Making it Look Easy

by Lisa Wesel

Photos by James Marshall

Sabbatical title image

For those on sabbatical, work is its own reward

For some outside academia, the word "sabbatical" might conjure an image of lounging on a white sand beach, umbrella drink in hand. Those who don't take them tend to envision a sabbatical as a time to relax and forget about your job.

Tell that to Mary Hunter, A. LeRoy Greason Professor of Music. Her sabbatical in 2003-04 included, in addition to researching a new topic for publication, learning Arabic music. That immersion, in a subject which for her was uncharted territory, helped Hunter develop a new survey course called "Music in the Arab World," which covers different aspects of Arabic music and raises issues such as the question of music in Islam.

"After 9/11, I noticed there was very little in the curriculum on Arabic or Middle Eastern culture," she said. "I thought, wouldn't it be nice to show another dimension of 'Arabic?'"

When the Arabic ensemble, Sharq, played at Common Hour in February 2003, she got her chance.

"They were wonderful," Hunter said. "They had a very charismatic leader, and I went up to him after the performance and said, 'Can I take lessons with you?' I don't do that sort of thing, but (hearing them) was like a gift from God in a way."

On her sabbatical, Hunter took frequent trips to the group's home in Boston, where she learned Arabic music theory and scales.

"I'd take my violin down and play some riffs on it," she said.

Mary Hunter
Mary Hunter

For the next two summers, she participated in an Arabic music retreat in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Perhaps most importantly, Hunter found a new colleague in the group's leader, Karim Nagi, who guest lectured three times in her new course.

"You teach new courses to keep your mind alive," Hunter said. "I was so excited to have learned this stuff. It gave my teaching an edge."

This fall, Hunter started a Middle Eastern Ensemble, run by Al Gardner Bardezbanian of Bath, who is considered one of the virtuoso oud players in the United States. She met Gardner at the retreat, and he, too, has come to speak to her class.

When Hunter asked her students why they were taking a class in Arabic music, the most common response was, "Because I know absolutely nothing about it." Now two of those students play in the ensemble.

For academics, a sabbatical leave provides time to work even harder on the things they do in their limited free time as teachers and mentors. They can travel wherever their research takes them, and spend unlimited, uninterrupted time writing, composing, and creating.

“I was so excited to have learned this stuff. It gave my teaching an edge.”
- Mary Hunter

"For faculty to continue to be engaged and sustained in successful scholarship, they need that time," said Craig McEwen, who is taking a sabbatical before returning to full-time teaching after a seven-year stint as Bowdoin's dean for academic affairs. "You can't do a lot of that work in small blocks of time. If they can't do it, they dry up intellectually."

The benefits - some tangible, some less so - are widespread. Faculty return to campus reinvigorated, which can only enhance their teaching. They sometimes develop new courses, as Hunter did; others learn new skills that help them become more successful winning grants for research and equipment. In a broader sense, contributions to their field in the form of published works and advances in research help to raise the profile of the College as a whole, McEwen said.

Colleges that do the best job supporting academic sabbaticals are able to use that as leverage to lure the best professors. Sabbatical policies used to be fairly uniform - one paid semester off after six years of teaching - but colleges are now making their policies more generous to compete for the most sought-after faculty.

At Bowdoin, faculty may apply for a one-semester leave at full pay after completing 12 semesters of full-time teaching, but they may take an additional semester if they obtain their own funding. The College is considering shortening the wait by offering a sabbatical after ten semesters.

"It has been an issue, because most schools have more generous policies," McEwen said. Amherst College, for example, offers one year at 80 percent salary after six years teaching; Bryn Mawr, Middlebury and Haverford colleges offer the year at 75 percent pay.

“The word "sabbatical" is derived from the biblical "Sabbath" - the seventh day set aside for rest after the six days of creation.”

Bowdoin also offers a "junior sabbatical" of one semester at full pay after six semesters of teaching, which allows faculty the time they need to fulfill the publishing and research requirements for obtaining tenure.

