Arrival in Alabama – Sabbatical – Week 1

So here I am, first weekend at Tuskegee University on sabbatical as Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence. And with a good many questions.

One for readers to begin with – What possible connection could there be between an older African-American shuttle bus driver and the Irish potato famine? More on this later.

First questions first. How have I come to be in Tuskegee?  What is a sabbatical? and What can be expected of a Fulbright scholar?

I visited Tuskegee some years ago, following the visit to the University of Surrey of Tuskegee University academic, Dr John Heath. That first short visit inspired me to write an editorial which you can access here –

Most of you will have heard of Tuskegee in relation to the United States Public Health Service Syphilis Study research ethics scandal, referred to in the Editorial. Or perhaps you have heard of the heroic exploits of the WW2 Tuskegee Airmen? (You can watch a film about their exploits via uTube –  or do a google search to find out more).

So what is a sabbatical? and What might be expected of a Fulbright scholar?

Google (again) suggests that the origins of ‘sabbatical’ are biblical with origins in Genesis to the ‘rest’ that followed the creation of the universe. The current meaning of sabbatical is ‘an extended absence in the career of an individual in order to achieve something …fulfil some goal’.  My sabbatical goal is to engage in a cross-cultural exploration of ethics and elder care. A sabbatical provides time and space to read, and think and listen and learn from others.

In my Fulbright application statement I wrote: ‘Senator J. William Fulbright’s ‘vision for mutual understanding’ across cultures has resulted in over 250,000 scholars availing of opportunities to study, teach and research in cultures different to their own. The profiles of previous Fulbright scholars suggest that necessary qualities include: open-mindedness, courage, integrity, hope and humility’. The privilege of being awarded a Fulbright scholarship sets a high bar and I hope I will fulfil the challenging expectations.

So back to the African-American shuttle bus driver and the Irish potato famine….

On the bus from Atlanta to Tuskegee I got into conversation with the driver. He told me he was 69 years old, had served in the military, had a PhD in horticulture and had worked as an academic. He talked eloquently about crop growing, wine production and other horticultural topics relating to the South. Then he asked me where I was from and the conversation took a surprising turn. He talked authoritatively about the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, named the causative  agent of the potato blight – phytophthora infestans – and highlighted a key learning point from the tragic episode  – do not rely too heavily on one source of nutrition.

So what insights might I take from my first week on sabbatical in Tuskegee? Listen and learn. Obviously.

And perhaps, more boldly, extract a lesson from the driver’s learning point for my own area of study – Do not rely too heavily on one source of nourishment but seek out and learn from alternatives. The bioethics basket should not have but one crop only but should contain rather a rich and diverse range?

What this cross-cultural mix will look like remains to be seen.

More next week.