Coming and going: Occidental professors share their sabbatical stories

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Professor Kelema Lee Moses is an Art & Art History professor at Occidental College. Friday, April 23, 2019. Emily Bartylla/The Occidental

Now and then, a favorite professor will seemingly vanish for a semester (or two). Often unknown by students, the realization of disappearance will hit while perusing the course catalog. It’s true, professors take time off and then they return refreshed, reflective and ready for more Occidental.

I was one of these students hit with the harsh reality that some of my favorite professors will not be around to grace the halls of Fowler and Johnson in the fall. Instead, they will be taking a much-deserved sabbatical, reading, writing, researching and resting. In recognition of this, I talked to three professors — one coming fresh off their sabbatical and two about to depart — to get to the bottom of what really happens during a sabbatical.

Professor Kelema Lee Moses, art & art history: 2019–2020

Professor Kelema Lee Moses stands next to her photo on display in the Weingart Gallery at Occidental College. Friday, April 23, 2019. Emily Bartylla/The Occidental

Q: Is sabbatical always a full year?

A: No, it doesn’t always have to be a full year. We have the option to take a semester or a full academic year, so I decided to take a year.

Q: So… how does it work? Is it like accrued vacation time?

A: I think we wish it was vacation time. It really just gives you time to think, right? Especially when you’re at a liberal arts college where we’re heavily invested in teaching, which is great and that’s what we’re here to do. But, it gives you time to sort of rethink your classes, rethink your teaching pedagogy and pursue research projects that you want to pursue and haven’t had the time to do during these academic years.

Q: Tell me a little bit more about your research.

A: I’m in the art and art history department, I’m an architectural historian, and my specialty is on the Pacific, so Pacific studies and Pacific Island studies. I have two article projects I’m working on: One dealing with capital construction in Honolulu working on the state capital and thinking about the urban design around the capital building, and my second project is looking at Pago Pago American Samoa in the 1960s and thinking about that in the context of what was happening in the United States with the civil rights movement. Then, my book project is actually an offshoot of that first article I was telling you about. It’s called “Island Modernism Island Urbanism: Encountering Statehood in Honolulu, Hawaii.” It’s a way to really center architectural modernism in the Pacific basin. Often times when we talk about architectural modernity, we’re talking about the West. We’re thinking about Europe, we’re thinking about the continental United States, but a lot of things were also happening in the Pacific during this time. I really want to unpack that in the context of architectural modernism, also thinking about economic imperatives for architectural construction, environmental issues, because as we know climate change and sustainability greatly affect Pacific island communities, and finally Indigenous imperatives: Where are the Indigenous voices and what are they saying about construction?

Q: Are there aspects you’re most excited for about your time off?

A: The quiet time to just sit. But also, going back. I mean, I travel back to the islands frequently, but to go back just for this purpose and to really focus my thoughts there will be good. I’m looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to interviews, looking forward to even going back and editing things I’ve written. I always tell students this, too — you write something once and you just let it sit and go back and are like, “What was I talking about?” and then you can sort of reimagine and revision everything. I look forward to going back and revisiting my old writing and reshaping it into something new.

Q: So where will you be full time?

A: I will be in Augusta, Georgia. It’s not that exciting of a place, but it is a place I consider a retreat, like a writing retreat. I love Los Angeles, but Los Angeles can be distracting in many ways. So, when I’m not in Hawaii, I will be in Georgia, just writing.

Q: Beyond the academia, are there any hobbies or things you enjoy doing in your free time?

A: That’s a really good question, honestly. I like, oddly, to just watch TV. I love catching up on Netflix shows, I’m a reality TV fiend, I love it all. Next year is a big year in terms of politics, so following that should be interesting. Vacations are always nice, beach time is always nice.

Q: Will you get to see any family?

A: I have family in Hawaii, obviously I will be there. I have family in the Dominican Republic as well, so I will be spending some time out there. The Northeast is always nice to go to. I’ve actually never been to Chicago so that’s on my list. Oddly, I’m an architectural historian that’s never been to Chicago. This is blasphemy. So I got to get that figured out. And obviously, I’ll go back to Pago Pago in American Samoa.

