Sunday, October 24, 2010

Hacking sabbatical

I didn't really think of my sabbatical starting until the Fall term started up, in part because I'd had such a busy summer of professional activities that would have happened whether I was on sabbatical or not. So, for me, sabbatical started August 23. And it took me the last two months to finally figure out how to manage my time and to get into a groove. Thank dog, then, that I took the whole year, despite the reduction in salary.

My problems in getting started were threefold: 1) the major project I'm working on is in its very amorphous beginning stages and the immediate tasks at hand were and remain super dull and tedious; 2) I'd forgotten how to manage so much unscheduled time; and 3) ZOMG! The Intertubes! Let me explain point 1 and then I'll talk about how I harnessed technology (my university's admins love to throw around phrases like that) to deal with points 2 & 3 and at least ameliorate the issues in point 1, and also how I actually added to my goals for sabbatical to paradoxically make it more likely that I'll complete those goals.

Even before we get to the issues with my major project, there was another task I had to take care of by a September 15th deadline, and that was the editing of a handful of medieval texts for an inclusion in a student anthology, along with writing the introductions to them. I learn a lot from such projects, and they're one of the most important things we do as scholars, I think, even though at most places they don't count as much as original peer-reviewed research, and so I'm happy to do such projects in that sense. But, ZOMG!, it is tedious work. And I think that tedium got me off to a bad start and in bad habits. I'd edit a stanza of text and then check Facebook. Then I'd edit another stanza and play 5 games of Mah Jong. Then I'd edit another stanza and read blogs. And so on. I let it drag out until mere days before the deadline, so poof! there went a month of sabbatical.

The thing was, I was totally using that editing job as a way to procrastinate on my own research. I could have been doing both all that time, but I didn't. But finally I got that job out of the way and it was time to move on to my own research -- no more excuses. But the first problem with this project is that it's so early in its development, it's hard to know what it needs and where I should be going in terms of textual, historical, and theoretical research and reading. I'm not even sure what the size of the project is; though I proposed it as a book project in my sabbatical application, I'm starting to think it might be a Speculum-length article. Or maybe a couple of articles of shorter length. And the working thesis/argument I have now may totally change as I continue to do the primary text research. God knows that happened on my first book, which started as a project on class and economics and a specific body of literary texts and morphed into a project on gender and those texts. And before that, I just wanted to write on those texts because there hadn't been any book-length works on them in a long while and I thought I had interesting, newish ways of looking at them. That's also kind of how this project started: I kind of fell into finding my primary material, realized it was both understudied and yet potentially significant, and then started thinking about it more. But that makes it harder to know where to go with the stuff because you're not entering a widely populated critical conversation; instead, you've got to find ways to introduce it into the conversation by relating it to conversations already going on. But the question is, which ones? In practical terms, that means: which existing scholarship is going to help me figure out what's going on here? What should I be reading to help me think through this?

Meanwhile, the one task I know I need to do -- find and catalog for myself all the instances of the literary phenomenon I'm working on -- is a slow and tedious one. See, the stuff I'm working on is what I think of as an obscure subgenre of 15th and 16th century poetry, and so I have to find it by combing through reference works like the various editions of Index of Middle English Verse. I go through a reference work like that one entry after another, looking for texts that might be the kind I'm trying to study and define and then entering them into a Word file I made (so I can search it electronically). And then I've got to track down the available editions of these poems (which sometimes means getting my hands on articles in obscure 19th century German journals!); and after that, in the Spring, I'm going to look at the manuscripts of texts without editions or whose editions don't tell me enough about the manuscript contexts (and that part means another longish trip to England - so yeah!). But right now, I'm in the most boring stage. I'm only up to M in the New Index of Middle English.

As you can imagine, that work is about as interesting as reading a phone book, and so it's also a task prone to procrastination and distraction. In fact, I really should have done it a little bit at a time last year when I was teaching, because it's totally the kind of task you can work into a busy teaching year with just a few minutes a day. But I am teh lame and did not do that. And now I have to Get. It. Done so I can effectively use sabbatical time for that trip to the manuscript libraries in the UK and here in the US, too, especially since that's how I justified the necessity of my sabbatical in my application -- I said I needed to do "literary field work." But trying to do hours of that kind of work -- or heck, even one hour -- at a time is going to create diminishing returns on productivity, because the more mind-numbingly bored I become, the more mistakes I'll make and the more I'll procrastinate with those games and Facebook and so on. And furthermore, I can't spend my whole sabbatical doing work that dull. I'll go insane.

