I just pushed “submit” on my students’ grades for the spring semester. One year down, twenty-nine to go until retirement. I think I did alright. I mean, I haven’t been fired yet, so that’s a sign of success, right? Anyhow, one of the things about higher education that is attractive to those in it are the summers “off”, though this isn’t actually true. Yes, we have one of the more flexible schedules as an educator at the university level, but people on the outside often don’t see all of the “off the books” work we have to do. They hear that we have to teach 2 or 3 classes a semester and they scoff at that. Anytime the other required duties come up those are often brushed off as trivial or easy, or so it seems. You have to serve on a bunch of committees? You have to build relationships and partnerships in the community? You have to conduct original research to add to the existing body of knowledge? You have to write peer-reviewed manuscripts that often take a year or more to get from the writing stage to the published stage – if you’re lucky? You have to present at regional, national and international conferences? You have to advise your students? Sounds easy. Well, it ain’t for everyone. It is certainly not easy, though much of it is often enjoyable.
So when we get to the end of the semester and have our three months “off”, it really isn’t off. Sure, we have the luxury of flexibility in our schedule to take some personal trips, work on a passion project, or move our schedule around on a whim if need be, but our summers, or at least my summer, is already scripted. I know what I’m going to be doing pretty much every day from now (May 4th) to the day classes start again on the fifteenth of August. I have built in some personal travel and leisure experiences for sure, but almost all of it is structured around my research/service agenda. I’ll be out of the state for 2 weeks at the end of May, seeing my folks and friends, but in that trip I’ll also be out of the country (well, Canada…) for a professional conference and networking opportunities. I’ll be out of the state for three weeks between the end of June and the early part of July, again, seeing family and friends, a few concerts, some much needed hiking in Colorado, and the like, but I’ll also be reading and writing the things I need to do. I have a stack of books in my living room I’d like to get through this summer, but I won’t get to all of them. And yes, there are some purely “for fun” books in there like Burroughs’ Naked Lunch or Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (I was at a conference in Indy this past February and saw Kurt’s museum so it made me want to re-read the book), but most of them are at least tangentially related to my research and writing agenda.
For instance, I have Sartre’s What is Subjectivity? and Bakewell’s At the Existentialist’s Café, both intended to inform a better understanding of how people embody experience and make sense of who they are after being impacted by a traumatic experience such as cancer. I also have The Nature Fix by Florence Williams which explores how immersion in natural environments positively affects the five senses. She also draws from the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” More literally this philosophy is a widely-held societal belief that nature is the answer to our personal health. I also have The Essentials Readings of John Dewey, Part I, the first installment of a compendium of Dewey’s work on the nature of experience and what it means to have one. This is a personal favorite area of interest of mine; just what is an experience and how do you know when you’re having one? When does it start and when does it end? How do our experiences inform our future practice? What is the role of time in experience?
As I slowly pick my way through these books, I’ll start to develop my writing agenda for all the projects I’ve been working on. This summer, when not writing for this top-tier newsletter, I’ll be writing about how suicide impacts tight-knit communities; how the ravages of cancer whittle away the body when the mind is still strong – and aware; and how our materialistic and consumptive society privileges greed and the ephemerality of quick-fix entertainment over commitment and growth through the edifying properties of true leisure. And likely so much more…
I will conduct a number of interviews with people who have cancer, survivors and their support networks in order to better understand how they use lifelong recreational activities and the friendships they’ve cultivated in those activities as positive mediators for coping and identity maintenance when it comes to their medicalized treatment or “new normal.” I will work with a graduate student on developing a therapeutic drumming program for people with serious and terminal diseases, further exploring the links between creative arts and music and wellbeing. I’ll work on designing short readings for a class based off my professional and educational experiences so that overburdened students don’t have to shell out for a textbook they’ll only get a fraction of their money back upon resale. I’ll meet with retired faculty to help develop a program that encourages them to stay involved with the university and build their social networks. Oh, and I’ll continue to host my monthly meeting of “beer club”, a loose collection of university and community partners coming together for a few hours to hobnob. Never an agenda, but always the potential for great collaboration.
And yes, I’ll see a whole bunch of concerts and take a few short trips. I’ll fly to Chicago for a night, and NYC for a night as well, both to see music with friends. I’ll tour this state seeing as many shows as there are worth seeing. This starts tonight with a show, and three in a row next week. Though to be fair, I see concerts year-round, so this is just more part of who I am. I’ll continue to lead my hiking program for cancer survivors, and I’ll still do yoga three days a week. I’ll still enjoy meals out as often as possible, and beers with good people. I’m also looking to buy a house, so that will continue to be a nuisance. So much of my summer is just carryover from the rest of my life. Some of it is different, but much of it is tinged with work. So there really is no summer vacation for me. In fact, because my summer is planned out almost completely, it kind of feels like summer is already over. And I just submitted grades hours ago.
So, yes, we academics may appear to have it easy. But my life is a blurry mixture of work and leisure. If I enjoy my work is it leisure? If I’m not in my office does it become no longer work? If a project evolves over a year – or more – and its final package doesn’t arrive for a year after that, is that not still work all the while? If our life lessons aren’t learned until years after they’re taught, wasn’t the process of becoming still essential to our being? It may be viewed as a summer vacation, but in reality it should be viewed as a preparation for the future, simply outside of the neat little box we all try to fit everything into.