Sunday, March 24, 2013

Taking a break

It's spring break. More accurately, it's the last day of spring break. And it's been a fantastic experience. Every day I've been in the office, mostly all alone (on two days, two different co-workers were also present). Spring break is like a harbinger of summer, with its empty campus and long stretches of unallocated time.

And then the end of the semester rushes back, and it's five weeks of utter chaos before summer actually starts. Usually I think of that chaos as the last gasp of activity before a more leisurely pace for three months. But this year is different.

I applied for and received a sabbatical for the upcoming summer. Most sabbaticals are given for fall or spring semesters, because most faculty don't have regular duties in the summer for which they would need official release. But administrators, like me, can only be granted a sabbatical for the summer, because their administrative functions would (presumably) be more difficult to replace or reassign than the teaching duties of faculty in a normal semester.

This is the first sabbatical I've ever applied for. I'm in my twelfth year of teaching. Prior to a few years ago, when I considered a sabbatical, I didn't have a major project that warranted a request. But now I do -- a book about the theology of prayer shawl ministries, under contract and due next spring.

And the university and the publishing company aren't the only institutions expecting results from my summer off. I have a grant covering some of the travel I need to do for my research and even a course release to give me more time to write this fall. There are another couple of grants still in the pipeline, at least one of which I'm quite hopeful will be funded.

So my sabbatical will be far from relaxing. On the contrary, I'm hoping to travel fully a third of the time. But I'm still looking forward to it as a period of much-needed rest. While I'm not in active crisis like I was a few months ago, I'm still experiencing burnout in my job. I'm still feeling dread about the approaching pressure to step up in administration, and still wondering whether I should instead step aside.

If anything, although my emotional state about it all is more stable, the conditions at work have become harder for me to treat with equanimity. Not that anything overt is wrong, but that the ever-elusive promise of stability and order continues to slip farther and farther into fantasy. I crave work in which I control the pace and the outcome. For scholars, that's research. I'm well aware that it's asking far too much; few human beings ever have the chance of experiencing such control. But those of us in academia usually have some taste of it, and when they're not teaching, faculty typically set aside periods  for it. Right now, that kind of life seems mighty appealing.

So I'm looking forward to throwing myself into research and writing almost full-time for the rest of 2013. It's a test, of sorts, to see whether I get it out of my system and emerge ready to take up the administrative mantle again, or whether I find myself unable to contemplate a life without ample time for scholarly immersion. or something in between.

And when it's over, if all goes as I think it should, my application to be promoted to full professor will be nearing approval. I know my boss will be looking forward to the end of next year as a return to full strength for the department, with sabbaticals for me and another faculty member behind us. But I've long anticipated that moment of promotion as permission to look around and see what other opportunities exist. It's hard to contemplate changing jobs, moving my family, any of those massive disruptions. And I'm not planning on it. But after the freedom to work on my own behalf, on my own project, comes the freedom to see whether that work (and my other experience) can bear more fruit elsewhere than it can here.

Sunday, March 3, 2013


This morning after breakfast, Archer put on his coat and headed toward the front door to play outside. And by "play," I mean "wander around spinning, jumping, and talking to himself," which is what I think of as his "autism time" -- a decompressing or centering activity that allows him some relief from the effort it takes to maintain normal behavior the rest of the time.

He stopped before opening the storm door. Then he turned and came back inside. "Cady Gray," he called, "I think I see a bird in the front yard."

Cady Gray, avid birdwatcher that she is, came running. "I see it!" she exclaimed. "Look, mom!" I looked. It was a red-bellied woodpecker, a bird we occasionally see in our front yard, but always a very special visitor amongst our usual robins, jays, cardinals, mockingbirds, chickadees, wrens, and titmice.

My daughter, thrilled, thanked her brother for calling her attention to the bird. I echoed her appreciation. "When I saw that bird, I felt like I just had to report it to Cady Gray," he explained.

It always impresses me when Archer takes someone else into account. He does this with his sister all the time, but in most cases, it's when she is right in front of him and either expressing her own preferences or reminding him, by her presence, that she has them. In this case, though, he not only noticed something in his surroundings, but made the connection to his sister's interest in birds -- something he himself has never shown interest in. Then he translated that realization into action. He set aside his own agenda long enough to alert Cady Gray to something she wouldn't want to miss.

Such attention to what others might want doesn't come naturally to Archer. But when he's close enough to someone, like his sister, it becomes part of his process. I hear evidence of it when he talked about something a particular classmate likes or is good at. Slowly, slowly, his world is expanding.