As an awardee of the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) International Sabbatical Fellowship I was able to spend my first sabbatical at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences at Stanford (CASBS), California. The result was a uniquely rewarding year, both personally and professionally, largely due to the inspiring class of fellows that one shares the experience with.
The research sabbatical is one of the great privileges of an academic career. Our professional life is punctuated in regular intervals by the gift of time to invest in our own human capital. Whether we use it to push ahead with a backlog of research ideas already accumulated or to develop brand new ideas, and whether we spend it in our home city in our regular academic environment or elsewhere, it is a period of huge personal advancement.
But visiting another institution can be a challenge. Beyond the logistical concerns, it can be difficult to find your feet, socially and professionally, when you are an outsider at an active institution where the locals are busy with their own professional demands and routines. This is why being in an environment surrounded by other visitors, all on their own sabbatical, can be such a rewarding experience.
I spent my fellowship at CASBS in my office on a campus shared with 40 other fellows and a small number of academic and administrative staff. The first week was mostly brief introductory presentations by all the fellows. My colleagues for the year were from a diverse group of academics, including anthropologists, historians, political scientists, sociologists, journalists, communication scientists, a primatologist, a former head of state, and a colleague from the NUS Department of Economics.
I spent most of my nine months working on the economics of climate change, and on understanding the how fertility decisions affect the intergenerational transmission of inequality. While none of my new colleagues worked on either of those topics, I learned a great deal of other things during the weekly seminars, including about populist politics, sexual violence on college campuses, the history of democracy, and the threat of communication technology on democracy. I also gained valuable feedback from the perspective of non-economists on my own work.
Interestingly, the most valuable part of the fellowship was lunch. Every day at noon a majority of the fellows would attend lunch on the campus to share ideas. For some, the conversations led to new collaborations, while for others they evolved from a somewhat academic event with strangers to a regular intellectually stimulating exchange with friends. I cannot stress enough how valuable this was. Within weeks of arriving in this unfamiliar place, a thriving academic environment was established in which we were discussing research ideas as well as planning and comparing notes on weekend activities.
Objectively speaking, I would have completed the same amount of research during my sabbatical, whether I had stayed at NUS and worked from my office, taken up the fellowship and gone to CASBS, or visited a colleague at some other institution (this was originally my plan). But taking up the fellowship gave me the opportunity to experience a different academic environment (including the seminars at Stanford’s economics department, which I regularly attended) with the benefit of feeling socially embedded, which I imagine would not have been the case had I simply been a visitor at another economics department where everyone is occupied with their regular workload. The experience was a very valuable one from which I will continue to benefit in years to come; through the research I was able to complete, the new ideas that it inspired, and the friends that I made in the process.
Footnote: The Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) International Sabbatical Fellowship is based at The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University, is sponsored by the NUS Office of the Deputy President (Research and Technology).
Franics Dennig is an assistant professor at Yale-NUS College. His research interests include climate change, inequality, intergenerational dynamics and education.