Sabbaticals Benefit Students, Faculty Alike

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Photo by Tanner Bowersox

While professors on sabbatical do not teach classes and usually do not advise students or serve on committees, a professor’s sabbatical could never be described as “time off.” The sabbatical program is an essential part of the Whitman College faculty’s ongoing professional development and provides numerous benefits—not only to the individual professor, but also to her or his students and to the entire Whitman community.

Sabbatical allows professors to take either a semester or a year away from teaching classes in order to conduct their own research. A professor at Whitman may take one semester of sabbatical after four semesters of teaching, or an entire year of sabbatical after four years in the classroom. However, faculty have been discussing the possibility of changing the way that sabbatical functions at Whitman.

Publishing independent research is an important part of a professor’s role as a scholar at the college, and a necessary step for professors aiming to be granted tenure at Whitman. But the sabbatical program is also crucial for professors to develop their teaching abilities.

“There’s a constant feedback between the research done on sabbatical and quality of teaching,” said Professor of Politics Aaron Bobrow-Strain, who is currently on sabbatical conducting research for a new book.

His research explores the relationship between border militarization and rural poverty in Arizona. Sabbatical has allowed Bobrow-Strain to spend multiple weeks during the semester traveling to Arizona in order to conduct ethnographic research along the U.S. Mexico border.

“All the reading that I’ve had the chance to do while I’m on sabbatical will really transform the U.S. Mexico Border seminar that I teach,” said Bobrow-Strain.

Christopher Leise, assistant professor of English, and Douglas Scarborough, assistant professor of music, both stressed the important role that research plays in improving their teaching. As fields of study shift and change, professors must keep abreast of current thinking and knowledge in their field, whether it’s politics, English literature, geology or music.

“[Research is part of] an ongoing contribution to our expertise such that we can be better ambassadors for our fields for our students,” said Leise.

Scarborough agrees.

“If you don’t stay up to date, your research or teaching is going to become antiquated,” said Scarborough.

Conducting research while on sabbatical for the entire year, Leise has been able to deepen his knowledge of 20th and 21st century American literature, his primary scholarly focus. But it has also helped him broaden his interests, allowing him to delve into his secondary focus, Native American studies. Leise is currently conducting research for a new book on Iroquois anglophone literature and has received a grant to investigate Iroquois archives in New York during the summer months.

Scarborough is on sabbatical in order to write and record a new album that fuses jazz with traditional music from the Middle East.

“That’s something that I never would have been able to do [while teaching classes],” said Scarborough.

He expects the album to be released sometime in June or July. Scarborough is new to Middle Eastern music and is grateful for the opportunity to expand his musical knowledge.

“It’s going to infuse energy and confidence and creativity into all my ensembles and classrooms,” said Scarborough.

Professors often work on multiple projects at once while on sabbatical. Professor of Geology Bob Carson is currently working on five distinct projects during his sabbatical this semester.

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Carson began writing a book about the natural history of the Walla Walla Valley in January, working in collaboration with professors from the geology department and environmental studies program, as well as outside scientists and artists. Carson is also conducting research, or preparing for future research, for four other projects with students and faculty at Whitman.

“You’re always thinking ahead about future research, and you’re always working on presenting past research,” said Carson.

Sabbatical can also directly benefit students, who are able to work with professors on their research, or who participate in unique programs developed by professors on sabbatical. Perry, Abshire and Dublin awards allow students to conduct research with professors while on sabbatical or over the summer, further enriching students’ academic experiences. Conducting research with a professor is a unique opportunity for students to build academic and professional skills in their fields of interest. 

Leise has been working with a student, junior Brandon Hunzicker, for the last year in order to research Iroquois literature. Hunzicker is co-writing a paper with Leise, which will be delivered at a conference in April.

Bobrow-Strain is not working directly with students to conduct research this semester, but his sabbatical allows him to develop a new student-focused program. This innovative experiential summer program will focus on food systems in the Pacific Northwest and is being developed in collaboration with faculty from University of Puget Sound, Lewis & Clark College, Reed College and Willamette University.

“Here’s a pretty amazing program that students wouldn’t have if it weren’t for sabbatical,” said Bobrow-Strain.

While professors on sabbatical are conducting crucial research or working on projects that directly benefit students, they receive 82 percent of their regular salary, unless they take sabbatical less frequently.

Sabbatical has also influenced the Whitman community because more visiting faculty are hired when tenured faculty go on sabbatical. The college has been working to reduce the reliance on visiting faculty by hiring more internal sabbatical replacements.

Internal sabbatical replacements are tenure-track faculty hired in order to prevent a shortage of courses in a department when professors are on sabbatical. Unlike most visiting professors, these replacements do not leave Whitman as soon as a professor comes back from sabbatical.

By adding more tenure-track faculty, departments can teach the same number of classes without adding visiting faculty. Whitman has been able to hire more internal sabbatical replacements in a variety of departments because of grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The faculty has recently been discussing changes to the sabbatical program. Faculty met on Wednesday, March 5 to discuss sabbatical, including the option of allowing pre-tenure faculty to take a year of sabbatical sooner than the policy currently allows.

The discussion also includes the importance of internal sabbatical replacements and incentives for sabbatical. The possibility of increasing flexibility in the program has also been under consideration, though the specifics of this discussion have not been stated officially by any faculty.

While no changes have yet been made to the sabbatical program, the committee of division chairs will be formulating a final report with recommendations for any changes to the program.




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