The word “sabbatical,” literally “a ceasing,” comes from the Bible, which commands that farmers let their harvest lie fallow every seventh year. It also relates to the Sabbath: “And on the seventh day, God rested.”
Rest though they may not, sabbaticals offer tenured Harvard professors the chance to escape the Yard, immerse themselves in their academic passions, and take a leave they may not have known they needed.
MULES BEYOND MOUNTAINS
Brian D. Farrell, Professor of Biology and Curator in Entomology at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology (the MCZ), is spending this year at the oldest university in the Western Hemisphere—and that’s not Harvard.
The Universidad Autonoma de Santo Domingo, located in the Dominican Republic, predates Harvard by more than 100 years.
Farrell is part of a Harvard effort aimed at institution-building in Santo Domingo. With support from the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, the National Science Foundation, and a Fulbright grant, he is building a laboratory there comparable to the labs at Harvard’s own museum of Comparative Zoology, and training local students in museum management techniques.
But Farrell’s sabbatical has been more than a lesson in lab construction—it’s been an adventure.
“In the field, I go to the mountains,” explains Farrell. “There are some places we need to take mules in because there are no roads. We go in for two or three nights, collect insects, and then bring them out for study.”
In the process, he even discovered a species of butterfly thought to live exclusively in the Eastern Hemisphere.
In the museum archives, Farrell discovered the journal of Philip J. Darlington, one of his predecessors at the MCZ, who came to the island in 1938 to study the island’s beetles.
While staying at the cottage of his wife’s cousins in the mountains, Farrell was struck by the parallel paths he and Darlington had traveled. When he showed the photo of Darlington’s expedition to his wife’s cousin, she went “crazy”: the guide, she said, was her grandfather.
LIMA IN THE LIMELIGHT
Family ties go a long way. Sometimes they carry professors around the globe. Professor Steven R. Levitsky’s wife is Peruvian, and he cited family goals as a central motivation for the year he spent in Lima.
Levitsky, a government professor, spent the past year lecturing in Spanish at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú and studying the collapse of Peruvian political parties in what he calls a “natural laboratory.”
“I’m a Latin Americanist—I’m supposedly an expert on Latin America,” says Levitsky. “But I had been in Cambridge for 10 years. I hadn’t spent an extended period of time in Latin America for 10 years. If I’m going to pretend to be an expert in Latin America, every once in awhile I need to be back on the ground, in the streets.”
As an academic in Latin America, Levitsky felt he occupied a more active role as public intellectual than he does in the States.
“Political scientist from Harvard hanging around? The media ate it up,” recalls Levitsky.
“I think once in my career I had been interviewed on television in the United States. In Peru, I was on television practically weekly. So that was new. It was fun. I’m not sure I would want to live that way permanently, but it was definitely a change in lifestyle.”
During sabbatical, some professors leave the continent; others never leave Cambridge.
Professor Mahadevan never wanted to uproot his family. But when he received a prestigious MacArthur “Genius Grant” for 2010-2011, he decided to leave campus ... and move two miles down-river to MIT.
“If you can’t go far away physically, the question is if you can go far away intellectually,” says Mahadevan. “One of the things that you are supposed to do on sabbatical is start anew. So my mandate [for the MacArthur grant] was to try to work on problems which I wanted to but was scared to because I’d probably fail.”
Mahadevan spent the year pondering the “big questions”—everything from trying to understand the role of uncertainty and control in climate change to investigating how humans understand the physical universe.
Professor Tom Conley’s sabbatical stomping grounds makes Mahadevan’s trip to MIT look exotic.
Conley, Kirkland House Master and professor in the Departments of Visual and Environmental Studies and Romance Languages and Literatures, is spending his sabbatical in his Master’s quarters while serving as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute.
Conley received four offers for his sabbatical year, but decided to stay at Harvard, where the material, he says, is unparalleled.
His current project investigates the moment when cartography and literature become scientific objects, or the intersection of art and science.
When professors return to their teaching responsibilities, the projects that form the culmination of a year’s work generally don’t find themselves neatly packaged, gift-wrapped, bow on top.
With the help of a team of co-collaborators in Spain, Professor Luis M. Girón-Negrón is spending this year on the annotation and study of a 15th-century translation of the Hebrew Bible into Old Spanish.
Though he has devoted his sabbatical to the project, Girón-Negrón estimates that the detective work on the Biblia de Arragel, worth 50,000 euros and housed in Houghton Library, will keep him busy for a half-decade at least.
As Mahadevan puts it: “Whether this was useful or not I won’t know it for many years. I mean, that’s the way all sabbaticals are. You do it, you think you’ll do some things. Sometimes you wind up being sidetracked. But that’s part of the fun for me.”
For Professor Conley, sidetracked means a Bernese Mountain dog puppy named Bella.
For Farrell, who plays jazz drums, it means late nights out on the vibrant Santo Domingo music scene.
“All these unexpected discoveries and meetings of people—it’s kind of magical in a way,” he says.