So. What to do? Well, here's how I "hacked" sabbatical to help me make better use of my time and be more productive, both in terms of what this longer-term project needs to get off the ground this year and also in terms of having something to show for my time next year. As I said above, I actually added some additional goals to my sabbatical besides this maybe-a-book project (which is the only thing I mentioned in my application for sabbatical). I had already planned to finally get to writing an article I've had brewing for a couple of years. It has its problems and roadblocks, too, but it's much further along than the nascent book project, so at least it has some shape. I also took on another editorial job, related to that one I mentioned above. I know, I know -- more tedious work. However, I think I've figured out how to deal with that, too, which I'll get to in minute. I also accepted an invitation to write a chapter in a forthcoming multi-volume guide/companion/introduction to British literature on the same genre of text as the texts I'm editing and have edited and that the article project is on, so those projects are all interrelated and will aid one another. Plus, along with editing texts for either scholarly or student editions, I think the scholarly guides to literature are another really important feature of what we do in the profession. (So next time some fool is dismissing scholarly research as something no one reads, mention a Norton Critical Edition or a Cambridge Companion to said fool and ask him where he thinks such works come from. But I digress.) Those are the projects that will go under my "professional activity" section of next year's annual merit report. But I'm also doing things for teaching, for pleasure, and for well being -- including, for instance: re-reading a bunch of the classical, medieval, and renaissance texts from my undergrad great books core curriculum; reading lots of detective fiction; trying to get back in shape; and reading introductions to English morphology, phonology, and syntax, to make me a better teacher of Old and Middle English -- and these are all part of my daily schedule.

Now, it might seem like I'm being over-ambitious, but here's why I think more tasks will help me. Remember how boring I said some of my work is? Well now, if I get bored with one task, instead of playing Mah Jong or reading Huffington Post, I just switch tasks. If I get stuck on a problem in my article project, instead of checking Facebook, I switch tasks. If I'm frustrated with all of my own projects, I can read The Illiad or about the Northern Cities Vowel shift and still feel professionally engaged in some way, but give my brain a rest. And if I'm sick of all the brain work, I get on the tread mill or on my bike, or I chase Pippi around the yard. (She doesn't play fetch; she plays keep away.)

And here's the hacking part. I've incorporated two apps to help me achieve these things. The first one is an iPhone app called Daily Deeds. I'm pretty sure I learned about this from ProfHacker, so I'll give them general credit. Anyway, it's a simple little program that lets you enter a list of tasks that you want to accomplish daily (or at least in a recurring way). And if you accomplish said task, you check it off. You can then e-mail yourself reports to show you how much you're doing something each month. In my own version, I've entered a whole bunch of tasks and sub-tasks related to all of the above (so, for instance, I have an entry that says "catalog stuff from the NIMEV," another that says "read some Classical/Med/Ren lit," another that says "read some criticism and take notes" (so it serves for *all* my projects), and one that says "run, ride bike, or walk Pippi" (to account for all physical activity in a low-pressure way, just to help myself make it a daily routine, no matter how hardcore or not). I can't tell you how satisfying it is to check something off! And it doesn't matter how short a time I spend on something -- if I do it, I get to check it off. This 'carrot,' combined with allowing myself to switch tasks the moment I get bored or frustrated, means I now -- finally -- spend at least 6 hours a day actually *working*.

And there's the other tech tool that has helped me do that. I don't have the best willpower when it comes to things like Facebook or blogs or other online distractions, but I need the web for some of the work I'm doing (using the MED and OED, for instance), so I can't use Freedom and turn off the internet entirely. So instead, I use the Leechblock extension for the Firefox browser, which allows me to select the sites to block and the times to block them. So now, from 9am to 5pm each weekday, I cannot access Facebook, HuffPo, the real estate sites around here, Blogger or Wordpress blogs, or all the other things I routinely tend to want to distract myself with..."just for minute," I'll say...and which end up sucking hours of my time each week. And often, I move downstairs with one of the books I'm reading by about 4pm, so I'm away from the computer when I'm allowed back on the sites.

So this is how I'm "hacking" sabbatical: counter-intuitively adding more tasks to make more progress on each of them; switching tasks often; rewarding myself for activity on tasks by chalking up check marks on Daily Deeds; blocking myself from my biggest online time-wasters; and now, telling you all about it so that I stick to it! Let's see if it continues to work.


What Now? said...

Oh, I'm such a believer in adding tasks to increase overall productivity! This is why I opted out of a second year of dissertation fellowship and asked if I could teach instead; I knew that I would get more writing done if I was also teaching, and sure enough, it worked. I remind myself of this whenever I start feeling jealous of people who, for example, teach fewer courses than I do; I'm actually more productive (and happier!) when I'm doing a bunch of different things.

All of which is to say -- good for you for figuring out how to create the best sabbatical year for yourself!

Pour of Tor said...

This fills me with inspiration to return to Mt. Grademore, my lesson plans for tomorrow, my syllabi for next semester, my book proposal, etc. Now if I only I could get myself to stop using the onslaught of papers to be graded as an excuse to avoid the gym....

Sisyphus said...

This sounds awesome! I'm not sure I need something like that daily app right now, since my stuff is *super* structured at the moment, but I will keep it in the back of my mind.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Considering it is not even November, you are soooo far ahead in the sabbatical game of finding the best way to get work done. Bravo!

Dr. Virago said...

Woo-hoo! I'm ahead of the game!

undine said...

This helps! I had turned off Leechblock but am turning it back on again. Good sabbatical to you!