Q: Anything you’ll miss about Occidental or Los Angeles?

A: I know this sounds cheesy, but I’ll miss the students. What’s great about being at a liberal arts college is that you all as students really push me to stay on top of everything. You can’t teach the same thing over and over because your groups of students change and they want to talk to you and speak to you about things, so you find new and innovative ways to make the classroom more interesting and exciting. [Not] having that sort of dialogue I will miss. Not just with the students, but with my colleagues as well. The academic scholarly critical discourses you get with other faculty members on campus really keeps your mind sharp so I will miss that as well. I’ll miss LA, the cultural scene here is wonderful and beautiful and great. There are things I’ll miss but it’s nice to get away so you can miss it and come back.

Q: Is this your first break to get to work on academic work?

A: Yes, which is crazy. Occidental is better than most institutions in doing that and I think they do that because they recognize the amount of teaching that we do and to keep us lively in our fields, having a sabbatical is really important. There are institutions where there is no sabbatical until you get tenure, there are other institutions where if you take a sabbatical you don’t get paid, so that’s a heavy financial burden for a lot of people and they can’t do it. So, I feel really fortunate that Oxy gives us the opportunity to pursue our research in that way.

Q: Anything you want your students to know while you’re on sabbatical?

A: I don’t want students to think we completely cut them off and leave for the year. I do want them to know, at least in my case, that I am available. I am available via the internet, via email, it may take me a bit longer to get back but I want to support their goals if they’re applying to things, need letters of rec, just need advice about classes or anything. I will make myself available, it’s not like I’m completely disappeared but the time is needed for our own kind of personal development.

Professor Ross Lerner, English: 2018–2019

Professor Ross Lerner’s cat discovering his newly published book “Unknowing Fanaticism.” Image courtesy of Ross Lerner.

Q: While you were on sabbatical, where did you call home?

A: I’ve been in Chicago for most of my sabbatical, with a handful of trips elsewhere for research or conferences.

Q: How was that in contrast to Los Angeles?

A: Los Angeles and Chicago are different in so many ways. I forgot what really long and intense winters are like! But it’s also been interesting to learn about their interrelated histories, especially, since I’ve been staying on the south side of Chicago, how they’ve both been shaped by the Great Migration.

Q: Do you miss Los Angeles and Occidental, or is the break a welcome change?

A: I’ve enjoyed having time to focus primarily on my research — both because it’s allowed me to read and write a lot more than I could otherwise and because it will have substantial benefits for my teaching when I return to Oxy. I’ll have a better sense of the latest debates and discoveries in my field and get a chance to brainstorm new classes for future semesters. I have missed my students and colleagues this year though, and I’m especially disappointed that I’ve not been around for the senior years of majors in my department.

Q: What have you been up to while not at Occidental?

A: The main work for my sabbatical has been finishing my first book, which just came out in early April; it’s about the poetics and politics of religious fanaticism and peasant revolts in the European Reformation. The last stages of a book require a surprising amount of time and attention, so I was lucky to be able to finish that during a break from teaching and college service. I also wrote a couple of articles in the fall and winter about topics that were generated by student questions in the classroom over the past few years, and this spring and summer I’m focused on research related to my next book, which is about punishment, captivity and race in the 15th–17th-century Atlantic world.

Q: Have you read anything notable in your break?

A: Beyond reading directly for my research, I’ve also been catching up on a lot of newish stuff in my fields, medieval and early modern studies, I’ve just finished a few books on “catastrophizing,” the history of habeas corpus and the colonial foundations of the humanities in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Q: Any recommendations?

Part of the pleasure of sabbatical is having a lot of time to read around more promiscuously, beyond one’s field of research, and that might be the stuff that I could recommend more generally. Some favorites from the past couple months: Anna Burns’ “Milkman,” this is a really unique novel that manages to be both very dark and very funny, Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Blacks,” I just reread this volume of her collected poetry and prose and it’s remarkable, and Moishe Postone’s “Time, Labor, and Social Domination.” I was introduced to Postone’s writings on the first anniversary of his death last month, and I’ve found this to be an especially thought-provoking study of some forms of labor that exist in capitalism.

