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Away on sabbatical: Not your average ‘vacay’

Published: September 4, 2009
Section: Features

RADICAL SABBATICAL: While on sabbatical at NYU, Prof. Joyce Antler (AMST), began work on her new book on feminist activism. <br /><i>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

RADICAL SABBATICAL: While on sabbatical at NYU, Prof. Joyce Antler (AMST), began work on her new book on feminist activism.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

What do an American Studies professor’s interviews with feminist activists have in common with a computer science professor’s Stradivarius-model cello? And what does a Legal Studies professor’s research on Icelandic literature have to do with any of this?

On the surface, not much. But none of these things would have come to be if not for each professor’s opportunity to take a sabbatical.

Sabbatical is the time academics are granted to take a break from teaching or research at their home institutions. They spend this time cultivating other interests or strengthening current projects, sometimes working with other institutions.

The work professors do during a sabbatical is often very useful. But in light of students’ constant complaints of limited course offerings and talk of reduction in faculty, letting the 31 faculty members on sabbatical this year depart from both the undergraduate and graduate programs for any amount of time may seem counterintuitive. Yet, if you ask the professors on sabbatical, there’s real value to the idea.

And contrary to public opinion, many professors argue that sabbatical is much more than a paid vacation. Take it from someone who would know: Prof. Richard Gaskins (LGLS). “Vacation is just a strange way to explain it,” he said.

And just because a professor is on sabbatical doesn’t mean the work stops. Gaskins, who took his sabbatical in spring 2009, spent his time pursuing other academic interests he had pushed aside during traditional academic years. Gaskins’ sabbatical allowed him to spend April of 2009 in New Zealand, where he began working as a new faculty member in 1975. Since then, he has been back more than a dozen times studying New Zealand law, including a visit as a Fulbright Lecturer at the Victoria University of Wellington Law School in 1999.

“Having sabbatical has been a lifeline to maintaining scholarly activity and scholarly connections,” he said.

Unlike Gaskins, Prof. Joyce Antler (AMST) spent last academic year closer to home as the Goldstein-Goren Fellow, a visiting research appointment at New York University’s Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History. Antler took advantage of this time to jumpstart a new project that will, as she explained, “take a second look at radical feminism.”

“For me and many others [sabbatical] is an opportunity to do research and to spend the time [on other projects] that you can’t when you are fully engaged in teaching,” she said.

Gaskins echoed Antler’s sentiments: “There is this kind of momentum to [research and work done on sabbatical] that gets broken during the typical teaching semester. Work goes forward, but because the momentum get broken it never rises above a certain level — it slows everything down.”

But while a professor may have plans for sabbatical, there are other considerations that determine whether the time off is even possible. Sabbatical is granted by the Provost’s office in conjunction with permission from a professor’s department chair. When staff in a given department is limited, a professor may have to postpone a sabbatical; Gaskins had to postpone his sabbatical a year due to the relatively small size of his department.

Finances must also be taken into consideration. Professors can go on sabbatical for one semester at full pay or two semesters at half pay, however, benefits are taken care of with either option. Both options play a role in determining what a professor can and will do during his or her time off. Antler noted that her plans were made smoother upon receipt of a Goldstein-Goren fellowship.

Prof. Harry Mairson (COS), who is on sabbatical for the current academic year, also pointed out what is probably one of a professor’s most important considerations when taking sabbatical – family concerns.

“When spouses have careers and professional commitments, spending a year in another place is complicated,” Mairson wrote in an e-mail to The Hoot.

It has been 14 years since Mairson’s last sabbatical, in 1995, and that was the only other one he’s taken since beginning his Brandeis career in 1987. His work during this sabbatical was mostly the same as that he did in a regular year.

“It was the same stuff – I just wasn’t teaching or going to meetings,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Hoot.

This year, Mairson will be continuing his research on logic and programming languages. He spent this past May as a visiting professor at the Institut de Mathématiques de Luminy in Marseille, France, but will be spending the rest of his sabbatical local so as to cause “less disruption to the family.”

Gaskins also spent his sabbatical in the area, with the exception of the month in New Zealand. His proximity to Brandeis led to a different sort of sabbatical experience. The best thing about being on sabbatical, Gaskins said, is leaving Brandeis entirely.

“Anything short of that makes you vulnerable to short term controversies and crises, and spring 2009 was a semester of crises at Brandeis,” he said. “If you care about the university and care about your department you can’t avoid these crises.”

Despite his proximity to Brandeis, Mairson is making the most of his sabbatical. He sees it as a time to do “unusual, creative things” and that’s exactly what he’s doing – in addition to his research, Mairson is building a Stradivarius-model cello.

Though recreational in nature, even the instrument building will ultimately serve a larger academic purpose for Mairson: “I’m an enthusiast for Dean [Adam] Jaffe’s initiative in experiential learning, and my cello project is all about that. I’d like to set up an instrument-making shop at the university.

“Building musical instruments is the perfect combination of science, art and creative learning experience,” he said.

Turning a sabbatical project into something usable for the traditional academic year is fairly common. Antler has turned her work this past year into a new course being offered this semester, “AMST 125A: History of United States Feminisms.”

And after his last visit to New Zealand, Gaskins was able to see his work continued through a series of conferences in Wellington, New Zealand that were successfully carried out thanks to the time sabbatical allowed him to spend in the country. He planned two more this time around.

“[Sabbatical] is one of the joys of academic life: your work continues everyday and you don’t try to get away from it,” Gaskins said.

Of course, that being said, it certainly doesn’t hurt that you can take the occasional hike in New Zealand or catch a show while in New York City when the desire strikes.