The end of the sabbatical: Five things

Today I was back! back! back! from sabbatical. Actually, given the university was closed today I could’ve had another day without tackling the great admin mountain that had built up in my absence, but as I am an idiot I got straight to it this morning.

It’s been a great period of time. I am very lucky that the department decided to start offering sabbaticals and that I was one of the first guinea pigs to take one. Five quick thoughts now it’s over.

Time and space

The biggest (and most obvious) take away was the time and space to read and to learn, and to participate. I’ve been to five conferences, several of which took place on days I’d otherwise have been teaching. I’ve been able to spread my wings that little more, make contact with people I’d only ever seen or spoken to online, and meet people I’ve always wanted to talk to and fawn over. At a teaching centred university it is so much harder to get these random days off September through to June and I hope I’ve made the most of it. The BSA ECR Theory symposium especially was a good one (given I usually run 100 miles from things with ‘theory’ in the title), and unfortunately, while my paper was well received, I was too unwell to really contribute to the discussion. Same for Mark Carrigan’s excellent Design Fiction for Sociologists event. But being ill didn’t ruin the events from a personal perspective because there was always something else coming up. (And the BSA Conference this year was excellent).

A sabbatical from teaching or a sabbatical for teaching?

Reading is the other one. I’ve always got several books on the go, but being able to get back in that PhD mindset and say ‘For the next two days I have nothing to do but read this book’ is mind-blowing. While you may only have one or two hours teaching commitment and one admin meeting in a regular day, it is still hard to find this concentrated time. I have been able to make a bit of a dent in my mountainous ‘To read’ pile, to the extent that I feel able to run a sort of ‘Current Debates in…’ type module next year, centred on new stuff I’ve read over the past few months. I think this shows sabbaticals are not just about research, they are about teaching. Again, at a teaching centred university, finding time to make that teaching better is as or more important than research time. Having a sabbatical just to develop one’s teaching materials, style, or content should not be overlooked.

Thinking is best when it is slow work

Again, this one I sort of knew before, but it was nice to know it still holds true. Basically I was incredibly busy writing for the first month, achieved little (on paper) for two months, had a mad two months writing, and then slowed down again. But as I found out during the PhD, research work is a funny business. Watching The Wire for a week can still be work. Going to the gym, swimming, or listening to the Football Ramble can still be work. Thinking, thinking, thinking. It’s what we stress to students. The essay may take only two days to write, but the thoughts behind it, the small bits of reading, the ordering of the material, is better when it is given space to breathe. Spreading work out thinly works best for me. For example, the book proposal I wrote was due end of May. I’ve been thinking off and on about this proposal for two years. When it eventually came to write the thing it only took me three days for the most important document I’ve yet written, outside the PhD. Three days is less than many first years will spend on an essay. But they haven’t done the two years of prep. It (and again I come back to this book) is reminiscent of Dave Beer’s call for slow academia in Punk Sociology. Slow academia enables fast, good academia when needed.

The results (or ‘What I did on my sabbatical’)

  • Wrote a successful monograph proposal for Policy Press, provisionally entitled ‘Doing Reflexivity: An Introduction’. They all seem lovely and this is what’s going to take up most of my time for the next year.
  • Wrote three journal articles:
    • One on volunteering and neoliberalism, my most critical and theoretical work, available here
    • On informal volunteering and working-class neighbourhoods which was submitted and received positive first reviews, and which I’ll resubmit soon
    • And one on how different researchers interpret qualitative data, of which my colleagues are currently making my awful prose readable, and will be submitted somewhere soon as well
  • Oversaw, through resubmission’s and revisions, the publication of two other journal articles:
  • Managed to get some publicity here and here and here for various ideas and thoughts, and promotion of publications
  • Completed 15 really interesting long qualitative interviews with charity practitioners on the various crises affecting the sector. I’ll be presenting some initial ideas about this at the VSVR conference next week in Leeds. I also wrote a draft paper on this symbolic power of charity, which I originally thought would form the basis of an article: now I’m thinking of the book after the book.
  • And a couple of book reviews for the BSA Network magazine and the LSE Review of Books, including one on John Hills’ Good Times, Bad Times which I think is the best thing I’ve ever written

A final thought: The ivory flat

When I was at school my Dad would ask me three questions every evening: what did you do well today, what did you do badly today, and did you help anybody? The third is key (and highlights what a lovely and moral man my Dad is). Frankly I think I fail at this one a lot. Has the research I’ve done been of much use to anyone? No, not really. Am I just in an ivory flat? Probably. Lectures about volunteering – doing much at the moment? Guilty. Frankly, I must do better.The above list is quite extensive, but is it meaningful? Oh well, it’s done now.

Not teaching, which while my job is also the thing I do which I believe helps people the most and gives me the most satisfaction when it goes right, has been a real absence. I have missed that personal connection, of talking through ideas. It’ll be good to be back talking to people who are more interesting than me.

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