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My Sabbatical: The Year in Review

Image above: Standing on the walls of Acre (“Akko”) in northern Israel, July 2016.

Over the next week or two, I will be turning my thoughts to the coming semester, with classes starting soon. I am happy to be getting back to teaching, as I generally enjoy it very much (my occasional complaints on Facebook aside), but I am also grateful to Florida State College at Jacksonville for granting me a twelve-month sabbatical over the past year, which I have tried to make as productive as possible. While many academics are familiar with the sabbatical process, I have learned few of my friends outside academia, or even many graduate students, understand it. Since I also assume I will need to account for my time spent during the sabbatical during a future evaluation for the college, I want to reflect here on the topic, how it works, and what I was able to accomplish as a result of it. Particularly in light of some of the good spirited teasing I have received from old friends (non-academics) worried about how their tax dollars were being spent as a result.

Most sabbaticals apply only to tenured professors and last over a period of one or two semesters, during which a professor is excused from his normal teaching and service related responsibilities. During this time the professor is supposed to carry out research or engage in various types of public engagement or opportunities to enhance their teaching abilities. Such activities can vary from professor to professor, as they need to submit documentation for the reasons they are requesting the sabbatical before they can be approved. I should also note that my college’s expectations for a sabbatical are a bit different than many other colleges or universities, in part because there is less emphasis on publication and research. This is because our school is a former community college that in recent years has begun offering four year degrees as we transition to a “state college.”

Professors on sabbatical are typically paid, at anywhere from 50% to 70% of annual base salary, so that they can support themselves during this time. Colleges or universities typically see such funding as an investment in the reputation of the school as it enhances the quality of their teachers. The thinking (and I believe it is true) is that the more research, experience, wisdom, and accomplishments of the professor, the better it is for the students being instructed by the professor. Fortunately, in my case, Florida State College at Jacksonville currently offers a generous (union negotiated) sabbatical at 70% of annual income. So while my income went down noticeably during the course of the year, and we had to budget as a household, it was more than adequate in my circumstances to get by for the year.

During this year, rather than focusing on only one major project, as is typical for many requesting a sabbatical from their colleges or universities, I ended up focusing on multiple projects. I break them down below.

Publications:

In September of 2015, near the start of my sabbatical, my co-edited (w/ Alfred J. Andrea) book Seven Myths of Crusades was published by Hackett Publishing. The reception has been decent since it was first released (the press is initiating a second printing next month) and reviewers have written positively about it so far. It was also included in The Medieval Magazine’s Top 50 Medieval Books of 2015. While obviously the work for this project was completed prior to my sabbatical, I have been able to spend some of the past year promoting the book through various interviews (including with Medievalists.net and Real Crusades History) and in other ways.

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As a result of the success of Seven Myths of the Crusades, Hackett Publishing has developed the framework for the book into a series, involving historical myths books on a variety of other subjects beyond the crusades. Fortunately, I have been given the opportunity to serve as a co-series editor along with the great retired medievalist Alfred J. Andrea (Prof. Emeritus, University of Vermont) in the development of other works for the series, to include books on the U.S. Civil War, Native American history, Medieval Europe, African history, and other topics. It has been a wonderful experience to work with so many engaging scholars on such topics and to learn from Alfred J. Andrea and Rick Todhunter (of Hackett) as we forge through this process or receiving and (sometimes) soliciting proposals, dialoging with authors about their ideas, reading and evaluating proposals, editing book chapter submissions, etc… It’s a lot of work, but perhaps it represents an opportunity to shape the field (to some extent).

I was also able, finishing the bulk of the work during my sabbatical, to complete editing/writing for Great Events in Religion: An Encyclopedia of Pivotal Events in Religious History, 3 Vols., which I co-Edited with Florin Curta (Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2016). The work required for this massive project presenting over 460 essays on topics ranging from the first Neanderthal burial to events in the 21st century, involving over 100 contributors in various disciplines from around the globe, is done. We are now only reviewing last minute details before final publication, which should be in November of 2016. Again, this seemed to me like a massive and, at times, overwhelming project. I could not have completed it when I did, in light of my involvement in so many other activities, if not for the sabbatical.

