In anticipation of 30 weeks off

I teach at a large public university. Fall semester ended a little over a month ago, and Spring term starts tomorrow. Most faculty are feeling pretty low right now, or at least wistful - however much we enjoy teaching, most of us are full of foreboding about ill-prepared courses, about research work that didn't get done over break, and all that. Some faculty are insecure. Some faculty hate teaching. An hour ago I talked to one of my colleagues, who is not yet hysterical but knows she will be soon. She can feel it coming on inexorably. All she can do is wait for it.

And me? I'm neither wistful nor hysterical, nor will I be any time soon. I have the whole Spring term off - "Junior Research Leave", it's called. "Junior" means I don't have tenure yet, and "research leave" means they actually pay me while exempting me from all my teaching and "service" (committee) obligations, so that I can produce a better portfolio of publications for my tenure case. I already have a pretty good portfolio, but I certainly wouldn't turn down an offer of a whole semester of paid free time.

Dr. Johnson says a diary should record chiefly your mood - such facts as what you did and what the weather was will rarely be of interest in the future, so keep them to a minimum. Well, a fact or two will set the tone for my mood: As of tomorrow I will have 210 consecutive days to do pretty much whatever I might want to do. That's 30 weeks, about 7 calendar months. My mood? Better to ask how my mood would be if I used these 7 months on something ordinary.

More facts: I'm not entirely without teaching and service commitments this term. I have taken on a single independent study student, a brilliant graduating senior who I want to train in one of my specializations before he leaves. And I will attend two short meetings at school tomorrow, to tie up loose ends from last term. And from then on, I will just do my own thing. Meetings, of course, are the greatest wasters of an academic's time. They often accomplish nothing at all, and you sit there grieving for the precious minutes that tick away as you listen to some dope going on about some stupid administrative matter that's going to be mishandled no matter how hard you try to prevent it. I think the public at large has no idea how much inanity professors have to survive every week, in order to live the much touted life of the mind. My mood? 7 months without committees is a rare blessing!

More facts: I have a great deal of work I'm preparing to get done, and I'm trying to be realistic about how many new projects to undertake, how much time to "waste" on trips and conferences, things I ordinarily get a lot of pleasure out of during the regular term. I am quite isolated from most other people who have enough training to understand the things I'm interested in professionally, so going to a meeting somewhere else is the only way I can hang out with my buddies for any length of time and swap ideas. Now that I have 7 whole months to cultivate my own ideas, I'm a little jealous of how much of that is going to be lost to the unproductive parts of conference travel. My mood? I'd say my mood is optimistic but wary - I can anticipate how I terrible will feel if I have too little to show for the time once it's gone, and intend to try to forestall that.

How do you forestall remorse over lost time? Plan your time like a miser planning a shopping trip. From today, I'm not allowed to read the news till I've had my morning walk, otherwise I won't get around to the walk and I won't be as productive over the course of the day. I mustn't take on any book reviews or new conference papers till the big work gets done. I have to take breaks from work during the day - do most of the shopping and cooking, which my wife ordinarily does when I'm teaching. I have to keep a diary listing all the work I've gotten done each day. (This last is a superb way to keep from feeling guilty at what you've left undone.) My mood? I've already gotten a lot of work done over break, and the new schedule I'm keeping gives me a feeling of excited anticipation.

The truth is, most professors handle their research as sloppily as most college students handle their homework. I've seen many colleagues take a semester off and come back groaning about having gotten hardly anything done. I feel confident I can avoid having to groan about that next August.

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