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Sabbaticals Support Strong Teaching, Keep Faculty Going Strong

Members of the Meredith dance program

Meredith faculty members have long been the stuff of legend, both for students on campus and for alumnae who have graduated. It’s challenging, strong, and inspiring faculty members that many Meredith alumnae thank for their top-tier educations. 

How do Meredith’s faculty members earn their legendary status? One, Meredith continues to hire strong faculty members who are scholars in their disciplines. And two, once the faculty members are hired, Meredith offers them opportunities to keep up with trends in their fields or to pursue academic or intellectual interests. 

One kind of professional development opportunity Meredith offers faculty is a sabbatical. A sabbatical, which is etymologically related to Sabbath and thus to the idea of rest, provides faculty members with a semester or year away from the classroom, offering time to explore a new interest, develop a new skill, generate a creative project, or conduct research, among other pursuits. 

In turn, when faculty return to the classroom, they are energized and refreshed, and their sabbatical work enriches their classroom teaching and ultimately means a strongereducation for Meredith students. Over the past seven years, 26 faculty members from departments across campus have benefitted from Meredith’s sabbatical program. a woman using a video camera in a theatre

Faculty members are eligible for sabbaticals after six years of service to the College, and recipients are selected through a competitive process. (See sidebar for details.)

Meredith places an emphasis on teaching, and faculty members are hired because they are experts in their fields. Sabbaticals allow faculty to stay current in these areas, which, in turn, keeps them current in the classroom, according to Provost Matthew Poslusny.

“When faculty are teaching six or seven classes per year, serving on committees, and advising students, it becomes difficult to pursue their own intellectual interests,” he said. 

Nancy Pentecost Siska, ’76, a member of the Meredith board of trustees who has supported funding for faculty and staff development, said that sabbaticals are an important piece of professional development for faculty members. 

“In any profession,” she said, “it’s imperative that people keep up with the developments in their field and have the opportunity to rejuvenate.”

When faculty are able to stay current and to pursue their own interests, they return to the classroom with new ideas they can share with their students. 

Range of sabbaticals at Meredith

While on their sabbaticals, according to Poslusny, it is important for faculty to detach from their regular duties on campus, even committee work. For instance, Poslusny noted that one faculty member on sabbatical in the fall of 2015 needs to be on campus to conduct research. However,  to  ensure that she can focus on her work, she moved to a new office in a building outside her department. 

Similarly, Carol Finley, professor and program coordinator of dance, spent much of her sabbatical in the fall of 2012 on campus yet not in the dance studio. Finley worked with a group of dancers, many of whom were Meredith alumnae, to create a dance video, also known as a dance-for-camera piece. 

Finley, who choreographed, directed, and produced the film, Little Utopia, and her dancers rehearsed and filmed in Jones Auditorium, and then Finley edited the film with equipment at home. 

The dance-for-camera genre has long been of interest to Finley, who started making dance videos in graduate school. She made some successful films before she began teaching at Meredith. 

“It’s really very time- and focus-consuming to make a dance film,” she said. Though she has worked in the medium some since joining the Meredith faculty, she noted, “I hadn’t made a new project that was, start-to-finish, what I wanted to do because I just hadn’t had the time.”

Doreen Fairbank, professor of psychology, likewise says that without her sabbatical in the fall of 2007, she would not have had time to pursue a new interest. 

Though Fairbank is a psychologist, she has also nurtured an interest in the environment. On her sabbatical, she merged these two pursuits on Bald Head Island off North Carolina’s coast, studying how the environment and psychology intertwine. She worked with the Bald Head Island Conservancy, the Old Baldy Foundation, and the Smith Island Museum to study how school-age children related to their environment and how their attitudes and behaviors toward the environment might change. 

For Martha Burpitt, professor of human environmental sciences and interior design program coordinator, her sabbatical in the fall of 2014 allowed her to keep up with trends in her field. She took a course to learn about the software Revit, which had been used for many years in architecture. In more recent years, Burpitt said, it has gained in popularity with interior designers. 

In addition to the Revit course, Burpitt also conducted research among interior design alumnae and interior design employers to learn how many of them use the software. 

