Sabbatical habits, part 1

For me, June marked the beginning of a year-long sabbatical. This meant an abrupt return to the research I almost entirely neglected during my first year back to teaching and administration after the birth of my child. All I had done was write two proposals – one for summer research, and one for the sabbatical itself.

This won’t be a post about the content of my research: that’s a topic for later in the year. Rather, this post discusses the habits I’ve retained from the academic year, new habits I am forming now, and habits I am considering for later in my sabbatical.

Perhaps surprisingly, the habit I’ve retained from the academic year is that I’m at work from about 8:30 until about 5:00.

I leave home and head to work as soon as my daughter is off to play in the park with her nanny – except for one morning a week when my husband and I have breakfast together sans child, also a habit retained from the spring semester.  We are also occasionally getting coffee together on other mornings – but we usually talk about work, so that counts as work, right? Coffee seems like an occasional treat for relaxed summer mornings, one we might not keep in the fall.

More importantly, I am still leaving work at 5:00 most days to spend time with my daughter while my husband cooks dinner. Now that classes are out of session, if I leave late I can’t blame students or colleagues. It’s entirely my fault for starting an absorbing task too close to the end of the day.

Some might leave work early to have more time at home with their child – and it’s possible I’ll do that later in the year as we travel and as our child care arrangements change. For now, we are committed to paying our nanny for 40 hours/week. (Friday is a short day when my mother comes over for grandma time.) Keeping the routine seems best for all of us, for as long as we can. And it seems like I might as well take full advantage of the time we are paying for now, since our day care slot starting in the fall is only part time (for now).

I’ve also continued doing some work in the evening after my daughter goes to bed or on the weekend while she is napping – though not every evening and weekend. During the academic year I needed the extra hours at home, uninterrupted by students or colleagues, to keep up with assignments and grading. On sabbatical, so far it’s been because I’m excited about my work.

Although I’m only two months into my sabbatical, I’ve already started some new habits that I hope to continue for most or all of the year.

I’m keeping a lab notebook again. On the first day I started, I was so excited by my outpouring of thoughts that I posted about it on Facebook. Looking back, I’ve started a lab notebook for each of my sabbatical projects (this is the third), and stopped writing as those projects wound down.

I’ve found it incredibly helpful to have one place to write and record everything about my work that is not yet ready for publication. In less than two months, I’ve nearly filled the first 80-page notebook, in part because of the next habit.

I’ve started journaling daily. Ideally I sit down to write first thing in the morning – soon after I wake up if my daughter is still asleep, when I first get to work otherwise. I am keeping a pen and notecards on my bathroom counter to jot down quick first-thing thoughts, in case I won’t get to write at length until later.

I started journaling when I got a whole week into a new project (more on this in a future post) without writing anything down about it. Realizing my head was full and I would soon start forgetting what I’d done and thought about, I spent an entire morning on a 10-page longhand brain dump in my lab notebook. My hand hurt by the end of it. (If you’re reading, Becky, thanks for suggesting gel pens – they are a lot better.) It became a daily habit the very next morning: I realized that for sustainable record-keeping, I needed to write every day. It’s also turned out to be invaluable for thinking through design decisions and next steps.

Why morning? At the end of the work day, I’m often too tired to invest in it. I also fear getting absorbed in another task, starting too late, and facing the choice between rushing through journaling or staying late at work. And I didn’t want to commit to working every evening after bedtime. The other advantage of morning is that it’s the best time to work through whatever was on my mind when I woke up, which most days is my research.

My lab notebook also includes a daily list of accomplishments. This is mostly a side effect of my daily standup meeting with my summer research assistant – if I haven’t written down what I did since our last meeting, I often won’t remember. I didn’t make these lists when my research assistant took a week off from work. Looking back, though, I miss them. So I think I’ll try to keep this habit up even after our daily standups end.

I’ve started writing for the public, beyond my blog. Thanks to our Communications office for getting this going: Gina Ohnstad suggested a topic based on one of my early blog post, while Gillian Frew persuaded me to do it and has supported me through the writing process. She is about to start shopping that first piece – you’ll eventually learn more about it here.

