Cal Lutheran professors who took sabbaticals during the pandemic might have had to shift projects or plans, but they emerged energized and more enlightened.
By Karen Lindell
Michael Pearce’s environment — and art — shrank considerably in 2020.
The Cal Lutheran art professor and oil painter was starting his spring 2020 sabbatical when the coronavirus lockdown hit.
He’d planned on creating giant paintings, more than 10 feet high and wide, in an airy, spacious studio at Cal Lutheran. When everything closed down, Pearce, forced to work at home in a small room, switched to painting much smaller works, just 18 by 20 inches.
Yet despite Pearce’s diminished surroundings, the pandemic expanded his creativity and mindset in a positive way.
“My paintings went from being apocalyptic and dark to an optimistic place, which surprised me, because we were faced with an apocalypse in reality,” Pearce said.
Pearce is one of several Cal Lutheran faculty whose sabbaticals were upended in 2020 because of the coronavirus.
Karissa Oien, manager of faculty affairs, said about 12 to 16 faculty members go on sabbatical each year, and six held off during 2020, mainly because of travel restrictions.
For those who took sabbaticals anyway, whether they had to shift travel plans, incorporate the pandemic into their project or scrap an idea altogether, they made the most of the experience, emerging energized and more enlightened scholars, teachers and human beings.
MICHAEL PEARCE: TRANSCENDING DARKNESS
Pearce’s original sabbatical plan was to create a body of paintings to exhibit at the University of North Alabama in fall 2020.
COVID-19, he said, “threw a giant wrench in the works” when galleries everywhere closed.
He had been working on large, apocalyptic “neo-pagan” paintings, including one that featured figures from the Burning Man festival carrying lights in the darkness.
He did finish the Burning Man painting — although not before it fell off his easel because it was too big — then shifted to a series of small “transcendent” paintings.
“I got interested in everyday transcendence,” he said. “Ordinary people can have transcendent experiences. The spiritual experience that lifts you out of the normal world is available to all of us.”
The first work in the series features a man and woman inside a recreational vehicle, floating near the ceiling, about to kiss, suggesting a “very romantic sense of being happy in a place,” Pearce said.
The darkness in his previous paintings came from a series of “endings” that happened around the same time: His parents had died, and he’d sold a home in England.
“Optimistic painting is much more in my nature; the new work is so much more cheerful, accessible and liberated,” he said. “I’ve always loved sci-fi and fantasy and imaginative paintings, and the sabbatical pushed me harder in that direction.”
He’s eager to return to teaching in person instead of online — and in a much less cramped studio.
KIRSTIE HETTINGA: EXPLORING LATINX VOICES IN MEDIA
Kirstie Hettinga, associate professor of communication and faculty adviser for Cal Lutheran’s student newspaper, The Echo, completed her spring 2020 sabbatical project with just days to spare, because it involved teaching in Spain right when the coronavirus was starting to rage through Europe.
Hettinga taught a three-week intensive “Spanish-Language Media” course (in English) starting in February 2020 as part of a study-abroad program at the Universidad de Alcalá near Madrid, Spain. The class included Cal Lutheran’s Shariliz Poveda ’21, an editor from The Echo.
Hettinga finished teaching the class, but left Europe earlier than she had planned when pandemic travel bans began.
“We were wandering around Madrid the last day I was there, with the streets empty and shops closing,” Hettinga said. “It was a little frightening.”
The sabbatical trip was done, but Hettinga’s project continued. The course in Spain was a pilot for a class she planned to teach at Cal Lutheran in spring 2021, “Latinx Media in the U.S.,” connected to her work to help develop a Spanish media minor.
The idea for the Spanish media minor, a proposal that has been approved to start in fall 2021, actually began with one of her students, Hettinga said. A Latina student told her about another school that offered a Spanish-language publication to students and said, “I want to do that.”
Cal Lutheran students published the first El Eco Spanish-language insert in The Echo in fall 2018. To come up with stories for the special section, students in a newsroom class partnered with students in a Spanish conversation and composition class to produce articles in Spanish.
