Sabbatical Update #2: What’s Added

Sabbaticals set up a different rhythm of work and life. As you shed the schedule of classrooms and meetings, you make room for the creative endeavours of scholarship. (And if you don’t think that scholarship is creative, you’re wrong, wrong, wrong!) I’ve spent the past four months and a bit engrossed in scholarship, my own sources and writing.

Immersion in Scholarship: In the normal course of the term, I try to keep semi-current by reading one scholarly article a week relating to anything in my teaching and research portfolio. Since I teach 5500 years of history touching on three continents with occasional forays into a fourth, that’s a lot of possibilities (and probably a good explanation for why I seem to know a bit about an awful lot of historical periods). During my sabbatical, I’ve immersed myself in the scholarship of a few particular elements and topics. This time around it’s been gender and the English family in the long seventeenth century along with some forays into medieval aristocratic households and the culture of Byzantium from the 11th century onwards. (Yes, for me? This is actually fairly focused. And it’s for two different projects, anyway!)

Getting back into the discourse of a field you’ve only been following superficially for several months or longer? It takes time. Even though I started right into my neatly accumulated pile of books and stash of PDFs on the Monday after New Year’s Day, it took me a while to re-orient myself to what was going on in the field and how my own ideas fit into place.

I take a lot of notes and am still experimenting on integrating this with Zotero as my bibliographic management software. My “old school” system isn’t too crafty: I start a new file in my word processor that’s stuffed full of transcriptions, notes and commentary from sources along with a full Chicago Manual of Style citation for the piece.

Immersion in Sources: More than reading what others are writing about your subject, delving into the actual material of study is sabbatical challenge #1. I’ve learned that it takes me a good week to ramp up to true productivity in my primary source research, especially if the material is not in modern English and/or is in manuscript form. People say you never forget how to ride a bicycle, but you can sure get rusty over a year or two away. It’s even worse with deciphering a particularly crabby form of secretarial hand in a sixteenth century inventory or decoding the formulaic Latin of a semi-literate and presumably un-engaged medieval clerk. The problem of teaching a lot outside my field of expertise is that it takes me that much longer to get back “into” my research. (Don’t suggest I just teach more “in my field” as that’s untenable when I’m the only premodernist teaching in English in my department so if students need any history before 1700, it’s my job.)

In contrast to previous sabbaticals, I’ve spent much less time breathing in the dust of distant archives and much less money on travel. My research was planned around a number of documents I’d already reviewed as well as others that I could obtain digitally. The Old Bailey Online website rolled out a fantastic new workspace for users which allowed me to shift my research from a series of bookmarked searches and records to a more synthetic and comparative analysis of the trials and Ordinary’s Accounts.

Mass Quantities of Writing: I write during the regular term, of course, but my sabbatical plan was to ramp this up with a presentation text that’s the nucleus of an article and a chapter for another project. I naively thought that I’d be pouring out words in print as soon as my sabbatical started. It never happens that way, of course. My writing began as note-taking, proceeded into a rambling outline for the first paper, and then took advantage of the computer’s cut-and-paste functionality to drop in bits and pieces, rearrange them and rewrite entire sections as needed.

One lesson I’ve re-learned in writing the four chapters I’ve had come out in print this past year: start anywhere in the text you plan to produce. Like my own students and my grad student self, I can spend forever fixated on the first line, the starting point, the opening, whereas the body of the paper contains many elements I can visualize clearly before the entire argument’s fully realized. So I started in the middle, wrote a bit, threw in some background, moved things around and kept adding until I had another complete chapter. I set it aside, read it back through (the second most painful point in the writing process: revising!), found the holes and weaknesses that had to be addressed. Then I did just that.

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