“I strive to keep abreast of new directions in the marketplace, new skills being utilized, and the changes taking place in our industry,” Burpitt said, noting that the sabbatical allowed her to do just that. 

Steven Roten, associate professor and program coordinator of theater, likewise used his sabbatical in the spring of 2013 to stay current and to exercise his creativity. a giant tortoise eating grass

“There’s that old standby adage that if you can’t do, teach,” Roten said. “I completely disagree with that. I think the best teachers are doers.” 

During his sabbatical, Roten completed most of a play, Monumental, which was produced at Meredith in the spring of 2015. In addition, on his sabbatical, Roten went on more than 20 auditions, which helped earn him a guest spot on the television show Nashville, a role in the film Ashby, and a spot in Blue Cross Blue Shield advertisements.

Going on auditions, performing, and writing, he said, gives validity to his career that students respect, relate to, and learn from. 

“There’s something about being an artist and putting your money where your mouth is,” Roten said. “My experience is invaluable to my students who plan on pursuing careers as performers. It gives what they’re learning here an air of legitimacy.” 

Professor of psychology Lyn Aubrecht was very active during his 2009-10 academic-year sabbatical, with a goal of learning about psychology and the way it is taught in non-Western cultures. 

"I’ve been teaching psychology at the college level for almost 50 years,” Aubrecht said. “During that time, I’ve become quite familiar with the subject matter I teach. It had occurred to me that there might be psychology that’s practiced, that’s researched, that’s taught elsewhere that’s quite a bit different from the psychology that I had been teaching here.” 

Aubrecht spent time in China, South America, and many countries around the world. He arranged meetings with psychologists and scholars to learn about psychology in their countries. 

Powerful impact on students

Ying Liao, associate professor in the School of Business, spent her spring 2015 sabbatical as a visiting professor at the University of Richmond. This sabbatical gave her a different kind of professional development, as she learned from colleagues and experimented with new classroom strategies. 

Liao plans to bring these classroom strategies back to her graduate and undergraduate classes at Meredith to enrich her students’ learning. For instance, in Liao’s undergraduate operations and supply-chain management class, students come into the class with little  knowledge of the subject, so a large part of class time is spent on fundamentals. After her semester at the University of Richmond, Liao learned some new strategies for giving students concepts online, something she plans to implement in her class at Meredith. 

That way, Liao said, she “can use more class time working with applications and tools to help students solve business problems.”

Liao’s new ideas for her classroom at Meredith are not unusual after faculty sabbaticals. According to Poslusny, when faculty return, they bring “a vibrancy to the classroom.”

Siska, the Meredith trustee, noted that sabbaticals are important for Meredith students because they enhance Meredith’s “fine teaching and pedagogy.” 

As an example of this fine teaching, now that Burpitt knows how to use the software Revit, when students come to her for help, she can work with them to find answers. 

“I think that it’s important that students feel like their faculty are up to speed on what the students need to know when they graduate,” Burpitt said. an interior design professor showing a group of students design samples

A sabbatical allowed Fairbank “to regroup and refocus on teaching, to be able to incorporate new issues into coursework, to be able to stop, have the time to research, and really think through how I could improve my teaching and course content.”

During Aubrecht’s sabbatical, in addition to learning about psychology around the world, he also wanted to strengthen his knowledge of animal behavior for the psychology course he teaches with the same name. Aubrecht traveled to the Galapagos Islands and to the Serengeti and observed animals native to those areas up close. Now, in his animal behavior class, he incorporates photos and personal experiences from his sabbatical. 

Roten, the theater professor, sees that his sabbatical has impacted his classroom teaching, as well. 

“I can’t tell you what a quantum leap my playwriting class has experienced because I had that sabbatical,” he said, noting that the sabbatical also helped his acting-for-camera class. “Every project I do betters my understanding of what I need to teach them.” 

In addition, the professional contacts Roten made or nurtured on his sabbatical have helped his students in another way: acting jobs. Several Meredith students and alumnae have gotten paid acting jobs through their professor’s contacts.

“It really helps our students get work and internships in the area,” he said.

Finley, the dance professor, saw another benefit to students from her sabbatical. When she wasn’t teaching and dancing daily, she had to find new ways to keep up her dance training. 

