Making Sense of a Sabbatical

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In my Introduction to Religious Studies course, my students think a lot about “making the strange familiar and familiar strange.” With those lessons in mind, I thought I’d make a bit more familiar for students who won’t see me as much in the Spring a practice that happens within the academy—the sabbatical. After being awarded tenure (typically in year 5 or 6), professors can apply for a sabbatical by outlining a specific research project that would benefit from some time away from campus. The project I described in my own proposal is my second single-author scholarly monograph. But, of course, there are always multiple projects at different stages in the works—or, as a colleague put it to me years ago, various pots simmering at higher and lower temperatures on the same stove. I’ve found I’m far more productive and enjoy writing more when I’m working on a few things at once instead of trying to move through projects and ideas linearly. Going into next semester’s sabbatical, I currently have three proverbial pots simmering:

1) Sourcing Slave Religion: Theorizing Experience in the American South. I’ve been interested in what scholars have called “slave religion” for some time now, and this book project will historicize some of the concepts that have to be up and running in order for that term to work analytically. Specifically, I want to look at concepts like “the South,” “the Atlantic,” “race,” and “religion,” none of which bore much resemblance to their contemporary connotations until the 18th century. In the late 1960s and early 1970s—when Black Studies became formally incorporated in the academy—work on slave religion earned a significant place in this vein of analysis, and concepts like the South and Atlantic, etc., coalesced in a specific way to do that important work. When taken together and coupled with theoretical turns in relation to identity, experience, and history that were also being made around that same time, the evolution and usage of these concepts can tell an interesting story about the 20th-century academy’s relationship to studies on subjectivity. They also offer useful ways forward in scholarship on race and religion.

2) Gender: A Critical Primer. I am the editor of a new book series with Equinox Publishing called Concepts in the Study of Religion: Critical Primers. This book on gender as a critical concept in the study of religion is one I’m writing with Craig Martin (a professor at St. Thomas Aquinas College) for that series.

3) Race and New Modernisms. This is a book recently contracted for inclusion in Bloomsbury’s series New Modernisms. I’m writing it with James A. “Andy” Crank, a professor in UA’s English department whose primary area of specialization is southern literature.

Those are the things I’m working on…but what will I actually be doing? Well, a lot of reading and note-taking and drafting and revising…and coffee-drinking. For those of us in the humanities, sabbaticals give concentrated time for that behind-the-scenes work that goes into putting together a book manuscript—work that’s necessary but that remains largely invisible to someone picking up a finished product. Some of this work for me includes, among other things: making some lists that outline specific tasks with self-imposed deadlines, making some decisions about what to read and when, doing some intellectual journaling every day that may or may not make its way formally into the writing I turn in to an editor much later, and making sure I do a bit of drafting every day. Every scholar has a different way of approaching the work prior to its publication, of course. Learning what works and what doesn’t individually is half the battle.
I used to entertain romantic visions of “the writing process” and “the life of the mind”…Feminist thinker Hélène Cixous has talked about writing “with the sun,” with large expanses of focused time, writing always only by hand. It sounds lovely, and it has clearly been working for her! For my own part, though, I’ve allowed that idea to give way to much less lofty and more quotidian notions of craft—I tend to write in fits and starts, with multiple things going on at once, and I’ve learned to be good with that. After all, having the chance to spend time thinking and writing about ideas I find interesting and important is one of the many privileges of this profession. Kelley Deal of The Breeders fame (a big part of the 90s for me!) recently gave an interview about having several creative outlets, and my own sense of things is more in line with her take than with a grand quest for some magnum opus:

Once I found out that there wasn’t a right answer, it’s like, “Cool, we’re good.” I’m just gonna make whatever I want and I’m fine with that. That’s what’s kept me happy and sober and sane all these years. I guess that’s the lesson—if you feel like doing something, saying something, making something, just do it in whatever way feels right for you.

That there’s coffee involved never hurts either.

1 thought on “Making Sense of a Sabbatical

  1. I like the description of how you go about trying to get something down on paper. The finished product is what other people see, but the before part, the thinking and planning and drafting (and then the redoing of all of this) is hard to see and understand, even when we are the ones doing it. Somehow I feel very reassured by your reflection that there are lots of different right ways.

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