Sabbatical and the fertile void (professional musings)

We've now reached the end of fall semester, 2010, which means the end of my very first sabbatical.  The sabbatical is a semester (or a year) for faculty to do their own research and thinking, to have uninterrupted chunks of time to pursue new ideas, to follow leads and see where they go.  It's a necessary part of the scholarly life because it's providing the space that creative and analytical thinking require.

The sabbatical was a bit of a mystery to me from the beginning.  I haven't had uninterrupted chunks of time for research since probably 1999, my last semester in grad school.  What in the world would this be like?  I wasn't sure what to expect--yet even still it didn't go the way I expected.

Here's the predictable stuff:  during the semester I've read a bunch of fascinating books, most of which haven't appeared on the blog.  I'm doing feminist disability studies research, and I've read memoirs by parents of kids with disabilities, various sorts of social scientific and humanities-based research into the social construction of disability, and everything I can get my hands on about prenatal testing.  I've also identified several new favorite authors and have been tracking down all their work.  I had days when I descended into research mode and swam around there blissfully.  I've written an academic article, presented at a conference, and begun writing another article.  So this is what I expected would happen on sabbatical.

What I didn't expect was the lack of focus, the swaths of time that I'd sit in my bat cave (the office I was assigned for my sabbatical) sort of staring, thinking, "What now?"  The days that I'd come home not really sure what I'd done all day.  I'd look at one of the many stacks of books around me, and none of them would call out to me.  Or an administrative task--even an administrative honor--would come my way, and I'd think, "Oh, I really don't want to do that."

"But what," another voice in my head would ask, "do you want?"

A friend recently shared that she's in what her therapist calls "a fertile void."  The instant she said the phrase, I knew what she was talking about.  It's a space of nothingness, of not knowing, of confusion--but a potentially generative space.  That's where I am.  That's what my sabbatical has been:  a fertile void.  It's provided me with the space not to know, and--more importantly--not to have to know.  I've been lifted off the treadmill, I guess:  the tracks that my days normally follow aren't there right now, which has given me the opportunity to consider what I think about those tracks.  Are those the tracks I want to be on?

And the answer is that I'm not sure.

Here are some things I've learned:  I love thinking analytically about the world around me.  I just love it, and I can't avoid it.  It's what I would do even if I weren't an academic.  I've also learned how much I enjoy students.  The other day I hung out in the WGS office for an hour or so, and being in the physical space with students who came in and out, sharing with each other about classes and community service work they're doing, was revitalizing to me.  I thought, "Oh, I miss you all!"  I love real conversations about ideas with colleagues and friends.  I've had a number of moments of thinking, "This is why I chose this line of work," when I'm in the midst of an intense, chewy discussion with another feminist scholar.  I'm fairly certain that these sorts of conversations aren't happening as often in other lines of work--or, in fact, are things actively avoided.

I've also learned that I'm uncertain about some other aspects of my career, things that a year ago I would have had confident clarity about.  I think this is good news.  Meaningful uncertainty is often a crucial component of real choice.  It's not always comfortable, but I'm trying to relax in it, to marinate.  Knowing what and who I want to be when I grow up is a big deal, and if my sabbatical has opened up a way for me to look at my life differently, without my old assumptions driving the bus, then that's time well spent.


The Mom said...

Wow! What a good post, Alison. I love to see your mind work like that. A "fertile void" - how beautiful, and how beautiful of you to recognize it!

Quiche said...

Agreeing with your Mom, great post! It has taken some of us awhile to graciously embrace the purpose, importance and necessity of these "fertile voids", but you have in a very positive way, and perfectly described it here (:

Deandra said...

I found I entered a similar state during my sabbatical last spring. Part of the joy of it was not being accountable (professionally that is) to anyone but myself, my own standards or agenda or needs. Choosing not to respond to email because the "I'm away" filter was on, though it sounds simplistic, contributed to a zen-like "fertile void."
From my experience this semester, I would recommend having a reentry plan, though. (Or at least more of one than I did.) Happy to talk about this at some point...