Why Are My Professors Gone and What is a Sabbatical? 

The Point Loma Nazarene University Department of Communication Studies currently has three professors out on sabbatical: Jeff Birdsell, Lisa Raser and James Wicks. 

According to the PLNU Faculty Handbook available online from 2016, “The purpose of the sabbatical leave is for professional renewal as a scholar and teacher,” and it is available for “full-time faculty members who have completed at least six years of service to the University with the rank of assistant professor or higher and are in good standing.” Often, this looks like taking time away from teaching to pursue personal projects and research. 

The process of sabbaticals starts when a professor applies, which can be done every seven years. Applications go through the Faculty Resources Committee (FRC) composed of five elected members, and the current chair is Walter Cho, a professor of biology.

 Cho said that several components are being ranked, one of them, though, is planning. Even if a professor applies, they may not be granted a sabbatical for that term or may be asked to wait, according to Cho.

“You can have a great plan, but what is the feasibility of that plan coming through?” Cho said.  

According to Cho, the FRC looks for letters of support and for things that are set in place to make sure that plans are attainable.

Provost and Chief Academic Advisor Kerry Fulcher said in an email to The Point that after the FRC submits its recommendations, they are taken to the Board of Trustees for approval.

Typically, a sabbatical will last one semester in either the fall or the spring. 

Kara Lyons-Pardue, professor of New Testament and former chair of the FRC said that in addition to a sabbatical, there is also the Research and Special Projects (RASP) grant. A professor applying for sabbatical may also choose to apply to the RASP grant and receive extra funds to extend their sabbatical to a full year in length. However, they would only be getting half pay during this time.

The number of professors who are granted sabbaticals has fluctuated over time. Cho said that it seemed like there were more applications this year than normal. He suggested this may be in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as it prevented professors from the ability to take off time several years ago.

However, Fulcher said, “This year we had a large number of faculty who were eligible and we were able to expand it to 15 so that we don’t create a backlog for next year.”

There are 16 professors on sabbatical overall for the 2024-2025 school year.

James Wicks, professor of media and film studies, is currently on sabbatical, and he said in an email interview that he was in Taiwan from Feb. 18 to March 15. In Taiwan, he has worked on three documentary projects; in San Diego, he has one project in progress.

Fourth-year media communication major with a film concentration, Christabel Green, said her academic advisor is Wicks and that he encouraged her to do the honors project she is currently working on. While he hasn’t been present for all of it, she said, “He’s still in contact in every way, but it’s slower because he’s in Taiwan and doing his own projects.”

Lisa Raser, associate professor of communication said she is working on creating content for a new course called “Compassionate Communication” as well as strengthening her practice in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) by participating in a workshop cohort called “Peace Leadership Academy.”

“I am so happy for the professors who are on sabbatical because they are very deserving of this time to work on their projects. I look forward to seeing their work and welcoming them back next fall. We miss them but have great faculty continuing the excellence our department is known for,” Melissa Newman, head of the Department of Communication Studies, said via email.

However, having three professors gone from the same department has required some adjusting in the communication department. Sheri Strothers was brought in as a visiting professor. Some faculty members have decided to take on an overload to ensure classes students need can be offered. 

One professor who has taken on extra classes this semester is Nathan Gibbs, associate professor of media communication.

For him, this means that he is teaching five classes, two of which are usually taught by professors on sabbatical. One is Media Literacy (COM 3095), usually taught by Wicks, and the other is a one-unit portfolio class, which Jeff Birdsell, professor of communication, normally teaches.

Gibbs said he took the class from Birdsell because “It’s good to have full-time faculty shepherd students across the finish [graduation].”

While it is more classes than he normally teaches, he said he has enjoyed getting to know what is in the other classes.

Charlie Wilson, a third-year media communication major, is working to help with a lower-division communication class with Gibbs to get credit for his practicum. He said the reason he was introduced to the idea of doing a practicum with Gibbs was because Wicks was gone and Gibbs needed help.

Wilson said that while the sabbaticals have not had a huge impact on him personally, as he has taken most of the classes he has needed with the communication professors on sabbatical, he is excited for Wicks to come back. 

“I just miss him. I hope he’s having a good time,” Wilson said.