Recognizing the competitive advantage of offering sabbaticals, many corporations, law firms, and government agencies now offer them as well, though frequently for shorter periods of time than academia, and not often with pay. Clive Prout of Washington, who has developed a career coaching professionals to get the most out of their sabbaticals, says many of his clients need time off from work to chart a new path for themselves.

"Companies tend to expect that not all their employees will come back from a sabbatical," Prout said. "My clients typically leave their jobs somewhere in the process."

That is not the case in academia, however, where faculty members seek sabbaticals that will enhance their teaching when they return.

Colleges and universities, which are organized today largely as they were when the University of Cambridge was founded in England in 1209, have been granting leaves of absence upon request for about as long as the institutions have existed. But formalized sabbaticals, now a staple of higher education, are a relatively modern phenomenon.

The word "sabbatical" is derived from the biblical "Sabbath" - the seventh day set aside for rest after the six days of creation. The concept of a sabbatical year has its roots in Mosaic law, which dictates that, every seventh year, the land shall lie fallow and all debtors and Israelite slaves shall be released - a year of rest, if you will, for the land and those who work on it.

“It is desirable...both for the efficiency and the dignity of the college, that the so-called "sabbatical year," now so generally prevailing in educational institutions, should become established at Bowdoin.”
- From the 1909 "Report of the Visiting Committee to the Trustees and Overseers of Bowdoin"

It is likely no coincidence that university administrators borrowed from the biblical terminology and timing to grant sabbatical leaves in a professor's seventh year.

The first official sabbatical policy on record was adopted by the governing body of Harvard University in 1880. In his annual report that year, Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot wrote:

"For some years previous to 1869, the practice had been to grant occasional leave of absence, the professor selecting and paying his substitute, but receiving his annual salary. This practice having given rise to serious complaints, and being obviously open to grave objections, the Corporation went to the opposite extreme, and enacted that whenever a professor had leave of absence his salary would stop altogether. Being now satisfied that a more liberal policy will be as much for the interest of the University as for the advantage of the professors, the Corporation have decided that they will grant occasional leave of absence for one year on half-pay, provided that no professor have such leave oftener than once in seven years ... and that the object of the professor in asking leave of absence be health, rest, study, or the prosecution of original work in literature or science."

It took twenty years for the trend to catch on widely in the United States, and longer overseas. Even the venerable Cambridge, on which Harvard was modeled, found itself lagging when it adopted a sabbatical policy in 1926. In A History of the University of Cambridge, C.N.L. Brooke wrote of "America as in so many such vital initiatives taking the lead, with the middle-aged universities of Britain limping behind."

Bowdoin didn't follow Harvard's lead for nearly thirty years. The 1909 "Report of the Visiting Committee to the Trustees and Overseers of Bowdoin" states: "It is desirable...both for the efficiency and the dignity of the college, that the so-called 'sabbatical year,' now so generally prevailing in educational institutions, should become established at Bowdoin." The Committee recommended that professors be granted a one-year leave of absence at half salary every seven years. The Committee went on to say, "The plan, however, contemplates ultimately a leave of absence on full salary." Three years later, professors were granted the option of taking one year at half-pay, or one semester at full pay. Junior sabbaticals were added in 1987, but the full-year paid leave has yet to materialize.

Why do professors need that time?

Guillermo Herrara.jpg
Guillermo Herrara

Hunter, for example, teaches two courses per semester, which puts her in class for six hours a week. She estimates that every hour of class time requires as much as six hours of preparation; she also advises two independent studies, coaches several chamber music groups, and gives regular assignments that can generate as much as fifteen hours of grading in a week. She practices violin for an hour almost every day, attends almost all student performances, edits a book series, and is regularly called upon to read other scholars' manuscripts and to write tenure and promotion letters for colleagues and recommendation letters for students.

On top of it all, she makes herself available to spend a lot of time talking to the students who wander into her office, because those are the relationships that shape a student's education and the reason many professors want to teach at a small liberal arts college.