When Hettinga taught the Latinx media class at Cal Lutheran in spring 2021, students dove into such issues as newspaper coverage of Hispanics during the Great Depression, and how “the language, themes and stereotypes” from the 1930s still exist, she said.
The class also discussed current events, including coverage of COVID-19, and how Latinx communities have been less likely to receive the vaccine even though they were among the hardest hit.
Hettinga said she is “most proud that all of this stems from a student and her desire to fulfill Cal Lutheran’s identity as an HSI (Hispanic Serving Institution), and to serve her community as a Latina.”
JAMIE BEDICS: QUESTIONING SCIENCE
Jamie Bedics,associate professor and director of clinical psychology programs at Cal Lutheran, used his spring 2020 sabbatical to complete the edit of a book on dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).
DBT is a form of therapy that helps people manage painful emotions and relationships using four skills: mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness. It was created for suicidal patients, especially those with borderline personality disorder, but has expanded to help people with depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug and alcohol addiction, and bipolar disorder.
Science, however, has not exactly caught up to that expansion, Bedics believes.
“There are lots of signs that the treatment can be useful,” he said. “At the same time, the general conclusion from the state of the literature is that we know a lot less than we think.”
He is a strong proponent of DBT, but as a scholar thinks the science behind it needs to be stronger.
“If you like something a lot, you have to be critical of it,” he said.
He asked contributors to The Handbook of Dialectical Behavior Therapy to think critically about the scientific evidence related to DBT treatment. Unlike other DBT texts, “this one points out where the evidence is both strong and weak,” he said.
Bedics said his sabbatical work was not affected directly by the pandemic. But the goal of his research can be applied to our understanding, or misunderstanding in some cases, of the coronavirus.
“The key to this book was understanding how to be better producers and consumers of research,” he said. “It is through a balance of questioning and understanding, change and acceptance, that a field of study can advance.”
MORE SABBATICAL PROJECTS
Faculty members on sabbatical in 2020 presented their projects as part of the Festival of Scholars in April 2021. Here are a few samples of their work:
Kristine Butcher, chemistry professor
Project: “The Use of Lego Bricks to Model Structural and Stoichiometric Concepts in General Chemistry”
Butcher worked on developing in-class activities that use Legos, including worksheets with questions for student groups. “I had previously developed one that I’d used a few times, so I used my sabbatical to develop a few more, and work on a manuscript for a paper discussing them,” she said.
Rainer Diriwächter, psychology professor and department chair
Project: “Remembering Wilhelm Wundt and the Second Leipzig School of Psychology”
Few people in the U.S. seem to know about Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), “generally considered the founding father of modern psychology,” Diriwächter said. And U.S. psychology textbooks, he said, wrongly present Wundt as a structuralist. His sabbatical research, published in the journal Human Arenas, explored how Wundt’s works should be seen, “and what became of his work/ideas by means of his successors.”
Karrolyne Fogel, mathematics professor
Project: “Irreducible L(2,1) Labelings of Torus Graphs”
Fogel said her project “works on a topic that is a bit like assigning radio frequencies to antennae: The closer the antennae are to each other, the more chance there is for interference, so the farther apart the assigned frequencies need to be. Using natural numbers as our labels/frequencies, we look for the smallest number of labels that meet specific distance conditions (the irreducible L(2,1) part) for a given arrangement of dots and edges (the torus graph part).”
Ariana Young, associate professor, psychology and Bachelor’s Degree for Professionals
Project: “Prayer and Decision-Making”
Young and colleagues explored the relationship between prayer and intuitive decision-making. “Across three studies,” she said, “we found evidence that praying to God causes people to rely more on intuition (i.e., automatic, gut responses) when making decisions.” An article about the research is under review for publication.
Karen Lindell has been a newspaper, magazine and website writer and editor for more than 15 years, including work at the Ventura County Star, L.A. Parent magazine, Los Angeles Times, Ojai Valley News, VC Reporter and Ranker.com. She lives in Los Angeles.