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Totally Radical Faculty Sabbatical

Who's missing from the Art History Department?

by Lara Bullock

What has become of the professors in the Art History department? Have they retired? Have they quit? Do you have any idea what I am talking about? The answer: they are simply on sabbatical. Yes, that’s right, folks, there are only two full-time Art History professors teaching full-course loads at SAIC: Jim Elkins and Simon Anderson. Maud Lavin, Michael Newman, David Raskin, Marilyn Houlberg, Joseph Grigley, and Kym Pinder are all partaking in that holiest of professorial perks, the year away from the educational institution -- well, except for the latter two, who are only taking half a year off.

How could this happen you ask? How could such a big portion of the faculty simultaneously get time off? Whoa now! Before you get too worked up, let me explain a little bit about the process. A faculty member is typically up for sabbatical every seven years (Get it? Sabbath, sabbatical). However, this is not always the case.

Let me deconstruct the sabbatical.

Sometimes, as is the case with Grigley and Newman, professors are hired with a few notches in their scholarly belts already, which can mean that they do not have to wait as long until they are up for sabbatical. If one has already spent four years fervently teaching at another institution, it only seems fair that they should not have to start from scratch at the new one. Also, if two faculty members are hired on at the same time, their sabbaticals will coincide.

If a faculty member assumes a directorial position or is the chair, they get a certain amount of release days, which means that they are excused from teaching a full-load of courses. This is the case with Peg Olin, David Getsy, and Stanley Murashige. Or, as teachers are humans too, sometimes life itself dictates when to take sabbatical. Kym Pinder states that she “had to postpone [her] sabbatical a couple of years” (she was hired in 1998) due to family circumstances which would make it difficult to “focus on [her] book the way [she] wanted to.” Maud Lavin and Joesph Grigely were both awarded Guggenheim fellowships in 2005. Lavin is using her fellowship in conjunction with her sabbatical, which, as she told F last year, “allows me for the first time in my life to have an uninterrupted year to write!”

While the typical student time-off is spent in an indolent haze of TV camaraderie, professors generally use their sabbaticals as a time to concentrate on research or finish up publications. As a result, this is a crucial time for academics to establish or substantiate their reputations in the world of academia. In terms of prestige, this is important for the school, as well as for the professors. However, for students, this also means fewer classes with esteemed professors and sometimes the range of classes offered is limited as well.

There were rumors that students were crestfallen because all the good art history classes were full, but when I asked around, the usual response was one of indifference. Maxwell Graham, a graduate student in the Department of Modern Art History, Theory, and Criticism states, “I get my education in the MFA studios and from visiting artist’s lectures.” And that he doesn’t really mind “as long as we bring in good people.” And when I asked Kathryn Johnson, a senior photography student, whether the faculty sabbaticals affected her choosing and enrolling in an art history class, she responded with an effortless, “No.”

Despite the relative apathy I encountered regarding the concomitant art history faculty sabbaticals, there is at least one major drawback: the opportunity to take a class with a professor that you have heard great things about may be unavailable. I feel lucky to have taken Maud Lavin’s Lust and Aggression class last Spring because if I hadn’t, I would never have met such an interesting person and would have missed out of one of my favorite classes at SAIC. This is because the department kept the issue of just who was going on sabbatical on the down-low. I was not aware that Lavin would be absent this school year when I enrolled last Spring. This touches on another issue I have, which is that students do not know what classes are offered in the upcoming semester until the very end of the previous one. This makes for capricious planning, missed opportunities, and could result in a schedule that if only you had known, would have been better tailored to your educational interests.

Despite the absence of many Art Historical bigwigs, there is still a rather impressive body of notable professors to choose from, and just because a faculty member sports the title “Adjunct” or “Instructor,” the hierarchy of professorial titles does not necessarily correspond to a hierarchy of greatness. However, it is not only a matter of courtesy, but the rights of students to be at least forewarned of events that may have an effect on their high-priced education.