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Sabbaticals make things a little better for everybody, profs say

Each year, a few professors disappear from campus and some students find strangers teaching courses that used to belong to their favorite professors.

The culprit is the sabbatical, the leave of absence of a semester or a full year for which professors are eligible after every six years of teaching.

“The idea is to periodically allow the faculty to go away and come back with their pilot light lit,” Christian studies professor Dwight Peterson, who took a sabbatical last year, said.

Wendy Mercier, the chair of the biokinetics department, has been granted a sabbatical after she receives tenure.

“The goal is to become a full-time learner myself,” she said.

Sabbaticals are intended to rest and refuel professors through activities not related to teaching at Eastern, according to several sources.

Mercier believes sabbaticals are restful because they provide a chance to learn.

“When you get to be my age, being allowed to simply be a student is a huge privilege,” she said.

The Dean of Arts and Sciences, David Greenhalgh, among others, believes sabbaticals are also beneficial for the entire Eastern community.

“The professors who go on sabbaticals usually come back with fresh ideas,” he said. “The students are impacted with new ideas or new ways of thinking about a topic.”

Theology and church history professor Margaret Peterson, who also had a sabbatical last year, agreed.

“Teachers are better if they have time to think, read a book, engage in scholarly conversation,” she said.

During their sabbaticals, professors are expected to engage in a particular activity, such as writing or traveling, that advances their own scholarship or thinking.

For instance, the Petersons said their sabbatical last year included moving to Mount Vernon, Iowa, for the year and writing.

Mercier said her sabbatical will include developing an exercise program for heart failure patients at two local hospitals, as well as running and completing a research project connected with Eastern’s new Life Fitness courses.

Despite the benefits they offer professors, sabbaticals are not guaranteed.

Instead, professors must apply for them at least a year in advance, and the sabbatical must be approved by Greenhalgh, Provost Fraser, President Black and the board of trustees.

According to Dwight Peterson, the professors must also have tenure, a condition in which they cannot be fired except under extreme circumstances.

Finally, Eastern must be able to afford the sabbatical.

“You’re paying the person’s salary, and you have to hire people to fill the slot left by the person going on sabbatical,” Greenhalgh said. “It’s quite a commitment on the part of the university.”

However, these requirements do not detract from the benefits faculty and administration see in sabbaticals.

“If they come back feeling more whole and more prepared for the next leg of the journey, that’s a wonderful thing,” Greenhalgh said.

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