Every year, a motley of professors request a sabbatical, wishing to take a term or more leave from teaching classes. While sabbaticals are commonly construed as being a rest from work, they are often anything but. Rather, they provide an opportunity for professors to entrench themselves in their research, gaining knowledge which they in turn bring back to the campus. The Knox Student sat down with Professor of Religious Studies James H. Thrall to discuss his sabbatical, taken during spring term of this year.
The Knox Student: What inspired you to take a sabbatical?
James Thrall: For spring term, I took what Knox calls “junior leave,” which is designed to help assistant professors make progress on research projects before they come up for tenure review.
TKS: What has been your primary focus during the time you have spent on sabbatical? Have you been researching for classes, conducting research, perhaps working on a piece with publication in mind?
JT: My main focus has been on revising my doctoral dissertation into a book manuscript. My goal is to have a book proposal ready to send off for consideration by a publisher.
In the dissertation, “Mystic Moderns: Agency and Enchantment in Evelyn Underhill, May Sinclair and Mary Webb,” I examine treatments of mysticism in the fiction of three British authors who wrote around the time of the First World War. During a period of widespread experimentation in various forms of spiritual and paranormal experience, each of these authors took a different approach to determining what constituted “real” mysticism. All three worked at least initially outside the bounds of traditional, institutional religion and so were exploring early twentieth-century forms of what a person today might mean when they say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” I have a particular interest in such non-institutional spirituality and hope that my work with Underhill, Sinclair and Webb will provide some historical context for contemporary versions of that phenomenon.
In addition, I am working on two shorter projects. One is an article about the use of Frankenstein imagery and religion in the television series “Caprica,” which appeared on the SyFy channel. The other is an article on the ways that science fiction authors write about sacred texts. That is for a book of essays on religion and literature that will be published next year.
I also will be teaching a new Knox course on “Religion and Media” in 2013-14 and so have been reviewing materials to prepare for that.
TKS: How do you think the work you have done during this time will relate to the courses you teach at Knox?
JT: I teach a course on Religion and Science Fiction on occasion, so the article and book chapter are directly related to that. A number of other courses I teach, including Introduction to Religious Studies, and courses on religion and culture, touch on different forms of spirituality and so connect with the issues addressed by my dissertation.
TKS: Has most of your sabbatical been spent in Galesburg or has your work taken you other places?
JT: I have spent my junior leave in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which is where my family lives. Being in Chapel Hill also gives me access to the library at Duke University, which is where I did my graduate work.
TKS: What has the work that you have done on sabbatical mean to you? What do you think it has the potential to mean for your students?
JT: I am fascinated by the ways people construct understandings of what counts for them as religious experience, so studying how my three authors came up with their understandings within a specific historical period is of great interest to me. Since many college students may describe themselves as being “spiritual” without being associated with particular religious traditions, I think they would find the work of these authors interesting as well. I find that cultural products like science fiction television or books that are often popular with college students, provide an especially useful window for studying the ways contemporary people think about religion.
TKS: Will you be returning to Knox fall term of 2013, or will your sabbatical extend into the next school year?
JT: My leave was for one term, so I will be returning to my regular teaching schedule in fall term.