"It is the College's expectation that faculty are engaged in and productive in their disciplines," McEwen said. "We also place a high value on their deep involvement in the life of the College."

Hunter, who is not unique among Bowdoin faculty, said her regular schedule never would have allowed her the time to learn a new subject from scratch, to shape her thinking about it enough to develop a new course.

"It's very hard to explain to someone whose job is very much rolling with the punches," Hunter said. "You can't put on a list, 'Learn Arabic music,' then cross it off and say, 'Okay, I've done it.'

"If I did nothing but teach two classes; if I had no independent studies, hadn't been chair of the department, had no papers to grade, I might have started the Arabic Music class without the sabbatical," Hunter said. "You can't do that sort of thing when basically, your life is made up of incomplete sentences."

"Many of us live lives that are unsustainable in the long term," said Cristle Judd, who succeeded McEwen as dean for academic affairs on July 1. "The truth is, there is no line between the vocation and the avocation."

The need for time away from everyday responsibilities, while universal among academics, might be even more acute at a liberal arts college that stresses the importance of teaching. And the need to travel is that much more important for faculty tucked away in Maine.

“To talk in depth about one's work, you have to go a little afield.”
- Guillermo Herrera

"Sabbaticals go hand-in-hand with the rise of the research university," Judd explained. "There's a difference in the balance of the mission between the research university and the liberal arts college. Superficially, it's a balance between teaching and research."

Increasingly, universities are emphasizing good teaching, while liberal arts colleges are expecting their faculty to engage in cutting-edge research, in part "because it underwrites the teaching mission," Judd said.

"At a liberal arts college, the one-on-one investment between faculty and student is much greater," she said. "To sustain a lab for an undergraduate student here, without the cadre of post-docs, is much more time consuming. At a research university, everything is in place to sustain research."

Guillermo Herrera, assistant professor of economics, agrees.

"Bowdoin is small," Herrera said "There are not a lot of people here with whom I can talk about my work in a rigorous way. Everyone in my department has their own niche, and there's not a lot of overlap. To talk in depth about one's work, you have to go a little afield."

Herrera specializes in renewable resource economics, which merges biology, population dynamics, and human populations. It's largely theoretical work involving the construction of mathematical models to examine fisheries. Among other issues, Herrera is exploring fisheries with spatial dimensions - how fisheries are distributed through space and how that affects regulatory problems.

Herrera, supported by a senior research fellowship at the Marine Policy Center at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, took a two-year junior sabbatical beginning in the fall of 2003. The sabbatical allowed him time to begin critical research with colleagues in his field. This spring, Herrera became one of only two "adjunct scientists" at the Marine Policy Center.

"The sabbatical is about forming those relationships, finding collaborators, joining a community of people who work in the same field," he said.

Stephen Perkinson
Stephen Perkinson

"It's harder to get a project off the ground when you're teaching," he said. "The development of the models involved face-to-face interaction at Woods Hole. It's crucial to have that time. One takes a lot of wrong turns and dead ends in research. If the contact with the research is sporadic, you tend to give up on things more easily."

Stephen Perkinson, assistant professor of art, also found the proximity to his colleagues and the material he was studying to be the most rewarding aspect of his sabbatical.

He spent part of his time finishing a book on the origins of modern portraiture; he then went to France to start working on a new project on the fifteenth-century manuscript illuminator, The Master of Wavrin.

"A sabbatical allows you to take a thought, and gives you time to be immersed in the subject," Perkinson said. "In Paris, I was working in the manuscript room at the National Library. It's open from nine in the morning to six at night, and I was there the whole time. That's a real crossroad for scholars. I saw a number of people I knew from the University of Wisconsin and the University of Pennsylvania. I met the person who wrote a magazine article about the Master of Wavrin, and he gave me his dissertation. Then I'd get dinner with someone I met that day, and it was one of those French dinners where we'd talk shop for three hours. I rented a room in Paris from a scholar, and I used her library. This was total immersion.

