Of Sabbaticals and Spouses

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Guest column by W. Marshall Johnston, Ph.D., associate professor of ancient history/classics

One tradition that most clearly connects the modern professorate to its origin as part of the clergy is the practice of taking sabbaticals for rejuvenation and research. Just as the Lord’s people are to observe every seventh day and every seventh year, we faculty are to undertake opportunities for different rhythms and new perspectives. This fall my wife, Pamela D. Johnston, winner of FPU’s Distinguished Service and Nickel Teaching Awards, took a well-earned sabbatical from her service in five different programs and as chair of the FPU Faculty Senate.

Pam’s sabbatical combines spiritual and intellectual pilgrimage. She is continuing work on the Romans’ use of Advisory Councils—consilia—a subject on which she is probably the foremost expert. She also just completed a walk through northern Spain of over a month on the mediaeval pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. Not only is home quieter (other than pugs barking) when she is gone for long stretches, but our hall in McDonald bustles much less. The oddity of these rhythms in our profession made the idea of spouses reflecting on their partners’ sabbaticals seem like a worthwhile Connecting Points.

Spouses experience these periods very differently. When I had a sabbatical in 2013, I had not planned nearly as well as Pam, and she ended up with a lot of chaos while I pleasantly studied in the halls of Carpenter Library at Bryn Mawr College. Because we teach in similar areas, we cannot be out at the same time, thus we end up with these odd times of separation, but for both of us it has been nice to have a contact person back at home base. It might have been even nicer to do what Ken and Fran Martens Friesen did, taking a semester from their work in different divisions to take their whole family to India for a season, where Ken taught at Mennonite Brethren Centenary Bible College in Shamshabad and Fran taught at Kodaikanal International School. Or to spend a semester in the Northeast in a cottage like Eleanor Nickel did with her husband, Royce.

Just as our own pilgrimages through life have peak experiences that help us find meaning, sabbaticals can produce stunning memories. When our current Natural Sciences and TUG Dean Karen Cianci took a job as academic affairs VP at Northwestern back in 2000, she was due a sabbatical from her previous job—and negotiated for it with her new university. She ended up having to serve with an interim president, but took the sabbatical the following year. As her husband, Terry, says, every day produced wonders and it was impossibly strange. The whole family went on a teaching semester in Tanzania: they flew into East Africa three days before 9/11, and learned of the events while listening to short-wave radio for football scores. They found the Muslim population extremely concerned for them, and apologetic for the association of their religion with those events. Whether accidentally traveling with Somali pirates or debating at the local coffee house, their sabbatical helped leaven their lives.

Quentin Kinnison in biblical and religious studies enjoyed a very productive sabbatical last spring. His wife, Cindy, said it was a time of relaxation and flexibility (mainly from his schedule) even though he was still busy. He seemed much more relaxed physically as well as mentally. This loosening created a more relaxed atmosphere at home, and additional family time since he had fewer evening obligations. Their daughter, Carissa, loved this part of Baba’s sabbatical and has had a hard time with Q being back to a full schedule. So, now it is back to balancing Q’s work schedule, family time and other demands of life. Q shared the memorable phrase with our caucus that you need to have a sabbatical to learn how to spend a sabbatical. All of us can look forward to success in our second one!

Rod Janzen in history has had two very different sabbaticals. Rod’s wife, Deborah, told me that for his sabbatical in Pennsylvania 12 years ago they planned to be together, but she got promoted at the public library. A family from Brazil stayed with them (the father was studying at the seminary), so Deborah and her daughter weren’t alone. It was an amazing intercultural experience to help a family used to the Amazonian jungle deal with the Central California dryness. For spring break they spent three wonderful weeks in Pennsylvania and New York (Rod had an apartment at Elizabethtown). Don Kraybill, who is read in over a dozen classes at FPU, was very welcoming of the whole family at The Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.

All of Rod and Deborah’s kids were out of the house for Rod’s second sabbatical two years ago (indeed, son Chris was already an art professor at FPU)—so it didn’t feel very different to Deborah at all, since Rod was mainly in town. Their daughter did come home from the Northwest to visit, and Rod drove back up the coast with her. Much of Rod’s research into small religious groups has been done on trips with the whole family, so it is very much a family business. Often Deborah would be the one to investigate women’s roles in the small communities.

The tradition of academic institutions providing sabbaticals to faculty with a long-term commitment to the school has allowed great works to be written and discoveries to be made. At FPU it has also allowed rejuvenation, family support, bucket-list completion and a gain in perspective. As Deborah Janzen says, sabbaticals are a luxury we academics should highly value.