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Sabbatical Report

Isaac Prilleltensky

October 1998


This is a sabbatical report I wrote for the Graduate Students Bulletin. I though it may be of interest to some who visit our website.


Waterloo, October 15, 1996

Sabbatical Plan

1. Travel to Cuba to present a paper at psychology conference in Santiago.

2. Consider expanding applied ethics research to Cuba. Consult with colleagues Richard Walsh Bowers and Amy Rossiter about investigating ethical dilemmas in a collectivist society.

3. Travel to Israel and Europe to interview researchers and policy analysts for "Family Wellness Project." Talk to Geoff Nelson and Leslea Peirson about adding international perspectives to our family wellness study.

4. Work on book "Promoting Family Wellness and Preventing Child Maltreatment."

5. Present paper at conference in Israel.

6. Work on child advocacy issues.

Waterloo, January 23, 1997

From: Rowland Smith - VP: Academic
To: Isaac Prilleltensky - Psychology

I am pleased to approve your sabbatical application for 1997-1998

Waterloo, January 23, 1997

Dear diary:

Yes!!! Better get packing....

Waterloo, April 18, 1997

Meeting with Laura Sanchez - Graduate Student

I told Laura that our applied ethics research team would like her to come to Cuba with me. She would help me gather data and perhaps use the information for her thesis. Laura was overjoyed! She could not believe it! I am happy for her.

Victoria, British Columbia, September 18, 1997

Meeting with Provincial and Territorial Directors of Child Welfare

Leslea Peirson, our "Family Wellness" project manager is here with me to present a report on our study. We received a grant from Human Resources Development Canada to write a book about promoting family wellness and preventing child maltreatment. We came all the way from Waterloo to present only for 45 minutes. Given that it is my birthday we decided to celebrate with my favourite treat, a bran muffin. But even Leslea, who managed to spot all the vegetarian restaurants and culinary delicacies in town cannot find me a bran muffin. We walked for hours in vain. I tried to cope with my craving in silence. It's hard. I can't wait to get back to Waterloo to buy some sugar-free bran muffins.

Santiago de Cuba , October 10, 1997

Field Notes

Laura Sanchez is here with me collecting data for our applied ethics research. We have been in Cuba only a few days but it feels like months. We are impressed by so many things. The contrast with our society is astounding. Cuba is suffering very tough economic times. By North American standards, most people live here in abject poverty. But despite the lack of basic resources, people maintain a high sense of dignity and humour. Solidarity is felt very strongly. The people are very warm. So welcoming. Laura and I feel at home.

We came to interview just a few psychologists about their ethical dilemmas. However, our sample is growing by the day. In the conference we are attending people ask us about our research and show interest in participating as key informants. We are flooded by requests to be interviewed. People want to talk. Laura and I schedule interviews for day and night. We are gathering very rich data. We are very tired.

We get the impression that professionals in Cuba have a more holistic notion of ethics than professionals in North America. People here in Cuba are much more politicized and don't ascribe to separations between civic and professional obligations, like many professionals in North America do.

Laura and I cannot stop talking about our experiences. Spirituality is an essential component of our colleagues' life. They seem to take their many deprivations in stride. They talk about the importance of humanistic values, personal development, and collective responsibility. They are also so humble. They have so much to offer but they would never show off. Yet, we feel their serene pride about having eliminated child poverty and about having an excellent health care system, if thoroughly under-resourced.

Our encounters with Cuban colleagues are marked by mutual embarrassment. They feel embarrassed about their lack of resources and we feel embarrassed about what we have.

Havana, October 13, 1997

Field Notes

We had a focus group today with four women. They are psychologists working for the Ministry of Culture. The meeting was so inspiring. They shared with us their passion for their work. They struggle in their work to bridge between the values of the revolution, which look great on paper, and people's behaviour. It is hard to make visions of solidarity, equality, humanism, creativity, and social justice part of everyday life. Prejudice, censorship, machismo; these are some of the barriers. Of course not everyone is happy with the Cuban government, but we sense that most people appreciate the gains made by the revolution in terms of dignity and quality of life.

We are about to return to Canada. I will miss this place. Yes, there is a lot of dogmatism in Cuba. There is government propaganda in every corner. But there is also a feeling of unity and cohesion in this country. There are many contradictions no doubt. People wish there would be more freedom of speech, and more goods to consume. They also wouldn't mind making more than $15 a month, which is not enough to buy a couple of bottles of oil in the black market.

