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The End of Research Leave

Well, it's been seven months since I've last blogged anything, and that's largely because having wrapped up teaching for the 15/16 academic year, I embarked into the mysterious waters of a half-year research leave in order to bring my long-awaited (um, well, long-awaited by me) monograph project to completion.

Aaaand, to adopt the Stewart Lee defence, time passed and something happened. They can't say nothing happened! 70,000 words of note-taking (thank-you SimpleNote), 30,000 words of fresh chapter stuff, revisions on the other 40,000 words that was sitting in various .doc files, and I have something resembling a manuscript. It's not quite ready for submission to publishers yet, but it's getting there. Romantic Prayer: Reinventing the Poetics of Devotion, 1773-1832 here we come.

Anyway, I was very glad to be able to speak to colleagues who had been on research leave before me, so in that spirit here's four not-so-much-lessons as observations.

1. I found it psychologically all-consuming. I don't mean I didn't do anything but work for six months: I spent lots of time with my son, had a bread-baking phase, travelled a bit, sloped slowly through a Dickens novel, did some silver-making, kept the coffee-shop economy ticking over, and some other bits and pieces. What I didn't do was what I confidently thought I'd have lots of time to manage, and spend an hour or so a day reading through the complete works of Felicia Hemans in preparation for working out what the next project is going to be. I just didn't have the energy to change the intellectual focus. Even the need, in the last few weeks, to update the online pages for my spring term modules was a bit of a grind. Basically, once you take into account you would have been doing plenty of research over the summer anyway, six months doesn't offer quite the wide open spaces you might think it does.

2. I think I'm quite a disciplined person, but everybody I had spoken to mentioned the need to build up momentum. I was really surprised, but I laid out a timetable pretty much at the end of May and it needed to stretch all the way to Christmas. And, lo-and-behold, here I am on the afternoon of Thursday 22nd December, and I've only just finished editing the last chapter.  I think I was very lucky because the project had percolated for a long time across several different posts, and I had a solid amount of writing already done, but I even then had very little margin for error when things like, say, your 2 year old giving you a scratched retina happened. That's the main bit of advice I'd offer to anyone embarking on research leave: remember that pace is going to suffer at the beginning and end of the sabbatical, and try your best to stick to a routine.

3. Talking of routine, I was a bit shocked at how disconcerting research leave was. Getting out of the seminar room, lecture hall and departmental meeting: isn't that what all academics are supposed to want? The summer was fine, but as my internal clock ticked back to the same university structure it has lived since 2000, it became a bit of a strange existence.

Maybe I'd just be a terrible writer (of fiction, or poetry, say), but I was struck by how my precious timetable was both one of the most concrete things that I had experienced, by virtue of its relentless intensity (four weeks on Barbauld! Now Keats! Now Coleridge!) but also one of the most obviously imaginary (disconnected to any places or people, it really didn't matter whether one day yielded another five footnotes for that reading of The Prelude - who was going to care, or stop me?) I found this paradox increasingly haunting, and am very much looking forward to getting back to being part of a working department.

4. On the other hand, I do recognise that a few days of alienated 'what it's all for??!' moments and anomie don't really take away from just how necessary research leave was, to me at least. As I said, I wrote around 30-35,000 words of entirely new material, and several older drafts received thorough dressing-downs. But more than that, it did all begin to make sense. Only time will tell if the book is any good (at the moment, I really can't distance myself from it), but what I do know is that you need uninterrupted stretches of time to allow cross-connections to flourish. Looking back at text I'd written one summer, and then different text from a rushed Easter trip to the British Library a few years earlier, or whatever, it was almost like reading someone else's work. It's now, sort of, all come together.

And, given that research leave is increasingly scarce and organised on a competitive basis, we academics probably shouldn't underestimate what a privilege it is to have it.

And, for those of you are wondering what exactly I have been doing over the last six months (or six years, depending on how you count it), here's the first paragraph:

"[Imagine] a pious and well-meaning individual...being caught unawares by somebody else, I do not say praying aloud, but gesturing in a way which indicates praying. Everyone will naturally expect, without my saying so, that this individual will fall into confusion or embarrassment, as though caught in a situation of which he should be ashamed. But why? Because a human being found talking to himself immediately gives rise to the suspicion that he is having a slight fit of madness.
(Immanuel Kant, 'Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason')

Individual prayer was evidently not embarrassing in all late eighteenth-century contexts, or in all forms. Yet that Kant, writing in 1793, represents it as a solecistic act -- improper, awkward, irrational -- gets close to the heart of why this book engages prayer as its leading motif. In Kant's theological treatise Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, prayer's ultimate position is parergonal: supplemental yet necessary, dubious yet rationalisable, disavowed and yet subject to cautious re-articulation, illogical and yet impossible to imagine as absent.  Although coming from a very specific perspective, Kant is nevertheless symptomatic of something important here: prayer in the Romantic period, I argue, is not quite in place. In a historical moment we may, with qualification, continue to designate as secularising, prayer poses a conceptual and practical problem. This book is ultimately about the unique resources poetry possessed as a response to this problem, and the use of these resources by British writers between the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries."

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