University life during the summer

Matthew Reisz talks to academics about their summer habits, while two professors and an estates director explain how they use the time

August 11, 2016
Man using smartphone to photograph Meadow Building, Christ Church College, University of Oxford
Source: Alamy montage

“Due to the ever-encroaching schedules of exam boards and other meetings, August may be the only time that many scholars have the chance to do some thinking and writing.”

This is the view of Rachel Hurdley, a research fellow in the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Cardiff University. But where to do that thinking and writing? While some academics – outside the sciences, at least – convince themselves that they can “work happily on a beach or in a park surrounded by raucous pleasure-seekers”, she questions whether “sand in the iPad and melted ice cream on the library book is such a good idea”.

For her, “there is nowhere so peaceful, so inviting of reflection as a large university building, where one can roam barefoot without fear of bumping into colleagues wanting a ‘quick chat’. How pleasant to sit and write, inspired by paint fumes, a flask of home-brewed coffee, playing whatever music you want at full volume.”

But the campus, of course, is not always the haven of tranquillity that the lack of undergraduates and colleagues might imply. Nearly a decade ago, an academic writing under the pseudonym of John Brinnamoor described in this magazine how the summer vacation turned his university into “a cross between a theme park, an urban warfare training facility and a cement works” (“It’s the silly season”, Features, 10 August 2007).

This, of course, relates to estates teams’ need to find time for noisy and disruptive maintenance work, and the desires of finance directors to sweat the assets by running conferences and summer schools.

Academics involved with the latter have no choice but to spend their summer on campus. Indeed, the compressed nature of such courses often requires the associated exams to be scheduled on Saturday afternoons, according to Andrew Robinson, a contract instructor in physics at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. This can result in clashes between exams and the summer weddings to which the students have been invited.

“It would be the stoniest of stone-hearted professors who would deny them the chance to attend [the wedding], so it means extra unpaid work, having an alternative finals sitting,” he says.

The behaviour of summer students is not always appreciated by academics. One, who did not want to be named, particularly resents the middle-aged students desperate to recapture their youth but no longer able to hold their drink, creating levels of devastation comparable to freshers’ week. Another – very liberal – academic is wary of describing his feelings about the “language students who take over our campus”, for fear of “sounding like Nigel Farage”.

The main teaching spaces of Central Saint Martins are “pretty much full” with students – many of them from overseas – doing short courses, according to Jeremy Till, the art school’s head. “Last year, I tried to book a room in the middle of August, and couldn’t. Yes, the staff offices are generally quieter, but we are one of the few institutions to run a completely open-plan system, including for me, so the effect of empty corridors is not palpable.”

Nevertheless, Till “loves” working at the school – part of the University of the Arts London – in August “because the demands on my time in terms of meetings are much less, and I can get on with writing and thinking”.

But isn’t home – at least for those with their own studies and without children – even more conducive to quiet reflection? For Jo Brewis, professor of organisation and consumption at the University of Leicester, a quiet campus is the best place to complete ongoing projects, but home is better for “doing stuff from scratch that requires a lot of thinking”. This is “mainly because I don’t need to get washed and brushed to work, so I can usually make an earlier start and work for longer…and obviously no one will come to try and find me”.

For some, however, the unique atmosphere of the summertime academy holds its own allure. Leo Mellor, dean and fellow in English at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, likes to sit and read in the college garden, as the deer come down and drink from the pond he helped dig with a junior maths fellow.

“There’s a definite sense of a season,” he says. “The graduate students are still around, but it’s less pressurised. You get to talk to people more about their research, and conversations don’t always have an immediate instrumental use or a need for action.”

But is there a risk that as universities become ever more tightly managed and money conscious, senior managers will look increasingly askance at the large number of academics’ offices that remain resolutely unused during summer, and consider requisitioning them for more profitable purposes?

Mellor is pleased to have “a room of my own”, where he can think in his own way without interference. Although he is not “blasé” about it, he argues that “you need this sort of privilege to do serious work. And the summer is not a holiday – it is a time for this kind of work, the stuff which underpins the teaching. Thus, the space is important. Lawyers and doctors don’t have their rooms taken away from them when they change focus or attend to a different aspect of their role.”

One former senior manager at a London institution “used to fret about rooms in central London empty day after day over the summer”. But he “decided it wasn’t a battle worth fighting”, and in his current role as head of an Oxbridge college he takes “no interest in the comings and goings” of college fellows during the summer.