Q: What do you think students don’t realize about professors’ sabbaticals?

A: When I was an undergraduate, I found sabbaticals pretty mystifying; I didn’t know what to make of them. Were they “time off” for faculty? Or were they “work”? I think my own confusion as an undergraduate revealed a more general murkiness about what counts as intellectual labor and what academics, particularly but not exclusively in the humanities, are paid for. Setting aside the issue of external fellowships and grants, which tend to be more substantial for the sciences, how do we value faculty research? Is it paid labor? Yes and no — my job at Oxy helps make it possible for me to research and write, and the institution requires I do it at this stage, but I’m not directly paid for it like I am for teaching. People talk about academic research as though it’s a calling — it’s what we want or need to do — but it’s also labor, and not always viewed as such. But the harder labor-related questions sabbatical raises are about class in academia. In general, only a very small number of faculty have access to sabbaticals — adjuncts, the largest group of faculty across the nation, and even full-time non-tenure track faculty are almost always excluded from this privilege. Though again, I don’t want the term “privilege” to obscure the status of research as labor and institutions with less wealth don’t even make it accessible for tenure-track or tenured faculty.

Professor Mijin Cha, Urban & Environmental Policy: 2019–2020

Professor Mijin Cha works in the Urban & Environmental Policy department at Occidental College. Thursday, April 25, 2019. Emily Bartylla/The Occidental

Q: For your upcoming sabbatical, where will you be?

A: I still haven’t figured out where I will be, but most likely it will be half in LA and half outside of LA. I will likely spend some time in NYC because it is my chosen home and it will be nice to be somewhere with a (somewhat) operating transit system. I really love dense cities so I like spending time in big cities like New York.

Q: What is the first thing you will do?

A: I need to make a sabbatical plan so I can plan out all the things I want to do. I will probably also binge watch some TV, maybe Game of Thrones.

Q: What will you be up to on your time off?

A: I have a lot of plans for my research while on sabbatical. My research area is “just transition,” which looks at how to support communities and workers in the transition away from fossil fuels. I am planning a research trip to Wyoming to analyze the coal industry there and see if there is an opening for discussion on how to move away from fossil fuels. Wyoming doesn’t get as much attention as other coal regions but it is the top producer of coal and it will be mining coal long after other areas are shut down, unless there can be an alternative. I grew up in Wyoming, so I have a special interest in the state and I know that people there have a special tie to the land. I think their ties to the land could provide an opening to discuss how to best preserve it for recreation and conservation, which would include ending mining. It also has a low unionization rate so when mines and plants shut down, workers have very little protections. But, fossil fuel extraction is about 50 percent of the state’s GDP so transitioning away from fossil fuels will be challenging. So far, I will be doing field site observation and interviews with legislators, advocates, workers, state officials and hopefully mining executives. I’m also scheduled to present at four conferences in Hawaii, Brussels and Geneva. I will also try to do something fun and relaxing, at some point.

Q: Either for pleasure or your research, anything you are planning on reading?

A: I will be reading a lot of books and articles on the fossil fuel economy and how to create a zero-carbon future. I’m also hoping to get caught up on some fiction reading, including “Washington Black: A Novel” by Esi Edugyan and “All the Names They Used for God” by Anjali Sachdeva.

Q: Any big writing plans?

A: I have plans to write a book manuscript based off of the last few years of research and my field research in Wyoming.

Q: Will you miss Occidental?

A: I imagine I will miss Oxy and LA at some point, but right now I am very much looking forward to having the time off and having some time to think more deeply about my research.

Q: What do you think students don’t realize about professors’ sabbaticals?

A: I think students may not realize how much time and effort professors put into teaching so the sabbatical is really necessary for resetting energy and enthusiasm. It is also essential for making meaningful advancement on research projects, which I don’t have much time to work on during the academic year. Occidental has a very generous sabbatical policy and I am really grateful to be able to take a full academic year to focus on my research and recharging my energy.