This semester, I’m on what we call “a faculty research assignment” at the College of William and Mary, a program that resembles in certain ways what many other colleges and universities refer to as a faculty sabbatical. At the College, if a faculty member is categorized as “research active,” then she or he is eligible for a research assignment every seven years or so, in which that faculty member is released from teaching for a semester and expected to produce significant scholarship.
What precisely does one of these research assignments actually entail and why are they important?
The term, “sabbatical,” derives from the Latin term “sabbaticus,” which in turn is rooted in the Hebrew usage of “shabbat,” meaning a “ceasing” or “Hiatus.” Although my day-to-day activities have shifted a bit this semester, my workload hasn’t ceased at all and I’m not on much of a hiatus. So the distinction between our terminology, “faculty research assignment,” and the more traditional terminology makes sense.
For me, teaching and writing about politics are a vocation and an avocation. I don’t have a bunch of hobbies and stay away from golf courses because of my complete incompetence at the game. Instead, I mostly hack away at political science 10-12 hours most days and that is continuing over the next few months.
These days, I’m working full-time on a book manuscript that is the culmination of about a decade of research that I’ve conducted with a few dozen W&M undergraduates about the congressional whip systems and the role of party leaders on Capitol Hill. I’m finishing about one chapter per month, and at this pace should be more than halfway toward completion in January and essentially finished with the manuscript by May. In addition, I have some shorter writing commitments to complete over the next few months – mostly chapters for edited volumes and the like that generally get assigned to college-level courses at various universities around the country.
True, I’m not formally teaching any classes this semester during the research leave, which is a hiatus of sorts, I guess. But I am meeting regularly with students to talk about advising issues and job opportunities. I’m supervising two senior honors students on their yearlong projects. Once again, I’m coordinating logistics for the class that is taught every semester by my friend and colleague, Lee Rawls, about the policy making process in Congress. And I’m periodically making presentations around campus on topics I care about like undergraduate research.
Basically, the tradeoff is that I’m spending less time in the classroom for a few months and a lot more time finishing research projects and conducting other activities related to the nexus between teaching and faculty scholarship. If you think that W&M students deserve to be taught be professors who have real standing as scholars in their fields, then these semester-long research assignments are an essential feature of the educational process.