Oberlin Blogs

Time off for good behavior

December 17, 2011

Prof. David Walker ’72

I've been spending this semester on sabbatical leave. Faculty tend to take the concept of a sabbatical for granted, but periodically I'm reminded that students sometimes have only a hazy idea of what it entails. Usually this comes in the form of a question: "So, like, you're on vacation?"

Nope, a sabbatical is not a vacation. Rather, it's an arrangement whereby every seven years (hence the name!) a professor is allowed to trade one form of work (teaching) for another form (usually, sustained scholarly research or artistic production). Maybe a useful analogy is Winter Term, the period at Oberlin when students put their usual workload on hold and spend the month of January focused on a single full-time project. The rationale for Winter Term is that it's valuable periodically to set aside the structure of four (or more) simultaneous courses and concentrate your attention on One Big Thing. It also usually allows you the chance to catch up on sleep and back issues of the New Yorker, watch the movies you missed during the semester's onslaught of activity, and generally recharge the batteries. These, in large measure, are also the usual goals of a sabbatical, at least for me.

I've been enjoying mine and feeling reasonably productive, though the notion of concentrating on One Big Thing has fallen a bit by the wayside. It's not as though I haven't felt invested in my officially sanctioned project (which can sometimes happen--I once worked for a year on a book project that I grew progressively less committed to finishing); it's simply been harder than it might have to put my other responsibilities on hold.

My actual sabbatical work has been putting together a new edition of an anthology of magical realist fiction that my colleague David Young and his student Keith Hollaman edited 30 years ago. The first edition is full of wonderful stories, including authors both expected (like Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Gabriel García Márquez) and surprising (Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Elizabeth Bishop). But by this point it badly needs updating--there's been a lot of amazing material produced since 1983--and so I volunteered to undertake the job.

Since contemporary fiction isn't really my field, I asked for advice from a number of my writer friends, who deluged me with suggestions, and for the past five months I've been reading terrific stories and making tentative selections among them. (Yes, I'm getting paid to read great stories and choose my favorites. I love my job!) Part of the challenge has been clarifying my own sense of what constitutes magical realism as a genre: much of what I've read, while impressive in its own right, doesn't quite fit my definition. Still, my list of work that I'd like to include is growing steadily, and I know making the final decisions is going to be painfully difficult.

When I embarked on this project, I'd hoped to have it substantially completed by the end of the semester. By now it's clear that that goal was unrealistic--partly because the work is complex and enormous, and partly because other responsibilities keep intruding. I've had a good deal of work to do in my capacity as one of the primary editors for Oberlin College Press: judging our annual book contest, readying our latest book of translation and the fall issue of FIELD magazine for publication, and now settling design decisions and polishing off final edits for the two books of poetry we're publishing this spring. It's detailed, painstaking work, but it needs to get done before I take off for London in mid-January.

The other huge magnet for my time and attention has been, of course:


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Being on leave has enabled me to spend hundreds of hours reading about theater productions, planning museum visits and field trips, helping organize student housing, and otherwise turning the theoretical notion of an Oberlin-in-London program into a concrete reality. I've just written about this over on the London Blogs, so you can go read about it there. (A warning, though: that post just might make you jealous, especially if you're interested in theater.)

Not that I'm complaining about any of this activity, mind you—I haven't minded a minute of it. But it does help explain how it could possibly be mid-December already, when just yesterday (it seems) my sabbatical was just about to begin.


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