"What have I been up to?" Associate Professor of English Peter Coviello smiled as he repeated the question. "Well, like all faculty members on leave, I've been drinking wine in exotic cities and dancing in night clubs across Europe," he joked. "No, no. Well, I have been away."
While away from Bowdoin, Coviello traveled throughout Europe to Naples, Berlin, Sussex, Madrid, Paris and London. He plotted his travels to accommodate several academic talks at European universities and also budgeted some time with his family in Naples.
"The funny thing about being on leave, perhaps the best thing about being on leave, is not being bound to a schedule. Not having to have this be done by now," he said. Liberating himself from the restraints of a tight schedule has given Coviello the needed space to focus on larger projects, including his book "Untimely Passions: Sexuality in 19th Century American Literature."
"At Bowdoin, you're consistently doing all this research and doing all of this teaching. What you then need is time to turn it into a book," he said. "Having this time away has just given me the time to pause and think about it. A lot of the writing process is simply that, time spent thinking."
As the title of Coviello's project implies, he is working on a study of the history of sexuality in literature. He is reading authors from the mid to late 19th century who were writing prior to when modern taxonomies of sexuality hardened into the categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality.
"I am examining how people imagined what sexuality could be and what it was like before such rigid, categorical terms came into existence," Coviello said.
Coviello is focusing on authors Henry James, Henry David Thoreau, Sara Orne Jewett, Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass, Joseph Smith and Oscar Wilde.
"Working on the book feels like midstream rowing," Coviello said about his project. "It has its own kind of pleasures."
Being away, however, has also planted the seeds for a new, distinctly different project as well.
Tentatively, his new project is a book of essays titled "How To Do Things With Joy." It began as an essay that he wrote for a journal last summer. After giving the essay as a talk while in Sussex, England, Coviello realized that the ideas of the essay deserved a whole new project.
"This is something quite different than my project on the history of sexuality. It's a different kind of writing," Coviello said. "When I gave it as a talk, I thought 'There's much more to this.' And that's the great thing about being on leave, your thought can be errant. You can give yourself room to imagine something."
Although Coviello has returned from Europe to the Bowdoin campus for a few weeks, he will soon go to Chicago for the spring semester, where he will teach graduate classes at Northwestern University.
"Having this opportunity to teach at Northwestern is really exciting for number of reasons," Coviello said. "For one, I have never formally taught graduate students before, and second, teaching there will resonate very personally with me because I was a student at Northwestern. I really have no idea what to expect with graduate students, but it's a wonderful opportunity to be able to have as colleagues the professors that I once had as teachers."
"Teaching is another way to kindle ideas; you teach something, and then it always seems different after you teach it," he added.
That is what has been at the heart of Coviello's time away from Bowdoin?carving out time for new thoughts.
"I am intensely, intensely grateful to have this time away," he said. "To be completely free of all of the college bureaucracy is a special kind of joy because imagination takes time and requires just this type of pausing."
Whether this pause will affect a change in his teaching when he returns to Bowdoin remains to be seen.
"Well, I'll be older," he said. "And, you like to think you'll be rejuvenated, overwhelmed with the excitement to get back."