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As a result of the experience of editing a multi-volume encyclopedia for ABC-Clio, I also recently signed a contract with them for a new two-volume encyclopedia on the crusades, titled The World of the Crusaders: A Daily Life Encyclopedia, 2 Vols. (anticipated publication in late 2018). I plan to write all 270 of the proposed entries myself, so I have spent the last few months organizing and preparing for this task (as well as beginning to write some of the entries).

In addition to these ventures. I have also had the opportunity to develop two additional projects. Neither is yet under contract, but both look promising based on discussions with editors. One is a book (co-authored with Alfred J. Andrea) looking at holy war in world history and the other is a single author project in which I hope to bring together my study of the medieval past with my public commentary on modern terrorism, tentatively titled Medieval History and Modern Terrorism: Understandings of the Past in the Age of the War on Terror. The first work is in the proposal stage while the second is still in development. Yet both projects were brainstormed and launched, at least, during my sabbatical.

The work on medieval history and modern terrorism is particularly appealing to me, and will receive the lion share of my efforts in the near future as I feel as though I have been laying the groundwork for it through so much research and public commentary on these issues over the past two years. As a medievalist, I see important connections with how modern terrorist (often Salafist inspired) groups see the medieval past and their rationales and justifications for what they do in the present. Others have written about this, but always from the position of a modernist commenting on the medieval. I will approach it from a different angle…a medievalist commenting on the modern. But more on that later…

I also managed to write two medieval history book reviews over the last year for Speculum and Renaissance Quarterly.

In addition to academic publications, I have also written guest columns for the Florida Times Union, The College Fix, and Medieval Warfare Magazine.  I might add also that during my sabbatical my little blog has received some attention, with one of my posts being highlighted in a piece for the Wall Street Journal and thousands of “views” on many of my blog posts. I still feel relatively new to blogging, so I am still learning the ropes, but it seems to be a very useful way to engage the public.

Public Commentary and Lectures:

I also had the time (over the past year) to engage the public in a number of forums including 14 televised interviews with local media on matters related to the Middle East or modern terrorism. Although these televised interviews are typically only four or five minutes long, it represents much more work than one might think. For starters, I live in St. Augustine so I typically have a 45-minute drive each way to the television stations in Jacksonville when I do them and they want me there a half hour before the start of the interview. On mornings that I have an interview, which the viewer sees as lasting only a few minutes, I have around three hours into the immediate process.

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Additionally, I put many hours of preparation into researching the topics of each interview, whether discussing such issues with experts in various fields (military, religious, academic, etc…) or reading and writing in a way to help crystalize my thoughts on a particular issue so that I can present them in brief and digestible responses suitable for the format of a televised interview (e.g. 30 second answers to complex questions). I am never paid for them either, as some have asked, but it is counted as a form of service for the college that I can list on my evaluations. I confess that I prefer doing them to being overly engaged in committee work (although I am not knocking the importance of committee work), but the main reason I do them is because the topics deeply interest me and, like all professors, having the opportunity to talk about something one is researching is hard to turn down. As my poor students have learned, academics love to talk. To quote my former political science professor, Dr. David Schwam-Baird,  who often does these sorts of interviews, “Any opportunity to talk and, as my friends know— I talk!”

Additionally, I also had the chance to prepare and give two lectures on the rise of the Islamic State to a local U.S. Marine Corps reserve unit, which was one of the most interesting things I had the opportunity to do. Preparing for a lecture in front of uniformed U.S. Marines, many of them battle veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, about a potential future foe, obviously had a much different dynamic than found in the usual college classroom. This was particularly demonstrated in the Q & A sessions that followed afterwards. The commanding officer (whom I admire quite a bit) and I have agreed to set up some additional talks for the coming fall semester as well, which I am very much looking forward to and see as an important form of public service.

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Additionally, I also had the opportunity to present talks titled “Historical Memory and Modern Serbian-Bosnian Relations,” for the FSCJ Authors’ Series, and “Medieval Crusades and the Modern World: Understanding the Crusades in the Age of the War on Terror” for the FSCJ Writer’s Festival.

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Perhaps most interestingly, I also had the chance to participate in a panel discussion on anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. sponsored by The Northeast Florida Center for Holocaust and Human Rights Education in April. This panel was particularly interesting as it included a former CAIR official, a Rabbi, a Catholic priest, and other professors, collectively resulting in some engaging commentary at times.