My initial conversation with Gillian also got me thinking more broadly about non-scholarly publications and audiences. I just submitted to Computing Research News an essay on a topic related to program administration, which should appear in the August issue. You’ll see it here, too.

Related to the above and to my new research project, I created a new Twitter account. While you can continue to follow @CS_whitman for news about CS at Whitman College, you can also follow my personal account at @ProfJanetDavis. In fact, please do – I have reconfigured this blog to share new posts on my personal account, so I can retweet the relevant ones from the departmental account.

I don’t think that being on Twitter has added to my total social media time. It’s been really interesting to engage with a social media site strategically, with an explicit goal of gaining followers and exposure. I can’t say that all of my posts have been directly related to my writing or research, but many of them have. It’s also such a change to have a personal account versus only a departmental one. I feel much more free to follow personal interests – for example, writing this just reminded me I wanted to follow Fuchsia Dunlop and Naomi Duguid – and to have opinions that don’t necessarily represent anyone else at my institution.

I’ve found social media engagement energizing and thought-provoking, not the time suck many would say it is. I probably have a blog post in me (maybe even an essay for the public?) comparing my experiences on Facebook and Twitter.

Finally, I’ve taken of our new child care arrangements and my newly relaxed schedule to have lunch with my family every Friday. It’s been a nice preview for the weekend. I’m also taking my research assistant out to lunch most Mondays, and John and I are taking turns taking each other out to lunch most weeks. When I return to Whitman during the academic year, I hope to find ways to continue having lunch with colleagues without getting dragged too much into college politics beyond what affects my own department. I definitely plan to join in the departmental lunch with students many weeks. (Hmm, that’s another topic for a blog post.)

Most of these new habits have to do with writing, the keystone of scholarship in any discipline.

Looking forward, I need to establish some better habits with respect to reading. So far most of my scholarly reading has been goaded by social media, urgent problems, or the need to keep up with my research assistant. But these books aren’t going to read themselves!

Several piles of unread books.

(ETA: See my next post for an itemized list of the books in this photo.)

Perhaps reading could go along with journaling, either before or after. I remember a former Grinnell colleague in English, Khanh Ho, once telling me that he spent each morning reading until he felt moved to write, which sounds like a luxurious habit for my sabbatical.

I’ve also written above about when I work – but not about where I work. So far I’ve been working mostly in my office: I like my office, and I find it a productive place to work. (In fact, I still need to write a post on designing my office.) It’s a convenient place for my research assistant to find me, and it’s fairly quiet over the summer. That will change once classes resume. I’ve also spent a little time working in coffee shops on and off campus, and I’ve been journaling outdoors on campus in the cool of the morning. Again, it’s quiet for now, but that will change once classes resume.

Probably I will continue to work in my office some, either making good use of the “Do Not Disturb” sign I got for pumping, or while working on tasks where I don’t mind being interrupted. But I’m planning to explore Walla Walla’s downtown coworking space, where I hope to avoid meeting students and colleagues. Though it’s no Hacker Dojo, I also hope I might meet others working on tech projects.

I also need to think about whether there are new habits I want to undertake for my health. Somehow this was not the first thing on my mind: Returning to research was enough of a novelty! Perhaps I’ll feel like I have more time and energy to devote here once that novelty has worn off.

Look for “Sabbatical habits, part 2” sometime this fall.

2 thoughts on “Sabbatical habits, part 1

  1. Amy Csizmar Dalal

    I’m a huge fan of lab notebooks! Not only do I find them useful when forming thoughts on an ongoing project, but I also find them to be a useful reality check for those times I have a “great” insight — sometimes I’ve had those “great” insights before, but they did not pan out. Saves me a ton of wasted time. 🙂

    I would love to hear more about your reading plans for sabbatical! Both how you’re approaching reading on a regular basis and what you’re reading.

  2. Janet Davis Post author

    I was waffling about captioning that photo with a list of books. I will do that shortly!


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