I leave Cuba a little transformed. I learned about other people's priorities and struggles. I can put our embarrassing wealth in North American in perspective.

Laura will have a great thesis.

Toronto, October 27, 1997

Ontario Institute of Studies in Education

Ora, my wife, defended her doctorate. She wrote an excellent thesis on women with disabilities and mothering. After the defense we went with the committee and her friends to celebrate. Janice, Ora's peer from OISE, took us to a vegetarian restaurant I did not know about. Good ending to a great day.

Ora and I had many discussions about her qualitative study. It gave me an opportunity to see how some of the values I write about help or hinder in the lives of women with disabilities. We talked about the struggles of women with disabilities to experience self-determination without denying their need for physical help. We talked about the value of interdependence and how important it is not to overrate autonomy. The many stories she told provided a prism for how values are reflected in the lives of women with disabilities. Many of them were ill-served by educational, medical and health services; many felt the lack of justice in the way societal resources are distributed; and most felt first hand discrimination. But the stories also told of resilience, fighting spirit, social action, leadership and advocacy. I was privileged to share with Ora her excitement about the study.

Waterloo, April 2, 1998

Dear diary:

Two of our colleagues from Cuba came to Waterloo to help our applied ethics team interpret the data we obtained in Cuba. Amy Rossiter, Richard Walsh-Bowers, Laura Sanchez and I met with them to talk about our observations. It was a great experience to have some of our views validated and sometimes challenged by their perspective. Joaquin Gomez del Castillo and Alicia Minujin, our guests, helped us a great deal. I feel very close to them. They are intelligent and wise people. The two of them are different and marvellous in their own way. Our team benefited enormously from their visit. We worked together intensively for about four days. Laura took copious notes of our discussions and I got tired of translating from Spanish to English, but it was worth it.

Waterloo, April 15, 1998

Meeting with Stephanie Austin

Stephanie is interested in doing a thesis on critical psychology. She would like to conduct a formative evaluation of the movement we call critical psychology. I think it is a very worthwhile endeavour. She is enthusiastic and very capable. It will be fun working with Stephanie. next month Ian Parker and Erica Burman come from England to give a talk at Laurier. They are active in the field of critical psychology. It will be good for Stephanie to meet them.

Waterloo, May 4, 1998

Meeting with Isaac Asante

Isaac is our graduate student from Ghana. He is interested in writing a thesis about programs and policies to promote family wellness and prevent child maltreatment in Ghana. His project can enrich our own study in many ways. We will ask Charity Akotia, our past graduate from the CP program if she can help with data collection. I'm very pleased to work with Isaac. All my graduate students have a lot to offer. Isaac will help us understand how child maltreatment is viewed in another continent.

Jerusalem, July 22, 1998

Field Notes

I had three interviews in Israel about programs and policies to promote family wellness and prevent maltreatment. My key informants told me about the struggle of integrating families from the former Soviet Union and from Ethiopia. Apparently the parenting practices of these families are perceived to place children at-risk.

I was encouraged to see that despite the constant state of emergency in the country people pay a lot of attention to children's issues. Although they struggle financially to maintain universal programs, Israelis are very proud of their well-baby clinics. These are clinics that promote maternal and child health during the first years of life. They are very accessible and serve families at-risk. My key informants told me that they serve a highly preventive function, just like well baby clinics do in France.

Manchester, July 31, 1998

Meeting with Psychology Discourse Unit at Manchester Metropolitan University

I got to feel the main differences between critical psychologists across the two sides of the ocean. Those of us in North America see critical psychology as a tool to promote social justice within the discipline and in society. We want to be constructive, whereas most folks in England are concerned with deconstruction and with language. I sensed the reservations of our British colleagues about the type of critical psychology we do over here. I value very much their theoretical sophistication and their constant suspicion of unsubstantiated assumptions, but I feel that at one point we should be able to put into practice some of the values we believe in. Constant deconstruction detracts from constructive social action. I may be wrong. Other than academic differences, they were all very nice. My ego was only mildly hurt by their disapproval.

Stockholm, August 9, 1998

Field Notes

I had a chance to meet with researchers and policy analyst at the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. I also visited a family resource centre and met with an expert on the topic of child abuse. The latter just wrote a book on Swedish about the theme of our research. I learned a great deal from the Swedish system about promotion of family wellness.

