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How Sabbaticals Positively Impact Class Offerings

April 21, 2020

When Biology Professor Chris Walser went on sabbatical during the 2013-14 academic year, he spent time in Florida. But he wasn’t on vacation.

Far from it.

His time in Florida was spent researching the Calusa tribe. This tribe was able to spread over the southern part of the state from roughly 800 A.D. to 1750 A.D. due to its ability to successfully and efficiently store surplus amounts of fish without refrigeration, as opposed to other primarily agriculture-based counterparts.

“How could the Calusa fuel a complex polity without agriculture?” Walser said of his research on the Native American society, whose population numbered at least 20,000 state-wide. “To achieve political and social complexity, the Calusa must have stored food (fish and shellfish) surpluses, later distributing these resources to its people across south Florida.”

Walser’s research, done in conjunction with the Randell Research Center in Pineland, Florida, was part of a study done by ten researchers that was published in March.

The group studied the Calusa’s ability to build canals and watercourts (ponds) that were used as a fish surplus storage area, which helped the tribe support a vast society. Walser’s primary contribution involved identifying fragments of fish bones to understand what types fish the Calusa were able to store and distribute.

The research also helped Walser, who has a Ph.D. in biology from Tulane University, to continue his education.

“This sabbatical experience changed the way I teach Ichthyology and Coastal Marine Ecology by giving me the knowledge, skills, and experiences to develop new and innovative laboratory and field activities for my students.” Walser said.

And that, according to David Douglass, is the purpose of sabbaticals.

“At the heart of the matter, professors are paid to think, and to teach and publish or perform the results of their craft for the world,” said Douglass, the College’s Vice President of Academic Affairs. “Sustaining the curiosity and drive required for this vocation is no small thing, and periodic sabbaticals are essential.”

In short, it’s not a vacation. Rather, it’s a structured opportunity for instructors to get away and recharge their professional batteries via work; whether it’s research, writing a book, or another type of scholastic pursuit.

“We might easily forget that all professors are the product of graduate programs in their fields, and that their degrees and training may grow stale or dated without refreshment,” Douglass continued. “A sabbatical leave provide opportunity for exactly that—a refresher course in being a teacher and scholar.”

There are rules. Professors can only apply for sabbaticals once they’ve completed six years on campus. They’re highly-regulated and require a written proposal for approval. Once complete, the faculty member has to prepare a presentation to a committee about the experience.

“For me, sabbaticals are an incredibly important time” Walser said. “Sabbaticals provide faculty the time to reflect on their teaching, pursue their research, follow their passions and explore new areas of interest, and develop collaborative relationships with colleagues.”

And those pursuits allow the faculty to come back to the College with new knowledge and energy, which ultimately benefits the students.

“Sabbaticals are essential to higher education and to the students we serve at The College of Idaho,” Douglass concluded. “We aspire to provide the best education anywhere, and sabbatical leaves are one way in which we attract and sustain the best faculty members.”

The College of Idaho has a 129-year-old legacy of excellence. The College is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit