Making sense of sabbaticals

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Books and research published by professors at the University of Dallas help invigorate the academic spirit and culture of the school and are often written during a sabbatical.

Dr. Jonathan Sanford, president of the university, said, “It’s vitally important to provide opportunities for the faculty to continue to advance knowledge and it also helps their work in the classroom.”

A sabbatical is a period, typically a semester long, that professors spend away from teaching and instead furthering their research.

Sanford said, “It’s a way to recharge one’s research program, both for the sake of advancing knowledge and for the sake of plowing the fruit of that research into one’s teaching, so it’s not a vacation, faculty members need to put together a proposal, what they’re going to do and why it’s significant and how their work at the University of Dallas will be enhanced.”

Professors become eligible for a sabbatical every seventh year and after each one, they are required to report back to their colleagues on the results of their work.

On June 28, Dr. Bernadette Waterman Ward, associate professor of English, published her new book, “Eliot’s Angels: George Eliot, René Girard, and Mimetic Desire.”

After years of analyzing the works of George Eliot and studying the philosophies of René Girard, Waterman Ward decided to write a piece that fuses these two influential figures in her life. 

“It all started because I had made a promise to René Girard,” said Waterman Ward. Girard, a French polymath, historian, literary critic and philosopher of social science suggested that Waterman Ward write the book. They discussed each of Eliot’s novels at his informal biweekly colloquium during a sabbatical, but the book itself would take nearly a decade of effort. In 2008, Waterman Ward explains, she was one of Eliot’s sharpest critics. 

It was not until she was granted a sabbatical leave to study with other professors that she realized there was a sad, deeper reason behind Eliot’s reasoning. Using the philosophy of Girard, she examined Eliot’s pieces in the context of mimetic desire.

Waterman Ward describes mimetic desire as the strong urge to copy a figure one looks up to. In an effort for status, people copy the traits and tastes of others. 

“We like it because someone else likes it. This is called mimetic desire. What we really want is to follow someone worth following,” said Waterman Ward. 

During her time critiquing Eliot’s work, she would point out that the characters often were “mimetic angels,” Eliot’s attempt to create a sort of humanist saint whose influence makes others virtuous; but Eliot always frustrates these characters. In 2016, Waterman Ward talked to Notre Dame Press concerning her idea, and by 2017, she had completed her draft. 

After the book was accepted in 2018, the process experienced a considerable delay due to the pandemic. Four years later, “Eliot’s Angels: George Eliot, René Girard, and Mimetic Desire” would finally be published under Notre Dame Press. Waterman Ward hopes that the philosophies expressed in the book can be useful for the students there.

Dr. Mark Petersen, associate professor of history, published his first book this past March. The book, “The Southern Cone and the Origins of Pan America, 1888-1933,” covers nearly fifty years of American foreign policy and how it has shaped the southern cone until today.

“I am engaged in a wide array of research and writing projects each year, some of which translate into published pieces,” Petersen said. “That’s the case for many of the Faculty here at UD; maintaining engaged in ‘scholarship’ is an expectation for us.”

Petersen is also on the committee for the Center for Teaching and Learning at UD, which hosts a weekly luncheon and is occasionally the setting for book launches and celebrating the accomplishments of professors who have recently published. 

Petersen said: “Recognizing each other’s accomplishments is an important way of sustaining our community of scholars at UD. A Book Launch is a great time for building intentional community, recognizing the exciting intellectual work that’s going on every day at UD, and having interesting conversations with colleagues and friends.”

Not every professor publishes a book as a means of sharing their research, however. “In some disciplines, writing books is not as important; research is shared in other forms,” Petersen said. 

Many scientists, for example, publish their research in journals instead, and UD has resources available to assist them with that as well.

“We have Marcus funds for mainly those working in the sciences, and we support our scientists; whenever we bring in new scientists, we give a substantial amount of money to building a new laboratory that can help facilitate their research in pursuance of publications,” Sanford said.

Dr. William Cody, chair of the biology department, said that his research lab was started by one such Marcus grant.

One of UD’s strongest aspects is the companionship that it maintains throughout its various efforts. Different disciplines will try to work together when it comes to celebrating the work of professors. Dr. Jacob Moldenhauer, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and chair of the physics department, tries to support professors in all departments, not just his own.  

“As Director of CTL, we are working to support Book Launches for other departments. We also use LinkedIn to announce a lot of our accomplishments,” said Moldenhauer.

On Nov. 2, CTL hosted its Wednesday luncheon with the topic:How to write/get a grant or fellowship award.” The talk was moderated by Moldenhauer. In early October, there was another topic covering how to obtain a sabbatical.

Though there is not one currently scheduled for this semester according to the website, when a professor concludes a sabbatical there will often be a special CTL event called “fruits of sabbatical,”  Cody said. He said that these were the most common ways to celebrate the accomplishments and publications of UD’s scientists.

Apart from furthering the overall quality of education at UD, professor research and publication is an achievement that ought to be celebrated, since it often takes a great deal of time and effort to accomplish and it reinforces UD’s status as a strong school for research.

“When a UD professor publishes a book, s/he contributes to the scholarly pursuit of truth, to her or his own scholarly reputation, and to the reputation of the University of Dallas as a premier research institution,” Petersen said. 

Sanford noted that the primary beneficiary of sabbaticals and professor research is the student body. 

“As John Paul the second tells us in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a university is dedicated both to teaching and to advancing the deposit of human knowledge,” he said.

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