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In addition to the talks or panels listed above, I have also agreed to give a number of similar talks, papers, or lectures over the coming year that resulted from connections made during my sabbatical. In one case, for example, I did an interview for WJXT Channel 4 with a retired FBI agent who is now a professor at UNF, and we have discussed the possibility of working together this coming fall term on some projects.

Academic Related Travel:

Academics love to travel and many travel much more than I do. I did not travel as much as I would have liked to over the past twelve months, as it can be tough when both my wife and I work and we have three young children. For us, the expense of any family trip is multiplied by five (e.g. five plane tickets, accommodations for five, five seats per meal, etc…). Additionally, it can be particularly expensive and when one’s pay is reduced during a sabbatical, as it is then even more of a challenge. But, fortunately, I had a couple of wonderful opportunities to participate in sponsored trips. The first was to Chicago, where I received the John and Suanne Roueche Excellence Award from the League for Innovation in the Community College. While there, I not only had the opportunity to check out the famed “Windy City,” but also to finally meet with my friend Rachel Fulton Brown, the great University of Chicago medieval historian.

More significantly, as a result of my trip to Chicago, I also had the opportunity to participate in an Education and Cultural Exchange Mission to the West Bank and Israel from July 22-30. The trip was made possible by the efforts of a colleague, a Palestinian Christian, that I got to know while in Chicago, who connected me with the the program through the American Federation of Ramallah-Palestine. The purpose of the trip was to gain first hand experience with some of the key issues that influence Israeli-Palestinian relations and consider the effects of U.S. foreign policy in the region. It was an extraordinarily eye-opening experience, that included meetings with the Mayors of Ramallah and Bethlehem, the Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Education, the leaders of important NGOs working in the region, various university officials and professors, and a member of the Israeli Knesset (Israel’s unicameral parliament). In addition to all of the famed holy sites, we also visited a refugee camp, a Bedouin community, and interacted with victims of this conflict on a daily basis. I will be writing about these issues quite a bit in the very near future (I only returned home from my trip late the other night) and I am grateful for the opportunity.

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Above: Meeting with Israeli Knesset (parliament) member Yousef Jabareen in Nazareth, Israel. We had a more than one hour discussion considering issues as they relate to current and historic Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Conclusions:

I’m not sure if all of this seems like a lot of work to the casual reader, but it certainly seemed like a lot of work to me as the year wore on. Indeed, it was exhausting at times, with many late nights driven by the fear of missing many deadlines. Yet I loved having the opportunity to focus on these items and I am grateful to the college for the opportunity.

I should also mention that if the ultimate goal of a sabbatical is to make the professor a better professor, then this has certainly proven the case for me. I have benefitted in a number of ways that will help me in the classroom and in my public commentary when I represent FSCJ. To provide an example, editing a three volume encyclopedia on pivotal events in religious history has certainly done wonders for developing my “content knowledge” for broader courses considering Western Civilization or World History and revising and shaping my lectures with the most recent scholarship (made possible by collaborating with so many experts in various fields). Consequently, my students listening to those lectures obviously benefit from it as well.

Students also seem much more interested and engaged in what one has to say if the lecturer has published on the topics they lecture about or offered public commentary. For some students, such things enhance the professor’s authority to speak on the topic. Indeed, the words “author” and “authority” come from the same root. While publishing is far more important in this regard, public commentary seems equally important from the perspective of students, giving the professor some level of credibility (whether deserved or not). With around 40 television interviews over the past two years, there have been more than a few occasions when I entered a classroom and a student says something to the effect of “Dude! I saw you on the news!” It’s a fun way to begin a classroom lecture as it catches the attention of even otherwise disinterested or sleepy students who are curious to know why on earth someone would want to put their boring old history professor on television.

If anything, the sabbatical allowed me the chance to connect with so many interesting people and opportunities that I will likely be engaged in even more projects for the next year or two than was the case during my sabbatical. In other words, in addition to the projects I completed during my sabbatical, the ones I initiated during this period insure I have created plenty of fruitful academic work for myself over the coming years.

My sincere thanks to my college, FSCJ, for the opportunity.

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