But not everyone is sanguine. A humanities scholar finds that as well as being drawn to her office’s peace and proximity to the library, she also believes it is necessary for academics to adopt a use-it-or-lose-it approach to their private space.

“I know of some places where academics are not being given individual workspaces, which is obviously problematic for all sorts of reasons,” she says. “If I say that I avoid the workplace during the summer months, it would feed into the argument that academics don’t really need individual offices any more.”

Person browsing holiday photos on smartphone screen
iStock montage

‘If you are one of those working in a stuffy office, the last thing you want to find out is that your boss is enjoying art in Florence’

I would like to make a plea, especially to university managers who have a social media presence. Spare a thought for those of us who have to work through the summer, keeping departmental business running or catching up on our research or teaching preparation backlogs. In particular, tweets from exotic locations, while sipping cocktails from a beachside bar, will not go down well with those poor souls who are left behind, weighed down with admissions, student appeals or resit business, or able to afford only a mini-break in Skegness.

If you have one of the major admin roles, such as postgraduate admissions, you can expect your work to be all year round. Some such jobs are especially busy during August. But if you are one of those working in a stuffy office, listening to the perpetual drilling of renovation works, the last thing you want to find out is that your boss is enjoying art in Florence or sunning it poolside in Marbella.

Although I’m a philosopher and can do my thinking anywhere, I’m also an academic with three young children and find it hard to work from home. A certain camaraderie can develop among the few who remain on campus in August. They are usually ready to stop and chat, seeking relief from the isolation. And with the regular campus food and retail outlets all closed down, it can be useful to share intelligence on where to track down a lunchtime baguette.

Presentees should expect the unexpected. Being the only academic in the department can lead to all manner of surprises. Any phone calls that come in will be directed your way, whether you have the requisite expertise or not. In my time, I’ve had to assist a locksmith in his repairs, free a trapped pigeon, wash up all the glasses left behind from our graduation party and deal with a flooded toilet. Oh, and summer is the most convenient time of year for your university to catch up on its mandatory number of annual fire alarm tests, too.

But you sometimes get out what you put in. In the midst of one summer, a distressed student visited with her mother, wondering whether it was worth her taking the resits. I’d not met her before. I calmed her down and encouraged her to take the exams. She passed, and successfully completed her degree. So since then I’ve always had the family’s gratitude. They later treated me to a VIP seat at a Premiership football match. So perhaps you can get more from your summer by coming in to work than by lounging on foreign beaches after all.

Stephen Mumford is professor of philosophy, and former dean of arts, at the University of Nottingham.

Upside down goldfish floating in bowl
Alamy/iStock montage

‘Put on the “out of office” autoreply. Make it clear that you’re not on annual leave but are not in the office, and that you are doing different work’

I’ve been at the mercy of the rhythm of the academic year for several decades. And yet friends and family still do little to hide their disbelief when I tell them that, yes, I taught my last seminar in May and, no, I don’t have another one to teach until October. I then feel compelled to explain to them, again, that I won’t actually be spending all summer doing nothing.

The academic year’s the equivalent of an iceberg, I tell them (never being one to shun a pertinent, if clichéd, simile). There’s the visible, term-time stuff: teaching, lecturing and attending committee meetings. But there’s the colossal, inhospitable, guilt-inducing mass of incalculably important summer “vacation” activities that lurks menacingly beneath the surface. These activities, I’ll continue, include reading, thinking, writing, reviewing, conference-paper giving, and, and (I’ll repeat the word in case the awful gravity of the account I’m giving hasn’t yet had sufficient impact), before any of that can even begin, there’s the assessment to do. Marking the equivalent of 400,000 undergrad words and commenting on a PhD student’s draft thesis, as well as, perhaps, carrying out external examining work, make most of June entirely hellish.

But, icebergs aside, one of the perks of this wonderful, infuriating, rewarding, tedious, exciting career is that I can do a lot of it, especially over the summer, in my pyjamas or – if I’m feeling especially sophisticated – 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.

Going to your office might seem like an obvious thing to do, but in peak conference season, when university accommodation is rented out to noisy children with matching backpacks, brand new iPhones and loud-mouthed arrogance, this can be more distracting than working from home. Put on the “out of office” autoreply. Make it clear that you’re not on annual leave but are not in the office, and that you are doing different work.

But don’t let that work include cleaning. Many an academic in possession of a deadline will have the most sparklingly clean white goods in the entire neighbourhood. You’re never going to be on your deathbed wishing you’d kept your fridge door more spotless, so use the time between assessment and death to do more fun things instead.

