In the summertime: can academics still down tools for eight weeks?

Matthew Reisz discovers that campuses in August may be a frenzied whirlwind of activity

August 10, 2016
Source: iStock
And you call that work?: academics now do far more over the summer than lounge around glancing at an occasional book

Some people still assume that academics have nothing to do over the long summer vacation, beyond sunning themselves on the beach or dropping in on the occasional country house party.

Yet whatever was true in the Edwardian era or even in the 1960s – Laurie Taylor once recalled in an interview a time when “holidays began at the end of June and went on to the second week of October. People would gaily plan eight-week holidays” – those days are long gone.

So what are the secrets for ensuring one gets a genuine break while also motivating oneself to do all the essential things that just can’t be fitted in during term? These often include core responsibilities such as preparing lectures, getting in some solid research and writing it up.

For a feature in this week’s issue (read it here), we asked academics and estates staff about the pleasures and pains of summer working. Is it better to stay at home, perhaps amid screaming toddlers or morose teenagers, or to venture on to a campus that may have been turned into what one sharp-eyed observer described as “a cross between a theme park, an urban warfare training facility and a cement works”?

Are some tasks better suited to the office and others better suited to a domestic environment? Can philosophers genuinely think deep thoughts on a country walk or even in a cocktail bar?

Some see the potential for conflict between academics and other interest groups within universities. Estates and conference staff may use the August lull to carry out vital repair work and bring in revenue from summer schools, while faculty hope to come on to campus and find an oasis of peace and quiet. But if the latter decide it is just too noisy and stressful and opt to leave their offices empty, can this sometimes used against them by administrators keen to phase out individual offices?

We hear from a philosopher about the range of challenges he has had to cope with when he’s the only academic in his department – and the occasional unexpected rewards. A professor of literature and gender offers some advice on autoreplies and sleep routines, and describes the joys of being able to work from home dressed in “a pair of faded black leggings with holes at the knees and a baggy Motörhead T-shirt bought from a street vendor after a gig in Norwich in 1989”.

And a director of estates takes us behind the scenes on his campus, where “everything starts off in a perfectly calm way after graduation and builds up to a crescendo around late August”. Those endless languid sunny summers (or even endless languid rainy summers) are very much a thing of the past.

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