“That was valuable to bring back to the students because they become in charge of their own training after graduation,” Finley said.

Sabbaticals can give students a real-life example of someone working, researching, performing, or practicing in their field, according to Poslusny. 

Sabbaticals, he said, are one way to ensure “that the faculty our students have in the classroom are really up to date.”

For instance, Poslusny said, they can “apply what they have done on sabbatical to the classroom,” such as Burpitt’s experience with Revit. As well, he said, if a faculty member “started a new line of research, or went more in depth on a current area, they can now bring that into the class,” such as Aubrecht’s up-close observations of animal behavior. 

Poslusny said that “the opportunity to take the time to reflect about one’s teaching, which happens so often on a sabbatical,
allows the person to come back with new ideas of how to engage the students in the classroom.”

Contributing to Meredith’s strong reputation

Of course, it’s not just students and faculty who benefit from these sabbaticals. On a larger scale, faculty sabbaticals are an investment in Meredith’s reputation as a provider of high quality education. 

These semester- or year-long breaks ensure “that the people we have in the classroom teaching are some of the top scholars in that field because they are continuing to work on their research during sabbatical,” Poslusny said. He encourages faculty to publish their research and to present at conferences, “so people see the Meredith name out there.”

Added Burpitt, “For those people who may do publications and presentations, artists who have exhibitions, it gives great exposure for Meredith College to the larger community.” 

Finley’s Little Utopia, for instance, was accepted for screening at the Sans Souci Festival of Dance Cinema in Boulder, Colo., in 2013. Finley said that for a film such as hers without a large budget to be accepted at a curated festival is “a big deal.”

Fairbank’s sabbatical, too, gave exposure to her expertise and to Meredith College. She was asked to be on the board of the Old Baldy Foundation, the foundation that supports the lighthouse on Bald Head Island. She also made professional contacts on her sabbatical and through these contacts put on a wind power workshop at Meredith. 

“It let me make connections that made an impact on my committee work, my class work, and my community work,” Fairbank said. 

In addition to the impact of the sabbatical on Liao’s classroom teaching, she also used her sabbatical to begin a new research project with a colleague that merges her interest in supply-chain operations and sustainability. 

Roten, whose sabbatical auditions continue to help him find acting work, noted, “The school benefits by having people in the news.” 

These sentiments echo the Meredith College Faculty Handbook, which states, “Sabbaticals should improve one’s ability to teach and to enhance one’s general contribution to the College community.”

Indeed, faculty members who have been recipients of sabbatical leave do not take their leave lightly. 

“It was so rejuvenating and necessary to my artistic growth,” said Finley of her sabbatical. “It came at a great time in my career.”

Added Fairbank: “It was the biggest gift that the College could ever give me.” 

Moreover, sabbatical leave also shows faculty members that the College supports them. 

“That sabbatical kept me feeling that I was valued by the institution,” Roten said, “that they valued me enough to invest in me in a real way, enough to value my contributions as an artist, as a professor.”

How Are Faculty Selected for Sabbaticals?

Faculty members interested in taking a sabbatical complete an application. In their application materials, faculty write about their plans and expected outcomes for the proposed sabbatical. 

The Faculty Development and Instructional Technology Committee reviews the applications and makes recommendations, which they provide to Provost Matthew Poslusny. 

Poslusny shares the committee’s input with President Jo Allen, ’80. Allen and Poslusny then deliver their recommendations to the Board of Trustees, which has final approval on sabbaticals. 

Want to ensure professional development, such as sabbaticals, helps keep Meredith faculty and staff Going Strong? a man standing at a podium, behind him is a screen that says From One Seed A Journey from Farm, to Plate, to You

Beyond Strong | The Campaign for Meredith is one way that alumnae and friends of the College can help support sabbaticals and other kinds of professional development for faculty and staff. Faculty and staff development is part of the Quality of Life priority for Meredith. 

Learn more, or make a gift, at meredith.edu/beyondstrong. 

Melyssa Allen

News Director
316 Johnson Hall
(919) 760-8087
Fax: (919) 760-8330

allenme@meredith.edu