Taking Time, Expanding Knowledge
Even during a pandemic, sabbaticals prove invaluable for faculty and students.
A few months into her sabbatical leave in fall 2020, Helen White was at home writing a report for the National Academy of Sciences when she heard about an oil spill in the Delaware Bay.
White, the William H. and Johanna A. Harris Professor in Environmental Studies and Chemistry, has studied oil spills for two decades, but never had one occurred so close to home. The spill was discovered on Oct. 19 and by Oct. 23, after studying news reports to get a sense of what was happening, White gathered some basic supplies and drove two hours to the shore. By sunrise the next day, she was walking along beaches impacted by the spill. Initially affecting 12 miles of beach, the spill eventually spread about 60 miles, from Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge to Assateague Island.
“I immediately engaged students (remotely) in this research to witness it firsthand with me,” says White, who had never seen a spill in person from its earliest stages. “You can read about a spill, but there’s nothing like watching it play out in real time.” Students studied the chemistry of the oil, the laws and policies that hold parties responsible for oil spills, and the physics of how oil is transported on ocean surfaces.
“The sabbatical allowed me to structure my time according to the needs of the field research,” says White, who returned to the beach in November 2020, then again in January, March, and May 2021. A year later, in October 2021, White took students to the original site, where they collected samples and observed lingering signs of the spill. Based on their research, one student presented a poster at a conference, and White and her student group are currently writing a paper for publication.
Each academic year, approximately 18 to 25 Haverford professors take a sabbatical leave, lasting from a semester to a full year, with some adding summers to extend their leaves. Considered an integral part of Haverford faculty life, the sabbatical is time away from the rigors and responsibilities of teaching to focus on intensive study, writing, and research.
“It gives us the time to stay expert in the things we study, or to pick up new areas of scholarship and bring that back to the classroom,” explains Associate Provost for Faculty Development and Professor of Psychology Benjamin Le. “There’s a very tight connection here between teaching and research, and we are better teachers because we are better scholars.”
Sabbaticals are relatively costly because faculty must be hired to replace those who are away. Support for sabbaticals is provided by Benn Sah ’62 and Eva Wu Sah, through the Benn and Eva Sah Provost Fund.
“As an undergraduate, my view of the College was largely from the student’s perspective,” Benn Sah says. “Later it became evident that the quality of the College is as dependent on the faculty as on the student body. Our faculty members generally work extremely hard, and it is difficult to teach, do research, and write papers at the same time. It is difficult to recruit excellent faculty, and at times even more difficult to retain them. This is an effort to show our faculty that they are valued.”
Kim Benston, Francis B. Gummere Professor of English, spent his 2020–21 sabbatical focused on three projects: working with colleagues at Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies to develop concerts, workshops, and other material organized around Duke Ellington’s Shakespearean Suite, Such Sweet Thunder; conducting research for a Norton Critical Edition of H.G. Wells’s novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau; and continuing work on a three-volume study of African American literature.
“The sabbatical recognizes that in order for us to be productive, useful, and meaningful scholars, we need to enter into a different time and space from the temporality of teaching,” says the former provost and president of the College. “Sometimes you need to work elsewhere. Anthropologists go into the field, for example, and historians need to visit archives. Scientists learn new techniques in other people’s labs and forge collaborations. Being on-site creates different conversations and hands-on experiences that lead to fresh insights, which will spark new insights for students. You interact and test your ideas with peers. You strengthen yourself in all sorts of ways by working together at research centers and institutes, and it can only happen through the sabbatical structure.”
Associate Professor of Psychology Shu-wen Wang focused part of her sabbatical studying anti-Asian sentiments and race-based attacks that emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Wang, along with a collaborator and several Haverford students, studied announcements from U.S. colleges and universities and compared those to Chinese universities, noting how institutions approached the pandemic, as well as messaging around anti-Asian hate and bias. The research team submitted a manuscript to a science journal and presented findings at a July 2021 conference.
Wang also continued developing the Tri-Co Asian American studies program and minor that was fully approved in December 2021 and launched this fall. “The sabbatical was an interesting year for research, teaching, and service to the College,” Wang says. “It all integrated in a way and will impact Asian American and non-Asian American students.”
Other faculty sabbaticals of note during 2020–21:
Professor of Music Ingrid Arauco canceled her European residencies due to travel restrictions and instead stayed home and composed a major work in three movements for wind sextet (alto sax, flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon). It was commissioned and premiered at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Arauco also worked on a string quartet commissioned by the Jasper Quartet, which will work with students enrolled in her Composition course next fall.
Associate Professor of Classics Bret Mulligan completed two books, The Poetry of Ennodius (Routledge Press) and a textbook collection, The Crisis of Catiline: Rome, 63 BCE (University of North Carolina Press). He also wrote numerous articles and papers and continued work on “The Bridge,” a major digital resource for Latin and Greek language instruction.
Professor of Biology Karl Johnson took the lead in designing and presenting a seminar, “Crafting an Inclusive Biology Curriculum,” as part of the Biology Department’s response to the student strike. Pandemic restrictions and disruptions made keeping his lab open and fully functioning during his sabbatical extremely challenging, but Johnson maintained his cell lines and made progress on research supported by an NIH grant.