“You can gather what becomes the raw material for your scholarly life.”
- Stephen Perkinson

"Before I left for France, I had a sense of the one component: how the pictures illustrate the text. At the National Library, I found a broad category of illustrated historical fiction that had been studied very little; I found the context into which this all fits.

"A sabbatical allows you to get the big picture," he said. "You can gather what becomes the raw material for your scholarly life. At Bowdoin, you spend so much time with students, which is great; it's why people want to teach here. But you need a big swath of uninterrupted time for research."

Without these opportunities, scholars could become stale, Perkinson said.

"In some ways, it's disconnected from teaching, but it does filter down into your teaching work," he said. "The portrait book has forced me to consider how images were used in the late middle ages, and I think about the things I teach in new ways. It keeps you on top of your field. It's mental calisthenics."

When Herrera returned to Bowdoin, he brought some of his research into the classroom.

"I taught three of my own papers in my Environmental and Natural Resources senior seminar," he said. "It's interesting to teach a paper that hasn't been accepted yet. There's a different level of engagement with a paper like that, rather than one that's five years old."

McEwen said it is important for students to see research in progress, because it allows them to connect with their professors in new ways.

Perkinson agrees. "Remaining viable as a scholar is important," he said. "It gives students a sense of what it means to be a scholar, that you're not just dispensing knowledge into their heads."

“It's a real push of mine in terms of pedagogy to do real, new research.”
- Rachel Beane

Rachel Beane, associate professor of geology, was on a mission when she took her junior sabbatical: she wanted to win a National Science Foundation grant to buy an Electron Backscatter Diffractometer to add to the Scanning Electron Microscope that Bowdoin already owned. Two years earlier, the NSF had turned her down because she lacked experience using the instrument.

"That seemed fair," she said. "But I really needed the grant. (The Diffractometer) costs $100,000, which was more money than I would ask Bowdoin for."

Beane had to travel to the University of Liverpool in England, because no American college or university was engaged in research with the instrument yet. The NSF was satisfied with her training; she won the grant in 2003, and the Diffractometer is now at home on the first floor of Druckenmiller Hall.

The lab already was outfitted with the Scanning Electron Microscope, which magnifies a specimen as much as 300,000 times, and an Energy Dispersive Spectrometer, which does chemical analysis of a specimen in its current state. The Electron Backscatter Diffractometer takes that analysis one step further by showing how a mineral changed over time, which could be used to determine what tectonic forces acted upon it.

"This is an important instrument because it allows you to get lattice information on crystals and minerals," Beane said. "It shows how the elements are lined up. It can be used to identify the elements and how they nucleated - how they started to grow, continued to grow, and how they were de-formed, or pulled out of their shape. I do metamorphic studies, and there are only a handful of people worldwide who do that."

The process starts with a thin slice of rock only thirty microns thick, which is specially prepared and purchased from a lab in Texas. Beane finishes it with a chemical polish. The specimen is then hit with a beam of electrons, which collide with the specimen's electrons and "backscatter," producing 90,000 data points.

Rachel Beane
Rachel Beane

"It's a real push of mine in terms of pedagogy to do real, new research," Beane said. "There are not a lot of people doing this, so I can say to my students, 'There's nothing published on that.' That's empowering to students. I've had students published. And they realize their work is new, because it doesn't always work."

Beane said her students, as undergraduates, have better access to this rare instrument at Bowdoin than they might even as graduate students at a university.

"At a university, it's heavily scheduled, and graduate students would have to pay to use it," she said. "Here, there's a lot more freedom."

Beane is shining an international spotlight on Bowdoin with her work. Last April, fifty scientists from as far away as Hawaii and the UK attended Bowdoin's Kibbe Science Symposium, an international geological conference on research being done with the Diffractometer.

Whether a sabbatical generates a new course, a new scientific instrument or simply renewed energy in the classroom, it is clearly a staple of academic life.

"The way people grow intellectually varies from field to field," Judd said. "But the life of the mind doesn't ever stop."