Tunisia to Kanbar Hall: Faculty Share Sabbatical Experiences

Story posted December 01, 2008

People unfamiliar with the daily rigors of an academic career may not fully understand the importance of sabbatical leave in the life of a scholar. Originally derived from the concept of a Sabbath—a seventh year of refreshing and regrouping—faculty sabbaticals are now critically important in helping teaching faculty remain competitive in their fields.

South Africa coast
Cape Point, South Africa

"Sabbaticals give our faculty that all-important time to prepare a book manuscript, write up their data, start a new experiment, compose a new piece of music, or work with other peers engaged in their field," notes Bowdoin Dean for Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd. "They are crucial for helping professors be active throughout their career and in being the kind of teacher we expect them to be at Bowdoin."

Three Bowdoin faculty currently on sabbatical leave share Notes from the Field, from as far away as Tunisia—and as close as Kanbar Hall.

Susan Tananbaum, Associate Professor of History

I am spending three-and-a-half months of my sabbatical as a Visiting Fellow at the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa. I have always wanted to travel here, partially as a British historian with interests in Empire, and partially as someone who watched the transition to democracy from afar. The "new South Africa" is remarkable. While I am in the archives, my husband, an allergist and pediatrician, is volunteering at the Red Cross Children's Hospital, and that, too, has been tremendously interesting.

Cape orphanage
Archival photo courtesy of The Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Thanks to sabbatical funding and a research grant from the Kaplan Centre, I am able to undertake a research project in the archives at the University of Cape Town on the Cape Jewish Orphanage in the early 20th century. This work complements earlier research I have done in England on Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant "orphans" (many of whom had lost only one parent), and their care in religiously sponsored institutions.

It has been fascinating to analyze the historical similarities and differences between the two countries—the care of children, policy toward parents and families, funding and fund raising issues, and the role of women. The sources not only provide insight into the care of children and charitable endeavors, but also of internal communal politics, Jewish life, and the interaction of a minority community in South Africa in the first third of the 20th century.

Faculty Sabbaticals
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Support for faculty sabbaticals is an important goal of The Bowdoin Campaign, which ends in 2009. These professional opportunities are vital for our faculty, allowing them to engage with peers, advance their research and creativity, and inspire students.


I have experienced a warmth in the people that is delightful and am finding fascinating contrasts. There are extremes of wealth and poverty: first-world health alongside malnutrition, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS; a world-class university and children who have to walk 20 kilometers to school. The current social and political environment is especially complicated. So many challenges and such potential and promise.

This sabbatical has enabled me to complete two article manuscripts and prepare proposals for several conference papers. I gave two guest lectures in the Holocaust course at the University of Cape Town. This led to a couple of meetings with students, which gave me a chance to learn more about the education system and student experiences here. Several South African students sought my advice on research projects. During two faculty seminars, I shared some of my British-based research with colleagues here. These both led to lively discussions among individuals with a deep knowledge of South African and Jewish history, and gave me vastly different perspectives from those I would get in the U.S. or England.

This sabbatical has enabled me to undertake new research, given me time to think, write, and to travel—all of which has been energizing and productive.

Suzanne Lovett, Chair and Associate Professor of Psychology

Suzanne Lovett
Suzanne Lovett

Since Fall 2006, I have been a member of the New England Consortium on Assessment and Student Learning (NECASL). The consortium includes seven liberal arts colleges in New England (Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Middlebury, Smith, Trinity, and Wellesley), each of which are tracking 36 students from the class of 2010 as they progress through college.

NECASL is particularly interested in student learning, decision-making, engagement, and integration with respect to all aspects of the college experience. Because of the important work being conducted by this group, I decided to remain on campus during my sabbatical leave in order to devote at least half my time to this project.

We are interviewing the participating students two times a year and collecting writing samples; we have also conducted surveys for two years for the entire 2010 class, and this year will survey the class of 2011. We will present our first findings at three conferences this academic year and prepare white papers that report back to each college on the best practices of our schools with respect to advising and diversity.

Next year, we will report on writing and study-away experiences. As all colleges and universities have begun to examine how to assess whether they are achieving their objectives, our innovative assessment project has already begun to shape how our institutions address these important issues.

In addition to my work with NECASL, I am also continuing to work on my own research on children's developing understanding of the mind and how it relates to the body. I have submitted proposals for two conference presentations of my research.

My sabbatical leave has allowed me to engage in work that will help Bowdoin provide the best learning environment for its students, as well as helping me to advance my own research program. What I am learning through my involvement with NECASL has also caused me to think about and change my own advising and teaching practices.

William VanderWolk, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Professor of Romance Languages

Sheep at mosque in Tunisia
Sheep at a mosque in Tunisia.

I am spending this semester in Tunis on the North African coast of the Mediterranean. I have come here to study Albert Camus' notion of "Mediterranean thought," a philosophy of life and revolt that he opposes to Germanic thought. According to Camus, who was born and raised in Algeria, the Mediterranean, with its abundance of natural beauty, gives rise to a way of thinking that begins with the individual and his appreciation of nature. His defense of this world view leads to a revolt against injustice of any kind.

The best way for me to understand Camus' rather complex philosophy is to be immersed in the Mediterranean: its lifestyle, its people, and particularly the natural world so close to Camus' heart. Out of this natural beauty comes art, as the author interprets the world around him.

As I read and write this year, I try to imagine how my students and colleagues will profit from my work. I am writing a series of articles that I hope will become book chapters. The collection of essays will enrich the scholarship on Camus by bringing a direct and more personal point of view to the analyses. For my students, I am already formulating possible new courses.

None of this work would be possible without the time to pursue the research and the ability to live here on the Mediterranean. No library in the world could teach me about contemporary Arab-Christian relationships or the beauty of a Mediterranean sunset during the call for evening prayer. Tunisia has already enlivened my work by giving me the context in which Camus lived and worked. I will return to Bowdoin next year enlightened and refreshed.

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