Professors on sabbatical: new experience, new lesson
"From a student's perspective, when you're here for four years and you discover that a professor you really like is going to be away [on sabbatical], I understand why you would be disappointed," Kerrill O'Neill, Julian D. Taylor Associate Professor of Classics, says. However, "if the best professors weren't going away to do work, maybe they wouldn't be the best professors."
One of the reasons that many professors at the College choose to go on sabbatical is because "Colby's standards for tenure are very rigorous," according to O'Neill. The College is looking to hire "active scholars" who are interested in research and being published, he explains, and going on sabbatical gives professors "a chance to really advance their research and work on publications" in order to meet those standards.
In their fourth year of teaching at the College, professors have the option of going on a pre-tenure sabbatical. This gives them the opportunity to conduct research that can help them gain tenure. Every six years after their initial pre-tenure sabbatical, professors are eligible to go on sabbatical again.
To apply for sabbatical, professors submit a proposal to the Dean of Faculty's office. "[The College] want[s] to see what you're planning to do," O'Neill says. Professors can choose to go on sabbatical for a semester at 100 percent salary or for a full year at 80 percent pay. Those who opt for a full year have to teach an extra course the year before they go away, in addition to the five courses per year that the College requires professors to teach.
O'Neill will be on sabbatical for all of next year, and during this time he hopes to work on a variety of projects. This summer, he will finish his research on an archeological site in Greece, of which he is the director. Up to 25 Colby students have worked on the site over the past four summers, and some students who excelled and were particularly interested in the work were even invited to come back and work on the site full-time after they graduated.
After five years, the excavation of the site is finally complete. O'Neill has finished his research on the figurines that were uncovered from it, and this summer he plans to focus on the seals and jewelry. In his research, O'Neill interprets the materials and "what [they] tell us about the settlement," he says. Ultimately, he will prepare his research for publication.
In the fall of this year, O'Neill will finish up a book he is writing on love magic in ancient love poetry and its prevalence in Roman culture. He also plans to continue his research on ancient love magic in South Africa, where even today it is not uncommon for people to perform ancient spells to get their beloved into bed with them.
O'Neill has conducted research on South African magic in the past, and this spring he plans to revisit the region to meet with various practitioners of magic. One of these practitioners of divination and herbal medicine, called a sangoma, has even invited O'Neill to shadow her while she goes out and performs spells.
O'Neill plans to observe the ancient influences on modern-day South African spells, as well as draw parallels between how magic is practiced in South Africa today and how it has been practiced for many years throughout the Mediterranean.
The knowledge and experience O'Neill will gain on sabbatical ties in perfectly with the courses he teaches on love poetry, myths and archaeology. Taking time off to do research will make these classes "much more fresh and interesting," he says, when he returns to teaching the following fall. "You keep re-reading the same epics, but you see new things in them." "I'm excited to think about the differences to my teaching [when I come back from sabbatical]," O'Neill says. "[The work I do on sabbatical] broadens my perspective, it reinvigorates me [and] it makes me not just a better scholar but a better teacher."
Elizabeth Leonard, John J. and Cornelia V. Gibson Professor of History, shares this sentiment. "Although I know students can sometimes be frustrated by having faculty they like and count on go on sabbatical, this is an essential feature of what we do and it makes us better instructors in the classroom," she says.
Leonard is currently on sabbatical this year. She appreciates that the College requires teachers to do research and publish, "but to do it well, I need time away from campus to focus," she says. "That's what I'm enjoying this year."
Leonard is using her break from teaching to work on a biography of Joseph Holt, a major figure in Abraham Lincoln's administration. Holt, Leonard explains, came from a slaveholding family in Kentucky and served as Lincoln's judge advocate general. He was in charge of military justice during the Civil War and "was so famous and so highly respected during his life that many people wanted him to become president of the United States," she says.
Unfortunately, this important historical figure has since been forgotten "for reasons I hope to explain in my book," Leonard says. She is working on the biography at an office in the Millett House and at her home in Waterville. She has also visited the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, where she obtained much of her archival material. The tentative title for her book is Lincoln's Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, and it will be the fifth book Leonard has published.
Leonard's research coincides with the courses she teaches at the College, most of which focus on American history during the nineteenth century. "The more engaged I am as a scholar," she says, "the more research I do, the more I know about the time period I teach, and the more excited I am to teach it."
One of the courses Leonard teaches is Introduction to History, "a history methods course in which, among other things, students learn about how historians do their research and writing, and then do historical research and writing of their own," she explains. "Because I do so much historical research and writing myself, I can bring a lot of my skills, experience and knowledge into the classroom."
Sabbaticals are also beneficial to students, Leonard says, because they give professors "a break from a lot of other responsibilities, like committee work. When we come back we are usually refreshed and re-energized, which is great for our students."
Professor and Director of Education Mark Tappan is also on sabbatical this year in Waterville. He is interviewing elementary and middle school teachers "who have been identified as particularly effective with boys" to finalize a paper he and his colleagues are working on about boys' experiences as students in the state of Maine. His research will influence his teaching when he returns to campus next fall, as his courses will include Boys to Men and Children and Adolescents in Schools and Society.
Though losing contact with a professor for a period of time can be frustrating for students, it is important to remember that students are ultimately the ones that profit from professors going on sabbatical.
"Students are constantly getting the benefit of active scholars," O'Neill says. Professors gain knowledge and experience on sabbatical that helps to make them more informed and enthusiastic educators.
"I have enjoyed my sabbatical, but I realize it's a great privilege, and I'm trying to put it to good use," Tappan says. "I miss teaching, and I'm looking forward to getting back in the classroom next fall."