Their social policies are much more universal than ours. This means that more people have access to health care, child care, and high quality social programs. It was refreshing to see that the people have faith in government. The state provides for the basic needs of the unemployed, without the stigma of "being on welfare."

Child poverty is not a problem in Sweden and Denmark. They have a system of family benefits that is very adequate to cover the basic necessities of life. It was great to see that single mothers are not stigmatized in the welfare system the way they are here.

Some food for thought: Sweden is so permissive with children that it creates a problem. Youth experiment heavily with alcohol from a young age. It is as if adults are afraid to set clear rules with respect to drinking. I was told that Swedes fix problems by passing laws. Citizens abide because they have faith in the state. Against this cultural background it was curious to see that there are no major social programs to curb drinking and substance abuse among youth. It may be that drinking is such a commercial enterprise that there are heavy duty financial interests against programs to reduce substance abuse.

I was also surprised to see that, relatively speaking, Swedes don't have as many community-based programs as we seem to have in North America. Most services are in the type of formal support from a social agency. Community-based initiatives are not as prominent as in other countries. All in all, I was impressed by the mentality that government should support all people, and that there is no stigma attached to being a stay home parent, or being on welfare. The government affords people a lot of choice.

Copenhagen, August 12, 1998

Field Notes

Today I had the last interview for our family wellness project. I interviewed people in Israel, England, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, and Denmark. I learned a lot. I was impressed by the collectivist solutions that Denmark, Holland and Sweden have for social problems. They are not afraid to invest resources in social, health, and family services. I liked their tolerance for different types of families. Social norms are more flexible, and people get along better with government. They don't seem as obsessed with the economy as we are in North America. Social and children's issues are higher on their national priorities than the budget.

It was interesting to hear from my colleague at the National Institute of Social Research in Denmark that there is a concern about declining levels of personal responsibility int he population. People are so used to getting their needs met government that personal initiative is down. The down side of collectivist approaches.

My colleague in Denmark tells me this problem is worse in Sweden, where they are more "square." Folk in Denmark, I'm told, are more suspicious of government; Swedes are more accepting of big brother.

Matan, our 11 year old son, had a great time in Europe. The undisputed highlight of our trip was his playing chess in almost every place we visited. He played in King's Garden in Stockholm every day. People gather in the park to play chess with 3 feet tall figures. He had a ball. Save for one teenager, he played mostly against adults, and he beat them all. I won't forget the night of the fireworks. It was the Water Festival in Stockholm. Entertainment of all kinds, concerts, street performers, sport competitions, food, artistic displays. Fabulous fun. The festival is well known for its fireworks competition. Matan and I watched the fireworks among thousands of people gathered in the park. It was an impressive display. The only problem was that after the show, which ended close to midnight, Matan wanted to play chess in the park. I foolishly agreed and had to stay out in the cold until about 1 am to watch him beat a fellow who looked very nice and also very stoned!

Waterloo, October 1, 1998

Action for Children Coalition of Waterloo Region

At our last meeting of the coalition, which I co-chair, we decided to put some effort into advocating for proper funding for Family and Children Services. There are many children at-risk in our region and not enough funding for proper preventive and protective services. I woke up at 3:30 am today. Between 4 and 5 am I composed a letter to the Editor of the KW Record about this problem. At 5 am I faxed the letter and by 9 am they phoned me to say that the submission was accepted. Fast turn around! I wish my academic articles would be written and accepted so fast.

Waterloo, October 11, 1998.

Student update

Laura has almost finished her thesis. She is ready to defend by the end of October. She should be proud of her work, an excellent study of the ethical dilemmas of psychologists in Cuba.

Isaac is well under way. Charity is gathering data for him in Ghana. He is working on the literature review, and soon we should be able to analyze the interviews from Ghana. It will be an interesting study.

Stephanie is about to start data collection. She will contact psychologists involved in the critical psychology movement to obtain their impressions about where the movement is and where it should go next. She should make an important contribution to the field.

Waterloo, October 1, 1998

List of Things to Do:

1. Finish preparing course on prevention to teach in Cuba in November.

2. Revise papers and chapters.

3. Mark papers.

4. Plan for next sabbatical.


Isaac Prilleltenskyis Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of The Morals and Politics of Psychology: Psychological Discourse and the Status Quo (1994, State University of New York Press), and co-editor of Critical Psychology: An Introduction (1997, Sage). Correspondence should be sent to Isaac Prilleltensky, Department of Human and Organizational Development, Peabody College, Box 90, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN 37203 USA.


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