Monthly Archives: August 2010

How many words?

Yesterday, I was thinking about choosing to count all of the email I write for various projects towards my 200-word goal for the day. This has everything to do with my currently being all too distracted from the scheduled writing that I have been trying to learn with Wendy Belcher’s workbook. Of course, lowering my standard in this way is a slimy trick to play on myself, and I won’t do it. But it does recall to me a set of issues I’ve struggled with just about ever since I began teaching: academics write all the time. We write syllabi and email and course websites and responses to student work and recommendation letters and committee agendas and grant proposals and and and and and and and…. Writing up our research is only one kind of writing we do.

Which of course is why we need sabbaticals to focus on writing about our research. The more experience I pile on as a faculty member, the more I understand the seven-year cycle of teaching and sabbatical as being about an ongoing process of building productive habits of reading, research, and writing, watching them degrade as we turn our focus to teaching, and rebuilding them during a semester or year of sabbatical. We all know that there is evidence suggesting that teachers who make time to read and research are more successful in the classroom than those who don’t. (Sadly, I don’t have time to look up a citation right now.) One thing I’m noticing this particular sabbatical is how many of Belcher’s pieces of advice are things I say to my students about writing and how surprised I am to think about applying them to my own work.

In fact, it’s been a particular challenge for me to move my thinking from the teaching space in my brain to the writing space, and I find myself having to continue to make the shift consciously much more often than I would like now that–according to my own definition–I am already three months into this sabbatical. And I’m wondering how much of that difficulty is related to the fact that part of the entropic effect on my work processes over the past six years has occurred through my unfortunate redefinition of writing to include all of that other writing that goes with the classroom part of my career.

So. This time last week, ProfHacker recommended “The Rule of 200”, which is about writing 200 words on a project every single day, including weekends, holidays, and even on your birthday. That rule reminds me of a recommendation I heard from a colleague several years ago, which one might call “The Rule of 1000.” In this model, you write four pages every day before you leave the office. Not really a workable marker, of course, if you write at home, like I do.

I think what I’m trying to do right now is to use this blog and the many other ways and places in which I am writing during this sabbatical to think through a bit of a block that distractions have built for me over the past two weeks. First, I spent three full days away from my current article project and doing heavy brainwork in a TEI workshop. That was fun because it gave me a chance to access the math part of my brain, which goes sadly underused most of the time since I spend so much of my life with words. And then, I spent a lot of time either writing or talking about various grant projects, which also require the kind of attention that I would on a “normal” writing day give to my main article project.

I guess what I would like to learn in the next few months is how to be able to bring at least half that level of brainwork to at least 200 words on the article project every day, no matter what other brainwork I’m doing, so that I will be able to produce as many finished pieces as I would like by the end of January. Wish me luck. Or better yet, light a candle for me.

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Back to the Blog

Yesterday marked my return to blogging. I lost steam in June, when I finally got my travelers to London. The Wheatons and their European tour were my main reason for starting this blog. I thought a this-day-in-history plan would force me to keep writing. Now that it’s late August, that model certainly won’t work, as they had returned home to Norton, Massachusetts, by this point in 1862. But surely it’s not a good idea to postpone more news about their sojourns and journeys until June 2011, the next time this-day-in-history would be appropriate.

No, I will return to writing about the Wheatons and their time in London on Monday. In the meantime, I’ll say a bit about how they have featured in my life since June.

I was in London myself from the end of June through the beginning of July. This summer marked the first time that I spent enough time in the city to get something of a feel for it, and that helped me a lot as I worked on the poster/demo that my colleague, Wheaton College Archivist and Special Collections Curator Zeph Stickney and I presented at the Digital Humanities conference at King’s College.

Our demo used GoogleEarth to map sites we know the Wheatons visited whilst they were in England and Europe in the spring and summer of 1862. I had already visited some of the European stops in summer 2007. If I were to set a goal of visiting all the spots the Wheatons did, only the Rhine Valley, Brussels, Liverpool, and some English castles and palaces would remain.

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On Sabbatical

I’m impressed with how many of my colleagues, near and far, are also on sabbatical this fall. Several times in the past couple of weeks, I’ve learned that I have companions in the solitary tasks of research and writing, and that feels good. It also presents uncommon opportunities, and I’m taking advantage–both here at home and online–to make various research and writing projects social, which helps me with productivity and is easier to maintain during sabbatical than it is during a regular teaching semester.

Many of these sabbatical colleagues seem to be thinking of their time to focus on research and writing as starting now, with the beginning of the academic year. In contrast, I’ve been trying since about April to think about my sabbatical as beginning in May or June. In fact, there were moments–joyful moments–throughout the spring semester when I could mark my impending absence from the classroom in the fall. When my department was planning the course schedule for this year, when students were registering for fall courses, when the bookstore called for book orders. And of course there were ways in which the academic year extended into May and June. Commencement never happens until the weekend before Memorial Day, and this year a search bled into June. I’m very pleased with the success of that search, by the way, and the promise it holds for the future of the college.

So now, as my colleagues not on sabbatical are gearing up for fall classes, I can take this moment to look back on the first three months of my sabbatical, which are almost complete. And I can say with some pride that I have begun to establish a pattern of research and writing that I hope to continue to make into habits that I will be able to maintain when I return to the classroom in the spring. I have been using an iPhone/iPad app, Daily Deeds, to fix habits for both scholarship and housekeeping. And Hiveminder has become my app of choice for managing my long and ever-growing to-do lists.

Putting all of these together, I hope that during this sabbatical I will be able to imprint some new patterns for writing and other work, thus making my process of living as an academic both more productive and more fulfilling once the sabbatical is over.

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Sabbatical Resolutions

Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s ProfHacker post about New (Academic) Year’s Resolutions prompted me to think about how I see the kind of goal setting that prompted this blog and other strategies I’m using while I’m on sabbatical this fall. In her post, Fitzpatrick noted how the beginning of the academic year has parallels to the beginning of the calendar year. She outlined three simple resolutions for exercise, diet, and caffeine consumption that she hopes to make part of her routine to support her writing life during sabbatical and beyond.

Like Fitzpatrick, I use moments like the beginning of the academic year for “resolutions.” Since I tend to view my scholarship more in terms of failures than of successes, I am trying to shift my perspective during this sabbatical. My goal is to learn to see beginnings more as recurring opportunities for assessment and adjustment than as some kind of new way to judge my failures to live up to unreasonable ideals.

Since I started this whole academic life with studying nineteenth-century intentional communities and have done a lot of reading in feminism and utopia, I try to see both research and teaching as more about process than about blueprints and results. Perhaps ironically, I am having some success using a blueprint in the form of Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks. At week seven, I find myself a bit behind on the work, and this post marks an effort to try something different as beginning of the day writing to build momentum.

Belcher provides a kind of syllabus for productivity that works as a nice parallel to Fitzpatrick’s notion about the beginning of the semester. Each Monday, of course, begins a new week, and each week starts with an opportunity to look back, celebrate the successes that come with having made it thus far, and then plan for the week ahead. Thus Belcher’s workbook makes seemingly obvious facts like Monday’s place at the beginning of the week into conscious moments to make concrete the kinds of opportunities for assessment and adjustment that we associate culturally with the resolutions that some of us make on January 1.


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