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Ralph Black: The tale of one professor's sabbatical

by Tegan Mazur- Copy Desk Chief
Tue, Sep 12th 2017 06:00 pm
Photo provided from brockport.edu
Professor Ralph Black
Photo provided from brockport.edu Professor Ralph Black

            For the past 16 years, Professor Ralph Black has graced The College at Brockport with his gentle, literary presence. This year, Black has returned from a year-long sabbatical. Black’s sabbatical took him on a bit of a globe trot. Over the past year, he visited Germany, Poland and India. Though Brockport undoubtedly missed him, he wasted not one moment of his time abroad.

            “Sabbatical” can be one of those words that we hear often in the collegiate circuit, but one that is hardly accompanied by a concrete definition. A sabbatical is a leave that professors are allowed to take every seven years of their career. During this time off, professors usually conduct some sort of research, or take advantage of the free time to make some sort of progress in their field. It is hardly the full-on margarita and Hawaiian shirt vacation you might conjure up when you hear “time off.” Black himself described the experience as a chance to ‘recharge’ and take a break from working at the college, grading papers, attending meetings and those sorts of activities.

            Black himself is certainly not the tweed elbow patches Shakespearean monologuer that you would associate with someone from the English department. Stepping into his office feels like you are stepping into the room of an old friend. His personality puts one instantly at ease, if only by the relaxation he seems to exude himself.

            Black’s sabbatical was far from relaxed, however. His journey this past year took him first to Europe. There, he did research into the history of his family there, specifically the fate of some of his family at the hands of the Nazi regime and their infamous atrocities. He looked into the life of his great-grandfather, who Black discovered built a small opera house in what is now Poland. In fact, he noted it is the smallest opera house in Europe.

            The second half of his journey took him, as well as his daughter, to India. There, they taught in an extremely unfamiliar environment. His daughter is just out of high school. This is where Black believes he had the best experiences of his sabbatical: watching his daughter flourish in India. “The height of it was being at this amazing school outside of this small city in northern India, in the Himalayas. You know, getting to watch my 18-year-old daughter become a teacher... she rose to the occasion magnificently.” Black said.

            Black also found the new experience of teaching middle and high school to be an amazing opportunity.

            Black took a lot away from the simple experience of just living in a place so different from his own norms for a time. He was careful to share the parts of life there that he enjoyed or was fascinated by. He commented on the fact that everyone and everything seems to be more public and social there. He even shared an anecdote about a woman who walked into the living room of the house that Black and his daughter were staying at, who proceed to speak to them in a language they did not understand. Black however counted the encounter as interesting and endearing, as the woman was perfectly pleasant and even managed to teach them a few phrases in her language. Black was also careful to note he was not romanticizing the region too much, as he also saw plenty in the way of poverty there too.

            For someone as experienced, well-traveled and seasoned as Black is, you would expect him to be at the ready when it comes to stories. However, when asked to give insight to his career, he was silent. Instead of a funny anecdote or moving story, he simply had this to say, “What’s more fun than walking into a room where a group of students, a group of people, have read a poem, a short story or a novel and get to spend an hour just talking about it?”

            It is impossible to measure a man’s impact precisely. However, it is clear to anyone to see that Ralph Black brings a tremendous amount of perspective to the campus here at Brockport. His recent sabbatical seems to have only enhanced his teaching abilities, and therefore the English department. Students can learn from his quiet enthusiasm and genuine capacity to enjoy the human condition, warts and all.