“Writing is utter solitude,” said Franz Kafka, “the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.” A story in his Letters to Felice says that Kafka’s fiancée, Felice Bauer, once expressed an interest in sitting beside him while he worked. He responded: “There can never be enough silence… even night is not night enough.” They called off the wedding.
Anyone who has attempted to write a thesis or contribute to a journal knows night is, indeed, “not night enough” when trying to package one’s thoughts for general consumption. Scholarship cannot thrive without a healthy respect for the solitude needed to think.
And yet, between blogging, podcasting and social networking—to say nothing of classes, staff meetings and conferences—today’s professor is more connected and consumed by responsibilities that often amount to social grooming, not creation. On top of that, institutes have become so enamored with collaboration, says Felicity Mellor, a researcher at Imperial College London, that there’s a “near-exclusive focus” on sharing between scholars—open-plan labs and glass walls are everywhere, with a bias toward sharing versus private rumination.
“The need for periods of withdrawal and solitude is no longer acknowledged,” Mellor writes in her article The Power of Silence. With so little time alone, the prolonged isolation of a sabbatical can come as an unsettling, anxiety-inducing jolt for some academics.
Sabbaticals and the summer slump
Dafina-Lazarus Stewart, a professor in the School of Education at Colorado State University, recently described to The Chronicle of Higher Education how unstructured periods can cause serious stress. Those living with conditions such as anxiety, depression and ADHD, are especially vulnerable to “the Summer slump”—an aimlessness that descends after the busy connections of the school year.
Those who manage to make more of sabbaticals, however, reap major benefits. Sean Kheraj, a professor of Canadian history at York University, tells the story of preparing for his comprehensive exams as a PhD student: he was told by the course director of his graduate seminar that this would be one of the few moments in his life when he was given free rein to go off on his own and simply read. “There were days when I wouldn’t leave my apartment,” says Kheraj, “and I spoke to no one else for hours upon hours. And yet it was one of the richest experiences of scholarly engagement of my life.”
A healthy career must include helpings of solitude, something that is no longer automatic. Instead, today’s academic must engineer disconnections as doggedly as they engineer connections. That way, when she or he steps away from it all, it’s a break—not a breakdown.
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