The blessings of Winter Term
Even though I am on leave this year, Winter Term still has the delightful feel of space and possibility that I am sure it was designed to have by the brilliant, counter-cultural minds that came up with it some time in the 1970s. Our sacred, class-less month of January gives faculty and students space to breathe, read, and think; to travel, plan, and write--in short, to recharge our intellectual batteries in preparation for yet another intense thirteen-week semester.
Faculty leaves have that same liberating feel, just longer, and with a bit more guilt thrown in. (There is an unspoken rule among faculty that colleagues on sabbatical can be ruthlessly teased for every minute of their leave--"So how are your classes going? Oh, right, you don't have any classes--that must be nice.")
It's funny: the kind of work that Oberlin is all about--analyzing, understanding, changing the world--is not really something that can happen when individuals operate in isolation: ideas need to be tested, sharpened, modified through exchanges with other people. It is really true that teaching here is often an amazingly energizing experience. And yet every so often we all feel the urge to withdraw, to step back from the crazy intensity of campus for a while. But when we go on leave we not only withdraw into ourselves, our libraries or our studies--although that is part of it. We also take advantage of the opportunity to strengthen our ties with the wider world outside of Oberlin, to touch base with people, spaces, and networks elsewhere.
Oberlin faculty teach; write, research or perform; and help run the college. These are demanding jobs that are hard to combine, especially for people who'd like to get some sleep in once in a while. Leaves give us a chance to solely focus on the writing, research and performing: to finish larger projects, but also to rethink our work so far, and to push it into new directions. My own goal for this sabbatical is not just to re-energize my scholarship coming off four years of chairing a department, but to rethink the content and audience of my work. Put very briefly, I've spent the first decade of my career writing about texts for fellow scholars; what I'd like to do now is write about images for a wider audience. It's slow going, as those things always are, but I'm having a great time. (So far I got to contribute to a photography catalog, write a piece in The Nation, and be part of the PBS show History Detectives.) The best part of it all is that among the most inspiring work I'm reading is that of some of my Oberlin colleagues, such as Wendy Kozol and Geoff Pingree. Now how cool would it be if, once I'm back, we could set up some kind of team-teaching deal?