Another good tip is not to let your sleep routine slip. A few years ago I trained myself to wake at the same time every morning (6.45am, if you’re interested). At first, I looked forward to weekends and “holidays” when I could have a lie-in. But the lie-ins just threw into sharper relief the brutality and injustice of usually having to get up early. So now it’s the same wake-up time every day. If “holiday” and term-time mornings start the same way, at least it slightly alleviates the pain come the autumn.

But do make sure you have some downtime. Your spouse/kid/dog/goldfish has had to live with all your academic neuroses, fixations, forensic dissections of trifling campus politics, impostor syndrome insecurities and writing grumps for so much of the year that, assuming they haven’t actually moved out (trickier for the goldfish, I’ll admit), they do deserve some “proper” quality time with you. Slow down, even stop. Go for a walk or to a gallery. Have a picnic in the garden. Go on holiday and take only (drops voice conspiratorially) books to read for pleasure. The unwritten journal article/book chapter/manuscript review won’t miss you: as Ovid tells us, even Sisyphus had a little bit of a sit-down on his rock.

Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester.

Tiny workmen working on stressed man's laptop
Alamy/iStock montage

‘It’s hard to spot anyone on site during August who isn’t wearing a hard hat’

It is fair to say that the core university year seems to get longer and the summer recess shorter with each annual cycle.

The campus is definitely quieter in the high summer, free of the majority of students and academic faculty. But, for others, it’s a frantically busy time of year. It would not be a proper summer if the estates teams were not wreaking havoc! Here at the University of Bristol we sometimes say that it’s hard to spot anyone on site during August who isn’t wearing a hard hat. Lecture theatres are being renovated, residences refurbished and much essential maintenance done. Hundreds of small jobs that are almost impossible during term time are fitted in.

We try to programme major projects so that their most disruptive phases take place over the summer – although things do not always work out that way. This includes data centre downtime and occasional power-downs of buildings, which are far easier if there are no staff around. Laboratories are generally more difficult to find slots for, since lab-based research is hard to relocate and highly tuned research equipment is very intolerant of noise and vibration.

A couple of years ago, we replaced all the windows in one of our major lab buildings, which necessitated a detailed room-by-room and week-by-week shutdown plan. I don’t think anyone would want to repeat that in a hurry, least of all our contractors, who really had to be educated about the consequences of missing a weekly target. One of the interesting challenges is finding contractors, at a time of peak demand, who really understand and can manage programmes like this.

It is up to academics themselves whether they come in to work on campus – Bristol does not have a policy about this – but we expect flexibility from building users. For some projects, that might mean moving people around temporarily or encouraging them to work from home during critical periods. We operate in healthy tension with the conference teams, who want to fill our lecture theatres while we may need to renovate them. The same applies to student bedrooms. Everything starts off in a perfectly calm way after graduation and builds up to a crescendo around late August.

Academic tolerance of all this disruption is variable. The majority understand the need for some temporary inconvenience. But you always get the odd one or two who are highly territorial and reluctant to change patterns of behaviour, particularly when they feel they are not the direct beneficiaries of the work being done. Since Bristol is a very democratic place, I have a team of facilities managers who spend most of their time in their “client” buildings trying hard to smooth over issues such as these.

We also work very closely with school managers, who need to carry their academics with them. Even so, we sometimes get some surprises. This summer we are extending one of our large engineering buildings and, while we have found a way to keep them in use, the impact is felt by everyone, from the rumble of excavators and piling rigs preparing foundations to the need for service shutdowns. Despite a great working relationship with the school, we were still hearing in June about scheduled academic conferences, open days and visits by industrial sponsors that needed to be accommodated.

Patrick Finch is bursar and director of estates at the University of Bristol.

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Print headline: Summer working, had me a blast

Reader's comments (1)

Must be nice to be an academic able to work at home, at the beach and go on (genetic material sharing opportunity) conferences and the like, whilst the rest of us continue working supporting the Post Grads working through the summer in research depts. The stress of the 'summer break' work to make sure everything is in place to please the new s-too-dense to ensure continued high 'student satisfaction' affects lots of 'other' staff, and some academics who are specialists in the likes of computer science, no quietening during the summer for them. Work life balance, don't make me laugh, (in) Human Resources will assist in driving the wage slaves to the brink, too often at the behest of managers with little training and even less compassion, to get the place ready for fresh meat week. The days of enjoying the job and summer recess is long past, and don't get me started on the pre-sessionals for extra income now so important to cash flow...

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