No Comments on Summer

Every so often, people ask me if there are other terms I’d add now that the book’s been completed. Based on conversations I’ve had in the past few days, I’d say yes. Here’s one…

Summer. The traditional model of school, at all levels, is that we went to class around Labor Day and finished around Memorial Day, and that we could do as we pleased in the summer. Beaches, summer jobs, research and writing… our time was ours to spend however we chose.

A whole culture arose around this agricultural model of school, in which summer chores were so demanding that families couldn’t afford to be without their least expensive workers—their children. And part of that culture, as it spilled over into higher education, was that summers were the time when we were free to do our research without the demands of teaching and departmental service.

This is not so often the case now. First, as we discussed in the entry for Contracts, an increasing number of academic jobs are now twelve-month positions, in which being on campus every day is the expectation. But even for those faculty with traditional nine-month or ten-month posts, summers are burdened in surprising ways. Conferences often occur during the summer, both for ease of scheduling and so that your family can come with you and pretend it’s a vacation. Professional societies are often busier during the summer, since that national or international service load is presumed to simply take the place of your on-campus service load.

But the big hindrance that I hear over and over is simply e-mail. Your college is a 24/365 enterprise, and expects that you will be as well. It takes a fierce discipline to be able to ignore the inbox for eight weeks or more, but if you cannot, then you will be at the emotional and logistical service of your chair and dean every single day.

A friend works at a campus whose union contract makes it inadmissible for an administrator to send an e-mail to a faculty member from May 20 through August 1. That’s a little bit rigid, but it’s way preferable to the constant whining demands of the inbox. If your own school isn’t quite that firm about things, you can simply put up an out-of-office message on your e-mail that says “I will be away, at work on my scholarly life, until August 1st.” Don’t promise that you’ll respond when you get back, because you’ll have 6,347 messages and it’ll take you all fall to get through them. In fact, the second line of the autoreply might be “Please contact me with any items of importance after that date.” Keep a personal e-mail account so your friends can find you, but don’t share it more broadly than you need to.

Your time is the most important resource you have, and you need to fence off some blocks of it for your own use. Summer is the block that supports scholarly life—don’t let it be eroded by the drippy faucet of managerial whimpering.