace to do my thing. I am so lucky, so incredibly lucky.

4. And the good fortune of my personal life cannot be understated either. The strong, loving partnership I have with my wife and my valued friendships sustain me during times of self-doubt. And I’ve had plenty of self-doubt as of late.

So, those are my most recent thoughts. I think this sabbatical is not only going to be transformative for my professional pursuits. I think it is going to change my whole life.

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Big Haircut

Shedding hair like one might rid oneself of unreasonable expectations, I consider the lightness, the extraordinary lightness, of letting go, of reconsidering options, of envisioning new paths. I’m joining the army of self-exploration, and this is my boot camp haircut, the rite of initiation that signals my admission to this navel-gazing club. I didn’t ever really expect to become a member. I wore my former self-assuredness like a merit badge, like some kind of weirdo grownup Girl Scout. It turns out, though, that merit badges can fall off, no matter how securely you affixed it. But instead of sewing it back on, I’m choosing to molt instead. Maybe what grows back will stick.

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On innovation and sharing ideas

My reading journey thus far has diverted significantly from my original path with interesting and exciting results. The most energizing thing I’ve read recently is Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Johnson looks at examples of innovation and identifies several common themes.

The major lesson for me in this book is that I need to share my ideas, my work, in order for true creativity and innovation to happen. I tend to jealously guard my new ideas like secrets. I’m afraid that people won’t like my ideas, or that I’ll be roundly mocked, or that someone will steal my ideas. But if I share my ideas or thoughts or hunches or inklings, they can intersect with other people’s ideas or thoughts or hunches or inklings, and together they can develop and flourish into something interesting and meaningful.

Over this past week or so, I’ve felt this slow hunch developing and taking shape. I still don’t know what I’m going to end up producing with this sabbatical project. I don’t know what it will look like, or even what it will be about anymore. But I have this strong sense that I’m not interested in seeking traditional methods of disseminating my ideas. I don’t know if I really care about being published again and being recognized and validated in that way. I want to share my ideas on my own terms, in my own format. What will this look like? Again, I’m not sure, but I suspect it will be web-based.

Also, in other news, Constance’s Army schedule continues to work well for me, although there have been some adjustments and tinkering. It’s important to have structure but to not be so rigid that you can’t be flexible. So we’ve experimented with different getting-up times and so on. What remains the same, however, is that still I sit here at the kitchen table with my yellow legal pads and blue pen and stack of books, thinking, dreaming, and writing.

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A month in

I am writing this sitting at the table on the balcony of my second floor condo. It is becoming autumn, slowly, the breeze cool, but the sun hot, so I’ve removed my ancient and baggy black cardigan and draped it over the back of my chair. I’m wearing a variation of my Sabbatical Uniform: equally ancient and baggy black yoga pants (in which I did actual yoga this morning), a souvenir t-shirt from my summer Lake Michigan beach trip idyll, blue socks, and my hair pulled back into a braid so that my nervous and fidgety lifelong habit of hair-twisting is thwarted. My empty mug sits next to me, containing the dregs, the memory of chai with vanilla almond milk and honey. The door to the balcony is open, allowing the cats to move freely in and out of the condo. They like being in the sunshine of the balcony. They weave around my feet, poke their heads through the balcony slats, and then abruptly flop down, as if arrested by the power of fresh air and direct sunlight.

I live in the Old Louisville neighborhood. When you stand in front of my building, facing the street, mostly what you experience is the pure urban squalor of litter, pollution, or similar. But the back of the building, where I sit on my balcony, is shockingly verdant and serene. Trees, grass, squirrels chattering, birds chirping, cicadas singing.

As the season slowly drifts forward amid this peaceful backdrop, I, too, am slowly changing, taking shape, more definition. Nearly a month into my sabbatical, and what do I have to show for it? A legal notepad completely filled, some 50 pages, with handwritten notes on what I’ve been reading. I’ve read a bunch of books, or parts of books, and a handful of articles. I’ve read enough to realize which lines of inquiry I want to follow and which ones I want to abandon.  I’ve read enough and taken sufficient notes so that my hunches, my inklings of ideas, are starting to coalesce and take shape with more certainty.

And not only are my ideas percolating and giving off the aroma of full formulation, but I feel my own self altering. I feel like I am truly beginning to interrogate my boredom, my burnout, and I glimpse answers and solutions shimmering in the distance.

Soon I will break for lunch in this Constance Army regimented day. Soon I will close the computer, usher the cats inside, close and lock the door, and move on the next thing. But the promise of what’s next is there, tantalizing me with possibilities, and urging me forward.

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The Army is Awesome

Last week’s trial stint in the Constance Army was a great experience. I worked hard, accomplished things, had ideas, wrote about those ideas, engaged in creative pursuits, read for pleasure, exercised, and more. It was a perfect balance of work and play. I have agreed to remain in the army for the indefinite future.

I’m not quite ready to flesh out those ideas in public yet, but maybe soon. In short, it feels like my original idea–the relationships between and intersections of storytelling and teaching/learning–is morphing a bit, changing shape into something else. I’m mostly pretty okay with this. I came into this project feeling pretty sure that what I wrote in my sabbatical application proposal is not what I would actually end up writing about. That’s normal, right?

Also, I got my copy of War and Peace.

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Boot Camp Report

Day One of the Constance Army was a smashing success. It was a challenging day, to be sure, but it was productive and satisfying.

It started with a 6:30 am wake-up, followed by a yoga practice. We then spent about 45 minutes in a creative pursuit of our choice–I worked with my creative writing exercise book–and then we ate breakfast at 8:15. After breakfast, we had to report for duty at 9:00. So I showed up at the kitchen table at 9:00 with notebooks and books in hand.

And here is where I struggled a bit. I’ve done a good amount of reading and note-taking on my topic so far, but it’s getting to the point where all of the reading is starting to sound the same. Also, worryingly, it’s kind of starting to bore me. So I tried to write through that a bit. I re-read my notes, wrote about my thoughts about my notes, and tried to figure out what interested me and what didn’t interest me. I worked with that for awhile, and once I felt like I had gotten to a good point, I decided to pick up a book I’ve been wanting to read but hadn’t really gotten around to yet, Information Literacy and Social Justice. I read through the first two chapters and really got excited about what I was reading. I had actually read Maura Seale’s excellent chapter already, and it was a pleasure to revisit it.

After spending most of the morning at the kitchen table, it was finally time for lunch at 12:30 pm. After lunch we had the choice of either more work time or free time until 2:00, at which point we drop everything and watch General Hospital. I chose free time, obvs, reading Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women until it was time for GH. After our show, we went for a long walk. And after we walked, we meditated for an hour. Then we had more free time until dinner. And then after dinner was even more free time until bedtime.

I was worried that being in Constance’s Army would mean that I wouldn’t get any free time, and it turns out that I was sorely mistaken. Not only did I have plenty of time for myself, but I didn’t feel any guilt about it, because 1) it was built into the schedule, and 2) I still got plenty of work done.

Today is Day 2 of the army, and I’m writing this during the Creative Pursuits time-slot. Soon it will be time for breakfast, and we’ll have another day of satisfying productivity. I love Constance’s Army!

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