Lighten up, let your hair down, stop griping

August 29, 2003

Busy during the holidays? Who are you trying to kid? asks Valerie Atkinson in the latest in our summer vacation series.

Just once, could we not all admit that the summer vacation is a doddle? Less so than it used to be, granted, but in contrast to the stresses of termtime, it is a veritable ocean of tranquillity.

There will, inevitably, be howls of dissent, because suggesting that any part of the academic year is less than strenuous is to risk odium from those who protest (too much) the extent of their labours. A pervasive air of angst has settled upon the population.

It is not clear whether the explosion of whingeing about how much work there is to do all year round, from academics and support staff alike, is a true reflection of the increase in pressure, or the domino effect of the masochistic moan and the perilous drift to presenteeism. "I was here until 9pm last night doing my admin"; "don't ask me to compose another letter; I'm run off my feet, sign it yourself"; "sabbatical? Intense research, if you please" You can almost feel the prickle of hair-shirts and hear the slap of flesh being mortified. So what? Why have we become so sanctimonious? Where are the roues and layabouts of yesteryear? One of the attractions of working in a university has always been the idea that a broad-minded laissez-faire culture might still prevail.

Instead, we have been infected with a severe dose of gross moral rectitude.

It should be a sackable offence; or at least a disciplinary matter. Several centuries of pleasure-seeking by the overprivileged, thinly disguised as higher education, have given way to a new millennium of deadening dedication. I blame this government. And the previous one. And religious backlash. And globalised markets. And that wilfully, selfishly reluctant tax-payer. At the university, liberalism might once have been characterised as the means and desire to seduce students and staff in equal measure, consume as much alcohol and drugs as possible, issue alternative prospectuses accusing the vice-chancellor of bestiality, and never appear for a lecture before 2pm. (And that was just the staff.) But at least it was accompanied by an attempt to redefine the world as progressive and enlightened; at least some of the idlers were consciously railing against the smug ideas and restrictive standards of the establishment. Now they are alarmingly intent on conforming, and of convincing themselves, each other and the world, that they are seriously busy, busy, busy.

Well, I am not. There. I admit it. The Long Vacation - how enchanting it sounds. Three months of soft sunshine, and open windows wafting warm draughts of flower-scented air (accompanied by the odd gust of cigarette smoke from the Excluded Without). Time to enjoy the slower pace of effortless indolence in almost-empty departments, with a gratifying absence of aggravation, peppered only by a few irritating requests for transcripts and an underwhelming desire to catch up on the filing.

It is true that it is not as relaxed as it once was. Local codes of conduct, accompanied by pricks of conscience, make it more difficult to hang the phone out of the window and sunbathe on the grass until it is time to go to the pub for a long lunch hour. You might be caught enjoying yourself, and that would never do. Those days, perhaps, are gone forever. But there are compensations.

Come summer vacation, there is a sudden change in the wider campus population. Students take their underwear home to be laundered for the first time in ten weeks and leave their cramped and scruffy quarters for the use of congress junkies. And I mean congress in every sense of the word. What other reason would persuade delegates to endure dislocation in such a spartan setting? No minibars, no fluffy bathrobes to smuggle out and a bracing lack of hot water after 8.30am. Concentrates the mind wonderfully.

And there is real joy in observing this influx of visitors. One swallow may not make a summer, but a covey of clerics does, as it swoops across campus to the Synod, to be heckled by protesters and pestered by the press. What fun. Eager sixth-formers, on an open day, turn refectory queues into something akin to a pod of young dolphins, chattering and squealing their own language, insulating themselves from the realities of the adult world.

Zealous members of charity groups, senior citizens, wildlife organisations (including Open University types, sniffing out the freedoms offered by summer schools) maintain an air of intense interest so uncharacteristic of the studied indifference of the "normal" university populace.

It is tempting, as an administrator, to aim for the moral high ground and insist that academics have a soft life while we are slaves to the system.

Inevitably, we have resit examinations and workshops to organise, A-level results coming in and staffing problems to sort out. But this is when we also have time to think. Time to regroup and anticipate the new academic year from a safe distance. The absence of students and academic staff (and the latter do go missing, in large numbers) becomes a positive advantage.

Our invisibility during termtime gives way to the diligent visibility of the righteous. And if we take time out to surf the net for holiday information, or do the online crossword, or tidy and tart up our office, there is no one here to disapprove or interrupt. Whereas academics are all too aware of their evanescence set in relief against our rock-steady presence.

And perhaps that is the explanation for the summer rush of self-denial.

Guilty conscience. So just stop expending all that energy complaining about how hard you are still working. You could be toiling in a vile call centre or an overcrowded hotel. And no one believes you anyway.

Valerie Atkinson is a department administrator at the University of York.

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